Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancĂ© Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon – a beguiling psychological dramedy

You never quite know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up a Joanna Cannon novel. Each is unique, but there’s a few common themes. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has two young girls concerned with the disappearance of a neighbour and what unravels in their cul-de-sac during a simmering 1970s summer. Three Things About Elsie is set in a retirement village with its elderly protagonist trying to keep a grip on reality while haunted by a secret from the past. A vein of dark humour runs through both books and it is the same here with A Tidy Ending.

Linda just wants to be like other women she sees in the catalogues delivered to her new house, addressed to Rebecca Finch. Rebecca used to live in the house Linda and Terry have just moved to – just around the corner from their old house. In her early forties, Linda’s either wearing the same old housecoat she’s had for decades, or clothing from the charity shop where she works part-time. According to her mother, she’s just too ‘big boned’ to aspire to anything more glamorous. But surely there’s more to life than pushing the hoover around and fish-fingers for tea.

Although she’s married to Terry, it’s a lonely kind of marriage and Linda doesn’t have any friends. She tries to suggest going for a coffee with Ingrid down the road, but Ingrid just never quite has the time. You can’t help wondering if it’s because of something that happened to Linda when she was a child and the terrible events around the death of her father. Meanwhile, a young woman has been strangled nearby. There’s nothing like a murder to get the neighbours talking and Linda and her mother are soon swept up in speculation. Even Terry, normally sat in front of the telly watching sport, takes an interest.

The story follows the extraordinary lengths Linda goes to make friends with Rebecca Finch. Meanwhile another girl is murdered amid talk of a serial killer lurking in the neighbourhood. We learn more about Linda’s childhood in Wales and what happened to her father. Threaded through the narrative are chapters that seem to be set in a ward for the mentally ill. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up before any hint of the story’s ‘tidy ending’.

There’s a tinge of humour running through Linda’s narrative and even though she’s not the easiest character to like, you can’t help feeling some empathy for her. Will she manage to sort out her life and get what she wants or is she doomed to be misunderstood, disliked or even stuck in ongoing mental care? The characters around her – the fussy, demanding mother; the nosy, busy-body neighbour Malcolm – are beautifully observed, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with what’s going on in the story. So even though Linda is such an awkward character, you can’t help wanting to know what happens to her and you race towards a stunning and unpredictable ending.

I love the way Joanna Cannon combines sharp psychological observation with clever plotting and she’s done it here again. I’m not quite sure what genre this – is it a ‘domestic’ thriller? A dark comedy? Or something unique of Cannon’s own devising. Whatever it is, she’s a breath of fresh air – original and hugely entertaining. A Tidy Ending scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett – a new puzzle from an inventive mystery writer

I was impressed by Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal, which was written in text messages, emails and similar correspondence – an epistolary novel for our time. More interestingly it invited the reader to solve the mystery and figure out whodunit. And now Hallett’s done it again with her second book, The Twyford Code, only this time the story is written for the most part in transcripts of audio files from a phone.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison after a lengthy stretch for a crime that is not revealed until towards the end. We learn he was a career criminal, working for an established family of crims. They’d looked after him when he was teenager, feeding him, clothing him and showing him the trade. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen after something went terribly wrong on a school trip involving the disappearance of a favourite teacher, Miss Isles. Steven can’t help blaming himself.

Nearly forty years ago, Steven found a book on a bus travelling to school, and showed Miss Isles, who read it to the class. These are the kids who are in reading recovery, the ones with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but Miss Isles knows how to inspire them. The book with echoes of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, is written by Edith Twyford, much discredited in recent years, her books a tad racist and paternalistic for modern times. But the story captivates the class and Miss Isles who says there are clues in the book to missing gold secreted away during World War II. Twyford and her husband were spies and Steven’s book is full of code-like annotations. Can Miss Isles and the class solve the puzzle?

