A Fearful Madness

I received A Fearful Madness by Julius Falconer as a free review copy through LibraryThing. I hadn’t come across any of Falconer’s books before but the LibraryThing Early Reviewers’ description interested me enough to request a copy:

A police investigation into the violent death of a part-time cathedral verger stalls for lack of incriminating evidence. However, three people have a close interest in clearing the matter up where the police have failed: the dead man’s sister, anxious to see justice done, and two of the police suspects, both released without charge but keen to clear their names.

Striking out on their own, each approaches the murder from a different perspective: book-trafficking on the black market; revenge by an extremist religious organisation for the dead man’s betrayal of them; and retaliation in a case of blackmail. The police continue to maintain that the murder was committed out of sexual anger, even though they have no proof apart from the circumstances of the verger’s death.

Eventually DI Moat and his assistant DS Stockwell, from the North Yorkshire Force, take a hand. Moat pays his predecessors in the investigation, both professional and amateur, the compliment of taking their findings seriously – but comes up with an idea of his own.

My view:

Julius Falconer uses language in a more formal way than many other modern authors. His sentences are carefully punctuated, his vocabulary is extensive (meaning there are some words I had to check in the dictionary – and one or two weren’t in my dictionary) and he uses many literary references and illusions. I like his style of writing, although in parts it does tend to be long-winded.

It’s a complex book, following each of the three investigations – some of which seem highly unlikely, but then they do say that truth is stranger than fiction.Two people had been suspected of murdering James Thwaites, the verger, but the police were unable to produce any evidence and the cases against them were dropped. It appeared he had been stealing rare and valuable books from the cathedral and selling them on the black market. I was intrigued by the book-trafficking business which on the one hand was highly organised involving the use of white van drivers, and on the other seemed remarkably lax!

A bearded man was seen outside Thwaites’s house on the evening of the murder and Matthias Biddulph, one of the original suspects, who had been in a relationship with Thwaites hires a private investigator to find him. Another possible motive for the murder is Thwaites’s involvement with an eccentric version of Christianity – the Anti-Church of Jesus Christ, set up in opposition to the Anglican Church, which his sister Serenity investigates.

For the most part, I rather enjoyed reading A Fearful Madness, although I had little idea how it would end – the verger’s will is of significance, but that only features towards the end of the book (unless I missed an earlier reference). I think this is possibly the weakest part of the book when the culprit confesses to the murder. Having said that, I liked it well enough to read more of Falconer’s books and have downloaded Jagger onto my Kindle.

Julius Falconer has written several books. Formerly, a teacher, he began writing detective novels in 2009. His website, with the sub-tile of Erudite Crime Novels for the Connoisseur,  includes details of his books and an account of The Falconer Style.

the letter JThis is my contribution to Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet for the letter J. In previous years I’ve contributed to the meme for each letter of the alphabet, but for this series I’m joining in only occasionally.

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud is the sixth book in Martin Edwards’s Lake District Mystery series. I’ve enjoyed the previous five, featuring historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cold Case Review Team and this one is no exception; it kept me guessing almost to the end.

The Frozen Shroud begins at Halloween in Ravenbank, an isolated community on the shores of Ullswater. At Ravenbank Hall, Miriam Park tells Shenagh Moss the ghost story of the Faceless Woman, Gertrude Smith who was murdered on Hallowe’en, just before the First World War. She was found, battered to death, her face reduced to a pulp and covered with a woollen blanket like a shroud. Her murderer wasn’t hanged and the story goes that her tormented spirit walks down Ravenbank Lane on Hallowe’en. Later that night Shenagh goes missing and is found, battered to death and with her face covered by a rough woollen blanket.

Five years later, Daniel Kind sets out to discover more about Gertrude Smith’s murder when a third murder occurs on Hallowe’en; another young woman with her face shrouded from view. This time it’s Hannah’s best friend Terri Poynton, who was at a Hallowe’en party at the Hall.  Is it the same killer or a copycat murder?  DCI Fern Larter investigates this latest murder and because it looks as though there are connections with Shenagh’s murder, Hannah reopens that case. She and Daniel work together once more to discover the truth.

