Two Crime Fiction Titles

I’m behind with reviewing the books I’ve read, so here are short reviews of two crime fiction novels I’ve read recently:

Broken ground

Broken Ground by Val McDermid, the 5th Karen Pirie book. 4*

This begins in 1944 when two men bury a couple of wooden crates in a peat bog in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands. Seventy four years later Alice and her husband Will are on a treasure hunt, following a map Alice’s grandfather had left her. But they are astonished when discover the body of a man in the peat bog together with one of the crates. Perfectly preserved it appeared at first that this was a case for Karen’s friend Dr River Wilde, the forensic anthropologist. But the fact that the man was wearing a pair of Nikes, dating the body back to the 1990s ruled out that idea, which made it a case for Karen Pirie and her Historic Cases Unit.

This is a very readable book, moving swiftly along, that I really enjoyed. Karen has to cope with the unwelcome addition to her team of DS Gerry Mcartney. The ACC, Ann Markle and Karen just don’t get on and Karen suspects Markle is using McCartney to keep tabs on her and find a way to close the Unit down. It is a complicated case as attention switches back to events in 1944, the 1990s and the present day, although the actual murder mystery isn’t that difficult to work out.

Not Dead EnoughNot Dead Enough by Peter James, the 3rd Detective Superintendent Roy Grace book. 4*

It’s set in Brighton and begins with the murder of Katie Bishop. The immediate suspect is her husband Brian, but it appears that he couldn’t be the murderer unless he could have been in two places at once. Then Sophie Harrington is killed. She had been having an affair with Brian thus intensifying the police investigation into his movements and background.

Grace’s wife, Sandy, had disappeared nine years earlier and he is still wondering what happened to her even though he is now involved with Cleo Morey, the Chief Mortician and he takes a quick trip over to Munich when his friends tell him they had seen her there.

This is a re-read. I first read it in January 2014 and it was only when I reached the part about Sandy that I realised I had read it before. I think that this is because the two murders are particularly gruesome and either I’d scan read them before or had blocked them out of my mind. Apart from the gruesome murders I enjoyed this book and intend to carry on reading the Roy Grace books.

D H Lawrence: The Life Of An Outsider by John Worthen

D H Lawrence

Penguin Books|2006|518 pages|5*

In April I began reading  D. H. Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, a biography. It is one of my TBRs as I bought it in 2008 when I visited D H Lawrence’s birthplace at Eastwood, 8 miles from Nottingham.

He was born in 1885 in a row of miners’ houses, a two up, two down redbrick house. The adjoining end terrace house is now a museum and shop (where I bought the book).

I find writing about biographies difficult. This book, in particular, is hard to summarise. I read the book slowly in short sections, reading it most days. It’s a detailed portrait of his life from his birth in 1885 in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire to his death at the age of 44 in 1930. An ‘outsider’, he always felt he didn’t fit in or belong either with his family, or his work colleagues, or the literary elite of the times.

By 1908 writing had become a necessity to him – writing poetry, but he was too insecure to send any of it to a publisher. At that time he was working in Croydon as an elementary teacher. He began writing his first novel, which by October 1910 he was calling ‘Paul Morel‘ . It later became ‘Sons and Lovers.’  It was in 1912 that he first met Frieda Weekley, whom he later married. She was then married to Ernest Weekley, a Nottingham University professor of modern languages.

Once he had left Eastwood he travelled in search of a place where he could be himself, but despite staying in different places, with friends, in hotels and in rented accommodation he felt he was really unable to find a place of his own. The maps at the beginning of the book illustrate this with maps of Lawrence’s Eastwood, of the places he lived in England, in Italy and in America and Mexico. Part of his need to find a place of his own was purely physical – he suffered from tuberculosis and he was searching for a climate where he could breathe easily. His final months were full of pain and suffering and he died in Bandol, France on 2 March 1930.

