An atmospheric setting does wonders for any mystery series. In Treacherous Strand, we’re way up in the Irish county of Donegal, and the Inishowen Peninsula. Small-town solicitor, Ben (Benedicta) O’Keefe is badly hung-over when she learns a client and friend, Marguerite Etienne, is dead. Her body washed up near the shoreline, clothes neatly folded on the beach, suggests suicide but Ben isn’t convinced.
On the night before she died, Marguerite had called in to see Ben about making a will, revealing plans to leave her few possessions to a daughter of 23 she had not seen since the girl’s infancy. It was the end of the day, and Ben’s secretary had left work, so there was no one to witness the document. Ben promised to draw up the will ready for Marguerite to sign over the coming days, but never saw Marguerite alive again.
Ben is a troubled woman, plagued with guilt for not being able to save her sister and now she’s got this to reckon with. No wonder she sits up late at night getting through the red wine. She also has a problematic relationship with Sergeant Molloy, who’s in charge of the case – there was some kind of romantic spark that didn’t quite happen in the first book, Death at Whitewater Church, which still haunts Ben in this book. (I really must learn to read these crime series in order.)
Talking to witnesses reveals that Marguerite had a difficult past, escaping a religious sect, the Damascans, but unable to take her daughter with her. Marguerite’s neighbour, an overtly charming Scottish artist, Simon Howard, immediately takes a shine to Ben when he calls in to her office to reveal that he’d agreed to be executor of Marguerite’s estate. Meanwhile Simon’s troubled son, David warns Ben off. His dad’s a terrible womaniser, he says, and surely that puts Simon at number one on the suspects list.
Further suspects soon pile up, including a town councillor, and Marguerite’s therapist, both of whom seem to have fallen in love with the victim. Throw in some lively characters: Phyllis, the owner of the bookshop where Marguerite worked and Ben’s bestie, Maeve the vet, plus a bunch of quirky locals, and you get plenty of small town colour. Another thing I really liked about the book is that Ben is a proper solicitor. She has to fit her amateur sleuthing in around real work and the author, having been a lawyer herself, makes this seem very real.
The story cranks up the tension nicely – Ben gets the sense that someone is warning her off and opens herself to some dangerous situations. Sergeant Molloy is not best pleased. Over all it’s a decent enough crime novel, although I must confess to getting confused from time to time with the many characters and having to skip back to check who was who. So this one’s probably more of a three than a four from me.
I love a good crime novel and throw in the setting of India under British rule and I just can’t help myself. That’s probably why I love this new series by Sujata Massey. Her sleuth is Bombay solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in town – this is the 1920s, after all. She works for her father, has put a terrible marriage behind her and just wants to get on with her career.
The first book, A Murder at Malabar Hill, sees Perveen get involved with three widows of a wealthy mill owner whose estate is being managed by an employee from the firm. Studying the documents which show the women have signed over their inheritance to a trust, Perveen smells a rat, and decides to talk to the widows in person. That’s the advantage of being a female lawyer – the women live in strict seclusion, a male lawyer would never be admitted. Tensions mount as Perveen learns more about the family, and then a murder takes place.
Perveen’s snooping is interrupted by fears for her safety when she thinks she recognises her estranged husband all the way from Calcutta. The story of her ill-fated marriage is woven through the main plot in flashbacks with some resonances with the main story, both revealing the difficulties for women living in very traditional family settings. It’s just as well Perveen’s own family – her parents, brother and sister-in-law, are more forward thinking and loving.
Along for the ride is Perveen’s old friend from her Oxford days, Alice Hobson-Jones, bored and restless to use her fierce mathematical brain now she’s back home with her well-healed parents. Her mother’s keen to see her daughter settle down with a suitable husband, as if that’s ever going to happen. Another woman eager to shape her destiny in a society that would rather she didn’t.