Steven is hazy about what happened on the school trip to Twynford’s cottage, and the disappearance of his teacher. So he tracks down his classmates in the hope of filling in the gaps. The audio files are his way of documenting his findings – he is hampered by his limited literacy – and they are addressed to Maxine, his probation officer. The technology captures his way of speaking exactly, his London accent, so that Miss Isles becomes ‘missiles’; must have translates to ‘mustard’ and so on. In a way this takes a bit of getting used to, but it also adds personality.

Among the recorded dialogue, the diary entries, and so on there’s still plenty of action. It seems danger lurks and where there’s gold there’s always someone who will do anything to get it. We are slowly filled in on Steven’s past, his criminal history and his family. But mostly this is a clever and engaging mystery. You get caught up in trying to figure out what is real and what’s just Steven’s imagination – he’s a classic unreliable narrator, worldly-wise in some ways, naive in others.

The Twyford Code is a brilliantly planned and executed puzzle, but I did at times tire of Steven’s company. This is perhaps a limitation of telling the story in this way. I also struggled to keep all the facts straight, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to. The twists and revelations make for a clever and appealing ending, enough to save the book for me. I’m giving it a four out of five while wondering whatever will Janice Hallett think of next?

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!

Book Review: The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley – another excellent twisty read in an atmospheric setting

Lucy Foley really knows how to conjure an interesting setting. We’ve had a wedding venue on an island in The Guest List, luxury accomodation cut off by snow in The Hunting Party and here a gated apartment building in a posh part of Paris. I can see how her mind works. She’s seen a setting and wondered who lives or works there, like we all do, and then wondered what if there was a murder.

In The Paris Apartment, Jess is on the run from her job in England. She’s done something she shouldn’t have and hopped on the train for Paris to crash with her brother Ben. The two were separated as children when their mother killed herself. Ben who could charm anybody was quickly adopted and enjoyed the spoils of doting parents and a good education. Jess however, much younger and evidently not so charming, went from foster family to foster family, forever scarred by being the one to find their mother’s dead body. Her education has been minuscule which is why she’s been working in a dodgy bar.

Jess turns up at Ben’s Paris address, an apartment in a surprisingly luxurious building with an internal courtyard garden. The old lady concierge isn’t very welcoming and Ben isn’t home. But Jess is street-wise and manages to get inside anyway, fashioning her cheap hoop earrings into a device to pick the apartment lock. Inside, still no Ben, only a cat with blood on its fur. And it looks as if someone has scrubbed something off the floor using bleach. Jess begins to suspect the worst.

The gated apartment building offers a select bunch of suspects who Jess slowly gets to know. Nobody’s very friendly and nobody seems to know what Ben’s been up to lately. He’s a journalist so we can only suppose he was snooping around too much. The only one who is at all friendly is Nick, Ben’s friend who helped him secure this flat. Ben and Nick were at university together.

There’s also Sophie in the penthouse flat with her little dog and who is much nicer to the dog than people. She’s a high-maintenance middle-aged woman married to Jacques, who is mostly away on business – something to do with wine if the cellar down in the basement is anything to go by. There’s broody, menacing Antoine who frightens Jess when she first arrives. That leaves two young girls who share a flat: sensitive art student Mimi and her party-animal pal, Camille.

The story switches between the characters and backwards into the past to portray a picture of Ben, the charming Englishman interloper, from various points of view. Everyone seems to be afraid of something and they all seem to be hiding something. Just as everyone seems to have pieces missing from the puzzle. It’s going to have to be Jess who sorts it all out but who can she trust? The reader is all too aware that Ben has likely paid a price for asking too many questions. Thank goodness Jess’s got a bit of help from foreign correspondent Theo, who looks like a pirate but seems to be otherwise trustworthy because Jess is in way over her head.