Worthen writes in depth about Lawrence’s personal life, his relationship with his family and in particular with his mother, Lydia and then his wife, Frieda, as well as his numerous friends and acquaintances, because although he thought of himself as an outsider he needed his friends. Lawrence was prolific, writing novels, short stories, plays, poems, letters, essays, nonfiction books, travel literature, and so on, as well as producing numerous paintings (some of which were on display at his Birthplace Museum).

D H Lawrence photos

Worthen writes in great detail about his work, quoting from original sources, and tracing his development as a writer. There are 38 photographs, the first taken c.1886 of Lawrence as a baby in a pram to a photo of a clay head of him made in 1930 by Jo Davidson. I found it all fascinating, giving a portrait of a man often misunderstood by his contemporaries and criticised for being sexist, racist, a misogynist, a fascist and a colonialist. Worthen, however, writes:

He was in reality generous to women and men alike, and to all races and colours. He wrote wonderfully all his life about his experience of the natural world; he was more perceptive than almost any writer, before or since, about the effects of civilisation upon instinct and desire. He has constantly been attacked because his writing constantly thought things through in public. But it is, uncannily, as if Lawrence knew where both his contemporaries and those after him would be most sensitive and anxious, and concentrated his writing on those very subjects: sex, gender roles, the exercise of power. He intuitively worked his way into the concerns and anxieties of his contemporaries, though by doing so he also confirmed his alienation from his own age and (now) perhaps from ours. (pages xxv – xxvi)

I have read just a few of Lawrence’s novels – Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Virgin and the Gypsy, St Mawr, and The Man Who Died. I haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover yet, but when I do I’ll look back at Worthern has to say about it.

About the author:

John Worthen  taught at universities in North America and Wales before becoming Professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he remains Emeritus Professor. His career as Lawrence’s biographer began in the 1980s, resulting in the first of a three-volume Cambridge biography – D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885 – 1912. In 2001 Yale University Press brought out his group biography The Gang: Coleridge, the Wordsworth and the Hutchinsons in 1802. His newest biography is a life of the great German composer Robert Schumann, while he also plans to write a biography of Frieda von Richthofen, concentrating wholly on her life before she met D. H. Lawrence.

An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

April Shroud

HarperCollins|2011|326 pages|Paperback|my own copy| 3* 

An April Shroud is Reginald Hill’s fourth Dalziel and Pascoe novel, first published in 1975, in which Dalziel is on holiday and Pascoe is on his honeymoon.

From the back cover:

Inspector Pascoe may take holidays but Death never does – and neither, it seems, does Superintendent Dalziel. A watery accident on a solitary country holiday leads to the Fat Man drying off in Lake House, a nearby mansion well past its prime.

The same cannot be said for its owner, the fulsome Mrs Fielding. She has only recently buried her husband, but seems more concerned with her future. Dalziel’s curiosity is aroused – purely professionally of course – and by the time Pascoe’s honeymoon is over, there have been several more deaths and Dalziel might have compromised himself beyond redemption …

Whereas in the previous book, Ruling Passion Dalziel’s character was more of a caricature, on An April Shroud Hill develops his character more fully, in fact I think the book is primarily a superb character study of Dalziel.  He is rude, coarse and insensitive, but his capacity for getting to the bottom of a mystery is shown to be immense.

Although on holiday he cannot help but ferret out what really happened to Conrad Fielding, when he meets the Fielding family on their way back home after Conrad’s funeral. He was rescued by them when his journey south was brought to an abrupt end by floods. The police had decided that Conrad’s death had been an accident – he had fallen off a ladder onto the drill he had been using and it had pierced his heart. Mrs Fielding invites Dalziel to stay at their home, Lake House, where it soon becomes apparent to him that the family have plenty of secrets they would rather he didn’t discover.

I couldn’t easily distinguish who was who in the family, except to realise that they were all rather odd. The plot seemed over complicated and in parts I thought I was reading a farce as more bodies turned up dead. I had little idea who was guilty and the identity of the culprits took me by surprise. Dalziel’s ‘interlude’ with the widow, Bonny Fielding, was entertaining as well as revealing about Dalziel’s personal life – he is sensitive and vulnerable beneath his boorish exterior. 