Massey recreates 1920s Bombay with lots of colour, some wonderful meal descriptions, and interesting characters. Perveen is feisty when she needs to be and also has a good memory when it comes to the law – the reader gets lots of insight into the relevant legislature without being too bogged down in details. You get the sense that the author has done her homework. I loved the minor characters: the Mistry’s general factotum, Mustafa who keeps Perveen up to speed with her father’s moods is a particular gem, as is Alice – tall and fair, she’s a head taller than Perveen but a brilliant friend.
This book won an Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, which is why I wanted to read it after having just devoured the second book in the series: The Satapur Moonstone. Yes, again I read the books in the wrong order, but at least now I’m all square. The second book sends Perveen to the remote state of Satapur, home to the widow of a maharaja and her mother-in-law, the dowager maharani. The two women are in dispute over the education of the young prince and future maharaja, and a lawyer is required to sort out an agreeable solution.
The women live in purdah, so no men are admitted and Perveen is requested by the British agent overseeing their kingdom. Perveen must travel by palanquin, a kind of sedan chair arrangement, through forests inhabited by tigers and other deadly animals to the palace. Here she finds a royal family living under a curse not long after the deaths of both the last maharaja of cholera, and his eldest son to a hunting tragedy.
We’re in monsoon country, transport is difficult and news travels slowly. The local villagers live a traditional and fairly impoverished existence, while up at the palace, we’ve got power plays, secrets and treachery while the uncomfortable political situation brought about by British rule rears its ugly head from time to time. Tension of various kinds build to a ripping ending. This a terrific addition to the series, and some unfinished business for Perveen makes me eager for Book 3.
I’d picked up and put down this one a few times before, not sure it would hold my interest. Contemporary crime fiction is written in a more pacy style than this old Poirot novel, first published in 1942. But I put my reservations aside and once I got going I was soon absorbed.
Five Little Pigs begins with a new client calling on Poirot, a well-turned-out young woman asking him to review the case of her mother murdering her father, sixteen years before. Carla Lemarchant has only recently learned about the deaths of her parents – she’d been brought up in Canada by relatives and had a happy upbringing. Only now she wants to get married, but before she can plan her wedding, she needs to know what really happened. And then there’s the troubling letter from her dying mother, declaring her innocence.
The novel is divided into three parts as the great detective slowly pieces together the events of that fateful summer. In the first part he interviews the lawyers for the defence and prosecution as well as a policeman to find out why it was so easy to find Caroline Crayle guilty of the murder of her husband, the celebrated artist, Amyas Crale. Everyone agreed she’d put poison into his glass of beer while he was painting a beautiful young woman at their country home. In court, Caroline had just sat there, doing nothing to fight back, immobile but looking lovely just the same.
Along with Elsa Greer, the artist’s model, four others were present when Amyas died – all possible suspects – making the five little pigs of the title. Somehow Poirot can’t quite get the nursery rhyme out of his head. One by one, he visits the five and asks them to write a description of events leading up to and including the murder.
The first (little piggie who went to market) is Amyas’s great friend, the investor Philip Blake; the second (little piggie who stayed home) is Philip’s brother Meredith who had a bit of crush on Caroline, and immersed himself in amateur pharmacology. Elsa is the third little piggie who had roast beef – well, a succession of wealthy husbands, while the little piggie who had none is governess Cecelia Williams who adored Caroline while seeing to the education of Caroline’s precocious young sister, Angela Warren. Angela, now a respected archaeologist, is the little piggie who cried wee, wee, wee all the way home.
The second part of the novel is made up of the written narratives of each ‘piggie’ and the same threads run through each of them: the theft of some coniine from Meredith’s laboratory; the overheard arguments, the simmering jealousies. Of course, we don’t know who might be lying or making unsubstantiated assumptions. The third part is the coming together of all the witnesses so that Poirot can explain all and unmask the killer.
So unlike a modern murder mystery, there is no second murder, or ramping up of tension through imminent danger. And while Christie linked nursery rhymes from time to time to her plots (One, Two Buckle My Shoe; Hickory Dickory Dock; And Then There Were None), perhaps we are too sophisticated to be amused by such a contrivance today.
