Book Review: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

The genre of On Turpentine Lane a little hard to define. In the end I decided it was part chick-lit, part comedy of manners and part mystery – in this case a delicious concoction, particularly when seasoned with Lipman’s sharp and witty writing.

The story is told from the point of view of Faith Frankel, who has returned from the big city to live in her home town and work at her old school, writing thank you notes to sponsors. I didn’t know there were jobs like that, but there are others in her department who are tasked with benefactors of a higher order, including Nick, her office-mate and fellow conspirator.

While Faith’s fiancé is off walking across America to find himself, she buys a cute but run-down cottage on Turpentine Lane, while said fiancé posts pictures on social media of himself with attractive women. Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are having marital problems, her father leaving his job in insurance to reinvent himself as a painter – specialising in Chagall knock-offs personalised for the buyer with images of their children or pets. Then there’s the worry of Faith’s brother, who has never managed to feel confidant dating new women after divorcing his faithless ex.

Mystery arrives in the form of some abandoned junk found in Faith’s attic: an old cradle and pictures of twin babies labelled with their birthdates and the date two weeks later, the time they were ‘taken’. The assumption that she is looking at pictures of two dead babies and stories of how the previous occupant murdered her husbands sets Faith on a quest of discovery. As you can imagine, she doesn’t feel all that comfortable alone in her home anymore, but help comes in the form of amiable Nick, kicked out by his girlfriend for failing to propose and needing a room.

Throw in some office politics and there’s a lot going on for poor beleaguered Faith, and the plot just crackles along. The bonus of the sparky, intelligent writing means there’s a lot to enjoy. Elinor Lipman has written a dozen novels – On Turpentine Lane comes in at number eleven – and I am happy at the thought of checking out the others. If they are half as good as this one they are worth a look. The reading of this audiobook by Mia Barron was suitably bright and had me chuckling as I listened. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

I wasn’t going to read the Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves – they’d been so good on television, and surely I’d know all the endings. I’d forgotten that it doesn’t really matter when it’s good writing and the characters are interesting, which is most certainly the case here. And in the end I couldn’t remember this story after all.

Silent Voices begins when a body is discovered at a leisure centre. Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope doesn’t spend a lot of time at her gym, and there’s no way she’d let on to her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, that she even has a membership. But when she discovers a murder victim, strangled in the sauna room, she has to call it in. Nobody recognises the attractive, middle-aged woman in the sauna, but the wallet in her locker leads Vera to a cottage in a coastal village and the victim’s eighteen-year-old daughter.

Hannah has no idea why anyone would want to murder her mother, Jenny Lister, a social worker who seems to be in every way a good, kind person. It is fortunate that Hannah has her fiancé, Simon, nearby to stay with her, as she has no other family. But ex-social worker Connie is shocked to discover Jenny had lived in the same village. Both had worked closely together until Connie made an error of judgement and a young child was drowned in the bath by his mother. Connie lost her career and has always thought Susan sold her down the river.

Cleeves brings in a number of other connected characters: the smooth-talking alternative therapist who works at the leisure centre; Danny the student who cleans there at night; Simon’s snooty mother Veronica who for some reason has made Connie’s life a misery. It is a rich and diverting plot, peopled with a cast who each have axes to grind, or complicated pasts.

And that doesn’t include the police. Vera Stanhope, is a wonderful creation with her distrust of social workers and anyone who is too obviously nice; her jealousy of Joe’s time and family commitments – she’s altogether lacking in family herself. There’s smart and ambitious Holly and sad-sack Charlie who is only just holding it together – fortunately Vera knows what he’s good at and leaves him to it.

Meanwhile, there is the sense of a storm brewing, reflected in the wild, coastal weather of Northumberland, which adds a ton of atmosphere. The story illustrates so well that anybody can have a dark episode in their history that might just lead them to murder. It’s what this kind of crime fiction is all about and Cleeves pulls it all together really well to create a satisfying read building to a superb ending.

I listened to this as an audio book and loved the gentle and nuanced reading by Janine Birkett. I think the Geordie accent could become a favourite. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

It seems I just can’t get enough of Irish fiction, with A Shameful Murder taking me this time to the city of Cork. In this series, Harrison whisks us back to 1923, a time of Civil War as the Republican Army upsets the peace with sporadic guerrilla assaults on government entities. Cork at this time is also under siege by the elements, it’s always raining, and built on islands in the River Lee, flooding is inevitable. It’s OK if you’re wealthy and live on higher ground, but the poor struggle terribly with the damp, poor sewerage, cramped dwellings and not enough to eat.

