Book Review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

For some time I’ve been a fan of Elly Griffiths’ crime series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. Griffiths does a great job of creating interesting plots around the watery in-between places of Norfolk, with all the ancient and not-so-ancient history of the setting. She also does terrific characters and has an engaging style that is hard not to like. Her Stephens and Mephisto series is equally well crafted, so I knew I would be in safe hands with the standalone novel The Stranger Diaries.

The story takes place in a small English town where Clare Cassidy teaches English at the local comprehensive school and where her daughter is a student. The old part of the school was once the house of Victorian ghost story writer, R M Holland, and in her spare time Clare is writing a book about his life and the questions around his wife whose ghost still haunts the school.

Clare’s a single mum and has built a pleasantly quiet life with a few friends, until one of them ends up dead. Fellow English teacher Ella has been discovered stabbed to death in her home and the police think it was someone she knew. Clare deals with this in her usual way, by confiding in her diary, but gets an unpleasant surprise when someone starts adding eery messages in spiky Italic writing.

The story is narrated by Clare, her daughter Georgie and also DS Habinder Kaur. Clare is a fairly intangible character (other characters find her cool) and lost in the world of Holland and his famous story ‘The Stranger’ (which is cleverly told in chunks throughout the book), seems to find reality hard to grasp. This makes her the perfect protagonist for things to happen to.

Harbinder is everything Clare is not: gutsy, to the point, and as an ex-pupil of the school, has plenty of interesting stories of her time there. She also lives at home with her parents (and her mum’s wonderful cooking) and dodges the issue of telling them she’s gay by throwing herself into her work. But this case has got her stumped.

The story builds to a thrilling ending as the killer looms ever closer and the cops eventually catch up. As usual Griffiths creates an atmospheric setting, with the haunted Holland house plus Halloween, while her short-story, ‘The Stranger’, would have done M R James proud. I wonder if he was an inspiration for the novel. My only grouch is I found Clare a wishy-washy sort of character; thank goodness for the determined DS Kaur and wilful young Georgie, who give the narration some balance. The supernatural is evoked without seeming ridiculous (ghosts and witchcraft) while DS Kaur grounds us in the real world. This is a light, entertaining read: three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas writes a beguiling and often unusual mystery novel. Her series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg and the Serious Crimes Bureau is immensely entertaining for the weird and wonderful storylines and oddball criminals – usually serial killers of some kind with motives beyond the everyday. The latest book – This Poison Will Remain – involves a type of murder no one believes to be anything other blood-poisoning following a spider bite. In Nimes three old men suffer septicaemia and die, but they were old, right? Could happen to anyone, right?

Jean Baptiste Adamsberg, with his nose for the uncanny, thinks otherwise. But he’s going to have a tough time convincing his team to agree with him. Particularly Commandant Danglard, his second in command and former friend. Danglard, in his impeccable English tailoring has become a formidable opponent and with his gift with words and sharp intellect, he soon has the others thinking Adamsberg has lost the plot. This is a new Danglard. In previous books we see him sipping wine on the job and bemoaning his problematic home-life.

You soon realise that this is not your usual police station. There’s Mercadet whose narcolepsy interrupts his police work daily, so he has a cushiony corner in a quiet office where he can catnap. Maternal Helene Froissy keeps a cupboardful of snacks at the ready and helps Adamsberg look after a family of blackbirds who have nested in the courtyard. Amazonian Violette Retancourt is ‘worth ten men’ and is devoted to Snowball the cat who sleeps on top of the photocopier no one uses but is always on to keep it warm. Voisenet would rather be an ichthyologist and stinks out the office with the head of a moray eel he plans to study. Veyrenc hails from the same corner of the Pyrenees as Adamsberg. With his black-and-ginger striped hair, the result of bullies trying to scalp him as a boy, he bursts into clunky Alexandrine verse at every opportunity.

It is Veyrenc whom Adamsberg first turns to for help in solving the mystery of the spider bites, secretly at first. It emerges that two of the victims lived at the same orphanage and were part of a gang who tormented the other boys, hiding recluse spiders in their clothing. In those days before readily available antibiotics, some of their victims endured terrible injuries. If someone was out for revenge, it would be fitting to kill them with spider venom from the same kind of spider, but such spiders are rare and you would need dozens to produce enough poison. And how on earth would you milk the spider venom anyway?

It seems an impossible puzzle, so it isn’t surprising Adamsberg and Veyrenc adjourn to a nearby café, called La Garbure, after the traditional cabbage soup from the Pyrenees, to discuss the case. This is something else I love about the series. Reminiscent of novels by Simenon, Fred Vargas conjures up Paris through Adamsberg’s walks by the Seine, and scenes set in cafés and restaurants. Veyrenc has a bit of thing for La Garbure’s proprietress and the two send each other glances across the room without quite catching each other’s eye.

Like the best crime fiction, the story is very much character driven, but Vargas has plenty of surprises in store for the reader to keep you turning the pages. Adamsberg has the challenge not only of solving the most perplexing of crimes, one that will take him back to the memory of a terrible event from his childhood, but he must also win back the loyalty of his team. Themes around child abuse, mental illness, isolation and the history of religious hermits give the story plenty of depth.

This Poison Will Remain is an excellent read, with a superb English translation that maintains the spirit of the author’s unique, lively and very French style. A four star read from me.

Review: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie is back, still working as a private investigator, mostly divorce and missing persons cases, and still trying to save people. He’s nudging sixty, still single, though with Julia’s voice constantly in his head reminding him of his shortcomings, you’d think they were an old married couple.

We catch up with him back in Yorkshire, keeping an eye on his son, Nathan, who is fourteen and riveted to the screen on his phone. Brodie uses their time together to attempt fatherly education in things like British history, good manners and a lot more Nathan patently isn’t interested in.

Running parallel to this story is that of Vince, left by his wife and recently made redundant, but still keeping up appearances on the golf course with sort-of friends, Tommy, who owns a transport company, a gorgeous home and trophy wife, Crystal; and Andy, a smooth and savvy BandB owner and Tommy’s partner in crime. Vince’s life is set to implode as his wife is taking him to the cleaners.

Another story thread is told through the eyes of Crystal, who has literally come up through the gutter, a past she hides from everyone, especially Tommy. She has the care of their wee daughter Candy and Tommy’s teenage son Harry (whose mother mysteriously fell off a cliff) and a house she keeps immaculate. But someone is following her in a silver sedan. She hires Jackson to discover just who.

Also on the scene is Reggie (remember her from When Will There Be Good News?), now a police detective working on an old pedophile-ring case, with fellow officer, Ronnie. They’re meant to be tying up a few loose ends but suddenly there’s a murder with an odd connection to our golfing buddies and the sex trafficking of migrant women promised good jobs in Britain.

There’s a lot of very unpleasant crime here but Atkinson, as always, lightens the load on the reader with humour and lively characterisation. Not that she shies away from the facts. We have Crystal’s troubled past to remind us of the evils of what happens when sex and money go hand in hand, a past that is all set to come back to haunt her. And while it’s great to see Reggie again and spend time with Jackson, Crystal is a wonderful invention the reader will cheer for.

I’ve enjoyed my foray into the world of Brodie again and Big Sky didn’t disappoint. Incidentally, it works fine as a standalone novel if you haven’t read the previous books, or forgotten what they were about. A solid four out of five from me.

Started Early, Took My Dog – the penultimate Brodie

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, while involving crime, mysteries, disappearances and detectives, don’t follow the typical plot-lines of many crime novels. This makes the series unique and charming, depending on interesting and believable characters caught up in a variety of moral dilemmas to push the plot along.

Started Early, Took My Dog gets off to a rip-roaring start when ex-police Superintendent Tracy Waterhouse, large, unmarried and believing herself unloveable, buys a child. She’s seen so many mistreated children that confronted with a drug-raddled prostitute abusing a little girl in a Leeds shopping mall, Tracey hands over a wad of cash for the child as the woman hops on a bus.

And why not? the reader thinks. Tracey has worked hard, has a nice house and plenty of love to give. The event has Tracey looking over her shoulder as Jackson Brodie arrives in Leeds to look for the birth family of a woman whose adoptive parents took her to New Zealand as a wee tot. The case has odd connections to the death of a prostitute years before when Tracey was a young PC. Jackson, incidentally, has acquired a dog in a similar but more violent manner to Tracy’s acquiring a daughter. This involves a fair bit of sneaking about with the dog in a backpack as Jackson enters and leaves his hotel.

Julia is on the scene again, playing the part of a pathologist in the tv crime drama, Collier, along with ageing actress Tilly, who just happened to witness the events in the shopping mall. As the various stories of the different characters converge, overlap and entangle, Atkinson brings everything to a brilliant ending with a bunch of surprises to keep the average whodunit fan happy.

Perhaps Started Early, Took My Dog is in this sense a more traditional crime novel than others in the series. And Atkinson’s characters are so refreshingly real, their behaviour so surprising yet understandable, you can’t help but become caught up in their worlds. ‘Oh, no, don’t do that!’ you want to yell at Tracy, at Jackson. So yes, there’s plenty of tension too. There are also themes to do with parenthood, abuse of power, of women of the law.

But what I always remember fondly about these books is the humour, which is so often down to the smart prose and the ongoing battle between Julia and Jackson. Another brilliant and very entertaining read; easily a four out of five from me.

Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

Another tick in the box for my progress through the marvellous Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny. Like many in the series, The Beautiful Mystery begins when a murder takes place in a remote area, and the Quebec Sûreté are called in to investigate. Usually it’s the hard-to-find village of Three Pines, but this time it’s an isolated monastery.

Gamache and side-kick Inspector Beauvoir take a plane then a fishing boat to the abbey of Saint Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert among the Wolves), situated on the far side of a lake surrounded by wilderness. The Abbey’s prior and choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, has been found in the Abbot’s private garden, with his head bashed in. Clutched to his chest is a document on vellum bearing the arcane notation of a Gregorian chant.

As the police officers piece together the events of the morning and interview the twenty-four resident monks, they discover that Frère Mathieu wasn’t an easy man to get on with. A schism has appeared between the brothers following the release of a music CD two years before which shot the Gilbertines to fame and saved the order from bankruptcy. While half of the brothers supported their choirmaster, half felt the recording compromised the integrity of the order’s silent vows. Was this enough to cause someone to kill the prior?

Things are just getting interesting when a seaplane arrives the following day bearing the head of the Sûreté, Superintendent Francoeur. Has the Super come all this way just to deliver the post mortem report, or does he have another agenda? Events from previous books come back to haunt both Gamache and Beauvoir, with Francoeur at his smug and devious best, surely the wolf among the fold.

The two storylines merge together to create a satisfying crime novel, with plenty of interesting digressions that enrich the story. I enjoyed learning about the art of Gregorian Chant and the early methods of recording the music using neumes – extraordinarily, this becomes crucial to Gamache figuring out the crime. You just have to hand it to Penny – she is brilliant at coming up with original and quirky story-lines.

Events are left up in the air with the continuing subplot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series to see what happens next. It’s no wonder Louise Penny has done so well with the series – four out of five from me.

Brodie No. 3: When Will There Be Good News?

For much of Kate Atkinson’s third novel in the wonderful Jackson Brodie series, our rugged hero is more like a victim than the white knight of earlier books. In the beginning of When Will There Be Good News?, we catch up with Jackson stalking the child he thinks might be his son. He manages to steal a hair from little Nathan’s head, ready for DNA testing.

Accidentally taking a train bound for Edinburgh instead of London and his love-nest with new wife, Tessa, Brodie is caught up in a train accident and badly injured. His life is saved by first-aid performed by the real hero of the story, sixteen-year-old Reggie, a little battler who is adjusting to living on her own since her mother’s sudden death on holiday.

Reggie is a terrific character. Her brother is a ne’er-do-well who always brings trouble. So she soldiers on alone, her meagre existence brightened by her job as nanny for Dr Joanne Hunter (Call me Jo) and baby Gabriel. Reggie is quite devoted to Dr H and Gabriel, but when the two disappear, Reggie suspects foul play, in spite of the husband’s assurances that everything is fine and his wife is just visiting a sick relative. So why did she not change out of her working clothes? And why is her car in the garage? And worst of all, why didn’t she pack the baby’s favourite comforter, the scrap of cloth he is never without.

Also in the mix is DCI Louise Monroe who is seeking the murderer of three people at a family party, his estranged wife and children now hiding in a safe house and in terror for their lives. Like Jackson, Louise is also newly married – to a wonderfully understanding surgeon she has no idea how to love. Instead of returning to her love-nest, Louise sits in her car outside the safe house, watching and tetchy.

Each character is on a trajectory that crashes into that of the other characters and eventually Brodie rouses himself from his hospital bed to save the day in his own unconventional way. It’s a brilliant ending on so many levels and events of Brodie’s past make interesting connections to the main plot-line.

Which is what I love so much about these novels. As well as the quirky characters, the witty dialogue, the snappy storytelling and the intriguing plots, Atkinson brings together divergent characters who often in more ways than one, have something in common. As Jackson says, ‘a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.’ But maybe it’s also something to do with the human condition, and is why these are a grade or two above your standard crime novel. Four and a half out five from me.

Review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Set mostly in Galway, McTiernan’s debut crime novel, The Ruin, introduces Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, freshly arrived after a lengthy stint with the anti-terrorist mob in Dublin. He has good reason to make Galway his home – his partner, Emma, has a top-notch research job in Galway and with a more settled, peaceful Ireland – this is 2013 – it was time to look for a new career direction.

Only taking on a bunch of cold cases isn’t quite as challenging or adrenaline charged as what he’s used to. And why does get the feeling that his colleagues are all whispering behind his back? Just as well his old friend from police school, Danny, is on the team or he’d feel well and truly isolated.

The past keeps creeping back as well. Twenty years ago, Cormac was a rookie cop, called out on a miserable night to a decrepit manor house in the middle of nowhere to rescue two children. Their addict mother is dead from an overdose, the children, five-year-old Jack and fifteen-year-old Maude, look malnourished and cold. His squad car radio is broken so Cormac can only pile them into the back seat and take them to the hospital. The scene makes a compelling opening to the novel, and you just can’t wait to find out what has happened to the three of them in the intervening years.

Flicking forward to 2013, a suspected suicide turns out to be the same Jack, now a twenty-five-year-old engineer, with a stable relationship and a baby on the way. Had the past found a way of catching up with him too?

The Ruin is a solid detective story, with engaging characters and a ton of secrets ready to be revealed. There is plenty of action to keep you engaged, with an edge-of-the-seat ending that has you biting your nails. Cormac is a good cop, without the bad habits or lurking darkness that so often beleaguers fictional sleuths. Yet McTiernan makes him interesting. As well as settling into a new job and discovering who he can trust and who he can’t, Cormac has a new relationship. There are hints around how me met Emma during a previous investigation which are yet to be revealed.

The next book, The Scholar, is already out, and with another due to appear in March, the series is off to a flying start. I shall definitely be stopping by to see how Cormac is getting on. Three and a half out of five from me.

Jackson Brodie – the plot thickens

As I continue to read Kate Atkinson’s popular series, I ponder if any of the books can be as good as the first one – Case Histories.

One Good Turn is next, a hundred pages longer than Case Histories, with a shift in setting from Cambridge to Edinburgh. Jackson is here for the arts festival. Girlfriend Julia (yes, that Julia) is in a play, otherwise Jackson would be somewhere else – anywhere else probably, arts festivals not really being his thing. He witnesses an extreme case of road rage, and on a visit to an island, finds the body of a young woman, whom he can’t quite save from the tide. He reports his findings to the police but they think he imagined it all. Jackson seems to be constantly getting into trouble one way or another. We also meet Edinburgh detective Louise Monroe, who is really more Jackson’s type than Julia.

The story switches to follow Martin Canning, an unassuming period-mystery writer, another witness to the road rage incident. Here, in a rare moment of bravery, Martin intervenes against a madman with a baseball bat. He becomes caught up in the lives of victim and attacker in ways he never expected.

And then there’s Gloria, whose dodgy businessman husband has had a major coronary while in bed with a Russian prostitute. Young Russian women feature in all the story threads, one way or another, and the eventual connection between these threads is appropriately symbolised by the recurring image of Russian dolls.

One Good Turn is another terrific read, with a clever and complex storyline. As always Atkinson deserves a medal for characterisation and snappy dialogue, while the plot is pacy enough, once you get used to the constantly shifting narrative points of view. As you might expect, there are plenty of twists with a stunning surprise saved for the last page. Not quite as enjoyable as the knock-out Case Histories but still a respectable four out of five from me.

Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

We never thought there’d be a new Jackson Brodie novel. After four brilliant mysteries (and a superb television adaptation starring Jason Isaacs), we thought Atkinson had called it a day, returning to the historical literary fiction she’s so good at. Then nine years since the last Brodie was published, out came Big Sky and the crowds all cheered.

I haven’t got my hands on the new book yet, wanting to do things properly and reread the previous four. I’ve had them there on the bookcase waiting for a special occasion. So I picked up Case Histories thinking, I know what happens so will I still enjoy it?

The story gets off to a fairly gentle, atmospheric start, with the setting of Cambridge during a summer heatwave, following a family of young girls, the elder three doting on the youngest and sweetest, little Olivia. Then the unthinkable happens – little Olivia goes missing.

Thirty years later, Olivia’s sisters, Amelia and Julia, make a discovery that prompts them to hire a private detective. Enter Jackson Brodie – ex-army and-ex police and with a ton of baggage regarding his ex-wife, his eight-year-old daughter, to say nothing of the tragedy of his childhood.

Two more cases hit Jackson’s books at the same time: a grieving man haunted by the murder of his daughter ten years before; a woman who has lost touch with the niece she promised to look out for when her sister was arrested for killing her husband.

The cases shake Jackson out of the stupor that has beset him as he spends long days surveilling an air hostess on behalf of her jealous husband and being at the beck and call of a crazy cat-lady who neglects to pay him. Through the book, someone seems intent on killing Jackson, so the story is livened up by several fights.

Not that it needs enlivening as the story sparkles with humour and terrific characters. They are all notable for various reasons: Mr Wyre’s devotion to his dead daughter mirrors the powerful bond and fear Jackson feels over his own daughter, Marlee, who at eight is pert and has a habit of blurting things out at the wrong time. Julia and Amelia are eccentric opposites – Julia’s outrageous flirting adding to the humour of the book, contrasting with the awkward spinsterishness of her sister. Binky, the crazy cat lady, is a treat for her old colonial airs, and has an odd connection with the sisters and the secrets surrounding them.

I loved this book a second time around. Having finished it, I could pick it up and start it all over again – it was that good. Being character driven rather than plot driven, Case Histories is nevertheless a complete page-turner. The prose is all you could wish for too – smart, witty and honed to perfection.

And then there’s Jackson. He’s an archetypal sleuth – troubled, with a messy past; he’s clever but gets into scrapes through his dogged determination to keep digging. And he’s got that Yorkshire no-nonsense manner that makes relationships with women difficult as he struggles to articulate his feelings (while women readers find him totally gorgeous). It’s no wonder Atkinson brought him back for more outings and even after nine years, the new book’s popularity would suggest he’s a welcome return. Case Histories is a rare five star read from me.

Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French

elmA few pages into this book, you know you are in the hands of an Irish author. It’s got that chatty, let’s sit down and tell you a story manner that you often get with Irish authors. The first-person narration also helps, but most of all it’s that rambly, discursive but hugely entertaining style of writing that draws you in and won’t let go, even when the book is five hundred pages long, and could have been around 350. Maybe.

The Wych Elm is a stand-alone crime novel, by the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series. We are in the mind of Toby, a young man in his late twenties, who is telling us how lucky he is. He’s got some family money behind him, plenty of friends, Melissa, his gorgeous girlfriend, and a terrific job doing PR for an art gallery. He’s charming and good-looking and all set for success. Continue reading “Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French”