Lucy Foley delivers another clever twisty mystery. How she manages to keep track of who knows what and a backwards and forward timeline suggests a pinboard covered in spreadsheets and graphs. Agatha Christie would have been impressed. Jess is the perfect character for Foley’s amateur sleuth because she is so completely at sea in this sophisticated Parisian setting, is barely educated and thoroughly naive. Instead she relies on gut instinct, driven by love for her brother and a determination for justice. The Paris Apartment comes together nicely to create a light but very satisfying read and gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans – an atmospheric and twisty page-turner

I really like books where there’s an atmospheric house in the country and a dark family secret or two. Harriet Evans delivers all of this in The Beloved Girls, but throws in a pagan ritual dating back to the 1700s. What more could you wish for?

The story takes us to London where we meet Catherine Christophe who in her late forties has an enviable life. She’s done well in her career as a barrister, has two well-adjusted teenage children and a happy marriage to Davide, who she met in Toulouse on her gap year. Life had been going swimmingly but lately Catherine has felt uneasy about losing a murder case, where a boy around her daughter’s age has been convicted for killing another boy at his school. He’s not a very nice kid, that’s obvious, but he’s still a kid and he was bullied mercilessly. And then she starts seeing a figure from her past, someone who should be dead.

Switching back a few decades, there’s the story of Jane L’estrange. Jane dearly loves her father, a charismatic but complex man with PTSD from the war and difficulties holding down a job. When her mother leaves them, Jane is sent to visit the Hunters at the Vanes, a quirky country mansion. Jane soon bonds with Kitty Hunter and would love to stay longer, but there are some awkward family dynamics – a very unpleasant father, Charles, knowns as PT for pater familias, the product of the worst kind of public school, and his much younger wife, Sylvia, who has a mysterious connection to Jane’s father.

When she’s eighteen, Jane returns to the Vanes for the summer after the sudden death of her father, her mother having returned from Spain to sell up and arrange Jane’s future. Kitty’s aloof, her brother Joss is smarmy, while Charles is planning for Jane to take part in the yearly honey gathering ritual. She’s to be one of the Beloved Girls, dressed in green, part of a procession that will harvest honey from bees who have built hives in the derelict chapel on the Hunters’ property. The ritual was begun centuries before by the vicar of the day, a sinister man whose flock avoided church. This is a wild coast, where shipwrecks were frequent and the locals enjoyed the spoils of wrecking and scavenging.

Slowly the puzzle pieces come together as the story switches backwards in time, but it’s that particular summer, when Jane’s eighteen, that is the centre of the action. Of course there’s a heatwave to make everything seem more menacing and even the bees seem to be swarming angrily. You can tell things aren’t going to end well. Surely it’s time for some characters to get their comeuppance. The misogyny endured by Kitty and her mother from both Charles and Joss and his friends, who attend the same awful public school, is ever present.

Meanwhile Catherine Christophe isn’t faring too well and you can’t help wondering if her perfect world isn’t going to crumble down around her. So there’s plenty to keep you turning the pages as the past catches up with the present. But there’s a lot to think about too. Evans has a fair bit to say about the privileged classes that hold sway, keeping things the same, generation after generation. They depend upon a world where women know their place and money talks.

All in all, this is a fairly satisfying read, somewhat escapist but not as frivolous as it might be. The characters are interesting and flawed, very flawed often, but then they they are victims too. The ending is somewhat open to interpretation which works well here. Perhaps the middle sagged a little as one hot day bleeds into the next, but in a way this adds to the simmering tension. All the same, I found myself skimming a little. The Beloved Girls is a three and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford – a dual-narrative of family secrets and Arctic adventure

Here’s a new novel from an author with a knack for dramatic Scottish settings. A Woman Made of Snow weaves together two stories, the first set just after World War Two. Caro has a history degree from Cambridge and a new baby. She had envisaged a new life with hubby Alasdair in London, both of them with university posts, but little Felicity came too soon. Now she’s stuck near Dundee with an interfering mother-in-law who keeps dropping in with well-meaning advice. Caro feels she has to have things tidy all the time just in case Martha appears.

