Exit by Belinda Bauer

Random House UK, Cornerstone| 21 January 2021| 336 pages| Kindle review copy| 4*

I wasn’t at all sure about Exit by Belinda Bauer when I first started to read it a few months ago, so put it to one side and only picked it up again a few days ago. What initially put me off was the opening chapter, which sets the scene for the work of the Exiteers, a group of people who provide support for people with a terminal illness to end their lives. Their role is ostensibly passive, just to be there to keep the dying company as they take their final breaths. But they do provide the means! And one assignment for John (real name Felix Pink) and Amanda goes wrong when they discover they have ‘helped’ the wrong man.

But I read on and what at first looks like a novel considering the ethics of assisted suicide turns into crime fiction as Felix and Amanda realise they have become murder suspects. It’s all mayhem after that as Felix, overcome with remorse, tries to put things right and to discover how and why the wrong man had died.

Far from being a ‘thriller’ it becomes a borderline ‘cosy’ murder mystery, verging on farce in places and I was amused by the wry humour and surreal scenes. It’s a comedy of errors, interspersed with poignant scenes as we learn about Felix’s grief over the deaths of his wife, Margaret and son James. His thoughts always end up with wondering what Margaret would do in the same situation.

It gets off to a slow start, the pace only gradually picking up in the later chapters, when the multiple twists kept me engaged and keen to know how it would end. There are quite a lot of characters in the book, which I found a bit confusing at first, although the main characters, Felix and Acting DC Calvin Bridges are clearly defined and distinctive characters. Some of the minor characters, such as old Greybeard and other clients in the betting shop, are clearly quirky and their actions absurd. And I particularly liked old Skipper, Albert’s father. But underneath the comedy there is a tragedy, as Felix discovers how he has been deceived all along. And the ending is bitter sweet. I began not sure I really wanted to read Exit and ended it feeling I’m glad I did. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read!

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my proof copy.

Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories edited by Martin Edwards

The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards is one of the more enjoyable short story collections that I’ve read. It contains 14 stories in which scientific/technological methods are used in the detection of crime. There is an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards with information about the authors, five of whom were doctors, two were engineers and one was an academic chemist.

As always with short story collections some stories are better than others. I’m highlighting a few of the better ones here:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by A Conan Doyle was originally published in the Strand Magazine in October 1891, and is the first short story to feature Inspector Lestrade. It’s a solid story, solved by Sherlock Holmes by inspecting and analysing the footprints and signs at the scene of the crime.

The Horror of Studley Grange by L T Meade and Clifford Halifax (1894), from Stories for the Diary of a Doctor, originally published in the Strand Magazine. I enjoyed this one although it was pretty easy to predict. Ostensibly a ghost story, the solution involves the use of a laryngoscope.

After Death the Doctor by J J Connington, a Scottish professor of chemistry. This one was first published in 1934, involving a contemporary scientific gadget. The doctor in question is Doctor Shefford who together with Sergeant Longridge, investigate the murder of old Barnaby Leadburn, found dead with his throat cut.

The next two are the ones I enjoyed the most:

The Broken Toad by H C Bailey, first published in 1934, featuring the surgeon and Home Office Consultant, Reggie Fortune as he considers the death of a police constable from poisoning. I enjoyed all the detailed complications and Bailey’s literary mannered style of storytelling.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1939, about forensic dentistry, which starts as Lord Peter Wimsey is sitting in his dentist’s chair. The police had just visited the surgery, wanting to see his predecessor’s records to identify the victim of a burnt out garage. An upper right incisor crown and the filling in a molar provided the clues to his death. Gory if you actually visualise what is involved!

  • Publisher : Poisoned Pen Press (4 Feb. 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Paperback : 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1492699624
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1492699620
  • Source: The Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 3.5*

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

In December I read 12 books, most of them short ones, and because I was reading them one after the other I hardly paused to write about them. Before they slip out of my memory I want to write about some of them at least. –

I particularly want to write about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler as it is one of those books that I’ve always heard about but have never read. It’s been on my Kindle for the last three years. It was first published in 1939 and is an excellent example of what is known as ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction, which generally featured a private eye with a whisky bottle in a filing cabinet, a femme fatale, and rich and usually corrupt clients. Female sexuality is a snare in a dangerous society where manipulative politicians and corrupt police thrive.

About the book:

Best-known as the creator of the original private eye, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888 and died in 1959. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen, and he is widely regarded as one of the very greatest writers of detective fiction. His books include The Big SleepThe Little SisterFarewell, My LovelyThe Long Good-byeThe Lady in the LakePlaybackKiller in the RainThe High Window and Trouble is My Business.

The Big Sleep has been adapted for film twice, in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, and again in 1978, with Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark.