And yet, this such a good story. The characters are interesting – all of them have emotional ups and downs to do with the lovely, long suffering Caroline or enfant-terrible Amyas, the couple vividly brought to life even though they are both long dead. And then there’s the beautiful mansion with its battlements and coastal setting, the languorous summer weather, the simmering tension of people behaving badly.
The story slowly builds and the reader is swept in to make connections and deductions, pick up the red herrings, and examine motives – Christie’s novels work very much with the reader playing detective alongside her sleuth. And the finale is so well done, the vivid reconstruction of Amyas’s death revealed with Poirot’s wonderful delight in the dramatic. I loved it. It just goes to show that a book doesn’t have to have the expected plot-points to work and this one works just fine. It’s not quite a classic but still a four out of five read from me.
The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.
With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.
No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.
Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.
Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.
Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.
Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.
Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.
The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?
The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.
With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.
Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.
Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.
Andrew Wilson is obviously a big fan of Agatha Christie – something he and I have in common – so much so that he has written a series of mystery novels with the Queen of Crime starring as his amateur sleuth. Wilson isn’t the first novelist to find Christie so fascinating that he has fictionalised an aspect of her life. Her famous disappearance in 1926 when her marriage failed has inspired films and fiction (The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford; On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornel are two novels worth checking out).
And Wilson isn’t the first novelist to make his detective a famous author. Nicola Upson has chosen Josephine Tey for her sleuth in a series of nine excellent mysteries; Oscar Wilde uses his great wit to solve crime in a series by Gyles Brandreth and more than one author has chosen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to foil criminals (who better?), the latest I’ve come across: Bradley Harper, pairing the great writer with a Derringer-toting Margaret Harkness in a series kicking off with A Knife in the Fog.
So Andrew Wilson’s series should come as no surprise. How did I feel picking up this book? Were there a few twinges of reluctance? A sense of dabbling with a holy of holies? Yes, definitely. But one day I found myself holding a copy of Death in a Desert Land, the third book in the series, and I just couldn’t help myself.
… I felt a little more secure knowing that in my handbag was a syringe filled with a fast-acting drug that could put a man to sleep in minutes.
In this story, Agatha is divorced and independent, taking a break from novel-writing to help out Davison, her pal from the Foreign Office, to investigate the death of Gertrude Bell. The famous archaeologist, another real person, supposedly died of a drug overdose, but two letters have recently come to light expressing her fears for her life. Agatha is to stay with Katherine and Leonard Woolley who are running a dig at Ur, site of the famous Death Pit and full of wonderful artefacts. Bell had worked with the Woolleys, sorting out which exhibits were to stay in Iraq and which could be shipped to the British Museum.
The storyline has echoes of Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Wilson wonderfully conjures up the setting – sunsets across the sand-dunes, desert storms, the chanting chain-gang of Iraqi workers. I’ve always loved Christie’s Middle Eastern novels (Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, They Came to Baghdad) so was soon enjoying myself. When there’s a murder – the spoilt daughter of the wealthy American sponsoring the site bludgeoned to death – Agatha has to forget about Gertrude Bell as the finger is pointed at Katherine, a volatile character at the best of times.
An archaeological dig in the middle of nowhere offers the perfect ‘locked-room’ mystery in that we have a small group of characters in situ, each with their own secrets and motives. The plot puts Agatha through her paces, risking a face-off with a potential killer, wielding her syringe (why couldn’t Davison have set her up with a neat little pistol at the outset?) often at night. The finale around the table with all the suspects and witnesses as Agatha presents an account of events and eventually unmasks the killer will remind you of more than a few Christie novels.
Death in a Desert Land is altogether very entertaining, with enough humour not to take itself too seriously and is a welcome addition to the Christie canon for anyone who has read all the original books and craves more. It is very much in the spirit of Christie, and the smart, deductive and charming character of Agatha, with her knowledge of poisons, a perfect reluctant heroine.
Make sure you read the notes at the end of the book where Wilson outlines The Facts but only when you’ve finished the novel as there could be spoilers. It adds some interesting details and shows us that Wilson has done his homework. Wilson has written a number of biographies, including one of Patricia Highsmith, so we know we’re in good hands. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series; this book gets four-and-a-half out of five from me.
