The Search Party by Simon Lelic

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Viking| 20 August 2020| 35 pages print length| Hardback| Review Copy

Three years ago I read The House by Simon Lelic and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading The Search Party. I’m delighted to say that I think it is even better.

16-year-old Sadie Saunders is missing and five of her friends set out into the woods to find her. At the same time the police’s investigation, led by Detective Robin Fleet and Detective Sergeant Nicola Collins, is underway. The narrative alternates between the two groups. Sadie is a clever girl, popular with her school friends and loved by her parents, who favour her over her twin brother Luke and their younger brother, Dylan.

The opening lines propelled me straight into the story as one of Sadie’s friends, lost in the woods her makes an incoherent phone call to the emergency services. The caller doesn’t know their location other than it is ‘somewhere in the woods‘ near an abandoned building. And from that point on I was gripped, compelled to follow this complex novel, full of red herrings and multiple twists and turns. It is tense from start to finish, ending in an exhausting and terrifying chase that had me on the edge of my seat!

I really like Fleet, and the way he stands up to his boss, Superintendent Burton, whose main concern is the cost of the investigation. Burton puts pressure on him to arrest Mason, assuming he has killed Sadie even though her body has not been found. Mason is part of the search party, but Fleet’s instincts tell him Mason is innocent. Fleet is known for his ability to find missing persons and sticks to his gut feelings.

My only criticism is that at times the teenagers’ rambling discussions about what could have happened to Sadie and their disagreements went on too long for my liking. But that is just a minor point. They are all keeping secrets and in their interviews with the police they all lie and withhold vital facts and they are suspicious of each other, not knowing who they can trust. And I couldn’t decide what had happened to Sadie – had she run away, committed suicide or was she murdered and if so who was the murderer. They are all suspects, including Sadie’s parents. It was only just before the end of the book that I realised just what had happened.

My thanks to NetGalley and Viking, the publishers for a review copy.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

HarperCollins/ 20 August 2020/ Print length 346 pages/ Kindle edition/ 3*

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is Sophie Hannah’s fourth Hercules Poirot mystery novel and the first one I’ve read. I have read some of Hannah’s books previously. So, I know that she writes complicated and tricky plots. Whilst not attempting to reproduce Christie’s Poirot this book is loosely based on Christie’s books, as Hannah incorporates all the twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections that you find in them. There’s a country house setting, a number of suspects, and a gathering together at the end where Poirot reveals all.

Blurb:

Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate, where Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. But there is a strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there.
 
The coach is forced to stop when a distressed woman demands to get off, insisting that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. Although the rest of the journey passes without anyone being harmed, Poirot’s curiosity is aroused, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered with a macabre note attached…

Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And if Helen is innocent, can Poirot find the true culprit in time to save her from the gallows?

I wasn’t expecting a cloned Poirot and Hannah’s Poirot is not Christie’s Poirot. There’s no Captain Hastings in this book, Poirot’s faithful friend. Instead Poirot is accompanied by Inspector Catchpole from Scotland Yard. How on earth he got to be an inspector is beyond me – he comes across as rather dim and stupid and Poirot treats him as such, endlessly explaining things to him and telling him what to do in an officious manner.

There are three strands to the plot – who killed Frank Devonport; who is the hysterical woman with an ‘unfinished face’ who insists she will be murdered if she sits in a specific seat on the coach; and who is the mysterious woman who tells Poirot she is a murderer – what a stupid thing to do when she knows he is a ‘world-renowned detective’? And I wondered what makes Richard so sure that Helen didn’t kill Frank when she had immediately confessed that she had? And I’m still wondering why when he was invited to Kingfisher Hall, an exclusive and private country estate, he went by coach with 30 other passengers – even if it was a ‘luxury’ coach. I just can’t see Poirot travelling by coach!

This all makes the book extremely convoluted, confusing and tangled as well as long-winded. Poirot though works his way methodically through the mess and gets to the truth. However, I found it quite dull and repetitive and rather contrived. So, my rating for this book is 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3.