Enter Reverend Mother Aquinas, an elderly nun who works with the impoverished, educating their children in the hope they will find useful work and better themselves. When she finds the body of young woman dressed in a fine satin ballgown washed up on her doorstep, she calls for Police Sergeant Patrick Cashman. Patrick was once a pupil at her school, and the Reverend Mother is quietly proud of his systematic assessment of the crime scene, his tidy notes, his serious manner.

It turns out that Angelina Fitzsimon, the daughter of well-to-do Joseph Fitzsimon, had gone missing after the Founders Ball. When Joseph identifies his daughter at the morgue, more by the dress than by the bloated face of the corpse, suicide is suggested the likely cause. But neither Patrick nor the Reverend Mother are convinced. Along with the police advisor, Dr Scher, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the three make a wonderful team of sleuths, as they start to pick apart Angelina’s life.

One of the most worrying concerns is that Angelina’s mother has been mouldering in a mental asylum, allowing Joseph control of her money. Angelina’s own future seems to have been precarious because of an inheritance and, with a wastrel brother running up debts, her father had been eager to marry her off to a tea planter. Angelina meanwhile helped the poor and had dreams of university study. A thoroughly nice girl from a problematic family.

We’re all set for a brilliant cosy mystery. I love nosy old lady detectives and none is more determined or more conniving than the Reverend Mother and with her assorted contacts in high places, she gains access to witnesses and calls in favours. There are some wonderful minor characters: the RM’s charming sister, Lucy, with her own sad secret; Eileen, the ex-pupil turned journalist/freedom fighter who wears breeches and carries a revolver – to name but two.

The RM is like a spider in the middle of a web, directing the action as the plot works up to a thrilling ending. I hadn’t expected it all to be so much fun and like all good mystery novels, Harrison had me guessing ‘whodunit’ right until the end. I shall definitely be returning to Cork for more. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

I discovered this series with the first book, The Dark Lake, which introduced beleaguered police detective Gemma Woodstock. She’s got a lot of baggage, which is relevant to the first novel and here, a couple of books later, things aren’t getting any easier in Where the Dead Go.

Gemma has temporarily left Sydney to return to small town Smithson due to her ex-partner’s death. They have a young son, Ben, although they haven’t been together for a few years, Gemma having made a new life in Sydney with charismatic, older and wiser, Mac. Gemma just makes it through the funeral, when her old boss Jonesy is asked to pick up a missing person’s case in the coastal town of Fairhaven. Jonesy can’t spare the hours, so Gemma ups stakes and bolts, eager to leave the claustrophobic town of her upbringing and immerse herself in work, taking young Ben with her.

This causes all sorts of disapproval – from her dad, from her friends, from Mac. But Gemma is headstrong and sees work as her refuge. The case – a fifteen-year-old girl who vanishes after a party – is tricky with few leads. Possible suspects include Abbey’s ex-boyfriend and her violent father. Plus there are some texts on Abbey’s phone from a mystery man who seems to be stalking her.

Bailey does small towns really well. The way everyone knows everyone and talks about them behind their back. The secrets that no one wants to share with strangers, let alone a strange police woman. Gemma is up against it all. She’s filling in for a Detective Inspector who’s had a car accident and has a grudge against women high achievers like Gemma. Her team vary from being hostile – in the case of detective de Luca, another woman who’s battling the DI – and incompetent. And then there’s the fact that the case reminds Gemma of another girl who went missing in Sydney and who she failed to save. That case is still giving Gemma nightmares.

Soon there’s a death and then Gemma is threatened, reminding us why she should never have brought Ben to Fairhaven. The setting of a seaside town that makes it’s living off a transient holiday population adds atmosphere. Danger builds up to a point where Gemma’s life is at stake and there are some brilliant action scenes.

But the real tension is in the character of Gemma herself. She’s impulsive, forgets to look after herself, and ignores Mac’s frequent texts and phone calls. As a reader I was frequently begging her to pick up the phone, to check back on Ben, to get the heck out of there. While the story seemed to sag a little in the middle with all the characters and interviews and forensic reports, I know I will return to the series to check in again on Gemma – she’s just so interesting. Three and a half stars from me.

