BOOK REVIEW: Skeleton Plot by J.M. Gregson

Skeleton PlotWhen 16-year-old Damon unearths a skeleton while turning over his grandfather’s vegetable plot it is soon linked to a disappearance that happened more than twenty years ago. Identifying the victim is easy for Detective Chief Superintendent Lambert and Detective Sergeant Hook; however, unravelling her life and the circumstances of her death prove much more complicated. A number of prominent figures with shady pasts seem to be involved, but what is the truth and who has the most to hide?

An undemanding read, this had all the right ingredients for a thrilling murder mystery but it failed to deliver. It was slow and plodding; conversations were laboured, with the detectives revisiting key suspects on numerous occasions, but somehow gaining very little new information. It could be argued that they were sensitive, intelligent police officers, that used their brains rather than their brawn, but I found them lacklustre and I doubt the crime would’ve been solved had it relied solely on their investigative prowess.

I found the story to be unlikely and frustrating: how often do petty drug dealers grow up to become bigwigs in the world of education? And there was such a disappointing ending: it was almost like an episode of Scooby Doo where the perpetrator admits everything in the final scene, in one lengthy confession: ‘…and I would’ve got away with it too, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!’

This is the first of the 28 (28!) Lambert and Hook police procedurals I’ve read, and I can’t help but wonder if Gregson has lost his way somewhat. They can’t all be this dire, can they? Maybe Lambert and Hook are downshifting towards retirement; perhaps if I was a devoted reader who had followed their story from the beginning I’d have more sympathy for the seemingly lethargic duo. But I’m not, and Skeleton Plot has certainly not inspired me to go back to get know them any better!


BOOK REVIEW: In the Name of Love by Patrick Smith

91dUchplQlL._SL1500_Following the sudden death of his wife, Dan is living in solitude on the Swedish island of Blidö when he is called upon to rescue a young woman in a snowstorm. Reluctant to befriend the brash and impetuous Lena, a relationship of sorts somehow develops between them. Dan feels drawn to her, and compelled to protect her when he learns of her difficult childhood. But when Lena’s body is later found battered and bloody, suspicion falls first on a family of Iraqi migrants, and then on Dan himself. What is the Iraqi family’s story? Why are they hiding on Blidö, and what part have they played in Lena’s troubled past?

Unusually for a crime novel, the story ends with Lena’s death and instead of a retrospective hunt for a killer, we are treated to a literary treasure trail in the countdown to her murder. The reader is invited to identify the key players and although strong suggestion is made, there is no firm closure at the end of this brittle and bleak page-turner.

Beautifully built, and artfully written this is one of the best books I have read all year. It is both simple in its storytelling and exquisitely complex in the construction of characters and their motives. It raises questions about social isolation, loneliness and dysfunctional relationships in the Swedish culture. I am reluctant to use the word ‘haunting’ as it is something of a cliché, but this story has really stayed with me since finishing it. I purposely left a few days before writing this review because my mind needed time to mull over all the gentle hints and suggestions that were intricately woven into the story. Only now am I starting to recognise the importance of seemingly benign actions and comments.

This novel asks more questions than it answers; not least of which is the title: who exactly is acting in the name of love? I highly recommend buying two copies of this book and gifting one to a friend, if only so that you have someone to discuss it with! The perfect A-level text, or book group title, you will be left thinking about this one for a long time afterwards.

BOOK REVIEW: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

bull-mountain-by-brian-panowichThe Burroughs clan rule Bull Mountain: from the 1950s when they ran moonshine across several state lines, through major marijuana growth and distribution in the 70s to cooking crystal meth today. Their cruelty and violence, passed down from one generation to the next, has kept their legend ablaze. But Federal Agent Simon Holly is determined to bring them down. Enlisting the help of the black sheep of the family, local Sheriff Clayton Burroughs, he sets them all on a path of destruction that has been decades in the making.

This story opens with such a punch to the guts that it sets the tone for the rest of the book. The tension and vicious brutality continue unabated for the next three hundred pages as we see how the cruelty of the father is so easily passed to the son. The men of Bull Mountain are despicable characters; beating their wives, bullying and murdering their employees, double-crossing their partners, even killing each other to maintain control over the empire. Ultimately this is a family story of jealousy, betrayal and revenge.

The development of the characters, most of whom are introduced to the reader as children, is delicious. We see their innocence swept away and the devastating effects of this on their later lives and relationships. Every character, and there were rather a lot, was distinct and utterly authentic. Through multiple generations of Burroughs men, I had no problem distinguishing them as the story jumped back and forth, so convincingly were they written: each had his own unique voice. The women too were incredibly strong, despite their circumstances. The entire flow of the writing was beautiful, Panowich is reminiscent of John Steinbeck in his construction of such a gritty sense of place; Bull Mountain, Georgia was a character in her own right.

None of the characters is likeable, and none escape without compromising their morals at least somewhere along the line, but I cannot compel you strongly enough to read this book. It is not just an astonishing first novel, but an astonishing novel full stop.

BOOK REVIEW: Walking by Night by Kate Ellis

The police are sceptical when Debby Telerhaye reports finding a dead body on her way home from a drunken night out, especially given her troubled past. But Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet isn’t so quick to dismiss the teenager, and soon enough the body of a young actress is found, brutally murdered. Is her death linked to her starring role in a controversial play? Or is it much more sinister than that? Could it be that she suffered the same fate as a sinful nun centuries earlier?