My thanks to HarperCollins for a review copy via NetGalley.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*

Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.

Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.

They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.

Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.

And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.

‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.

I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.

Sebastian Barry

Photo credit: ©Alan Betson, The Irish Times

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

a perfect crime

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards is the sequel to Gallows Court. Both books are set in 1930 in London and reflect Martin Edwards’ fascination with that period in history and his love of Golden Age detective fiction.

1930. A chilling encounter on London’s Necropolis Railway leads to murder and a man escapes the gallows after a witness gives sensational evidence. After this string of strange, fatal events, journalist Jacob Flint discovers that he has been framed for murder. To save himself, he flees to Mortmain Hall, a remote estate on the northern coast. There, an eccentric female criminologist hosts a gathering of eclectic people who have all escaped miscarriages of cruel justice. This strange group puts Jacob a little on edge, but they may be his only hope to clear his name.

When a body is found beneath the cliffs near the house, it seems this gathering might be an ingenious plot to get away with murder. Are these eccentrics victims or are they orchestrators of the great deception? Jacob must now set out to uncover the labyrinthine of secrets within Mortmain Hall, alongside Rachel Savernake, woman whose relentless quest for the truth might just bring down the British establishment…

This is one of those books that I find difficult to review – it is complex with several plot lines. So, I’m going to be brief. It begins most unusually with an Epilogue in which Rachel Savernake is talking to a dying man about a ‘perfect crime’ and asks him what had happened at Mortmain Hall. Then chapter one begins with this strange statement, ‘The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage‘ and I was hooked. Rachel followed the ‘ghost’ as he entered a funeral train run by the London Necropolis Company for privileged first-class passengers. What was going on?

The novel moves on to a scene in the Old Bailey where Jacob Flint, a journalist is watching the trial of Clive Daneskin, accused of murder. After the trial he meets Leonora Dobell, a mysterious woman. Then the book gets very detailed, as more murder cases were described at length and I couldn’t see, at first, how they were connected, or how Mortmain Hall came into the story. But then I thought about the Epilogue and I realised that this is a book about ‘a perfect crime’, so I persevered and eventually it all became much clearer.

And there is further clarification when you reach the end of the book where the Epilogue, in its right place, is continued, followed by a chapter called Cluefinder, in which Martin Edwards lists 30 clues in the narrative, in the tradition of the Golden Age detective novels. Mortmain Hall is not a quick read because it is so detailed, but I did enjoy it.

Mortmain Hall was first published in the UK by Head of Zeus in April 2020 and is scheduled to be published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press on 20 September 2020. My thanks to Poisoned Press and NetGalley for a review copy.

His and Hers by Alice Feeney

HQ| 28 May 2020| 384 pages| Review copy| 4*

I read Alice Feeney’s debut novel, Sometimes I Lie three years ago and loved it. His and Hers is her third book and just like her first book I was utterly gripped by it and compelled to read it, puzzled and amazed by the cleverness of the plot. It’s a standalone psychological thriller.

Blurb:

Jack: Three words to describe my wife: Beautiful. Ambitious. Unforgiving.
Anna: I only need one word to describe my husband: Liar.

When a woman is murdered in Blackdown village, newsreader Anna Andrews is reluctant to cover the case. Anna’s ex-husband, DCI Jack Harper, is suspicious of her involvement, until he becomes a suspect in his own murder investigation.

Someone is lying, and some secrets are worth killing to keep.

The narrative moves between two characters ‘Him’, Jack Harper and ‘Her’, Anna Andrews and there is also a third narrator, the unnamed killer. Anna lives in London, working for the BBC. She grew up in Blackdown, and is an alcoholic, who is still recovering from a recent tragedy that pushed her to drink. Jack is a Detective Chief Inspector, who has recently moved to Blackdown from London to be in charge of the Major Crime Team based in Surrey. He knows Blackdown well as he also grew up there and Anna is his ex wife.