In Martin Edward’s books, the characters are all so alive, the settings so vividly described and the plots so intricate and compelling. I love all the historical and literary references he uses, weaving them seamlessly into the books, and then there is the ongoing friendship between Daniel and Hannah – both Daniel’s sister and Hannah’s friends keep insisting they’re right for each other.

I think each book can be read on its own, but it helps to fully understand the characters’ relationships if you read them in order. The earlier books are as follows (linked to Fantastic Fiction):

1. The Coffin Trail (2004)
2. The Cipher Garden (2005)
3. The Arsenic Labyrinth (2007)
4. The Serpent Pool (2010)
5. The Hanging Wood (2011)
6. The Frozen Shroud (2013)

The Frozen Shroud is available in the USA in both hardback and paperback, published by Poisoned Pen Press. I received my copy from Maryglenn McCombs Book Publicity.

In the UK the hardback, published by Allison & Busby will be released in June this year.

crime_fiction_alphabetThis is my contribution to Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet 2013 for the letter F. To take part your post MUST be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname, or even maybe a crime fiction “topic”. But above all, it has to be crime fiction.

I’ve taken part in all of Kerrie’s previous Crime Fiction Alphabets but this is my first one for this series. I decided to contribute when the books I’ve read or am reading coincide with the letter of the week. Actually this book could equally as well be for the letter E too.

Crime Fiction Alphabet 2012 – summary

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet came to the end last week. This is the third time I’ve taken part and as before I thoroughly enjoyed taking part. Thanks, Kerrie.

The rules of the meme are that you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week and your post MUST be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname.

I had very little difficulty in finding books to fit the rules and mainly read whatever I wanted and slotted them in wherever they would fit. The exception to that was, of course, that pesky letter X and I resorted to having a title that sounded as though it began with X.

Many were books by old favourites, such as Agatha Christie (3 books) and some by new-to-me authors, such as Dana Stabenow, Michael Innes, M R Hall, Chris Pavonne and Suzanne Young.

Here’s my list – a mixture of titles and authors’ names:

I rated most of the books between 3/5 to 4/5 with two at 5/5:

and The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas at 4.5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter Z

We have reached the final letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet and to illustrate the letter Z I’m focussing on:

The Whispers of Nemesis by Anne ZouroudiThis book is the fifth in Zouroudi’s series about Hermes Diaktoros of Athens, the Greek Detective.

Summary (from Anne Zouroudi’s website):

It is winter in the mountains of northern Greece and as the snow falls in the tiny village of Vrisi a coffin is unearthed and broken open. But to the astonishment of the mourners at the graveside, the remains inside the coffin have been transformed, and as news of the bizarre discovery spreads through the village like forest fire it sets tongues wagging and heads shaking.

Then, in the shadow of the shrine of St Fanourios (patron saint of lost things), a body is found, buried under the fallen snow – a body whose identity only deepens the mystery around the exhumed remains. There’s talk of witchcraft, and the devil’s work – but it seems the truth, behind both the body and the coffin, may be far stranger than the villagers’ wildest imaginings. Hermes Diaktoros, drawn to the mountains by a wish to see an old and dear friend, finds himself embroiled in the mysteries of Vrisi, as well as the enigmatic last will and testament of Greece’s most admired modern poet.

The Whispers of Nemesis is a story of desperate measures and long-kept secrets, of murder and immortality and of pride coming before the steepest of falls.

My view:

Hermes is a detective with a difference. Just who he is and who he works for is never explained. He’s most definitely not a policeman and when asked he says he works for a ‘higher power’ than the police. He is described as ‘the fat man’. He wears a cashmere overcoat of midnight blue, a grey suit with a subtle stripe and a waistcoat, and white tennis shoes. He has owlish glasses and thick curly greying hair. His name is his

… ‘father’s idea of humour. He’s something of a classical scholar.  And in the spirit of my namesake, I call these’ – he indicated his white tennis shoes – ‘my winged sandals.’  (page 94)

It is this element of the novels that appeal to me – that and the quirky mysteries. And this book certainly is about a strange mystery about the life and death of the poet Santos Volakis. A local man, he had died some four years earlier choking on an olive stone. In his will he had stipulated that his bequests would only be available when his bones ‘finally see daylight’. So the rite of exhumation, which is customary in rural Greece four years after a death was important to his family and friends, but no one was prepared for the shock that it delivered when the bones were revealed.

