Book Review: The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

You can tell best-selling author Elly Griffiths has had a ton of fun setting her new Harbinder Kaur mystery around the world of publishing. You can’t help wonder how much of her own experience she’s slipped into the narrative.

The Postscript Murders begins with the death of ninety-year-old Peggy Smith, discovered in her flat by Natalka her Ukrainian caregiver. Because of Peggy’s age, the doc writes it off as natural causes, but Natalka, ever suspicious, believes it’s murder and says so to DS Kaur. Harbinder agrees to look into it, impressed by Natalka’s accent which makes her sound like a spy.

And it’s kind of suspicious how Peggy’s son, Nigel, has her cremated so quickly, her flat boxed up and ready to sell. Just as well Natalka has kept a key. She teams up with Benedict, a former monk who now runs the Coffee Shack on the beach front, and the two sneak into Peggy’s flat where they discover numerous books with Peggy credited in the dedications. She helped the authors with their murder plotting, it seems. A masked gunman who surprises them and then steals a book has them knocking on the door of Peggy’s neighbour Edwin to phone the police.

While DS Kaur is playing catch-up, the unlikely crime-solving trio of Natalka, Benedict and Edwin follow a trail of clues all the way to a literary festival in Aberdeen, tracking down all the crime writers who used Peggy’s services. A new murder keeps Harbinder busy as well as threats close to home so it becomes difficult to rein in Team Natalka. Bubbling away under the surface are subplots including Natalka’s bitcoin shenanigans which have her watching over her shoulder for heavies involved in organised crime, and Harbinder’s ongoing inability to tell her parents that she’s gay. At thirty-five she’s still living at home enjoying Mum’s cooking while her parents hope for a good match for their daughter.

This is a very character-driven story, with much humour coming from the interconnection of the bunch of misfits making up an unlikely cast. Harbinder is an engaging sleuth with her smart policework and ironic mutterings. A glimpse of the publishing industry, the marketing gimmicks, fandom and the sometimes awkwardness of literary festivals creates an interesting backdrop. I chuckled all the way through, not guessing the ending, but not minding if I did as this was such a fun read. Four out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Many readers were disappointed when award-winning crime writer, Ann Cleeves decided to call it a day with her Shetland series. I guess there are only so many crime scenarios you can imagine for a tiny place like the Shetland Islands. But if there’s a silver lining here, it has to be her new series set in North Devon, featuring local police inspector, Matthew Venn.

The Long Call is the first Two Rivers novel and I happily devoured it. The story begins when Matthew attends his father’s funeral having recently returned to the area of his boyhood with his husband, Jonathan. It’s a Brethren funeral and he keeps himself at a distance, not daring to approach his mother, having disgraced himself as a teenager by declaring himself an atheist, dropping out of university and later breaking his parents’ hearts by marrying a man. But his new case, the murder of a troubled loner, Simon Walden, will take him uncomfortably close to the people from his family’s church.

The story of Simon Walden will take some uncovering – the man had shed his life of family, friends and belongings. Plagued by guilt over an accidental death, he had become an alcoholic before being rescued by a church group run by Caroline Preece, the daughter of one of the movers and shakers behind the community centre known as the Woodyard. Caroline took him in as a lodger, helped with counselling and found him some voluntary work.

Surprisingly, Walden made a connection with a woman with Downs Syndrome who also attended a drop-in group at the Woodyard. So much seems to centre on the Woodyard, which is managed by Matthew’s husband, Jonathan. Should Matthew declare a conflict of interest and hand the case over to DCI Oldham? But his boss has his eye on retirement and will only step in if Matthew messes up – so no pressure then.

When another woman with Downs Syndrome goes missing, the first Matthew learns of it is a phone call from his mother – phone calls from his mother are unheard of. The victim is the daughter of a good friend, another member of the Brethren who remembers Matthew and his disgrace. Fortunately he has a smart team to work with. Jen, his DS is from Birmingham, a no-nonsense sort with a failed marriage and two teenagers at home. She’s good at building relationships with witnesses and getting them to spill the beans. DC Ross is young and restless, but eager to prove himself, and there are plenty of opportunities here.

Looking ahead, I know we will come to love Matthew Venn and his sidekicks – Cleeves is so good at character development, highlighting the pressures put on police officers and connecting them to the crime story. This book pivots on the relationships of parents and their children, not just Matthew and his mother, but our other players too. What is it like to bring up a child with severe learning difficulties? What would we do to keep them safe? How far would we go to make our children happy?

So while Cleeves gets plenty of points for character development in her fiction, I am always impressed by the way she can pick apart relationships, the secrets that imbue them and the passions – positive and negative – that they generate. The Long Call has this in spades. Easily a four star read from me.

Book Review: Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter

An atmospheric setting does wonders for any mystery series. In Treacherous Strand, we’re way up in the Irish county of Donegal, and the Inishowen Peninsula. Small-town solicitor, Ben (Benedicta) O’Keefe is badly hung-over when she learns a client and friend, Marguerite Etienne, is dead. Her body washed up near the shoreline, clothes neatly folded on the beach, suggests suicide but Ben isn’t convinced.