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although for me it was far from Hill’s best Dalziel and Pascoe book and I’m looking forward to reading book 5, A Pinch of Snuff, as I know that the later books are much better. Reginald Hill wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I’ve read some of them and currently I’m reading my way through the rest.

These are the Dalziel and Pascoe books I’ve read so far:

1. A Clubbable Woman (1970) 
2. An Advancement of Learning (1971)
3. Ruling Passion (1973)
4. An April Shroud (1975) 
8. Exit Lines (1984)
11. Bones and Silence (1990) 
14. Pictures of Perfection (1993) – read, no post
17.On Beulah Height (1998) 
20. Death’s Jest Book (2002) 
21. The Death of Dalziel (2007)

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2019 (a book I’ve owned for four years) and the Calendar of Crime 2019 challenge (for the month of April – a book with the month in the title).

The Marches by Rory Stewart

Marches

Vintage|September 2017|368 pages|Paperback|4*

I enjoyed reading The Marches: Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart. He’s been in the news here recently, having stood for leadership of the Conservative Party, and has now formally stood down from Parliament to run as an independent candidate for Mayor of London.

But none of that has anything to do with why I wanted to read his book. It’s because of the subject – walking in the borderlands between England and Scotland, in the place where I live. And it’s not just about walking – he also muses on history, memory and landscape, all topics that interest me immensely.

Blurb:

His father Brian taught Rory Stewart how to walk, and walked with him on journeys from Iran to Malaysia. Now they have chosen to do their final walk together along ‘the Marches’ – the frontier that divides their two countries, Scotland and England.

On their six-hundred-mile, thirty-day journey – with Rory on foot, and his father ‘ambushing’ him by car – the pair relive Scottish dances, reflect on Burmese honey-bears, and on the loss of human presence in the British landscape.
Travelling across mountain ridges and through housing estates they uncover a forgotten country crushed between England and Scotland: the Middleland. They discover unsettling modern lives, lodged in an ancient place, as their odyssey develops into a history of the British nationhood, a chronicle of contemporary Britain and an exuberant encounter between a father and a son.

And as the journey deepens, and the end approaches, Brian and Rory fight to match, step by step, modern voices, nationalisms and contemporary settlements to the natural beauty of the Marches, and a fierce absorption in tradition in their own unconventional lives.

My thoughts:

This is a book of three parts – Book One: The Wall about Rory Stewart’s walk along Hadrian’s Wall in 2011, with his father, then aged 89 – his father walking for the first hour or so each day. They had intended to walk the full length of the Wall, from east to west, but after they reached the fort at Bewcastle they decided to abandon their plan (his father having reached his limits) and drive back to his father’s house, Broich, near Crieff in Perthshire. He writes about the Wall, the Roman occupation of the area, his father’s career, about nationality and clans, and reminisces about his childhood and his time in Afghanistan.

Book Two: Middleland, in which he describes his walk from coast to coast, a distance of about 400 miles, taking him 26 days, walking alone from his cottage in Cumbria to the Solway Firth, then crossing and re-crossing the modern border (established in the 13th century) to Berwick-upon-Tweed and then back to Broich.

I got a bit lost in his descriptions of the route, not knowing some the places along the way. But there are maps of his route that helped me follow where he went. He describes the landscape, the geology, sheep farming and land use, the people he met, their history  and language and much, much more.

Book Three: The General Danced on the Lawn about his father, who died at the age of 93, before this book was finished. The whole book is permeated with his love and respect for his father, but this last section is all about Brian Stewart.

At the end of the Marches is a Chronology which I found very interesting, defining The Middleland before AD100 up to the present days. The Middleland is a term invented by Brian Stewart:

The geographical centre of the island of Britain. An upland landscape, whose core is the Lake District, the Peninnes, the Cheviots and the Scottish Borders, but whose fringes extend to the Humber in the south and the firths of Forth and Clyde in the north. A land naturally unified by geography and culture for two thousand years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers. (page 339)

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London

Gollanz|January 2011|396 pages|e-book |5*

Blurb:

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit – we do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to – and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden … and there’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying.