I found it a little difficult at first following the sequence of events and identifying who was who, but I soon worked it out. I also had worked out what the mystery was well before the the end, which actually added to my enjoyment of reading the book. The setting is superb, placing you so completely in Greece in winter amongst believably real people.

Each of the books in the Hermes Diaktoros series features one of the Seven Deadly Sins ‘“ in this one it is the sin of pride. Nemesis is the bringer of retribution.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks (7 Jun 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408821915
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408821916
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 3.5/5

1. The Messenger of Athens (2007)
2. The Taint of Midas (2008)
3. The Doctor of Thessaly (2009)
4. The Lady of Sorrows (2010)
5. The Whispers of Nemesis (2011)
6. The Bull of Mithros (2012)

Thanks to Kerrie for organising the Crime Fiction Alphabet. I’ve listed the books I’ve read in a page (see Index tab at the top of the blog) and soon I’ll do a summing up post about the highlights.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter Y

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the letter Y – an easier letter to illustrate than last week’s letter X. My choice this week is …

Murder by Yew by Suzanne Young. (The first book in the Edna Davies Mysteries series) I read this on Kindle.

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

When her handyman dies of taxine poisoning, Edna Davies, amateur herbalist, becomes the prime suspect. Nearly certain that she hadn’t concocted a poisonous potion and desperate to save herself from arrest, Edna taps into strengths she never before realized she possessed. Shunned by the townsfolk, questioned by the police, and threatened by thieves, she follows the clues of a forty-year-old disappearance to capture a killer.

My View

Suzanne Young is an American author with a degree in English from Rhode Island University. She has worked as a writer, editor and computer programmer. She now writes fiction full time. For more information see her website

Murder by Yew is the first book by Suzanne Young that I have read. It’s an entertaining ‘cosy’ murder mystery, set in mainly in Rhode Island, a light and quick read. The story is told in the third person from Edna’s perspective. It’s clearly written, with well described locations. The dialogue is lively, apart from one section with reported dialogue which isn’t so convincing.

Edna and her husband, a retired doctor, have recently moved to Rhode Island and she is getting to know her neighbours. She employs Tom Greene to do jobs around the house and garden. The former owner of the house was a keen gardener and had left notebooks filled with comments on the plants in the garden, along with recipes for home-brews and potions and Edna is enjoying herself making some of them, such as chamomile tea with a touch of lemon balm. When Tom collapses and dies the police take samples of her tea mixes and suspect that he had been poisoned by the addition of yew to one of Edna’s tea blends.

Tom’s little grandson, Danny, who is deaf with a speech problem, holds the key to the mystery, but his mother won’t allow Edna to talk to him. Things go from bad to worse for Edna as people begin to shun her and then a storm hits Rhode Island. The cast of characters is well-drawn, with Edna as a most likeable amateur sleuth. She has to discover the motive for killing Tom – was it to do with his present day work,or did it lie further back in his past? Does the recent spate of robberies have a link to his murder and what is the significance of the presence of Edna’s housekeeper in a photo taken in Boston by Edna’s daughter? Edna proves most resourceful in sorting it all out and discovering the murderer’s identity. I had my suspicions about one character quite early on in the book – and I was right, so maybe it was just a bit predictable, which isn’t a bad thing!

Suzanne Young has written two more Edna Davies mysteriesMurder by Proxy and Murder by Mishap, both also available on Kindle and I’m looking forward to reading them.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 348 KB
  • Print Length: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Mainly Murder Press; 1 edition (27 Nov 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003P8P8G0
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating 3.5/5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: X is for …?

letter_XKerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the letter X this week but I haven’t found any books to fit in the required categories:

Your post MUST be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname, or even maybe a crime fiction “topic”. But above all, it has to be crime fiction.
So you see you have lots of choice.
You could write a review, or a bio of an author, so long as it fits the rules somehow.

