Crime Fiction Catch-Up – some cosy and not-so-cosy Brit-crime reads

I always seem to like a bit of crime fiction during the winter. Here’s a look at a few of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed over recent weeks.

A Game of Fear by Charles Todd
This is the latest Inspector Rutledge novel where our haunted, war-veteran is sent to Essex in search of a case that looks quite hopeless. A murder is reported but there’s no body and the man recognised as the murderer has been dead for years. Nobody at Scotland Yard expects Rutledge to find anything worth investigating, but the witness, Lady Benton, has connections. What he finds is a twisty crime plus a brutal killer on the loose. We have another terrific setting – the salt flats of Walmer, and a manor house built around the ruins of old abbey. There’s the remains of an old airfield from the WWI and somehow everything ties in with the men who served there, many of whom didn’t come back. If you think the Air Force in World War Two was a dangerous lark, then imagine the era of bi-planes and the Red Baron. It’s another cracking read from Charles Todd, loaded with atmosphere and interesting historical background.

Twenty-one Days by Anne Perry
Anne Perry is best known for her William Monk and Thomas Pitt series set in Victorian England which have been going for a few decades now. They’re good meaty crime reads with a Dickensian feel in the way she recreates the period. This first in a series introduces Thomas Pitt’s barrister son Daniel as the new sleuth, here attempting to save a man from the gallows who’s been found guilty of murdering his wife. He’s hard to defend being an unpleasant character and a scandal-mongering biographer. His latest book looks set to stir up trouble for the secret service, including Daniel’s father, Sir Thomas Pitt. Some interesting points raised about the difference between justice and the law, while the setting of 1910 gives Daniel a chance to take an interest in forensic science, with the help of his head-of-chambers’ daughter. She’d studied at university, but women at that time couldn’t receive a degree, even if they had done all the work. Typical. The story has plenty of twists and introduces some terrific characters we can enjoy getting to know in the subsequent books. There’s already another four.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
This series set in 1920s Calcutta just keeps getting better. The new book is told from alternating points of view between policeman Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee. The story begins when Banerjee is tasked with a secret mission that lands him on a murder charge. He’s been arrested over the death of a Hindu theologian, when all he was doing was trying to make it look like an accident so that a religious feud doesn’t erupt. With Banerjee on the run, Wyndham must help clear his name and find the killer while religious factions from both Hindu and Muslim groups threaten to throw the country into a permanent state of riot. There’s lots of action and nail-biting moments, but in the background the tinder-box politics of life in India under the British is a fascinating setting. The characters are complex and interesting and the storytelling witty and perceptive. More, please.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves
This recent Vera Stanhope mystery is set in the dark days of winter when Vera, driving home in the snow, finds she has missed her turning only to discover a car with an unattended baby. She takes the child to the nearest house, which just happens to be the Stanhope family mansion and while she’s there, trying to discover what’s happened, a body is discovered. Of course. There’s a dinner party in full swing and Vera has to rub shoulders with the family she’s fallen out with while looking scruffy as always. But she gets to prove her worth, solving the crime and not taking any nonsense from anyone. I love the way she attempts to jolly along Holly, her ambitious DC, and make allowances for Joe, whose family make demands. There’s a nail-biting finish where the killer nearly takes Vera out of action, but happily there’s another book on the way with her name on the cover. The Rising Tide is out shortly.

Hot to Trot by M C Beaton
When M C Beaton died a short while ago, we might have thought that would be it for Agatha Raisin. But no, a good friend of Beaton (R W Green) has been entrusted with her story ideas and so Agatha is back again. Here she makes a spectacle of herself at the wedding of her old flame and lord of the manor, Charles Fraith. He’s marrying horsey socialite Mary Brown-Field, but after a fight with Agatha at a masked ball, Mary is found murdered. Agatha has to work hard to convince the police she had nothing to do with it, as well as trying to clear Charles’s name. It’s just as well she’s got other fish to fry romantically and that she and Charles are just good friends. This means he can cough up with her fee, as her private detective agency is buzzing with cases and she’s got staff to pay. The story takes us into the high-stakes world of show-jumping and dressage comps where Mary had rubbed a few people up the wrong way. I particularly enjoyed the audio-book version of this novel, read by the incomparable Penelope Keith. Magic!