On the night before she died, Marguerite had called in to see Ben about making a will, revealing plans to leave her few possessions to a daughter of 23 she had not seen since the girl’s infancy. It was the end of the day, and Ben’s secretary had left work, so there was no one to witness the document. Ben promised to draw up the will ready for Marguerite to sign over the coming days, but never saw Marguerite alive again.

Ben is a troubled woman, plagued with guilt for not being able to save her sister and now she’s got this to reckon with. No wonder she sits up late at night getting through the red wine. She also has a problematic relationship with Sergeant Molloy, who’s in charge of the case – there was some kind of romantic spark that didn’t quite happen in the first book, Death at Whitewater Church, which still haunts Ben in this book. (I really must learn to read these crime series in order.)

Talking to witnesses reveals that Marguerite had a difficult past, escaping a religious sect, the Damascans, but unable to take her daughter with her. Marguerite’s neighbour, an overtly charming Scottish artist, Simon Howard, immediately takes a shine to Ben when he calls in to her office to reveal that he’d agreed to be executor of Marguerite’s estate. Meanwhile Simon’s troubled son, David warns Ben off. His dad’s a terrible womaniser, he says, and surely that puts Simon at number one on the suspects list.


Further suspects soon pile up, including a town councillor, and Marguerite’s therapist, both of whom seem to have fallen in love with the victim. Throw in some lively characters: Phyllis, the owner of the bookshop where Marguerite worked and Ben’s bestie, Maeve the vet, plus a bunch of quirky locals, and you get plenty of small town colour. Another thing I really liked about the book is that Ben is a proper solicitor. She has to fit her amateur sleuthing in around real work and the author, having been a lawyer herself, makes this seem very real.

The story cranks up the tension nicely – Ben gets the sense that someone is warning her off and opens herself to some dangerous situations. Sergeant Molloy is not best pleased. Over all it’s a decent enough crime novel, although I must confess to getting confused from time to time with the many characters and having to skip back to check who was who. So this one’s probably more of a three than a four from me.

Book Review: Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

I’d picked up and put down this one a few times before, not sure it would hold my interest. Contemporary crime fiction is written in a more pacy style than this old Poirot novel, first published in 1942. But I put my reservations aside and once I got going I was soon absorbed.

Five Little Pigs begins with a new client calling on Poirot, a well-turned-out young woman asking him to review the case of her mother murdering her father, sixteen years before. Carla Lemarchant has only recently learned about the deaths of her parents – she’d been brought up in Canada by relatives and had a happy upbringing. Only now she wants to get married, but before she can plan her wedding, she needs to know what really happened. And then there’s the troubling letter from her dying mother, declaring her innocence.

The novel is divided into three parts as the great detective slowly pieces together the events of that fateful summer. In the first part he interviews the lawyers for the defence and prosecution as well as a policeman to find out why it was so easy to find Caroline Crayle guilty of the murder of her husband, the celebrated artist, Amyas Crale. Everyone agreed she’d put poison into his glass of beer while he was painting a beautiful young woman at their country home. In court, Caroline had just sat there, doing nothing to fight back, immobile but looking lovely just the same.

Along with Elsa Greer, the artist’s model, four others were present when Amyas died – all possible suspects – making the five little pigs of the title. Somehow Poirot can’t quite get the nursery rhyme out of his head. One by one, he visits the five and asks them to write a description of events leading up to and including the murder.

The first (little piggie who went to market) is Amyas’s great friend, the investor Philip Blake; the second (little piggie who stayed home) is Philip’s brother Meredith who had a bit of crush on Caroline, and immersed himself in amateur pharmacology. Elsa is the third little piggie who had roast beef – well, a succession of wealthy husbands, while the little piggie who had none is governess Cecelia Williams who adored Caroline while seeing to the education of Caroline’s precocious young sister, Angela Warren. Angela, now a respected archaeologist, is the little piggie who cried wee, wee, wee all the way home.

The second part of the novel is made up of the written narratives of each ‘piggie’ and the same threads run through each of them: the theft of some coniine from Meredith’s laboratory; the overheard arguments, the simmering jealousies. Of course, we don’t know who might be lying or making unsubstantiated assumptions. The third part is the coming together of all the witnesses so that Poirot can explain all and unmask the killer.

So unlike a modern murder mystery, there is no second murder, or ramping up of tension through imminent danger. And while Christie linked nursery rhymes from time to time to her plots (One, Two Buckle My Shoe; Hickory Dickory Dock; And Then There Were None), perhaps we are too sophisticated to be amused by such a contrivance today.

And yet, this such a good story. The characters are interesting – all of them have emotional ups and downs to do with the lovely, long suffering Caroline or enfant-terrible Amyas, the couple vividly brought to life even though they are both long dead. And then there’s the beautiful mansion with its battlements and coastal setting, the languorous summer weather, the simmering tension of people behaving badly.

The story slowly builds and the reader is swept in to make connections and deductions, pick up the red herrings, and examine motives – Christie’s novels work very much with the reader playing detective alongside her sleuth. And the finale is so well done, the vivid reconstruction of Amyas’s death revealed with Poirot’s wonderful delight in the dramatic. I loved it. It just goes to show that a book doesn’t have to have the expected plot-points to work and this one works just fine. It’s not quite a classic but still a four out of five read from me.

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.