Lockdown Reading 3: The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

The second book in McTiernan’s DS Cormac Reilly series takes us back to Galway and a case that threatens Reilly’s relationship with his partner Emma Sweeney, possibly even his career.

Emma works as a research scientist for Irish pharmaceutical giant Darcy Therapeutics on Galway University campus. When a young woman is killed in what at first appears as a hit and run at the university, Emma finds the body. Being so close to a prime witness, Cormac should step away from the case, but his fellow sergeant, Callie O’Halloran hasn’t had a weekend off in months and is desperate to go home. Cormac, finally allowed to move on from cold cases, steps in as SIO.

But things get more complicated when the ID card found in the victim’s pocket turns out to belong to Carline Darcy, an up-and-coming scientist and granddaughter to the drug company’s founder, John Darcy. Emma recognises the Stella McCartney cardigan the girl’s wearing too. Only Cormac discovers Carline alive and well in her fancy penthouse flat, unaware apparently of how the girl got the card or the cardie.

It takes a while to track down the victim, as no students seem to be missing. It’s only when a teenage boy calls into the police station worried that his sister hasn’t texted him in a few days, that Cormac finally gets a break. And so begins a tidy little mystery fully of secrets, subterfuge and professional jealousy, set in the high-stakes world of drug research.

Meanwhile the issues that dog Cormac’s career aren’t going anywhere, mostly around his relationship with Emma, a victim of an assault that left her battered and traumatised, as well as a murder suspect. Several in the police team feel that somehow Cormac managed to sweep Emma’s crime under the carpet, so when a murder happens on her doorstep, it is too easy to put Emma on the suspects list. And how can Cormac remain impartial as well as manage the sensitive issues around his relationship with Emma?

I love the way McTiernan slowly reveals back story through this series. The first book The Ruin was very much about Cormac, and an historic case that defines his early career and which comes back to haunt him. The Scholar brings in Emma’s history, creating layers of tension as Cormac has to deal with prejudice and bring in a killer before he kills again. It’s good character-driven crime writing, with engaging characterisation and an evocative setting. A solid four out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Lockdown Listening 1: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell writes a good page-turner, often combining psychological drama, secrets and vulnerable characters. I Found You begins when sole parent Alice Lake finds a man on the beach below her house in the fictional seaside town of Ridinghouse Bay. Alice is prone to poor decision-making, often taking in waifs and strays and has three children by three different fathers, none of whom were Mr Right – mostly patently Mr Wrong.

She is one of those scary women the locals don’t like much – a Londoner (this is Yorkshire), she’s loud, her children often late for school and then there are all the dogs. When she finds Frank (they have to call him something) sitting on the beach in the rain, she ignores the misgivings of others and gives him a room – just for the night – sure his memory loss is just a temporary thing.

The story flips to that of Lily Monrose, whose husband hasn’t come home from work. You can usually set your watch by him. And what happened to all the adoring texts he sends when he’s on the train from London to their flat in Surrey? He seems to have vanished into thin air. When she goes to the police, Lily doesn’t get a lot of interest – she’s from Kiev, and she and Carl have only been married a few weeks after a whirlwind romance. Lily knows so little about his background and things look bad when Carl’s passport turns out to be false.

The plot also flips back in time to 1993 and a family summer holiday. Gray is seventeen and suddenly aware of how his sister, Kirsty, a lanky fifteen year old, seems to other men. When posh Mark takes an interest in them, Gray’s family are charmed, but Mark’s attraction to Kirsty sets their holiday on a course for disaster.

I Found You is told in short chapters, switching between these three perspectives, slowly filling in the gaps, as glimpses of Frank’s memory begin to appear. Each chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, so you keep reading as more secrets are revealed. The characters are varied and well-rounded, and Alice, who is oddly optimistic for someone struggling with a lot of difficulties, is an engaging heroine. Memory loss in fiction can so easily seem a convenient and even hackneyed plot device, but Jewell makes it believable here. As usual, she is a safe pair of hands for an escapist read.