Canadian author, Kate Hilton describes her latest novel as a divorce comedy, although there’s a wedding as well, and a treasure trove of family secrets. In the opening pages, Zoe is not looking forward to Christmas, as she is reluctant to reveal that she is getting a divorce. Christmas is tense enough, without dropping that bombshell.
Along with Zoe’s parents, who are hosting the festive meal, plus her brother Zack, we meet Zoe’s uncle and feminist icon Aunt Lydia, and Lydia’s daughters and grandchildren. Zack has won fame and fortune writing a TV sitcom loosely based on the lives of his famous aunt and her family, for which he has never been quite forgiven.
Lydia’s daughter, Beata, is particularly bitter about it, but she has enough to deal with with her teenage son, Oscar, discovering that he wasn’t the product of a sperm-bank after all and has already made contact with his father. Enter, Will, an old pal of Zoe’s from her university days, and also a colleague of Beata’s partner, Eloise. Eloise just happens to be the lawyer handling Zoe’s divorce.
Meanwhile, still on Christmas day, things are obviously not going well in Zoe’s cousin Mariana’s marriage to shiftless but charming Devlin. Things reach a crunch when Mariana snatches up Devlin’s phone and smashes it to bits in the kitchen.
Hilton gets her book off to a flying start, with so much going on with in the lives of Zoe, Mariana and Beata. They’re all great characters – engaging and interesting – while the impossibly high bar set by Aunt Lydia for the younger women in her family hovers in the background. No wonder they keep secrets from each other – secrets, which are due to all come out sooner or later.
The book reminded me a little of Emma Hope’s Expectation, in that we have the same well-meaning pressure from an older generation of feminist women on their daughters whose lives haven’t quite turned out as they’d planned. In Better Luck Next Time, we are reminded how hard it can be for women to ‘do it all’ – manage children, careers, marriage and be true to themselves. Mariana is a journalist who has had to sacrifice writing the important political stories she’s so good at so she can support her family. She ends up writing publicity for a ‘wellness’ company, an industry Hilton sends up beautifully.
There are plenty of amusing scenes, including a feminist rally that turns nasty and a bridal shower which makes you wonder why anyone would ever get married. The book gallops towards another, somewhat, happier Christmas, an ending where its characters have learned a lot about life, love and themselves. This is a funny yet thoughtful novel, with characters you really warm to and plenty of digs at the fads and obsessions of modern life. Just what you want in a comedy for our times. A four star read from me.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Anne Tyler is her knack for unlikely characters. There’s never going to be a stereotypical character in a Tyler novel – they’re often a bit quirky, but oddly ordinary as well. Certainly they’re not the kind of people you meet a lot in fiction. Take Micah Mortimer for instance, the main character in Redhead by the Side of the Road.
“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.“
Micah’s one of those quiet, fanatically tidy, routine driven men of a certain age, whose life could go on the same way for decades. He looks after his apartment building for a reduction in rent (sending out emails about the importance of flattening milk cartons before they go in the recycling), while running his Tech Hermit business, solving people’s home computer problems.
Not only is Micah pernickerty about his cleaning routine (kitchen floors every Monday), he likes to think of himself as a model driver, sticking to the rules, taking care when parking, while an imagined Driving God smiles benignly. All the same his inclination to do the right thing also extends towards people, like his neighbours, but sometimes he misses important signals.
Two things happen that upset his routine. The teenage son of a former girlfriend turns up on his doorstep, wondering if Micah might be his father. Brink Adams (Wouldn’t you know he’d have a name like “Brink”, surmises Micah – something about the blazer and the haircut) ends up staying the night, upsetting the order of Micah’s day, leaving him to wonder why Brink isn’t at college and how to get in touch with his mother.
And when his girlfriend, Cass, phones him with her own problem, fearing eviction because of her cat, Micah doesn’t offer much consolation and Cass dumps him. Suddenly his head is filled with what might have been, not only with Cass, but with Lorna, Brink’s mother, all those years ago.