There is so much ambiguity and misdirection that there were times when I thought the killer could just as easily be Jack, or Anna, or one of the other characters – and wondered just which one was the narrator. More murders follow after that first one. But these are not random killings – and it’s soon apparent that the victims are all connected. They had all been at to the same school and had been guests at Anna’s sixteenth birthday party.

I read it quickly, suspending my disbelief and disliking most of the main characters – they really are downright nasty – cheating, lying, manipulating and abusing others, bullying and blackmailing them. – and worse. It kept me guessing throughout, changing my mind about the culprit, or culprits, as I read on. It’s not a comfortable read, dark and twisted with some gruesomely graphic scenes, which is why I’m giving this book 4 stars instead of 5. It’s one of those books I didn’t really like, but I did enjoy working out the puzzle of who could be trusted, who to be wary of and most of all who was doing the murders.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers HQ for an ARC.

Alice Feeney’s second book, I Know Who You Are, is one of the books lost in the depths of my Kindle library – I must dig it out.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A labyrinth of clues. A mystery novel hiding a deadly secret. A killer with a fiendish plot: a brilliantly intricate and original thriller from the bestselling author of Magpie Murders

Random House Cornerstone| 20 August 2020| 400 pages| Review copy| 5*

Moonflower Murders is a follow up novel to Magpie Murders. It has the same format – that of a book within the book. Although I don’t think you have to read Magpie Murders first as this stands well on its own merits, I think it would help to know the background and some of the characters if you do.

Susan Ryeland, the main character, has retired as a publisher and is running a small hotel on a Greek island with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas. Their hotel is in debt, they’re in danger of going bankrupt and she is missing her literary life in London. So, when Lawrence and Pauline Trehearn, the owners of an hotel, Branlow Hall in Suffolk visit her and ask if she would investigate the disappearance of their daughter Cecily from their hotel for a fee, she decides to go – and at the same time visit London.

Before she had disappeared Cecily had read Alan Conway’s murder mystery, Atticus Pund Takes the Case, based on a murder that happened at Brownlow Hall eight years earlier. At that time, the evidence against Stefan, the general maintenance man was overwhelming and he was convicted. Cecily was convinced that there was something in the novel that proved Stefan wasn’t responsible for the crime. Unfortunately she hadn’t told anyone what had convinced her. The Trehearnes had read the book, but they couldn’t see any connection, although there are similarities – the characters are clearly based on the people at Brownlow Hall, with the same or similar names.

Susan had published Conway’s books, but thought that if he had indeed discovered that an innocent man was in prison he would have gone straight to the police and not turned it into a novel. But investigating Cecily’s disappearance, she re-reads his book and examines the evidence relating to the murder of eight years ago.

Moonflower Murders combines elements of vintage-style golden age crime novels with word-play, cryptic clues and anagrams. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to work it all out. it – Anthony Horowitz’s style of writing suits me – so easy to read, I whizzed through it, no doubt missing all the intricacies and clues along the way. But it is such an enjoyable way to read – no need to puzzle about the structure, or who is who as the characters all come across as individual people. Of course it’s not a straightforward mystery and along the way I was easily distracted by the red herrings. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to work it all out.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Cornerstone for an ARC.

How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister

I’ve read three books by Gillian McAllister and enjoyed each one so I was delighted when I saw that she has a new book, How To Disappear published today. But, I have mixed feelings about this book, because although it is so tense in parts and is compulsive reading – I really wanted to know what happens next – I did have difficulty in suspending my disbelief for a large part of it. I liked the originality of the story – a murder mystery that is not a police procedural or an amateur detective story, but the story of a family devastated by their experience of being in witness protection. Although I’ve seen TV dramas about witness protection I’ve never read a novel before about it.

Blurb:

What do you do when you can’t run, and you can’t hide?

Lauren’s daughter Zara witnessed a terrible crime. But speaking up comes with a price, and when Zara’s identity is revealed online, it puts a target on her back. The only choice is to disappear. To keep Zara safe Lauren will give up everything and everyone she loves, even her husband. There will be no goodbyes. Their pasts will be rewritten. New names, new home, new lives. The rules are strict for a reason. They are being hunted. One mistake – a text, an Instagram like – could bring their old lives crashing into the new. They can never assume someone isn’t watching, waiting.