I listened to the novel as an audiobook and really enjoyed the rendition by Antonia Beamish, who managed a wide range of voices and accents with aplomb. A four out of five read from me.

Lockdown Reading 2: Dead in Devon by Stephanie Austin

I was inspired to grab a handful of murder mysteries to get me through lockdown, a time when you mightn’t feel like reading anything too demanding. Dead in Devon is the first in Austin’s series featuring Juno Browne, Domestic Goddess for hire (housework, dog-walking, and random odd jobs). We’re in cosy mystery territory here, so the heroine is a natural busy-body, primed to solve the murder.

The setting is the pretty Devon town of Ashburton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Titian-haired, twenty-something Juno has no family and makes a basic living with her bright yellow van. Old Nick has a dodgy reputation in the antique trade and wants Juno to work for him. When he’s murdered, Juno believes that those two Russian thugs she discovered putting the frighteners on Nick are the culprits.

The police, good cop Inspector Ford and bad cop DC (Cruella) DeVille, don’t have a lot to go on – Nick had obviously ripped off someone, and with his previous custodial history, had friends in low places. But Juno has become fond of the old fellow and can’t help investigating.

The traders Nick did deals with may offer clues and include Paul, a handsome furniture restorer, Albert (Piano-teeth) Evans and one of Juno’s cleaning clients, snooty Verbena Clarke. Then there are Nick’s estranged children, Helena and Richard, who accuse Juno of being a gold-digger. The cast of characters also includes Morris and Ricky, a gay couple who hire out costumes to drama companies around the country. They are the perfect confidantes for Juno and encourage her romantic efforts by helping her with outfits picked from famous plays and musicals. Even the dogs Juno walks have interesting personalities.

Austin adds plenty of pace balancing sequences of lively dialogue with action scenes so there’s plenty here to keep you amused. She has made much of her background in amateur theatre and knowledge of antiques to add colour to the story. My only quibble was that I more or less guessed the perpetrator, but it was all so entertaining I didn’t mind too much. Three and a half out of five from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Aussie Noir has become incredibly popular since The Dry by Jane Harper was published in 2016. Similarly drought and the high heat of summer, this time in outer New South Wales, is the setting for Hammer’s debut crime novel. Newspaper journalist Martin Scarsden visits Riversend, site of a mass killing, a year later to write an update on the town, a story previously covered by rival journo, D’Arcy Defoe.

Scarsden, once something of a lothario, suffers from PTSD following an incident when he was covering the Gaza Strip for his paper. His boss thinks this assignment will be a tonic – get him out of the office yet keep him busy. But Riversend is a depressed sort of place for recovery. The miserable Black Dog Motel lives up to its name; the town’s businesses are struggling and nobody’s very forthcoming – except for the young policeman, Robbie Haus Jones, the hero of the day.

Reverend Byron Swift was a good-looking, charismatic preacher, popular with the young and, with Jones, helped resurrect the youth centre, a Pied Piper figure it seems. So what made him open fire on his church steps, gunning down several men from the Bellington Anglers Club? Scarsden talks to the locals and gets a few more snippets out of Harley Snouch, the dero who says Swift was a pedophile. He takes coffee and comfort at the Oasis bookshop, run by drop-dead gorgeous, Mandalay Blonde – a what’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this scenario.

Fortunately before you have too much time to wonder on the clunkiness of the love angle or the characters’ names, events start to hot up, literally. Martin becomes suddenly popular when he saves a teenager’s life and helps out with a bushfire. There are more murders, including a cold case involving two German backpackers. But Martin’s luck soon runs out as he tries to get his facts straight and more reporters and the police close in. People may be talking but everyone seems to have something to hide. Who can Martin trust?

Hammer manages a lot of plot threads in the novel, carefully reeling out backstory and tying them all together in the end. The pressure to file the story first and the mock camaraderie between the news teams add authenticity. I really enjoyed the lively, unmistakably Australian dialogue which spins the plot along nicely making Scrublands an entertaining read. And in the background there’s that oppressive, drought-stricken landscape.

Hammer earned a best new crime novel Dagger Award for Scrublands and it’s easy to see why. It’s an interesting story given weight by the way it deals with bigger things like evil and redemption. But I found the character of Mandalay Blonde (that surely should be a Bond heroine) and her relationship with Martin didn’t work for me. This one gets a three.