This is a quiet little story – just nudging 180 pages – and as such seems perhaps less substantial than novels like A Spool of Blue Thread, or Searching for Caleb, with their look at families through the generations and the interactions of characters over time, their secrets and motivations. And yet, Tyler really nails the character of Micah and creates a beautiful little drama about him. It really is the perfect little book and sometimes a small story is just right. An easy four out of five from me.
As any reader of this blog may have guessed, I’m a big fan of crime fiction and the genre is my happy place when I feel like a relaxing read. It all began years ago with Agatha Christie when I was at school, and since then I’ve discovered many terrific series, old and new. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.
This is only the third book in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, but already these books are on my ‘must-read’ list. There’s just so much to enjoy. Apart from the wonderful setting of an Irish city that has its own quirks and atmosphere, McTiernan excels at character and plotting. Reilly, a former high-flyer from Dublin, is a sergeant at a police station where he never fits in and can’t quite figure out why. He’s good at his job, intelligent and personable (probably quite dishy, actually) and in this book we find out what’s really going on at the station. The book hooks you in from page one with the report of a child abduction and Reilly’s investigation which all goes horribly wrong. The story diverts to a tiny coastal town where Reilly’s young constable, Peter Fisher, is sent in penance and the murder mystery he investigates, while Reilly does some soul-seaching about his work and relationship problems before uncovering some damning police corruption. Top notch.
The Blood Card is the third novel in the Stephens and Mephisto series, which Griffiths has on the go when she’s not writing her hugely popular Ruth Galloway books set in modern-day Norfolk. DI Edgar Stephens is a Brighton cop who gets to work some interesting cases often around the world of theatre with his best pal and stage magician, Max Mephisto. We’re back in the 1950s, with The Blood Card taking place in the lead-up to the Queen’s Coronation of 1953. The big event has had huge numbers of people buying television sets which has Max wondering if his days in variety are numbered. As it turns out, this could be the least of his worries when an army general demands help from Edgar and Max following the death of their commanding officer from the war. The two had been part of the Magic Men, a team who dabbled in camouflage and special effects to out-fox the enemy. Now they’re caught up in an anarchist plot to disrupt the coronation. The story builds to a brilliant climax and Griffiths uses her understanding of theatre to great effect. A great cast of characters in the police team and among the suspects adds to the enjoyment.
Somebody is murdering old coppers in Alex Gray’s most recent novel featuring DCI William Lorrimer and his forensic psychologist chum, Dr Solomon Brightman. The victims are all retired senior officers, taken out with the same gun, execution-style. It’s also the same shooter used on an excavated body killed over a decade before. The skeleton is discovered by Lorrimer’s gardener, a former street kid Lorrimer rescued, now making a good living for himself. The story slips between the investigation and scenes in a prison, where an ageing criminal is soon to be released – only he’s got one more job to do when he gets out: to take out Lorrimer. This novel keeps you hooked with the threat hanging over Lorrimer that he knows nothing about. Meanwhile the DCI struggles to find a pattern between the killings which take place in different parts of Scotland. Luckily Solomon Brightman lives up to his name and has a bright idea. I had only read a couple in this series before but I enjoyed this one so much, I shall definitely be returning to Glasgow for more.
This novel is the sixteenth out of 24 in Ellis’s Wesley Peterson series and (can you believe it?) the first for me. Moving round the British Isles, we’re now in Tradmouth, a coastal town in Devon. Police detective Wesley Peterson is an amateur archaeologist who transferred from London in book one, hoping for a quieter life. There’s always a historical thread running through the stories, allowing Wesley’s great friend and archaeologist, Neil Watson, to take a share in the investigations. Here we have the discovery of a dead body – a woman murdered and with nothing to identify her – called in from an anonymous tip-off. Then there are the two teenagers who have been shot, their bodies hurled from a cliff – could their deaths be connected to the hunting game they played on the Internet? Meanwhile Neil is in charge of the excavation of a picnic from sixteen years before. It’s an art piece to be filmed and shown at the Tate Modern, but among the china and glassware, what should turn up but an old skeleton. Segments from a journal written in the early 1800s bring in a chilling story that has similarities to the deaths of the teenagers. It all adds up to a brilliant read combining police-work, archaeology, terrific characters and a look into the darker side of human nature.