Six New Fiction Picks – put these on the wish-list

I love a trawl through Fantastic Fiction to see what’s new and what’s coming soon. It’s also a good place to check in on favourite authors to see what they’re up to or find out when the next book in a series is set to hit the shops. Here’s a few of the promising new books I discovered on a recent visit, all either just published or coming soon.

This Is the Night They Come for You by Robert Goddard
Goddard has made a name for writing ripping reads over the last decade or three, but hasn’t rested on his laurels, churning out the same old thing. He has diversified into historical thrillers – I heartily recommend the James Maxted trilogy set around the time of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – while his last book, The Fine Art of Invisible Detection was brilliantly twisty and inventive with a quirky sleuth on the job. The new book is set in Algiers with a troubled policeman working with a secret service agent to uncover a crime hidden in the dark events of Algieria’s struggle for independence. I know I’ll get a brilliant page-turner with some well researched historical background. Can’t wait.

Villager by Tom Cox
Another writer who has diversified hugely is Tom Cox, who tends to find a new genre from time to time and make it his own. You may remember his books about his cats: The Good, the Bad and the Furry, Talk to the Tail and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Sure, they are books about cats, but they are also a lot about the owner and well, anything Cox writes is hilarious. Recently he has branched into writing about the English countryside, particularly the folklore and half-forgotten corners, a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy, but with more jokes. The latest book, his first novel, probably won’t be like anything you’ve read before, but features a folk musician from the sixties, teenagers finding a body on a golf course, as well as property developers threatening to despoil the landscape. Well worth a try.

The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers
Here’s another author who makes a natural landscape come to life magically in his writing. I reviewed The Offing a year or so ago and loved the story of an unlikely friendship in post-war Yorkshire, the atmospheric setting and gorgeous writing. So Myers’ new book definitely makes this list. The Perfect Golden Circle is about a couple of guys who under the cover of darkness make crop circles in the hot summer of 1989. We’ve another unlikely friendship burgeoning as their handiwork unexpectedly acquires a cult-like following. Some similar themes look set to appear, including the futility of war and the fragility of the English countryside which also has the power to heal.

Amy and Lan by Sadie Jones
Jones’s first book The Outcast won a bunch of book prize nominations, and her second book Small Wars, a story about the family of a British officer on Cyprus in the 1950s, is a moving story I sometimes still think about. She writes intense, character driven dramas and the new book will be well worth picking up I’m sure. Another book set in a rural landscape, Amy and Lan is about two children, dear friends, whose families join another family to try their hand at farming and the ‘good life’. It should be a bucolic dream, with chickens and goats and lots of fresh air, but something is set to shatter the children’s innocence. This one’s out in July.

Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young
The blurb says this is Truly Madly Deeply for our times, so yes it’s a story about love cut short by death. We’ve got two couples: Rasmus and Jay; Roisin and Nico, until Rasmus and Roisin are widowed, missing their other halves and trying to get by. But Jay and Nico are somehow still there, powerless to help the newly bereaved. This is quite a different sort of story, playful and contemporary, from Young’s war-themed trio (My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, The Hero’s Welcome and Devotion), which delves into the ongoing effects of World War I on a group of characters, the soldiers and the women left at home to wait. I heartily recommend the earlier books, but Twelve Months and a Day looks a great read too, and it’s newly released, which is even better.

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
Pulley is an inventive, original writer and definitely somebody to watch. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street combined mystery with love in Victorian London with a little magical clockwork. I enjoyed the characters as much as the twisty storyline. Her latest book is set in 1963, when a nuclear scientist is taken from merely surviving in a Siberian prison to serve out his sentence in City 40. He’s to study the effects of nuclear radiation on wildlife, and will one day be a free man if the radiation doesn’t get to him first. Based on real events, the blurb touts this as a sweeping adventure, the ebook out later this month, the paperback in July. Definitely one for my list.

More New Books for the Must Read List

A bumper crop of great new books seem to be arriving in bookshops this year. Here’s a few that caught my eye.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon
Oh, joy! A new book from the author who brought us The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie. ‘There’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Lane’. Linda escaped ‘dark events’ of her Welsh childhood, but now life seems a bit tame; married to Terry, fish fingers for tea. Only Terry is often late home, while girls are going missing in the neighbourhood. Should Linda be worried? You can expect Cannon’s trademark dark humour, an original plot plus a twist. I can’t wait. This one’s out in May.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
This is the author who brought us We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which won a Booker Prize nomination and which really tugged at the heartstrings. There is only one person who springs to mind when I hear the name Booth – the John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Fowler’s new novel explores the backstory – the upbringing that lead Booth to make the decision that was to go down in the history books. ‘Booth is a riveting novel, focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family’ – says the blurb. The paperback came out last week.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe
And now for something completely different. Nina Stibbe is the author of the comic Lizzie Vogel trilogy that kicked off with Man at the Helm. Stibbe’s letters home to her sister when she was a nanny became Love, Nina: Dispatches from Family Life and then a charmingly quirky TV series. The new stand-alone novel promises a funny but life-affirming story about friendship and the paths it takes through the course of a lifetime. This book’s due out next month.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons
And yes, there is only one Mona Lisa, and this book is about that Mona Lisa. The blurb says it’s a ‘deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history’. The story begins with the painting sitting around in Leonardo’s studio and where it ends up in the centuries that follow. Solomons can be relied on to write a compelling story and does her research. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is another book that takes a look at the art world and which I can highly recommend. I, Mona Lisa was recently released in paperback.

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman
I loved the simple, honest storytelling of The Gunners, a story about a group of friends who separately feel the burden of guilt for something that happened to them as children. Chorus is a story about a family, the seven Shaw siblings, and two life-altering events, what divides them and what brings them ultimately back to each other. Kauffman has been compared to Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, and I’m sure Chorus will be worth picking up. The hardcover is already out; the e-book due in July.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Matting
If you haven’t read The Bell in the Lake yet, it’s time to get a move on as the second book in the trilogy will now be hitting the shelves. The setting sweeps us back to 1903 and a remote Norwegian community, home to solitary Jehans. Separated from his family he lives off what he can catch. When he kills a massive reindeer he meets an enigmatic hunter. There’s a mysterious tapestry woven by conjoined twins and a Pastor seeking redemption as a new age dawns. The blurb says this is ‘a grand and thrilling novel about what it takes to live in and embrace a new era.’ It’s sure to be a powerful and compelling read from a terrific storyteller.

New Books for the Must-Read Pile

Here are the books I can’t wait to get my hands on in the coming weeks.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale
One of my favourite authors, Gale is such an empathetic writer who also captures the little details that create such interesting and well-rounded characters. Throw in a decent helping of humour and you’ve got the perfect novel in my book. Here, the mother’s boy of the title is Charles, the son of two people caught up in World War I, a war that ultimately takes his father. The relationship of the boy and mother is a key part of the story. Charles appears to have an exceptionally gifted mind, but that’s not all he has to deal with as another war looms. I loved Gale’s historical novel, A Town Called Winter and this one has already had some glowing reviews..

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett
I really enjoyed The Appeal, an original and beguiling mystery novel which came out last year. Clearly this is an author with a terrific imagination and the new book looks similarly intriguing. We’ve got mysterious annotations in a children’s book by a disgraced author that could be a secret code. There’s a forty-year-old disappearance and the ex-con who connects the two and who is determined to solve the mystery – only there’s something that he can’t quite remember. What can it all mean? Definitely I’ll have to read on to find out.

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller
Miller writes such a variety of books including historical novels, contemporary fiction, and a huge variety of settings. They don’t come along all that often, but they’re always worth waiting for. Here we’ve got a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in Somerset and in particular his relationship with his daughter. He’s an ex-soldier and his story involves atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland and an enquiry that threatens his future with her. Miller’s last book was At Last We Shall Be Entirely Free, which won the Highland Prize, so I will be keen to read this one when it comes out in March.

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
It wouldn’t be a reading year without a new Ruth Galloway novel. If you haven’t discovered this series you have treats in store, particularly if you like atmospheric and witty mysteries with a dash of romance. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk and the new book has her chum, DCI Nelson, looking for a killer when a Covid lockdown hits. I enjoy the characters in this series so much – Ruth’s matter-of-fact intelligence and Nelson’s blunt Yorkshire demeanour are always a delight. Throw in an archaeological setting and some twisty plotting and you have the perfect mystery read.

French Braid by Anne Tyler
Mercy Garrett is determined to eliminate clutter from her life, gradually moving into her studio now that her kids are grown up. But the clutter of family life and all the related memories are hard to ignore, particularly one holiday in 1959 that has generated ongoing repercussions for the Garretts. Sounds like we’re in classic Anne Tyler territory here: the people and random events that create a family history, told with humour and kindness. I’m always in my happy place with Tyler and can’t wait to see this one when it comes out in March.

Violeta by Isabel Allende
I so loved Allende’s last book, A Long Petal of the Sea, my first ever Allende, having avoided her for years thinking she only wrote magic realism. Obviously I’ve since had to revise my understanding. Violeta lives through the major events of the twentieth century – kicking off with the Spanish flu, the disastrous effects of the Great Depression, and a world war to name but three. What promises to make the book so appealing is the character of Violeta, who according to the blurb is passionate, determined and blessed with a sense of humour. I’m sure I’m going to love this one.

More New Books on the Horizon

There’s been quite a bumper harvest of terrific books recently – perhaps they were delayed because of lockdowns and now we’re catching up. Anyway, here are some new titles by authors I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and so naturally I’ve added them to my Must Read List. It’s a pretty varied list, but that’s books for you.

First up is The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson. You might remember this author’s debut, the feel-good novel told in letters, Meet Me at the Museum (click on the link for my review). With a title like this, The Narrowboat Summer sounds instantly appealing, echoing Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, with it’s a story of three women and a dog on a canal boat. Eve’s escaping her career of thirty years to become a free spirit; Sally is taking a break from an indifferent husband and the two are rescuing Anastasia, who needs a life-saving operation. I don’t know what the dog’s problem is. It’s a novel of second chances and the power of friendship. Another feel-good read promised.

In Snow Country Sebastian Faulks returns to themes relating to the First World War and its aftermath – good news for all of us who fondly recall Birdsong – with a novel set in a sanatorium surrounded by snow and on the banks of a silvery lake. Journalist Anton Heideck is commissioned to write a story about the mysterious Schoss Seeblick where Lena had escaped Vienna to take a menial job. ‘A landmark novel of exquisite yearnings, dreams of youth and the sanctity of hope‘ promises the blurb. The setting and the rumblings of another war will be sure to add to the atmosphere. Snow Country is out in September.

The Heron’s Cry by Anne Cleeves is the second in the author’s Two Rivers series set in North Devon. Detective Matthew Venn is called to investigate a very staged looking murder – a woman stabbed with a shard from one of her glassblower daughter’s vases. Another similar murder and complications involving Matthew’s partner, Jonathan – well, it’s a small town after all – and you can tell it’s going to be another page turner. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. I loved The Long Call (catch up with my review here), but as Cleeves has her Vera Stanhope series on the go as well, it’s been a long wait. Cleeves writes engaging character-driven crime novels with plenty of twists and secret motives. Throw in some interesting detectives and colourful English settings and what more could you want?

Mrs England by Stacey Halls is the latest from the author who brought us the historical novel about witch hunts, The Familiars. In her third book, this time with an Edwardian timeframe, Ruby takes a job caring for the children of a well-to-do Yorkshire family when strange things start to happen. What begins as a fresh start for our protagonist soon looks like history repeating itself and Ruby finds herself ostracised and alone. Big houses and chilling settings, women battling the powerlessness of their station in life – these seem to be recurring themes for Halls who could be following in the footsteps of Susan Hill, Daphne du Maurier and Wilkie Collins. ‘Simmering with slow-burning menace,’ says the blurb for the new book.

Trio by William Boyd is a novel some pundits are picking for the Man Booker Longlist and it nearly slipped under my radar. Definitely time to put it on the list then. Set during the turbulent year of 1968 – a time of student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy, the Vietnam War – it follows characters caught up in a movie being shot in Brighton. Efrida is struggling with writer’s block and drinking too much; glamorous Anni can’t figure out why the CIA should have her on their watch list; while Talbot has a secret. It looks like classic William Boyd territory – the lives of everyday people made extraordinary by circumstances and the politics of the day. Might have to bump this one to the top of the pile.

New Books from Old Favourites

Twenty twenty-one is turning out to be a wonderful year for me as a reader as several authors I really enjoy return with new books after a bit of a hiatus. It’s interesting seeing what they come up with after an interval and compare the new books with old ones. And it also offers the chance to reread some old favourites and think about why you liked the earlier books in the first place.

Marika Cobbold‘s Guppies for Tea was a heart-warming, family story about Amelia and her struggle to care for her much-loved grandmother, now showing signs of dementia. She’s also battling a mother with an obsession with germs and a defecting boyfriend, but Amelia finds help in unexpected ways. I really enjoyed this novel, and would also recommend Shooting Butterflies as well as Cobbold’s previous book Drowning Rose, both of which have characters revisiting the past in a way that changes their view of their lives. It’s been a quiet ten years from Cobbold since then, but just published is On Hamstead Heath. Here’s what the blurb says:

“Sharp, poignant, and infused with dark humour, On Hampstead Heath is an homage to storytelling and to truth; to the tales we tell ourselves, and the stories that save us”.

Sarah Winman‘s latest book, Still Life, is only her fourth in ten years and therefore something to be excited about. When God Was a Rabbit was one of those love it or hate it books, if GoodReads is anything to go by. I found it brilliant and original, so that puts me definitely in the ‘loved it’ camp. Now I have a reader’s copy of Still Life and the first page has me hooked already, even though I’ve three other books already on the go. What to do?

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Esther Freud‘s debut novel, Hideous Kinky, is a story from Freud’s own childhood and concerns a woman living the hippie dream in Morroco with her two young daughters. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and the reader feels for the girls who really need more stability and well, safety. It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet (also worth a watch). There followed a string of very readable novels, her last outing, Mr Mac and Me (2014), set during WWI and has a basis in the true story of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, a mysterious visitor to the south of England as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Coming soon in July is I Couldn’t Love You More, which according to the blurb is:

A sweeping story of three generations of women, crossing from London to Ireland and back again, and the enduring effort to retrieve the secrets of the past.

Out of interest, Freud’s lineage includes the painter Lucian Freud (father) and Sigmund Freud (great-grandfather).

Andrew Martin has been busy. He’s always got some new project on the go, it seems, fiction and non-fiction, but it’s been a while since he abandoned, or so I thought, his wonderful Jim Stringer railway detective series. The series has taken us from the early 1900s with Jim as a mere teenager, through marriage and war service, to France, the Middle East (The Bahgdad Railway Club is a particular favourite) and to India. The mysteries are full of wonderful north of England wit, odd-bod characters on either side of the law, enough action to keep things humming along and, well, trains. Jim is always battling the establishment, various railway bosses, while attempting to keep ‘the wife’ happy. Eight years after Night Train to Jamalpur was published, here we suddenly have a new Jim Stringer mystery to look forward to. Powder Smoke comes out in November.

Clare Chambers has been one of my favourite authors in the field of contemporary fiction, particularly for her warmth and wit and quirky characters. I’ve already reviewed her new book, Small Pleasures, which wove a story around a couple of historical events from the late 1950s – an interesting departure for this author but still showcasing her gift with characters and humour, but with a darker theme this time and a powerful emotional punch. It sent me off to her previous works and I enjoyed myself hugely rereading In a Good Light as well as The Editor’s Wife. I seriously hope she doesn’t abandon her writing desk for another decade before releasing a new novel, as she’s just so talented.