Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Book Review: Death in a Desert Land by Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is obviously a big fan of Agatha Christie – something he and I have in common – so much so that he has written a series of mystery novels with the Queen of Crime starring as his amateur sleuth. Wilson isn’t the first novelist to find Christie so fascinating that he has fictionalised an aspect of her life. Her famous disappearance in 1926 when her marriage failed has inspired films and fiction (The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford; On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornel are two novels worth checking out).

And Wilson isn’t the first novelist to make his detective a famous author. Nicola Upson has chosen Josephine Tey for her sleuth in a series of nine excellent mysteries; Oscar Wilde uses his great wit to solve crime in a series by Gyles Brandreth and more than one author has chosen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to foil criminals (who better?), the latest I’ve come across: Bradley Harper, pairing the great writer with a Derringer-toting Margaret Harkness in a series kicking off with A Knife in the Fog.

So Andrew Wilson’s series should come as no surprise. How did I feel picking up this book? Were there a few twinges of reluctance? A sense of dabbling with a holy of holies? Yes, definitely. But one day I found myself holding a copy of Death in a Desert Land, the third book in the series, and I just couldn’t help myself.

… I felt a little more secure knowing that in my handbag was a syringe filled with a fast-acting drug that could put a man to sleep in minutes.

In this story, Agatha is divorced and independent, taking a break from novel-writing to help out Davison, her pal from the Foreign Office, to investigate the death of Gertrude Bell. The famous archaeologist, another real person, supposedly died of a drug overdose, but two letters have recently come to light expressing her fears for her life. Agatha is to stay with Katherine and Leonard Woolley who are running a dig at Ur, site of the famous Death Pit and full of wonderful artefacts. Bell had worked with the Woolleys, sorting out which exhibits were to stay in Iraq and which could be shipped to the British Museum.

The storyline has echoes of Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Wilson wonderfully conjures up the setting – sunsets across the sand-dunes, desert storms, the chanting chain-gang of Iraqi workers. I’ve always loved Christie’s Middle Eastern novels (Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, They Came to Baghdad) so was soon enjoying myself. When there’s a murder – the spoilt daughter of the wealthy American sponsoring the site bludgeoned to death – Agatha has to forget about Gertrude Bell as the finger is pointed at Katherine, a volatile character at the best of times.

An archaeological dig in the middle of nowhere offers the perfect ‘locked-room’ mystery in that we have a small group of characters in situ, each with their own secrets and motives. The plot puts Agatha through her paces, risking a face-off with a potential killer, wielding her syringe (why couldn’t Davison have set her up with a neat little pistol at the outset?) often at night. The finale around the table with all the suspects and witnesses as Agatha presents an account of events and eventually unmasks the killer will remind you of more than a few Christie novels.

Death in a Desert Land is altogether very entertaining, with enough humour not to take itself too seriously and is a welcome addition to the Christie canon for anyone who has read all the original books and craves more. It is very much in the spirit of Christie, and the smart, deductive and charming character of Agatha, with her knowledge of poisons, a perfect reluctant heroine.

Make sure you read the notes at the end of the book where Wilson outlines The Facts but only when you’ve finished the novel as there could be spoilers. It adds some interesting details and shows us that Wilson has done his homework. Wilson has written a number of biographies, including one of Patricia Highsmith, so we know we’re in good hands. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series; this book gets four-and-a-half out of five from me.

Mystery Series Catch-up

As any reader of this blog may have guessed, I’m a big fan of crime fiction and the genre is my happy place when I feel like a relaxing read. It all began years ago with Agatha Christie when I was at school, and since then I’ve discovered many terrific series, old and new. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan

This is only the third book in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, but already these books are on my ‘must-read’ list. There’s just so much to enjoy. Apart from the wonderful setting of an Irish city that has its own quirks and atmosphere, McTiernan excels at character and plotting. Reilly, a former high-flyer from Dublin, is a sergeant at a police station where he never fits in and can’t quite figure out why. He’s good at his job, intelligent and personable (probably quite dishy, actually) and in this book we find out what’s really going on at the station. The book hooks you in from page one with the report of a child abduction and Reilly’s investigation which all goes horribly wrong. The story diverts to a tiny coastal town where Reilly’s young constable, Peter Fisher, is sent in penance and the murder mystery he investigates, while Reilly does some soul-seaching about his work and relationship problems before uncovering some damning police corruption. Top notch.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card is the third novel in the Stephens and Mephisto series, which Griffiths has on the go when she’s not writing her hugely popular Ruth Galloway books set in modern-day Norfolk. DI Edgar Stephens is a Brighton cop who gets to work some interesting cases often around the world of theatre with his best pal and stage magician, Max Mephisto. We’re back in the 1950s, with The Blood Card taking place in the lead-up to the Queen’s Coronation of 1953. The big event has had huge numbers of people buying television sets which has Max wondering if his days in variety are numbered. As it turns out, this could be the least of his worries when an army general demands help from Edgar and Max following the death of their commanding officer from the war. The two had been part of the Magic Men, a team who dabbled in camouflage and special effects to out-fox the enemy. Now they’re caught up in an anarchist plot to disrupt the coronation. The story builds to a brilliant climax and Griffiths uses her understanding of theatre to great effect. A great cast of characters in the police team and among the suspects adds to the enjoyment.