As Lauren will learn, disappearing is easy. Staying hidden is harder…

I thought it began well, although, it’s written in the present tense, often a stumbling block for me, setting the scene and establishing the characters. Zara is fourteen when she witnesses the murder of a homeless man by two teenagers. A year later she gives evidence as Girl A, to protect her identity, at the trial of two teenage footballers. But it all goes wrong, the boys are freed and after the trial a search is on to discover her identity and make her pay for what she did. As the situation escalates she is forced to go into witness protection.

This is a dark, intense story about what happened next, and going into more detail about what led up to the murder. It’s told from the four main characters’ viewpoints – Zara, Lauren her mother, Aidan her stepfather and his daughter Ruby. It moves along at quite a good pace, although sometimes I thought it was a bit repetitive about long hot baths or lack of a long hot bath, comfort eating cakes, and compulsive shopping.

The main themes of the book are about witness protection, parenting and family relationships. Gillian McAllister explains in her Author’s Note that there are many blanks she was unable to fill in, ‘due to the UK’s protection service not wishing to reveal their secrets’ to her. She hopes it is ‘believable despite basically having … made it up.’ I found it believable up to a point, but it was the characters’ behaviour that I found so far-fetched. However, it certainly made me wonder how I would cope in witness protection, faced with being unable to contact the family I’d left behind in anyway for fear of the consequences. But, most of all, I didn’t enjoy reading it, and for me that is important when I’m reading a novel. It left me drained – and the ending felt so contrived that it really spoiled the whole book for me.

This was not an easy book for me to review, especially as I was expecting to enjoy it as much as her earlier books!

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1560 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (9 July 2020)
  • Source: Review copy
  • My rating: 2

My thanks to the publishers, Penguin for my review copy via NetGalley.

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin

I finished reading  Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin a while ago, so this is just a brief post which really doesn’t do justice to this beautifully written book, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle. It will be published by Europa Editions on 7 July 2020. My copy is an uncorrected proof from NetGalley.

This is a story of love and loss – and hope. Violette, the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne, is a character I really warmed to; she is optimistic, brave, creative and caring. This is very much a character driven story, and full of original and quirky characters, such as the three gravediggers – Nono, Gaston and Elvis. But it is also a story with a mystery at the heart of it – as Julien Seul, the policeman is delving into his mother’s past, intrigued by her wish to have her ashes scattered far from her home and on the grave of a stranger.

It is also an emotional and moving story about Violette, her estranged husband, Phillippe, his miserable parents and their young daughter, Leonine. What happened to Leonine is especially tragic. But this a story full of warmth and happiness and life in the cemetery is full of surprises and joy. It is not what I expected to be and I am so pleased I’ve read it.

I haven’t said very much about the plot – so here is the publishers’ description:

A POIGNANT RUNAWAY BESTSELLER full of French charm and memorable characters, Fresh Water for Flowers is Valérie Perrin’s English debut.

Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Casual mourners, regular visitors, and sundry colleagues—gravediggers, groundskeepers, and a priest—visit her to warm themselves in her lodge, where laughter, companionship, and occasional tears mix with the coffee she offers them. Her life is lived to the rhythms of their funny, moving confidences.

Violette’s routine is disrupted one day by the arrival of Julien Sole—local police chief—who insists on scattering the ashes of his recently deceased mother on the gravesite of a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Julien’s inexplicable gesture is intertwined with Violette’s own difficult past.

With Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin has given readers an intimately told story that tugs on the heartstrings about a woman who believes obstinately in happiness, despite it all. A number one bestseller in France, Fresh Water for Flowers is a heartwarming and tender story that will stay will readers for years after the final page is turned.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an uncorrected proof copy.

 

The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson

Nordic noir, as bleak, cold, snowy and empty as Iceland.