The story opens with DWalkingByNightebby stumbling through the fog, convinced she is being followed by a malevolent character and, taking shelter in the ruins of an abandoned abbey, she sees what she thinks is a bundle of rags… Immediately my heart was in my mouth: I was hooked. The captivating narrative is complimented by a number of equally interesting sub-plots: Debby’s missing brother; her malevolent step-father; Joe’s relationship with his estranged girlfriend and the guilt he still feels from his wife’s death. Kate Ellis has knitted them all together so artfully that none felt overbearing or detracted in any way from the main storyline.

The menacing pace never surrendered and yet somehow Ellis managed to build, in Joe Plantagenet, a thoughtful, dignified detective with such complexity in his history that I’m doubtful any reader will ever truly understand him. He put me in mind of Lewis’s Sergeant Hathaway, and not just because of his abandoned career in the priesthood. The contrast between Joe and his DCI, Emily Thwaite, who is an extremely grounded married mother of three, made for an interesting interplay and I am keen to see how their relationship develops in coming books.

Overall, this is a brilliant mystery story that seamlessly draws in elements of history and religion. A walled city enveloped in fog, ghostly apparitions and a disappearing corpse – what more could we really ask for?

BOOK REVIEW: London Rain by Nichola Upson

Set against the backdrop of 1937’s coronation of King George VI, lies, jealousy, adultery and murder stalk the corridors of Britain’s most upstanding institution: the BBC. In London to oversee the radio production of her stage play, The Queen of Scots, bestselling writer, Josephine Tey is unwittingly drawn into the events at Broadcasting House. While Detective Archie Penrose is tied up in internal politics, it falls to Josephine to uncover the truth.

London RainThe sixth in the Josephine Tey series, this is the first that I have read. And I have to say that it has changed my opinion of historical crime. As a rule, I find it somewhat pedestrian and patronising, but not this! From start to finish I was fascinated by the vivid descriptions of London gripped by coronation fever. The characters felt so real to me after only a few chapters, it was as if they were old friends. Even the minor roles were well fleshed out with a sense of realism that I rarely find in historical novels.

The story itself was delicately woven into the lives of Josephine and Archie, and their respective relationships, that the murders almost played second fiddle. That said, the narrative following the crimes stretched across decades but never for one moment lost its momentum. A fascinating read, giving me such a real sense of inter-war London that I cannot wait to read more from this extremely talented author.

BOOK REVIEW: Time of Death by Mark Billingham

Detective Tom Thorne once again finds himself outside of his normal North London stomping ground as his holiday in the Cotswolds with girlfriend, Helen Weeks, is hijacked by the disappearance of two teenagers from Helen’s home town. The couple are drawn in to the mystery when the husband of Helen’s school friend is accused of kidnapping and murder. While Helen lends support to her friend, Thorne’s interest is piqued by discrepancies in the investigation and he soon finds himself making his own inquiries, with shocking results.

Time of DeathBillingham luxuriates in building this story; he starts slowly and draws the reader in to an exhilarating climax. Along the way he drops the most delicate of hints, almost daring the reader to hazard a guess, but master of the genre that he is, he never gives away any more than he needs to. Only the keenest of readers will be able to discern the subtle clues from the red herrings and solve the crime before Thorne.

Billingham also artfully builds Helen’s backstory into this novel. Just as I was beginning to question her insistence on supporting a friend she hasn’t seen for decades, he drops a huge bombshell that explains everything and made me warm to Helen’s character in a way I hadn’t thought possible. Until now, she had been an irritation to me, detracting from Thorne’s adventures, but I find myself excited to read the next in the series in the hope that I will learn more about her.

This book gives us everything you would expect from a classic police procedural but unusually we witness it from the perspective of the accused’s family. It is extremely well plotted with the story turning on a gruesome but thrilling twist. I would not recommend this book as a starter to the Tom Thorne series as there are just too many references to past cases and not enough of an introduction to the characters, but to an avid fan, Time of Death is a return to form for Billingham and one of Thorne’s best adventures yet.

BOOK REVIEW: Beyond Suspicion by Catherine A. Winn

Shelby’s mum’s remarriage has been tough on the teenager. Her step-father is strict and a little over-bearing, so when he stops Shelby from going to a party she’s been looking forward to for weeks, she loses her temper. She doesn’t want to have to baby-sit her one-year-old brother, Josh, she wants to be a normal teenager and hang out with her friends. beyond-suspicion-by-catherine-a-winnKnowing it’s not his fault, Shelby takes Josh to the park, but when he disappears, the finger of suspicion is pointed at her. Shelby desperately pleads with the police to believe her when she says she saw two suspicious characters loitering in the neighbourhood, but they ignore her, and soon enough her friends and the media turn against her. The only thing Shelby can do is find her beloved brother herself, and so clear her name once and for all. As a teen title this is an engaging and high-paced thriller that serves as a good introduction to the genre. The story was captivating, but I had to suspend my disbelief in certain places for it to make sense. The characters, although charming were very two-dimensional, and it all concluded just a little too neatly for my liking. Shelby’s once mean and controlling step-father became a figure of support and friendship; her friends that so quickly abandoned her in her hour of need were just as quickly forgiven; the villains were caricatures that lacked any sense of real world terror, and met their comeuppance in just the way you might expect. We’ve seen some excellent young adult titles in recent years: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series gave us two strong female leads that crossed from the teen shelves to captivate adult audiences, but unfortunately Shelby just isn’t in the same league as Catniss and Tris. She lacks the depth and the contradictions that keep you coming back to see how their characters might develop. This is much more Sweet Valley High than Hunger Games but it would serve as a good stepping stone into crime fiction for younger teens that might be toying with the genre. Definitely one to avoid for adult readers and avid crime fiction fans, though! The first in the Whispering Springs series; I have to say I won’t be in a rush to read the rest.