So I decided to add another category – a book with a title that sounds as though it begins with the letter and plumped for The Xpats, or as it really is – The Expats by Chris Pavone.

Synopsis (Chris Pavone’s website):

Kate Moore is a typical expat mom, newly transplanted from Washington DC to the quiet cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg. Her days are filled with coffee mornings and play-dates, her weekends with trips to Paris and Amsterdam. Kate is also guarding a tremendous, life-defining secret, one that’s becoming unbearable, indefensible. It’s also clear that another expat American couple are not really who they’re claiming to be; plus Kate’s husband is acting suspiciously. While she travels around Europe, looking for answers, she’s increasingly worried that her past is finally catching up with her. As Kate digs, and uncovers the secrets of the people who surround her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage, and her life.

My view:

The book moves between the present day and the past, just two years earlier and is narrated through Kate’s perspective. Although I like this type of narrative, I had to concentrate to follow the changes in time and location as I read. It begins slowly and then gradually the tension builds and builds as Kate discovers more secrets and reveals secrets of her own to the reader. It certainly kept me wanting to know more and trying to work out the bluffs and double bluffs.

I liked the insights into the expat life – the adjustments in lifestyle and expectations come over very well and the locations are described in just enough detail for someone (me) who hasn’t been to these places to visualise the scenes. Chris Pavone has been to all the locations and there is a helpful itinerary map on his website.

Most of all I liked the tension in Chris Pavone’s narrative and the contrast between Kate’s everyday life as a mother of two young boys, the interaction between her and her husband and friends, and her ‘secret’ life with all its dangers and complications. I think Pavone portrays the female perspective well and Kate is a fully rounded character. I don’t often read spy thrillers, but found myself completely engrossed in this one, even though by the end I thought the whole thing was almost too incredible to believe. But then, what do I know about spies and cyber crime?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: W is for Wycliffe …

Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley.

From the back cover:

When Matthew Glynn, a respectable bookseller is found bludgeoned and strangled, Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is mystified. Why would anyone want to kill him, and in such a brutal manner?

But a look at Glynn’s background reveals tension within the family. Alfred Glynn, an eccentric recluse, has held a grudge against his brother for years and the older brother, Maurice, argued bitterly with Matthew over the sale of family land. Add to this a discontented son, valuable documents in the bookseller’s safe, and the mysterious, still unexplained disappearance of Matthew’s wife years earlier, and Wycliffe faces one of his most impenetrable cases yet.

Then another Glynn dies and the murderer’s identity seems obvious. But Wycliffe is not convinced – and soon uncovers some very murky secrets, and the possibility of another murder …

My view:

The story is set in Penzance and its immediate neighbourhood, so Burley, who knew the area well (he lived near Newquay), sets the scene well. The three Glynn brothers didn’t get on, with a long-standing quarrel between Matthew and Alfred, which was connected to their mother, and a more recent row between Matthew and his other brother, Maurice, who objected to Matthew’s proposal to build houses near to Maurice’s pottery. And as Trice, the local DI,  tells Wycliffe, the locals are suspicious of outsiders – he’s talking not just about Cornwall, but about the local area, Penwith, which in Cornish means ‘ … “the extreme end”. The people here feel different – they are different.’

And this is a murder mystery with a difference, because all is not clear by the end. There are plenty of suspects, not just the brothers but also their sister and grown-up children. The reader is left to work out the puzzle, indeed Wycliffe struggles to come to terms with his suspicions and his mind is in turmoil:

With something approaching desperation, Wycliffe was trying to see the events in perspective, to relate them one to another and to imagine the repressed tensions and accumulated bitterness which had finally surfaced. But what troubled him most was the thought that he was being pushed beyond his role as an investigating officer into decisions which were either moral or judicial or both. (page 185)

I liked the book very much, with its complex plot, convincing characters, and in particular the way Wycliffe’s humane and thoughtful character is portrayed. The ending certainly makes you think.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; New Ed edition (2 Aug 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0752844458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752844459
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 4/5

A Crime Fiction Alphabet post for the letter W.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: V is for Vargas

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is V.

My choice of book is The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels.

From the back cover:

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. He doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects fround within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.