When Shadows Fall by Alex Gray

Somebody is murdering old coppers in Alex Gray’s most recent novel featuring DCI William Lorrimer and his forensic psychologist chum, Dr Solomon Brightman. The victims are all retired senior officers, taken out with the same gun, execution-style. It’s also the same shooter used on an excavated body killed over a decade before. The skeleton is discovered by Lorrimer’s gardener, a former street kid Lorrimer rescued, now making a good living for himself. The story slips between the investigation and scenes in a prison, where an ageing criminal is soon to be released – only he’s got one more job to do when he gets out: to take out Lorrimer. This novel keeps you hooked with the threat hanging over Lorrimer that he knows nothing about. Meanwhile the DCI struggles to find a pattern between the killings which take place in different parts of Scotland. Luckily Solomon Brightman lives up to his name and has a bright idea. I had only read a couple in this series before but I enjoyed this one so much, I shall definitely be returning to Glasgow for more.

The Cadaver Game by Ellis Peters

This novel is the sixteenth out of 24 in Ellis’s Wesley Peterson series and (can you believe it?) the first for me. Moving round the British Isles, we’re now in Tradmouth, a coastal town in Devon. Police detective Wesley Peterson is an amateur archaeologist who transferred from London in book one, hoping for a quieter life. There’s always a historical thread running through the stories, allowing Wesley’s great friend and archaeologist, Neil Watson, to take a share in the investigations. Here we have the discovery of a dead body – a woman murdered and with nothing to identify her – called in from an anonymous tip-off. Then there are the two teenagers who have been shot, their bodies hurled from a cliff – could their deaths be connected to the hunting game they played on the Internet? Meanwhile Neil is in charge of the excavation of a picnic from sixteen years before. It’s an art piece to be filmed and shown at the Tate Modern, but among the china and glassware, what should turn up but an old skeleton. Segments from a journal written in the early 1800s bring in a chilling story that has similarities to the deaths of the teenagers. It all adds up to a brilliant read combining police-work, archaeology, terrific characters and a look into the darker side of human nature.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Wartime sleuth Maisie Dobbs has really grown on me over the years. She was a bit too good to be true to begin with, beautiful and intelligent with a knack for picking up people’s thoughts through their body language. And kind of serious. But you always got an interesting but little known aspect of WWI and its legacy on the fragile peace that followed. Now we’re back at war, Maisie’s been given some dangerous assignments, and having had fate hand her a few blows over the years, she’s toughened up and is game for anything. The American Agent is set in 1940, not long after the Battle of Britain, and the Brits would love a bit of help with the war effort from the US. Maisie and her bestie, Priscilla, are ambulance drivers when they meet a young American journalist who’s come along for the ride during a busy night in the Blitz. Impressed by the bravery and determination of ordinary women, Catherine Saxon plans to write their side of the story but not long afterwards, the journalist is strangled. Were her stories too controversial, or was there a secret that got her killed? Winspear keeps you guessing to the end.

Pandemic Reading Part 2: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

This book is definitely a little closer to home than The Last Hours, my previous pandemic read. A Lovely Way to Burn describes a modern-day pandemic – the kind that kills virtually everyone who catches it. Unofficially called ‘The Sweats’, it seems to have caught everyone off-guard. There’s no obvious policy for mask-wearing or lock-downs while people panic, party like there’s no tomorrow or carry on as usual.

In the latter category is Londoner Stevie Flint. We meet up with her at work, where she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. After a busy day persuading people to buy guff they don’t really need, she is miffed to discover her surgeon boyfriend, Simon, has stood her up – no apologetic text or phone-call. Maybe their relationship has run its course, she wonders. Dropping by Simon’s flat to pick up a dress and some rather expensive toiletries she’d left in his bathroom, Stevie finds Simon’s dead body and calls the police.

The problem is, Simon doesn’t seem to have died of The Sweats. The police say it’s natural causes, and yet he was always so fit. Stevie is left to ponder how little she really knew about him, and then she gets sick. When, surprisingly, Stevie recovers she receives a letter from Simon – one of those ‘in the event of my death’ missals which sets her on course for a whole lot of trouble.

Simon worked in paediatrics – in particular, finding a cure for children with cerebral palsy, along with several colleagues who were also his closest friends. Having hidden a laptop containing sensitive information in Stevie’s flat, Simon has requested her to take it to a Mr Reah and absolutely no one else. When Stevie tries to track Reah down at Simon’s hospital, she finds he has died, and not surprisingly, that as a survivor of The Sweats, Stevie is medical hot property.

So begins a gripping cat-and-mouse story, as Stevie, believing Simon to have been murdered, attempts to discover the secrets on the laptop. There are people out to get her, she has to fight off more than one assailant, and take a punt on who to ask for help. In the background, London grinds to a halt, there are curfews and the army rolls in to help maintain order.

I wanted to yell at Stevie that she had to get in some supplies, fill her car up with gas and get out while she could. That she should find a cottage in the country somewhere with a big vegetable garden and maybe a henhouse; that her amateur sleuthing could wait. Simon would still be dead and in a week or two; chances are the evil perpetrator would likely enough be dead too. But then we wouldn’t have had much of a story here, would we?

A Lovely Way to Burn is the kind of book that has you in thrall from page one. It reminded me a little of The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan with our beleaguered heroine holding a secret she doesn’t understand that someone wants to kill for. And there’s the surviving against the odds aspect that ramps things up a gear. It may not be the book for you if you’re squeamish about disease, bodily fluids and the misery of knowing your number’s up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And rats, there are those too.

But however icky things got, I found I couldn’t put the book down. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I shall look forward to checking in with Stevie again – she’s a great character. Will Stevie get out of London, find a bolt-hole to hide in while the world as she knows it disintegrates? What will the world like be after that? A new regime based on subsistence agriculture or will chaos prevail? I can’t wait to find out. Some copy-editing issues did slightly spoil my reading pleasure, so this one’s a three and a half out of five from me.

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: 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: 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.