My thoughts:

The novel is narrated by Philip Marlow, who describes himself as a ‘lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich.’ He’s been in jail more than once, likes liqour and women and the cops don’t like him much, although he does get on with a couple of them.

It’s not really the type of crime fiction that I like, but I did enjoy it. There are damsels in distress, gangsters, corrupt officials, and plenty of dark, violent and bloody situations. And of course there are murders – the ‘big sleep’ is death, after all. It’s fast-paced, violent, complicated and in times I found it a bit difficult to follow.

Reading the book took me back in time and place to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, a baking hot LA in which Private Investigator Marlow is hired by the paralysed millionaire General Stallwood, who is being blackmailed. His investigations are hampered by the General’s two daughters, one of whom proves to be a femme fatale, out to entrap Marlow and vindictive when her efforts fail. Chandler’s writing is sharp, snappy and richly descriptive with witty one-liners.

The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis

It’s Christmas 1845 and Haworth is in the grip of a freezing winter.

Hodder and Stoughton|5 November 2020| 309 pages| e-book| Review copy|4*

The Diabolical Bones is the second novel by Bella Ellis about the Brontë sisters. It’s historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life. It begins with Charlotte in 1852 looking back to that December of 1845 when her brother and sisters had still been alive and they had faced the hidden horror that lay within Top Withins Hall. This is a dark story, as the four Brontës discover – it involves not only murder, but also the occult and child exploitation. It highlights what life was like in the mid nineteenth century, the living conditions and the inequalities between the well-to-do and the poor.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell became real people before my eyes, seeing them in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth. And together they make a formidable team as they set about discovering the truth about the bones of a child hidden in a chimney in the oldest part of Top Withins Hall, an ancient house high up on the moors above Howarth.

The Hall is the home of the Bradshaw family, known by Tabby, the Brontes’ housekeeper as a ‘bad lot’. She is steeped in the local superstitions and folklore and believes the land where the Bradshaws live is where the ‘hidden folk’ live. It fills her with horror as she tells the sisters about the children of Adam and Eve who live among the rocks and woodland, moors and rivers, unseen. In the past people would leave out offerings for them to keep away ill fortune. She warns them that now that there is a heavy price to be paid – and that the discovery of the bones is just the start of it.

There are links to other Brontë books in the names of some of the characters – for example, imagine finding Mrs Grace Poole, the guardian of the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre in charge of an orphanage. And I was delighted to find Emily in particular was inspired by Top Withins Hall and the events that took place there to write a novel, because its resemblance to Wuthering Heights struck me immediately. The more I read the more I could believe that the Brontë family were just as Bella Ellis has described them.

Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life – and it shows so well in this book. The setting is superb, the characters are ‘real’ and the book is well plotted. It was only towards the end that I suspected the identity of the main culprit and the danger that the four siblings had to face. I do hope there will be a third Brontë book.

My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

My Friday Post: The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

At the moment I’m reading The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths, the 11th book in the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series. One of the reasons I’m enjoying it is because it has links to the 1st book in the series, The Crossing Places, and another is that I’m fascinated by standing stones and in particular by stone circles.

It begins:

12 February 2016

DCI Nelson,

Well, here we are again. Truly our end is our beginning. That corpse you buried in your garden, has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? You must have wondered whether I, too, was buried deep in the earth. Oh ye of little faith. You must have known that I would rise again.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Clough’s face gives nothing away. He hands over a Starbuck’s cup, which probably completely violates the karma of the dig, and looks around the trench with apparent interest. Ruth drinks the coffee gratefully.

~~~

Description:

DCI Nelson has been receiving threatening letters telling him to ‘go to the stone circle and rescue the innocent who is buried there’. He is shaken, not only because children are very much on his mind, with Michelle’s baby due to be born, but because although the letters are anonymous, they are somehow familiar. They read like the letters that first drew him into the case of The Crossing Places, and to Ruth. But the author of those letters is dead. Or are they?

Meanwhile Ruth is working on a dig in the Saltmarsh – another henge, known by the archaeologists as the stone circle – trying not to think about the baby. Then bones are found on the site, and identified as those of Margaret Lacey, a twelve-year-old girl who disappeared thirty years ago.

As the Margaret Lacey case progresses, more and more aspects of it begin to hark back to that first case of The Crossing Places, and to Scarlett Henderson, the girl Nelson couldn’t save. The past is reaching out for Ruth and Nelson, and its grip is deadly.

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Little, Brown Book Group UK| 1 October 2020| 337 pages| Kindle review copy| 4*

Kieran Elliott has moved back to his home town of Evelyn Bay on the island of Tasmania twelve years after the death of his older brother, Finn. His father has dementia and he has come home to help his mother move house. He feels guilty as Finn died trying to rescue him during a violent storm at sea and he has always thought that his parents blamed him for the loss of their favourite son. On that same day twelve years earlier, a teenage girl went missing. Her bag was later found on the beach, washed up by the tide, but her body was never found. The day after Kieran’s arrival, Bronte, a waitress at the Surf and Turf bar, is found dead on the beach, which stirs up memories of the events of twelve years ago.

I struggled reading the first part of this book. I couldn’t easily make out who was who, especially between the male characters, and I had no idea who or what the ‘Survivors‘ in the title were. There were hints about what had happened twelve years ago, but it wasn’t really compelling me to read on to find out who did what, where and how – until, that is, I’d read about 25% of the book. I was on the point of giving up, when things became clearer, the characters came to life and I realised what was going on – and I just had to read on.

Evelyn Bay is a small community where everyone knows everyone else. There are plenty of rumours flying around, and suspicion falls on several people. Just who and what the ‘Survivors‘ are plays a major role in the story – along with the sea, the caves and the tides. So, this is a slow-burner at first, that turns into an emotionally charged book rather than one of high tension and suspense. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Jane Harper’s earlier books, The Dry, Force of Nature or The Lost Man, which all had me enthralled.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

My Friday Post: The Big Sleep

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Big Sleep begins:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

I smiled. He didn’t like the smile. His eyes got nasty.

Blurb:

Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is working for the Sternwood family. Old man Sternwood, crippled and wheelchair-bound, is being given the squeeze by a blackmailer and he wants Marlowe to make the problem go away. But with Sternwood’s two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA’s seedy backstreets, Marlowe’s got his work cut out – and that’s before he stumbles over the first corpse . . .

~~~

I’ve just started to read this book, a crime fiction classic, the first in Chandler’s Philip Marlow series set in Los Angeles. In the introduction Ian Rankin writes that it opens with his favourite opening paragraph in all crime fiction and that it is

a story of sex, drugs, blackmail and high society narrated by a cynical tough guy, Philip Marlowe‘ and that it is ‘such fun to read that you won’t notice how clever its author is being.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

Quercus Books| 1 October 2020| 352 pages| Review copy| 4*

From the sleepy seaside town of Shoreham to the granite streets of Aberdeen, The Postscript Murders is a literary mystery for fans of Anthony Horowitz, Agatha Christie and anyone who’s ever wondered just how authors think up such realistic crimes..

PS: Trust no one.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed Elly Griffiths’ first DS Harbinder Kaur book, The Stranger Diaries, so I was keen to read the second book, The Postscript Murders. It’s very different, in a much lighter style and I think Elly Griffiths was enjoying herself writing this poking fun at crime fiction writers and the book world, with book bloggers and a literary festival. I really enjoyed it. It’s very readable, cleverly plotted, with interesting and well defined characters.

Peggy Smith is ninety, living in a retirement flat at Seaview Court in Shoreham. The book begins as she is ‘lurking’ in a bay window watching the world go by and writing down details of everyone she sees. But when Natalka, Peggy’s Ukranian carer, finds her sitting in her armchair by the window, she knows immediately that she is dead and suspects that something is wrong, especially when she finds a business card – ‘Mrs M Smith, Murder Consultant’. For Peggy is a woman with a past, who helps crime fiction writers with their plots and gory ways for people to die.

But Peggy had a heart condition and DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her about her death and initially she does not feature much in the book. Natalka enlists the help of Peggy’s friends, ex-monk Benedict, the local cafe owner and Edwin, who also lives at Seaview Court to help her investigate. When they find sinister notes with the threatening message We are coming for you, and Natalka and Benedict are threatened by a mysterious gunman who bursts into Peggy‘s flat, both D S Kaur and D S Neil Winston then take on an active role.

Their investigations lead them to Peggy’s author friends and another murder victim. Then Natalka, Benedict and Edwin then travel from Shoreham to Aberdeen to a literary festival to warn another of Peggy’s author friends, J D Monroe, Julie, that she too might be in danger, thinking she is the next victim. From then on the mystery deepens, and the suspects increase. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns, that kept me guessing throughout.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to Bring Up the Bodies

It’s time again for Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month it begins with a book that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year – Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I’ve not read this book, but the title, with my name in it, intrigues me. Margaret Simon, almost twelve, likes long hair, tuna fish, the smell of rain, and things that are pink. She’s just moved from New York City to Farbook, New Jersey, and is anxious to fit in with her new friends.

There are several ways I thought of to go from this book – my name, or the author’s name, or the subject matter of a coming of age novel, or a relationship with God.