My view:

As soon as I began reading this book I was entertained – the writing is fluent (unlike the translation I read of her later book Seeking Whom He May Devour) and easily conveyed the quirky nature of Vargas’s plot and characters. As the book cover summary describes, Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon.

Vargas goes into some detail both about Adamsberg’s history, appearance and characteristics, and about Danglard. Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, whereas Danglard doesn’t trust feelings and gut instincts. He prefers to follow procedure, looking for clues and proof. Adamsberg claims that some people just ooze cruelty:

And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at  least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty – do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth. (pages 17-18)

The chalk circle man intrigues Adamsberg and it is his meditation on his character that leads him to solve the mystery – but before that two other murders have taken place. Is the chalk circle man the killer, or is the killer using the circles to his own advantage? And why does he leave a lingering smell of rotten apples?

Adamsberg and Danglard are not the only eccentric characters – the book is full of them, all delightfully different including Mathilde, the marine biologist who prefers fish to people. She lets rooms to Charles, the beautiful blind man with a chip on his shoulder and to Clemence, the old lady who lives on the top floor. Clemence at seventy is still looking for the love of her life. She has an unattractive appearance with a bony face and sharp little teeth like a shrew-mouse and wears far too much make-up. I thought the interactions and conversation between these people was fascinating.

This is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery, and I was pleased that I did half guess the solution; I only half-guessed because there is a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. I’ll certainly look out for more of Fred Vargas’s books to read.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First PB Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099488973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099488972
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 4.5/5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: U

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is letter-u

I’ve chosen Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight, the fourth novel featuring Josephine Tey, which I read on Kindle.

Summary from Fantastic Fiction:

Summer, 1936. The writer, Josephine Tey, joins her friends in the holiday village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained – and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, as fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing – and no one – is quite what it seems, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the way the investigation is ultimately resolved. Several years later, another horrific murder, again linked to a Hitchcock movie, drives Penrose back to the scene of the original crime to uncover the shocking truth.

My thoughts:

I have mixed thoughts about this book, good and not so good. Overall I enjoyed it but I found it confusing with so many characters, introduced very quickly in the novel, and it was difficult to distinguish who they all were, with the exception, of course, of Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock. So, not well-defined characters.

However, the setting in Portmeirion is very well done and if you like lots of description that’s a bonus. I do like description, up to a point, but in this book I thought it intruded too much and held up the action. (Portmeirion is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Italianate creation in the Welsh countryside. It’s also the setting for the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, if you remember that as I do.) Set in the thirties it does give a good sense of the period between the two world wars with the shadow of the Great War still lingering and the threat of another war getting ever nearer. There is a general air of unhappiness, as Alma, Hitchcock’s wife says:

Perhaps it’s the times we have lived through, but we seem very good at destroying each other and not just through wars. We wear each other down all the time through little acts of jealousy or cruelty or greed. (location 1731)

And there are many such acts in Fear in the Sunlight as the murders pile up. I didn’t really have much idea what was going on until about halfway into the book when the writing became sharper, more focussed on the plot and characters.

I was interested in Nicola Upson’s inclusion of a discussion about writing, about mixing fact and fiction and also about the difference between a book and the film of the book. Here Josephine and Marta are talking about mixing fact and fiction, which is exactly what Nicola Upson does in her books:

‘Mix fact and fiction?’ Josephine asked, and Marta had to laugh at the disapproval in her voice. ‘How would that help restore the reputation of a much aligned man? No one would know what was true and what wasn’t.’

‘Exactly. That’s the fun of it. And a biography would only be your interpretation. At least calling it fiction is honest.’ (location 3548)

Josephine is at Portmeirion to discuss making a film of her book, A Shilling for Candles, with Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. She’s sceptical about the process of using her book as the basis for a film, but Alma tells her:

‘A film can’t just be a visual record of a book or it will never have a life of its own,’ she said.  … ‘It’s like any marriage, I suppose. The two things can coexist if they’re both good in their own right, and it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.’ (locations 1612-1620)

I’ll try to remember that next time I get irritated at the way a film or TV drama alters a book.