Wartime sleuth Maisie Dobbs has really grown on me over the years. She was a bit too good to be true to begin with, beautiful and intelligent with a knack for picking up people’s thoughts through their body language. And kind of serious. But you always got an interesting but little known aspect of WWI and its legacy on the fragile peace that followed. Now we’re back at war, Maisie’s been given some dangerous assignments, and having had fate hand her a few blows over the years, she’s toughened up and is game for anything. The American Agent is set in 1940, not long after the Battle of Britain, and the Brits would love a bit of help with the war effort from the US. Maisie and her bestie, Priscilla, are ambulance drivers when they meet a young American journalist who’s come along for the ride during a busy night in the Blitz. Impressed by the bravery and determination of ordinary women, Catherine Saxon plans to write their side of the story but not long afterwards, the journalist is strangled. Were her stories too controversial, or was there a secret that got her killed? Winspear keeps you guessing to the end.
This book is definitely a little closer to home than The Last Hours, my previous pandemic read. A Lovely Way to Burn describes a modern-day pandemic – the kind that kills virtually everyone who catches it. Unofficially called ‘The Sweats’, it seems to have caught everyone off-guard. There’s no obvious policy for mask-wearing or lock-downs while people panic, party like there’s no tomorrow or carry on as usual.
In the latter category is Londoner Stevie Flint. We meet up with her at work, where she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. After a busy day persuading people to buy guff they don’t really need, she is miffed to discover her surgeon boyfriend, Simon, has stood her up – no apologetic text or phone-call. Maybe their relationship has run its course, she wonders. Dropping by Simon’s flat to pick up a dress and some rather expensive toiletries she’d left in his bathroom, Stevie finds Simon’s dead body and calls the police.
The problem is, Simon doesn’t seem to have died of The Sweats. The police say it’s natural causes, and yet he was always so fit. Stevie is left to ponder how little she really knew about him, and then she gets sick. When, surprisingly, Stevie recovers she receives a letter from Simon – one of those ‘in the event of my death’ missals which sets her on course for a whole lot of trouble.
Simon worked in paediatrics – in particular, finding a cure for children with cerebral palsy, along with several colleagues who were also his closest friends. Having hidden a laptop containing sensitive information in Stevie’s flat, Simon has requested her to take it to a Mr Reah and absolutely no one else. When Stevie tries to track Reah down at Simon’s hospital, she finds he has died, and not surprisingly, that as a survivor of The Sweats, Stevie is medical hot property.
So begins a gripping cat-and-mouse story, as Stevie, believing Simon to have been murdered, attempts to discover the secrets on the laptop. There are people out to get her, she has to fight off more than one assailant, and take a punt on who to ask for help. In the background, London grinds to a halt, there are curfews and the army rolls in to help maintain order.
I wanted to yell at Stevie that she had to get in some supplies, fill her car up with gas and get out while she could. That she should find a cottage in the country somewhere with a big vegetable garden and maybe a henhouse; that her amateur sleuthing could wait. Simon would still be dead and in a week or two; chances are the evil perpetrator would likely enough be dead too. But then we wouldn’t have had much of a story here, would we?
A Lovely Way to Burn is the kind of book that has you in thrall from page one. It reminded me a little of The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan with our beleaguered heroine holding a secret she doesn’t understand that someone wants to kill for. And there’s the surviving against the odds aspect that ramps things up a gear. It may not be the book for you if you’re squeamish about disease, bodily fluids and the misery of knowing your number’s up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And rats, there are those too.
But however icky things got, I found I couldn’t put the book down. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I shall look forward to checking in with Stevie again – she’s a great character. Will Stevie get out of London, find a bolt-hole to hide in while the world as she knows it disintegrates? What will the world like be after that? A new regime based on subsistence agriculture or will chaos prevail? I can’t wait to find out. Some copy-editing issues did slightly spoil my reading pleasure, so this one’s a three and a half out of five from me.