After several false starts, I chose another coming , bof age novel. The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch is about Miles O’Malley, a thirteen year old boy and about life, growing up, relationships and love. It’s narrated by an adult Miles, looking back at that summer when he found a giant squid, dying on the mudflats at Skookumchuck Bay, at the southern end of Puget Sound, near his house. That was the summer he had a crush on Angie, his ex-babysitter, and his best friend, old Florence was getting sicker each week.

Moving on to another book about ‘tides‘ to The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Hume set in Scotland on the fictional island of Eilean Iasgaich. Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries, which helps in the investigation of the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart. It’s a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade.

And the next link is the word ‘sea‘ in the title in The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter set in lost landscapes this is a novel revolving around a mother and daughter caught up in catastrophic events. The lost landscapes are the village of Imber, a Wiltshire village that was requisitioned by the army during World War Two, where Violet had grown up, and the coastal village of Kanyakumari in Southern India, where her daughter Alice was caught up in the tsunami that devastated the area in 1971.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne is a time-slip story with an element of mystery and suspense. Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. Grace likes to travel and although she survived the Boxing Day tsunami she is suppressing her memories of what happened. As she learns how Hawise died it gets to the point where she dreads slipping out of current time into not only Hawise’s past but also into her own as she remembers what happened to her in the tsunami.

Another time-slip novel is The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick which alternates between the Tudor period and the present day following the life of Alison Banestre (known as Bannister in the present day) as she moves between the centuries trying to find out what happened to Mary Seymour. It’s a mystery, based on the true story of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and Thomas Seymour, who she married after Henry’s death.

Thomas Seymour was Jane Seymour’s brother. Their family home was Wolf Hall, an early 17th-century manor house where Mary Seymour was taken in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child. This brings me to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall and specifically to the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, which begins at Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII is visiting the Seymours. And it is at Wolf Hall that Henry begins to fall in love with Jane.

My chain this month includes a coming of age novel, books with tides and seas in their titles, time-slip novels and books in which Wolf Hall features. It begins in America in 1970, moves forward and backwards in time and place to the 16th century in England.

Next month (January 2, 2021), we’ll start with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Private Moscow by James Patterson & Adam Hamdy

Cornerstone Digital| 3 September 2020| 464 pages| Review copy| 4*

Description:

An invitation from an old friend draws Jack Morgan into a deadly conspiracy

On a cold January morning, Jack Morgan stands on a podium inside the New York Stock Exchange alongside his friend and former US Marine comrade whose company is being launched onto the market. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the moment the opening bell rings. But that moment never arrives. An assassin’s bullet rips through the air and finds its mark.

In the aftermath of the murder, Jack is approached by the victim’s wife. She needs him to find the killer. As the head of Private, Jack has at his disposal the world’s largest investigation agency. He accepts the case, but what Jack will discover will shake him to his core.

Jack identifies another murder in Moscow that appears to be linked. So he heads to Russia, and begins to uncover a conspiracy that could have global consequences

With powerful forces plotting against him, will Jack Morgan make it out alive?

My thoughts:

Private Moscow is the 15th book in James Patterson’s Private series, his latest one published – the 16th book, Private Rogue will be published in July 2021. He has written numerous books and series but Private Moscow is the first one I have read. Adam Hamdy is a British author and screenwriter. He is the author of the Pendulum trilogy, an epic series of conspiracy thriller novels.  James Patterson described Pendulum as ‘one of the best thrillers of the year’, and the novel was nominated for the Glass Bell Award for contemporary fiction, and chosen as book of the month by Goldsboro Books.  Pendulum was also selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. 

Private Moscow is a change from the type of books usually read – an action packed, fast paced mystery thriller. Although it’s the 15th book in the series, I think it reads well as a standalone. The action never lets up as Jack Morgan, the head of Private, a detective agency with branches across the globe, sets out to hunt for the killer of his best friend and former marine, Karl Parker. Meanwhile in Moscow Dinara Orlova, an ex FSB agent in the Moscow office of Private and her colleague, Leonid Boykov an ex police detective, are investigating the murder of Yana Petrova, who was killed in an explosion at the Boston Seafood Grill. When it becomes apparent that the two cases are linked Jack flies to Moscow to join forces with Dinara and Leonid.

After a slow start, the pace picked up dramatically as the danger intensified and I was gripped right up to the final high octane ending. The short chapters emphasise the speed of the action. There spectacular car chases, with violent shoot outs, miraculous escapes and fight scenes, and intense danger throughout as intrigues, conspiracies, old secrets and deep-cover agents are revealed. It’s told through Jack’s perspective in the first person narrative alternating with the third person of the other characters. It’s far-fetched, but also entertaining, like watching a fast paced spy movie/thriller and although I have never been to New York or Moscow I had no difficulty in visualising the locations. Pure escapism!

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.