My thoughts:

I wish I had read Rivers of London when was first published in 2011, or in 2016 when I bought it because, when I finally began reading it I found I just didn’t want to put it down. 

I really didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but I was completely engrossed in this book right from the beginning. It is a magical reading experience, and a fast-paced police procedural of a very different kind. It’s fantastical in the literal meaning of the word; an urban fantasy set in the real world of London. It’s a mix of reality and the supernatural, as Peter explains ‘Police work is all about systems and procedures and planning – even when you’re hunting a supernatural entity.

When a headless corpse is found in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Convent Garden, Peter interviews a witness, Nicholas Wallpenny, who tells him he has been dead for at least a hundred and twenty years – he is a ghost. From that point on nothing is straight forward as Peter is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale (who is the last wizard in England) as part of a special and secret branch of the Met, dealing with all things magical and supernatural. And there are more murders

But interwoven with the murders is the feud between the Rivers of London, or rather between Mother Thames, whose territory is downstream and Father Thames who owns upstream. They both believe they rule the Thames and its tributaries. The dividing line is at Teddington Lock, two miles downstream from Eel Pie Island. Nicholas wants Peter to speak to Mother Thames to find out what the problem is and to find an amicable solution. And so he meets Beverley Brook and the other river goddesses.

Ben Aaronovitch knows London like he back of his hand and it shows in this book. It’s complex, the characters are great, the London setting is wonderfully detailed, and the writing is humorous and very entertaining. I loved it! It’s the first book in the Rivers of London series. The 8th book, False Value, will be published next year. So I have lots more Peter Grant novels to read, beginning with the next one, Moon Over Soho.

About the author:

Born and raised in London, Ben worked as a scriptwriter for Doctor Who and Casualty before the inspiration for his own series of books struck him whilst working as a bookseller in Waterstones Covent Garden. His unique novels are the culmination of his experience of writing about the emergency services and the supernatural.

See more about him and his work on his website.

Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill

Ruling passion

HarperCollins|1993|388 pages|Paperback\ my own copy| 3.5* (rounded up to 4*)

Ruling Passion is Reginald Hill’s third Dalziel and Pascoe novel, first published in 1973, in which Pascoe finds his social life and work uncomfortably brought together by a terrible triple murder. Meanwhile, Dalziel is pressuring him about a string of unsolved burglaries, and as events unfold the two cases keep getting jumbled in his mind.

Peter Pascoe is the main character with Dalziel, his boss playing a minor role. Moving on from the second book where Pascoe had renewed his relationship with Ellie Soper, they are now a couple and friends from their university days, Colin and Rose Hopkins have invited them to stay for a weekend in the country at their cottage in the village of Thornton Lacey. They hadn’t seen them for more than five years and the other guests were also old friends, Timothy Mansfield and Charles Rushworth. (References here to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park)

However, Peter and Ellie didn’t arrive until the Saturday morning when they found a terrible scene – Timothy and Charles lying on the dining room floor in a pool of blood, dead from wounds caused by a shotgun fired at close range, and Rose was in the back garden lying dead at the base of a sundial in the centre of the lawn, her face pressed into the grass. Colin was nowhere to be seen – and the police, headed by Superintendent Backhouse, immediately assume he is the murderer. Peter for once is faced with being a witness rather than a detective and he doesn’t find it easy. He and Ellie are both convinced that Colin didn’t commit the murders – it’s a matter of finding him and proving Backhouse wrong.

As in the previous book, An Advancement of Learning, the plot is by no means straight forward and I found it rather confusing for a while, trying to remember who was who and where they fitted into the mystery. It’s not helped by the fact that the action moves between Thornton Lacey, Yorkshire and Scotland. It wasn’t only Peter who muddled the murder mystery with his unsolved burglaries – I did too. But it all became much clearer towards the end of the book as the connections between the storylines were made.