Rents in town are expensive so the young family have a cottage on the family estate. When a pipe bursts and the cottage is flooded, there’s nothing for it but to move in with Martha who’s rattling around on her own in a picturesque castle. A skeleton uncovered by builders after the flood sends shockwaves, and Caro and Martha can’t help wondering if it isn’t Alasdair’s great-grandmother whose name has been scratched out of all family records. Caro uses her skills as a researcher to uncover the story of the woman and speculates who the skeleton might be.

Meanwhile the story switches back to the late 1880s and we meet Charlotte who is in love with childhood friend, Oliver. Only Oliver is in love with Charlotte’s sister. A night on the tiles to soothe an aching heart leads Oliver to sign up as ship’s surgeon on the Narhwal, a whaling ship setting off for the Arctic. How the two plot threads are connected to the missing great-grandmother and the skeleton in the garden make for a pacy plot unravelling to a dramatic climax.

While this all adds up to an enthralling story, Gifford takes time to develop a number of themes, including the awkwardness that often arises between a devoted mother and her daughter-in-law. There’s some class snobbery – Alasdair’s sister Pippa describes Caro as ‘suburban’ as if that’s one of the worst things imaginable. You really feel for Caro, missing her career, managing a baby in a chilly castle, and not fitting in. Other issues such as colonisation and racism get a look in, revealed gently through the story.

But mostly I raced through the book to find out what happened. There’s tragedy of course, not surprising since there’s a body in the garden, and my heart-strings were well and truly tugged. However I couldn’t help feel that this might have been a more powerful novel if the two malefactors in it – one for each timeframe – weren’t quite so obviously twisted, and the ending a little less all tied up and perfect. It’s just a small complaint, as overall this is a solid, entertaining novel, but I feel a little disappointed. So it’s a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst – a detailed police procedural with a likeable Norwegian detective

When it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, I’ve often thought if only there were more Wallander novels published by Henning Mankell before his death in 2015. I’ve tried other Scandinavians of course and enjoyed them – Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q series is worth a look. But for a more psychological read with an engaging policeman, Norwegian author, Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting’s novels seem to capture much of that atmosphere I’ve liked so much with Wallander.

Wisting is a Chief Inspector in his fifties at the start of The Hunting Dogs working out of the Criminal Investigation Dept of Larvik Police. This novel has him revisiting the abduction of a teenage girl who was subsequently murdered seventeen years ago. The killer, recently released Rudolf Haglund, has employed a lawyer to prove his case for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that police tampered with the evidence. As senior investigating officer at the time, Wisting is stood down from duties while an inquiry is underway.

Meanwhile, Line, Wisting’s daughter, is aware that the newspaper she works for is about to splash this story all over the front page in the morning. She is appalled – she knows her dad would never tamper with evidence to secure a conviction and rushes off into a wet, miserable night after a better story to bump the Haglund allegations onto page two. She gets caught up in a murder – a man attacked on the street, while his dog stands guard in the rain, a bit like Greyfriar’s Bobby. Great photo material. But when Line tracks down the owner and calls round to the victim’s house, she’s assaulted too.

What can the two murders have in common? Well, in real life probably nothing, but this being crime fiction, you know they’ll intersect sooner or later. Wisting heads off to his cabin in the woods to dig through old paperwork and calls on favours from a retired crime scene investigator. He studies photos of the police team involved unable to imagine who would have fiddled with those cigarette butts.

His relationship with cafĂ© owner Suzanne is going south – he’s always up at dawn, and she’s always late home, while the police crime investigators are threatening a prison sentence. So Wisting’s up against it. When another teenage girl goes missing, there are echoes of the original Haglund case, and Wisting is desperate to get back in harness to find her. So much pressure, but what can he do?