Penguin UK – Michael Joseph/ 30 April 2020/ 320 pages/ review copy/ 4*

About the book

1987. An isolated farm house in the east of Iceland.

The snowstorm should have shut everybody out. But it didn’t.

The couple should never have let him in. But they did.

An unexpected guest, a liar, a killer. Not all will survive the night. And Detective Hulda will be haunted forever.

My thoughts

The Mist is the third novel in Ragnar Jonasson’s Hidden Iceland series, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. The trilogy began with The Darkness in which Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir was on the verge of retirement. The second book, The Island goes backwards in time with an investigation in 1997. The Mist featuring Hulda goes back yet again to 1987 as Hulda is worrying about her daughter, Dimma and her relationship with her husband, Jon. Alongside the story of what is happening in her personal life, she is also investigating the disappearance of a young woman and a suspected murder case, a particularly horrific one in an isolated farmhouse in the east.

I thought the first part of this book, about Erla and her husband, Einar, who live in the furthest reaches of eastern Iceland was completely gripping, especially with the arrival of a stranger lost in a snowstorm. Erla invites him in and the nightmare begins. This is one of those books where to know too much about the plot would really spoil it. All I’m going to say is that it starts slowly, and the tension and suspense gradually rise throughout, with an increasing sense of dread.

I loved the setting, Jonasson’s writing bringing the scenery and the weather to life – you can feel the isolation and experience what it is like to be lost in a howling snowstorm. The emotional tension is brilliantly done too, the sense of despair, confusion and dread is almost unbearable. My only criticism, a small one, is that when I reached a certain point in the novel, quite a bit before the end, it seemed obvious to me what the outcome would be. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment, but I would have preferred not to have known and is the reason I’ve given this 4 stars instead of 5.

My thanks to the publishers for my copy via Netgalley.

Remain Silent by Susie Steiner

‘The dead cannot speak. But they still have a story to tell.’

I’ve enjoyed two of Susie Steiner’s earlier books so I was keen to read her latest book, Remain Silent and once more I was totally immersed in the story. It’s the 3rd Manon Bradshaw book and I loved it.

Remain silent

The Borough Press | 28 May 2020 | 368 pages | review copy | 4*

‘By turns warm and witty, gripping and terrifying, heartbreaking and uplifting, Susie Steiner’s fourth book is both a literary tour de force and one of the finest crime novels of recent years.’ (extract from the publishers’ blurb)

My thoughts:

This is not just a police procedural and a gripping mystery it is a tragedy, a scathing look at modern life, centred on the exploitation of immigrant labour, racism and abuse that some of the foreign workers have to endure.

Manon Bradshaw is a Detective Inspector, a working mother with a young toddler, Teddy, her adopted teenage son, Fly and her partner, Mark Talbot who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. She is working in the Major Crime Unit on cold cases on a part-time basis and is not getting on well with her new boss, Detective Superintendent Gloria McBain. Despite that when she finds the body of Lukas Balsys hanging from a tree with a note attached saying ‘The dead cannot speak’,  McBain puts her in charge of the investigation into his death – did he commit suicide or was he murdered?

The story, as in the earlier books, has a complicated plot. This one revolves around the plight of a group of Lithuanian immigrants living and working in terrible conditions under a cruel gang master, Edikas. There is a large cast of characters –  as well as the Lithuanians and the police there is a local racist group leading a campaign of hatred with protest marches and the threat of violence.  All come over as incredibly real people, with the star characters being Manon, Lukas, his friend Matis and Elise who falls in love with Lukas, despite her racist father’s hatred of the immigrants.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. Although it starts off slowly building up a picture of the characters and their situation, it is gripping and intense, dealing with problems of prejudice and downright hatred and xenophobia – a most thought-provoking and shocking novel.

The Author

Susie Steiner is a novelist and freelance journalist. She began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for 11 years. In May 2019 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour (Grade 4 Glioblastoma) and spent most of 2019 undergoing treatment: six hours of brain surgery, chemo radiation, and six cycles of chemotherapy. My best wishes for her recovery. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk