Book Review: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first in Castillo’s series featuring formerly Amish Kate Burkholder, the Chief of Police in the sleepy town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. Well, actually, having read a few of these novels, I can tell you Painter’s Mill isn’t half as sleepy as it ought to be with a string of murders, hate-crimes and serial killings to rival that old TV favourite, Midsomer Murders.

What makes these novels interesting is the smart, lively writing, mostly from the point of view of Kate – a savvy, no-nonsense, yet sensitive sleuth – and the Amish connection. At thirty, Kate lives on her own with her sometimes cat, too messed up by her past to think about a meaningful relationship or any kind of settling down. She’s a bit too friendly with her vodka bottle, and sometimes it’s only the coffee, brewed by Mona, her dispatch assistant, that gets her through the day.

When a murder takes place with the same MO as a series of killings from sixteen years ago, everyone’s wondering if the Slaughterhouse Killer is back again. Everyone except Kate. The young female victims are felled by a single slash to the carotid artery, with evidence of torture and a signature mutilation. Nasty.

But Kate has a secret, one that has her convinced that the Slaughterhouse Killer is dead – a secret that would end her career and destroy the lives of her still-Amish brother and sister. There is no way she can let that happen. When the mayor’s office disagrees with her handling of the case, they send for the feds – in this case, Special Agent John Tomasetti, and so begins a beautiful new detecting relationship.

Sworn to Silence is an engaging page-turner – part police procedural, part romantic suspense. Be warned that it has its gory moments (this killer is truly evil), and with the audiobook version (brilliantly read by Kathleen McInerney), there was no skimming through the messier scenes with eyes half closed. There is still plenty to enjoy, however, including terrific action scenes, snappy dialogue, a few red herrings, last minute rescues and then there’s the snow. Snowy landscapes are always terrific for that extra chill.

The Kate Burkholder novels are an enjoyable series for a bit of light reading. Castillo seems to have done a ton of research with both the Amish way of life (including snippets of Pennsylvania Dutch) and the day-to-day workings of police teams, forensics and their connections with the wider areas of law enforcement. Somehow, I seem to have become hooked. Sworn to Silence gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Ghost Girl by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter series is a wonderfully atmospheric collection of mysteries, with two quirky sleuths: Clean Slate cleaning business proprietor, Stella Darnell and her co-worker, Jack. Stella’s father, the recently deceased DCI Terry Darnell, has left Stella his house and one or two interesting cold cases. Terry may have been absent from a large part of his daughter’s growing up but his legacy has Stella hooked on detection.

In Ghost Girl, Stella discovers a small collection of old photographs of street scenes, spanning several decades. Terry documented cases, clues and crime scenes with his own photo records, something to mull over in the evening perhaps. The oldest from the folder goes back to 1966, the year Moors Murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were sent to prison for life. Stella slowly uncovers what took place in each scene and what linked them, helped by Jack, a train driver, night walker and all-round odd-bod.

Jack’s most alarming habit, of which Stella is trying to cure him, is to sneak into the homes of people he refers to as ‘hosts’, people who are likely to kill. Jack keeps a well-thumbed London A-Z, covered in his own notes as he tracks his hosts down. When a woman comes across his A-Z and decides to keep it, he has no choice but to follow her, breaking into an old school, apparently her home, and taking up residence.

Plot threads detailing Stella’s investigation and Jack’s obsession are woven around flashbacks to the story of Mary, a young girl whose family has moved to a new house and the sudden death of her little brother in 1966. Stella has a new customer, too, David Bowie look-alike, David Barlow, who needs his house cleaned of the bad memories associated with his late wife. Stella finds him charming, but a little strange as well.

Here are all the ingredients for a twisty and complex mystery. Thompson gives out just enough to engage the reader in the usual guessing game of analysing suspects and dodging red herrings. A big fan of London stories, I enjoy the Hammersmith that Thompson creates on the page – both in 1966 and present day. And then there are the characters, made interesting by what drives them and the secrets they hide, not just the suspects and victims, but our amateur sleuths too.

It has always seemed obvious to me that cleaning houses is a great way to snoop in people’s affairs – I’m sure commercial cleaners learn a lot more about their clients than the police might imagine possible. So I’m sure Stella and Jack will find many more crimes to investigate. I’m glad as there is a lot to enjoy in this series. Ghost Girl gets a solid 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 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.

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.

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.