If Wisting’s hands are tied, Line is all fired up to do some snooping, particularly when she spots the link between her murder victim and Haglund. She calls in her mates, too – a couple from her newspaper and an old boyfriend who turns up out of the blue. We get a brilliant scene where they show the reader how to follow a suspect. Honestly, it was like a scene from Spooks. Yes, it seems, journalists know all the tricks.

The plot steadily builds to a showdown with plenty of danger and edge of seat action. All the while you are aware that time is ticking for the abducted girl. It’s a great read, but what I really like is the detail of the detective work and how authentic it sounds. This is probably because Horst was once himself a policeman in Larvik, so the procedures around evidence storage and forensics are carefully explained and make interesting reading. We’ve also got some well-considered points around police ethics, loyalty and morality adding depth to the story.

There is plenty to like with The Hunting Dogs; the writing is crisp and the translation (thanks, Anne Bruce) is seamless, never clunky. So you can see why Horst is one of my favourites among the Scandinavians. I’m not alone – he’s won a bunch of awards, including The Petrona, a Scandi-crime fiction award for books translated into English. This one earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard – a complex and original page-turner with a twist

What does a Japanese crime boss, a chemical defence base in Cornwall and real estate in Iceland have in common? They are all part of a complex new thriller by Robert Goddard. I had really enjoyed Goddard’s Wide World trilogy set during the time of the Versailles treaty negotiations after World War One. So I knew Goddard could throw together a twisty, action packed story with engaging characters, witty writing and an ending you don’t see coming.

And so it is here. The Fine Art of Invisible Detection begins with a difficult case for the Kodaka Detective Agency in Tokyo. Umiko Wada mostly does the office work but a new case has her packing her bags for London to impersonate a client. Mrs Takenada wants to discover if her father really committed suicide on a business to London in 1977. Or did his connections with notorious career criminal, Nishizaki, lead to his murder? She’s received a letter from a Martin Caldwell asking to meet up. He has evidence about a former friend of his who worked as an interpreter for Mrs Takenada’s dad. But Mrs T’s family are cautious so Wada is sent in her place.

With the sudden suspicious death of her boss Wada might be biting off more than she can chew, but Wada is smart, careful and has one thing that many other private detectives might envy: she has the knack for blending in with a crowd. When Martin doesn’t arrive at the appointed time for their interview, you can’t help wondering if something has happened to him as well.

The story switches between Wada’s narrative and that of Nick Miller, an art teacher that Martin has been in touch with as well. Similarly Martin fails to show up to meet Nick and so Nick and Wada both conduct their own investigations into what Martin had been trying to tell them and why he might be missing.

The story takes the reader to Nancekuke in Cornwall where the British military had been conducting trials on chemical weapons, in particular sarin gas acquired from the Nazis at the end of World War Two. Wada has her own personal connection with sarin – her husband was a victim of the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo train in the 90s and took twelve years to die. But what could any of this have to do with her possible suicide victim in London? She and Nick will both find themselves travelling to Iceland to find out.

This is another brilliant twisty read with all kinds of story threads going off in different directions and then somehow coming back together. Wada is a great character, discovering as she goes on how to be a credible private detective. Fortunately she can think on her feet and has a cool head because someone is out to stop her. Nick is interesting because he is the mostly unlikely of heroes, but he has the strong emotional pull of someone grieving a parent, while trying to find the truth of his paternity. Goddard doesn’t let him sit around drinking tea and pondering what’s what however. Like Wada, he’s on and off planes, visiting crime-scenes, getting caught up in the action and fearing for his life.

The story builds to a thrilling ending and who knows, maybe another case for Wada, although Goddard mostly writes one-offs. Personally, I’d be happy to visit the Kodaka Detective Agency again. Wada is interesting company. Goddard manages to write from the point of view of a middle-aged Japanese woman and make her seem credible. The history around the Nancekuke base will have you searching the Internet and what you discover makes for some grim reading. I like it when you have a rip-roaring read with some substance and that’s certainly the case here. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.