I think that Alfred Hitchcock is really the main character and I don’t know enough about him to be able to distinguish fact from fiction in Fear in the Sunlight, nor do I know that much about the thirties either to judge whether that’s an accurate picture, but I have no doubt that Nicola Upson has done her research. Hitchcock seems to have been a complicated and difficult character, a practical joker and a manipulator:

An experiment in fear and guilt, he had called it, but an exercise in control would have been more accurate. Staging a joke, like making a film, was a way of holding on to power, and Hitchcock had discovered long ago that the manipulation involved in both helped him to forget his own anxieties and doubts. (location 1088)

As you would expect he is a master of suspense:

‘Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight, perhaps fear in this very restaurant, where it is so unexpected – that is interesting’. (location 3465)

  • Format: Kindle Edition (also available in paperback)
  • File Size: 821 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber Crime (3 April 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007JVF6U2
  • Source: My own copy
  • My Rating 3/5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for …

The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor.

This is the first in the Roth trilogy, a tense and scary opening book. So chilling that I nearly stopped reading it and only continued because I couldn’t get the story out of my head and I wanted to know how it ended.

The complete trilogy is about the linked histories of the Appleyards and the Byfields. The books work backwards in time, with this first book being the last chronologically, set in the 1990s, and each book works as a stand-alone, self-contained story. Andrew Taylor states they are designed to work together, but they can be read in any order. The second novel, The Judgement of Strangers, describes events that took place during the summer of 1970, with the third, The Office of the Dead, ten years earlier again. But, having read the first book and the second, I think it is best to read them in that order, because there are people and things that happen that have roots in the second (and I suspect because I haven’t read it yet) the last book and it would spoil the story to know these in advance.

The Four Last Things tells the story of Lucy Appleyard, aged four, who is snatched from her child minder’s one cold winter afternoon. Her parents, Sally, a deacon in the church of England and Michael, a police sergeant, are distraught. Their fears mount as grisly body parts are discovered first in a graveyard and then in a church. A sense of evil and menace permeates the book, told from varying viewpoints conveying Sally’s and Michael’s terror and powerlessness. The characterisation is strong, so much so that I feared for Lucy’s safety and even sympathised with one of the kidnappers.

It’s not just the characters and the mysteries that kept me captivated reading The Four Last Things, because the settings are so well described and so atmospheric, so vivid that I could easily see them in my mind – the dingy London streets and alleyways, the old churches and graveyards, and the overgrown back garden of 29 Rosington Road.

The reason I found this book is so compelling to read is that, although there are horrific elements to it (although not in gratuitous detail) and it’s about the kidnapping of a little girl (which always horrifies me), it’s also a puzzle, posing questions such as why and how these events came about. And the answers aren’t all in this first book. There are tantalising glimpses of the kidnappers’ backgrounds and their psychological make-up, which in themselves are so disturbing. There are questions too about the parents – Sally wonders if there is a religious motivation behind the kidnapping, particularly after the incident in church where she is cursed by an old woman. And what is so troubling in Michael’s background, why is he so reliant on his ‘Uncle David’, an Anglo-Catholic known as Father Byfield? Where do the Reverend Francis Youlgreave and the parish of Roth fit in ? What had happened there when David was the vicar? It was these questions that made me pick up the next book as soon as I’d finished the first. I have just finished it this morning and have some of the answers, but also more questions. I’ll be writing more in another post on The Judgement of Strangers some time soon.

The title is a reference to a painting of the Last Judgement showing the ‘four last things’ identified in a passage in the Apocrypha as ‘Death and Judgement and Heaven and Hell.’ Sally comes to realise that ‘where hell is, there is Lucy.’

vaguely remembered watching a TV version of this with Emilia Fox and Charles Dance as two of the characters. Looking it up, I see that this was in 2007 under the title Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel is also the title of the HarperCollins paperback omnibus of the trilogy (formerly published as Requiem For an Angel). I think the books will stick in my mind longer than the TV version did. For me reading is almost always better than watching a film or TV drama.

A Crime Fiction Alphabet post for the letter T.

This book also fits very nicely into the R.I.P. VII Challenge.

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; (Reissue) edition (5 Feb 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007105118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007105113
  • Source: my own copy
  • My rating: 4/5
  • Author’s website: Andrew Taylor