It’s the main characters though that interested me most and the development of their characters – Peter and Ellie in particular. Their relationship has moved on and during the course of the book they realise how deep their feelings for each other are – leading them into considering getting married. Peter recognises that he can be a very solitary man:

Solitariness was not far from loneliness and this he feared. He believed he could recognize similar characteristics in Ellie, but how good a basis for marriage this common area would be he could not speculate. Equally far from contemplation, however, was a life without Ellie. Which is as good a definition of love as I’m likely to get in a police station, he told himself. Motives for marriage are at least as varied and unexpected as motives for murder. That sounded like the kind of cold comfort Dalziel would doubtless offer! (page 325)

Whereas Peter and Ellie have now become more developed characters Dalziel still remains more of a caricature, rude, coarse and insensitive. But as Ellie gets to know him more so he becomes more human – and more likeable, with more understanding than she had previously thought. By the end of the book Peter, having passed his exams, is promoted to Inspector.

Reginald Hill wrote 24 Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I’ve now read the first and the last and some in between. Currently I’m reading my way through the rest of them – so book 4 is next on my list – An April Shroud.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life 1

Transworld Digital|March 2013|Print length 477 pages| e-book|5*

I am delighted to say that I loved Life After Life. I wasn’t at all sure that I would as I began reading it soon after I bought it (in 2013) and didn’t get very far before I decided to put it to one side for a while. A ‘while’ became years – and then at the end of 2016 I read A God in Ruins about Ursula’s brother Teddy, and loved it and decided to try Life After Life again. But, even so it has taken me until this September to get round to reading it. I can’t imagine what my problem with it was in 2013, because this time round once I’d started it I just knew I had to read it and I was immediately engrossed in the story.

Ursula Todd was born on 11 February 1910 at Fox Corner during a wild snowstorm. In the first version she was born before the doctor and the midwife arrived and she died, strangled by the umbilical cord around her neck. But in the second version the doctor had got there in time and saved her life, using a pair of small surgical scissors to snip the cord

During the book Ursula dies many deaths and there are several different versions that her life takes over the course of the twentieth century – through both World Wars and beyond. Each time as she approaches death she experiences a vague unease, before the darkness falls. As she grows older she experiences different outcomes to the events that lead up to that feeling of unease, and finds that sometimes she can prevent the darkness from falling. By the end of the book I had a complete picture of a life lived to the full. I loved the way she experiences the same circumstances but because one little thing is changed it completely changes the whole sequence of events.

There is a constant thread throughout the book – the Todd family, Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, her father, Hugh, her aunt, Izzie, and her brothers and sisters, plus the family servants and friends. They all play more or less significant roles throughout Ursula’s life. It’s a large cast of characters but I had no difficulty in distinguishing them – they all felt ‘real’, partly I think because Atkinson is so good at depicting family life and relationships.

I would love to know more about several of the characters – Izzie, for one – Hugh’s wild bohemian sister, who Sylvie called a ‘cuckoo’ and Mrs Glover described as a ‘Flibbertigibbet’. Then there is Sylvie herself, who I found quite a mysterious character – in particular one of the chapters describing Ursula’s birth very near the end of the book set my imagination working overtime- what had Sylvie known and how? There is more about Ursula’s youngest brother, Teddy in A God In Ruins and I think I’ll have to re-read it soon to see what further light it throws on all the characters.

In some ways it is a tragic book – particularly the parts set during the war years. They are brilliantly written bringing the full of horror of war into focus; some of the standout scenes  are those in London during the Blitz. And it’s interesting to speculate how different the history of the twentieth century could have been if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930. The whole book is full of ‘what ifs’ – what if this character had behaved differently, what if that had not happened, what if you’d made a different choice of subject to study or a different career, or married a different person?  

In fact I think the whole book is excellent, well researched and with such a different structure so well done that it kept me glued to the pages. I wish I’d read it earlier – but it obviously wasn’t the right time for me to read it then.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR