Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

Historical Crime Fiction
5*s

I like reading non-fiction books especially about true crime, even better if they are back in the past; I think this is because it feel less like I am trying to gain entertainment from someone’s tragedy, and if it is new to me too, well that is the icing on the cake. The problem with some non-fiction true crime is that you don’t get a real feel for some of the characters, often the victim who is often dead before we meet them and unless they’ve been murdered for their own dastardly acts they can appear as nameless victims. It is for this reason that my preference for true crime is that which is presented as fiction using the crime itself as inspiration. This is what the incredibly talented Elizabeth Haynes has done with the story of The Murder of Harriet Monckton.

Harriet was living in Bromley Kent, she was a single woman of 23 years old; a school teacher and observed to be a devout Christian attending the local Chapel regularly. It turns out that Harriet was also around six months pregnant when she died from ingesting Prussic acid on 7 November 1843 and her body was found in the privy behind the chapel the following day. A sad end and one that because the vessel containing the poison could not be found, the only conclusion was that this had to be a murder. But who would want Harriet dead?

Elizabeth Haynes tells us at the end of this magnificent book that she has used the two inquests held as well as newspapers from the time to recreate the key characters in the book. She has done magnificently well. Every single person we come across works as an individual, and as a collective taking up their positions in their small town, they are at times terrifying in what they are willing to see, to acknowledge and to challenge. I cried for Harriet who had so much to offer but was sadly one of those women who was taken advantage of, and lost her life because of it that comes through whether or not you take the history that the author has created to be credible or not.

Bringing the forgotten back to life is the real triumph when fictionalising a real crime. No one was ever tried for Harriet’s murder, in fact once the coroner had finally concluded the inquest some two years after her death any traces of her life seem to vanish alarmingly quickly. Elizabeth Haynes states at the end of the book that she couldn’t leave this young woman without telling her story – and I heard that story loud and clear. In the hands of this undoubtedly talented lady, we are presented back with a fully rounded woman, with hopes and fears, with errors of judgement made and plans for a better future made – the facts that are contained in the recording of her life are fed into a story that can be taken at face value and read as an example of a life lived, in 1843, in Bromley so minutely were the details recreated for our consumption.

If you haven’t already guessed, I adored this book for the premise, the skill in recreating a life, the rich story that has been served up to the reader and the characters that leap off the page, The Murder of Harriet Monckton will most definitely be a book that will appear in the top ten published this year.

First Published UK: 28 September 2018
Publisher: Myriad
No of Pages: 437
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Other Books by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner (2011)
Revenge of the Tide (2012)
Human Remains (2013)
Under a Silent Moon (2013) – DCI Louisa Smith #1
Behind Closed Doors (2015) – DCI Louisa Smith #2
Never Alone (2016)

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

A Snapshot of Murder – Frances Brody

Crime Fiction
4*s

Despite coming to this historical crime series relatively late they have become a firm fixture in my autumnal reading with something so appealing in going back to seemingly less complicated times but of course not neglecting the fact that some people are always going to be bumped off! The bonus with this series is that the murder is more or less of page and the reader can enjoy the mystery without needing to get themselves overly anxious about the killing bit. And so it is for A Snapshot of Murder, the tenth in the Kate Shackleton series.

The year is 1928 and the Brontës are becoming big business, so much so that a museum is opening in Haworth and it’s big news. Back at home Kate is indulging in her other passion than sleuthing as a member of The Headingley Photographic Society. The young lad Derek proposes a group outing and although, as always when a committee is involved, there is plenty of huffing and puffing about the donation to be made and the location to be visited they eventually set off for the opening of the museum with the hope that they will capture some fantastic pictures in the bargain. One thing to say for these novels is that Frances Brody really knows how to lay the groundwork for book and luring you into a time and place.

As might be expected no sooner have they arrived in the picturesque location than there is a murder! As it happens the victim happens to be the most disagreeable male character so we can swiftly move on with nary a tear shed. Even better there is an instant mystery as his wife Carine, also a member of the photographic society, has just discovered that her fiancé a man she believed to have died in WWI is actually alive and well and returned ‘home.’ It also hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that while Tobias Murchison was busy being disagreeable and boorish, young Derek had provided a bit of solace to Carine. The motives are stacked up, the opportunities catalogued and the local police predictably a little bit confused and so our intrepid sleuth Kate Shackleton is roped into the investigation.

As always with these books the chief protagonist comes over as a very capable woman. The setting may be many years ago but she is fairly modern in her outlook and not inclined to faints or vapours, or to be fair constantly underlining how difficult it is for women in society at the time. In fact I think I’d get on very well with Kate Shackleton who seems to have an abundance of intelligence and a fairly bright outlook on life when you take into consideration that she investigates the worst humanity can do to each other.

The settings are brilliantly done, with the link to the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights in particular the photographic theme lends itself so well to really setting the scene thereby conjuring up the much-loved book as well as setting the scene for murder in 1928!

As this is a series we meet some past characters including Kate’s bubbly niece Harriet but somehow unlike many other crime fiction series all the characters except those that take centre stage are more or less backdrops, so while it is nice to meet them the book really is focussed on the main players in the mystery itself.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Little Brown Book Group, and the author Frances Brody for a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable trip to Brontë land in A Snapshot of Murder!

First Published UK: 25 October 2018
Publisher: Little Brown
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

The Kate Shackleton Series

Dying In The Wool: 2009
A Medal For Murder: 2009
Murder In The Afternoon: 2012
A Woman Unknown: 2013
Murder on a Summer’s Day 2013
Death of an Avid Reader 2014
A Death in the Dales 2015
Death at the Seaside 2016
Death in the Stars 2017

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Letters from the Dead – Steve Robinson

Crime Fiction
5*s

For the seventh outing of Jefferson Tayte, a genealogist now based in the UK with his wife Jean, JT as he is more fondly known, is asked to discover the four-times-Great-Grandfather of his client, Damian Sinclair. His trail takes him from a crumbling, literally, pile in the Southern Highlands of Scotland, Drumarthen, to Rajputana (now known as Rajasthan) with strong links to the East India Company.

If you have followed JT’s previous adventures you will have learnt that genealogy can be a dangerous business, something JT himself seems to forget with a sense of abandon as soon as any juicy mystery comes along.

Damian Sinclair is unlike most of JT’s clients, he and the wider family have done a massive amount of research into their family. It’s soon revealed that this isn’t out of simple curiosity about their family heritage but because wrapped into the history is a missing ruby, one that would significantly change the owner’s life and there is no better motivation than a treasure hunt to help fill in those gaps on the family tree. Damian Sinclair assures JT he is not interested in the ruby and even though the reader can hear the audience hissing, JT puts his scepticism about the truth of this statement aside, and agrees to work on the case.

JT is introduced to the wider family and it is revealed that packet of letters were found that might hold the link to the jewel written in 1820s from a travelling companion in India back to the woman’s brother. These seem to be missing, all apart from one. Do these letters hold the key to the mystery?
The characters are brilliantly portrayed, Steve Robinson has ensured you will be able to tell them all apart by making them distinct, if in the main, individuals that you don’t need to waste a whole heap of sympathy on. After all you don’t want feelings of sorrow for these fictional characters to slow the trail to finding the truth, do you?

While JT is seeking the truth from the past, there are disturbing events in the present with an ‘Golden Age’ type mystery involving a syndicate formed to find the ruby. We therefore have Detective Inspector Alastair Ross being kept busy with the odd dead body too.

As with the previous books in the series, not only are the stories incredibly informative showing the impeccable research carried out by the author, they also have a sense of fun too. The story as it unfolds by letter from life in Colonial India completely transported me to a very particular way of life. The historical part alone was a fabulous story while with the danger in the present and a mystery which seems to hinge on greed provides a puzzle which seems to confound the finest of minds. Steve Robinson created a thoroughly interesting, informative and entertaining read in Letters from the Dead.

I’d like to thank  and the author Steve Robinson and the publishers Thomas & Mercer for allowing me to read an advance review copy of Letters from the Dead which was published on 14 August 2018. Perfect for lovers of genealogy as the author manages to weave some actual resources into the book without overshadowing either the historical angle or the mystery playing out in the present it also caters for a wide range of interests from history to those who crave a damn good mystery!

First Published UK: 14 August 2018
Publisher: Thomas Mercer
No of Pages: 348
Genre: Crime Fiction – Genealogical
Amazon UK
Amazon US

If you haven’t read the previous books in this series, not to worry, each of the books stands alone with only a very fleeting mention of anything in JT’s private life that has gone before.

Previous Books in the JT series

In The Blood

Two hundred years ago a loyalist family fled to England to escape the American War of Independence and seemingly vanished into thin air. American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is hired to find out what happened, but it soon becomes apparent that a calculated killer is out to stop him.
In the Blood combines a centuries-old mystery with a present-day thriller that brings two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic together to uncover a series of carefully hidden crimes. Tayte’s research centres around the tragic life of a young Cornish girl, a writing box, and the discovery of a dark secret that he believes will lead him to the family he is looking for. Trouble is, someone else is looking for the same answers and will stop at nothing to find them.

To The Grave

A curiously dated child’s suitcase arrives, unannounced and unexplained, in a modern-day Washington suburb. A week later, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is sitting in an English hotel room, staring at the wrong end of a loaded gun.
In his latest journey into the past, Tayte lands in wartime Leicestershire, England. The genealogist had hoped simply to reunite his client with the birth mother she had never met, having no idea she had been adopted. Instead, he uncovers the tale of a young girl and an American serviceman from the US 82nd Airborne, and a stolen wartime love affair that went tragically wrong.

The Last Queen of England

While on a visit to London, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte’s old friend and colleague dies in his arms. Before long, Tayte and a truth-seeking historian, Professor Jean Summer, find themselves following a corpse-ridden trail that takes them to the Royal Society of London, circa 1708.
What to make of the story of five men of science, colleagues of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, who were mysteriously hanged for high treason?
As they edge closer to the truth, Tayte and the professor find that death is once again in season. A new killer, bent on restoring what he sees as the true, royal bloodline, is on the loose…as is a Machiavellian heir-hunter who senses that the latest round of murder, kidnapping, and scandal represents an unmissable business opportunity.

The Lost Empress

On a foggy night in 1914, the ocean liner Empress of Ireland sank en route between Canada and England. The disaster saw a loss of life comparable to the Titanic and the Lusitania, and yet her tragedy has been forgotten.
When genealogist Jefferson Tayte is shown a locket belonging to one of the Empress’s victims, a British admiral’s daughter named Alice Stilwell, he must travel to England to understand the course of events that led to her death.
Tayte is expert in tracking killers across centuries. In The Lost Empress, his unique talents draw him to one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history as he unravels the truth behind Alice’s death amidst a backdrop of pre-WWI espionage.

Kindred

Jefferson Tayte is good at finding people who don’t want to be found. For years he has followed faint genealogical trails to reunite families—and uncover long-hidden secrets. But Tayte is a loner, a man with no ties of his own; his true identity is the most elusive case of his career.

But that could all be about to change. Now Tayte has in his possession the beginnings of a new trail—clues his late mentor had started to gather—that might at last lead to his own family. With Professor Jean Summer, his partner in genealogical sleuthing, he travels to Munich to pick up the scent. But the hunt takes them deep into dangerous territory: the sinister secrets of World War II Germany, and those who must keep them buried at any cost.

Dying Games

Washington, DC: Twin brothers are found drowned in a Perspex box, one gagged and strapped to a chair. It’s the latest in a series of cruel and elaborate murders with two things in common: the killer has left a family history chart at each crime scene, and the victims all have a connection to genealogical sleuth Jefferson Tayte.

Hoping his insight and expertise will help solve the case, the FBI summon Tayte back to the capital. But as he struggles to crack the clues, the killer strikes again—and again. Tayte is known as the best in the business, but this time he’s up against a genealogical mastermind who always seems to be one step ahead.

With the clock ticking and the body count rising, Tayte finds himself racked with guilt, his reputation and career in tatters. The killer is running rings around him; is it only a matter of time before he comes for the ultimate target?

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Crippen: A Novel of Murder – John Boyne

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

This is now the third book I’ve read by this author and Crippen is a fictionalised version of the case of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and the murder of his wife of which he was convicted and hanged in 1910.

It could be said that when you know the ending to a story that it will remove all suspense from the reading (or in my case listening) but this book defies that notion. Yes, I knew that Hawley Crippen’s wife Cora was poisoned then dismembered and her torso found under the floor of the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden and having a somewhat grisly nature I know quite a bit about the events that are considered to lead up to the discovery, but to say I wasn’t captivated by John Boyne’s interpretation and imagination, would be an outright lie.

The story takes us back to Crippen’s earliest days where it appears John Boyne has invented quite a bit to create the most sympathetic view of the child growing into a man who longs to be a doctor. However the story also flips forwards in time to the ship the SS Montrose where John Robinson and his seventeen year old son Edmund board in Antwerp to make the journey to Canada to start a new life. John Robinson is a Doctor and the pair travel first class.

The journey across the Atlantic was probably my favourite part of the whole book. The passengers included the most hideous Antonia Drake and her spoilt daughter Victoria as well as the far more balanced Frenchman Mathieu Zela travelling with his nephew and the unassuming Martha Hayes. There are moments of almost farcical nature as despite the plan to keep a low profile John Robinson is in high demand to socialise with his fellow passengers, as is young Edmund.

Things weren’t an awful lot better in the past as we follow Crippen through his apprenticeship in an abattoir to fund his medical diplomas, his first marriage and the beginning of his relationship with Cora, a music hall performer who he eventually moves to England with. I’ve condensed this to a few sentences but the author carefully lays the basis for the part that all the readers know is on the way, and his answer to the question what led the mild mannered Crippen to butcher Cora and then recklessly move his lover, Ethel Le Neve into Hilltop Crescent? Once again along this tour we meet some truly memorable characters, most of them pretty awful but, oh so entertaining for being so. What struck me most was how much the social rules of the time seem to have played a part in the actual discovery of the murder and the interaction between the friend who first reported her suspicions to the hapless constable at Scotland Yard was one of my favourite scenes.

So yes there is tension, as much about how having started the story with the underdog Crippen we were going to get to the finale of the hanging. I’m not going to dissect this part but I for one wasn’t wholly convinced by the explanation, but it was a clever route to take and therefore bearing in mind this is a fictionalised tale, albeit with some of the key players, including Inspector Dew, the plotting was in place so it didn’t come out of nowhere; In short if I didn’t have my own views it was plausible. But most of all the and the journey both on land and at sea was exceptionally entertaining. The characters from the ship’s crew to the minor players really do carry this story especially as we all know the ending!

This isn’t a book to read if you want the absolute facts of the case, but if you want to be entertained this is the perfect platform to either take a look at Crippen from a slightly different angle, or simply to read a gripping tale.

I listened to this book in audio format, it had been on my TBR since January 2016 but regular readers will know i repeatedly struggled with listening rather than reading. I’m glad to say this book proved I could do it and the day it ended when I was only halfway through my walk home, I felt utterly bereft after all Crippen had accompanied me on walks and whilst knitting over a total of 17 hours and 43 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it aided by the wonderful narration by James Daniel Wilson.

This is the second fictionalised story I’ve read about this case, Martin Edwards wrote his version called Dancing for the Hangman which I  highly recommend.

First Published UK: 2004
Publisher: Penguin
No of Pages: 512
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

31 Bond Street – Ellen Horan

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Last year I was seeking out books covering true crime either as a non-fiction read or those that have used a real crime as a starting point for a fictional novel. Well all the time I’d had this book sitting on my kindle, overlooked! Happily that has now been remedied and this sensational crime set in New York in 1857 has its place in my own spotlight.

Dr Harvey Burdell, a dentist was murdered at 31 Bond Street in the early hours of 31 January 1857, yes over 160 years ago, and yet there is still sufficient interest in the case for writers to hold the interest of their readers. The dentist was found with his throat slit and stab wounds, the fatal blow being one to his heart in his office. He was found later that morning by a servant who raised the alarm. The coroner’s office was called and the entire household were placed under house arrest with no access to legal representation. Before too long there was a forerunner for the role of the murderer and that was the beautiful Emma Cunningham, a widow who claimed the pair had married just two weeks previously but no-one knew because the union was to remain a secret until the spring. Hmm…

The coroner has a vested political interest in declaring the perpetrator and in our fictional tale a brave and principled defense lawyer Henry Clinton comes to Emma Cunningham’s aid. It may or may not surprise you to find with the law and politics having so much in common that the prosecutor at Emma Cunningham’s trial, Abraham Oakley Hall, became the Mayor of New York later on although he had his own political downfall to contend with too!

Ellen Horan plays completely fair with her fictionalised tale clearly indicating the characters who were ‘real’ and also interestingly those characters who played a key part in the trial and are not featured in her fictional account. I say interestingly because when I read up on the crime afterwards, there were some details and characters which seem to have added to the media frenzy which are omitted in the book. Perhaps those didn’t fit the narrative the author was trying to portray which doesn’t just consist of the household but the roots of the Civil War and slavery too. This is as much about the political landscape in New York as it is about this particular murder.

The trial of Emma Cunningham

What is or isn’t true is technically irrelevant when you accept that you are reading a fiction even if they do depict elements of real events, and I’m glad to confirm that the author had me captivated by Emma’s determination to make sure her life, and that of her children, continued as it had before she was widowed at such a young age especially as Dr Harvey Burdell wasn’t quite the upstanding gentleman you’d hope for in a man who probes around in other people’s mouths.

The reader gets an insight into her character by reading about the pair’s early meetings in the fashionable resort of Saratoga Springs and how Emma outwardly acted compared to her inner thoughts – she wanted the best marriage possible in part to ensure her eldest daughter also could make a good marriage and for that she needed a dowry – and so the book flicks backwards to enable us to see the Emma before she was accused of the heinous crime.

31 Bond Street is a great example of a story woven around a group of characters and I was totally absorbed by both Emma’s story and the less morally blurred one of her defense attorney, Henry Clinton. The author really bought the time and place to life with details such as clothing and decoration lending an authenticity to the scenes she created.

31 Bond Street is the seventh book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in March 2011 so I gain another third of a book token!


First Published UK: 4 May 2010
Publisher: Borough Press
No of Pages: 372
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

Historical Fiction
3*s

This dark Victorian tale that vividly creates the underbelly of life of the times in a similar style to Sarah Waters’ early books covering the same period.

The year is 1831 as The Wicked Cometh opens and we are treated to an alarming newspaper cutting:

‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’

Down the dark alleys we go, through the putrid mud, into a room with damp walls, a mud floor and precious little to eat although the master of the house always manages to find a shilling for his sup of gin and we meet Hester White who lives with the occupants Jacob and Meg and their twin children having lost her parents in her native Lincolnshire and been taken in by the pair and moved to London. The family is now down on their luck and Hester is desperate to find a way out.

With the sights, sounds and smells excellently depicted there is no doubting that this is an atmospheric read and Hester is a likeable and lively protagonist to lead us on the dreadful journey and one that has us meeting all sorts of likeable and frankly revolting characters along the way whether the mode of transport is by carriage or shank’s pony.

The first half of the book really sets the scene and at times this seems a bit too meandering for my tastes with those like Hester who are left to live by their wits being compared to the well-heeled who quaff wine and dress in exotic clothes whilst carrying out good deeds in their spare time. So we meet the Brock family, the surgeon son, his spinster sister Rebekah and the old gentleman Septimus, the one who holds the purse-strings and therefore gets to make the rules. And Septimus wants Rebekah married but it doesn’t take a genius to work out why this scholarly woman is not really cut out for the life of a lady who wafts around. By coincidence some of the missing have links with the Brock household and Rebekah is trying to work out where they have gone.

There are plenty of characters and at times I confess got a little confused as they blended into one sorry tale after another, never really quite being distinct enough to merit a full role in the drama.

The pace really picks up in the second half of the book with the investigation into the ever-growing number of missing, those who are invisible except to those who read the increasingly long list of names pinned to a hoarding in the hopes that someone will know where they are. There is action and danger, a need to win trust to prise the secrets out and to know who to divulge the snippets to, how trustworthy are the new Bow Street Runners and will they do something to help?

There is a lot to enjoy in this terrible tale, one where the gloom is never far away in those dank and dreary times told with pleasingly consistent prose.

I’d like to thank the publishers Hodder & Stoughton for allowing me to read an advance copy of The Wicked Cometh; this review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 1 February 2018
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
No of Pages: 352
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

This series is so refreshing with the murders somehow far more of a puzzle than centre stage – that place belongs to the safe pair of hands which belong to DI Edgar Stephens.

The year is 1953 and the month is December and in those days snow was more or less a certain event and so the detectives have the weather to contend with as they tramp, often on foot, to the crime scene and the police station.

The book opens with the murder of a young woman at a boarding house in Brighton run by the formidable Edna Wright and her somewhat less formidable husband, Norris. Edgar had attended the scene after the latter had opened the door to find the young Lily Burtenshaw’s body arranged as if part of a tableau. Sergeant Bob Willis is also attending in charge of the new piece of equipment, the camera which will document everything rather than relying on memory.

Of course along with Edna and Norris the other occupants of the boarding house have to be interviewed and among them are two young women who are sharing the bill with Max Mephisto at the Brighton Hippodrome. Max is performing magic alongside his daughter Ruby with the finale using a life-size vanishing box. It won’t be long before their magic act moves to television at the behest of their manager Joe Passolini.

With Edgar and Max having served together as the band of Magic Men in World War II along with their collaboration on previous murders he shares some of the details, especially as it seems there may just be a link to the variety show. The show features near naked women (with strategically placed feathers) standing stock still in a tableau. Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know that this was a thing! Apparently naked women could appear on stage as long as they didn’t move so these tableaux were presumably popular with the male attendees of the variety shows hopeful of a mis-positioned feather! Anyway back to the story… Edgar along with Bob and his female sergeant Emma Holmes ponder and puzzle over the clues when someone else is found murdered.

These books really are delightful, I preferred the setting firmly back in the theatre rather than our brief foray into television in the last book, and the puzzle is an intriguing one. The tone is light although because of the somewhat tangled personal lives of all our favourites the humour isn’t quite of the level of the first two books. I particularly enjoy the period details which are sprinkled throughout the book without the reader ever feeling as if this is overdone, a tip that many other authors tackling the historic angle could take note of. I also like the length of the book, the pace is fairly swift with the personal lives of our favourites woven into the plot seamlessly so that the book doesn’t feel as if these scenes have been added to pad the book out.

If you want the perfect kind of winter read you could do an awful lot worse than to settle into your seat, albeit slightly frayed, at the Brighton Hippodrome, and prepare to be amazed.

I received an ARC of The Vanishing Box from the publishers Quercus Books. This unbiased review is my thanks to them.

Published UK: 2 November 2017
Publisher: Quercus Books
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Max Mephisto & DI Edgar Stephens Series

The Zig-Zag Girl
Smoke and Mirrors
The Blood Card

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

A Talent for Murder – Andrew Wilson

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Andrew Wilson has come up with a brilliant premise for this novel based on Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 and executed it with aplomb!

It is all too easy for these types of books, of which I’ve read a few, to come across as cheesy, perhaps because the author imagines that what we know about the famous person concerned will hold our interest through sketchy characterisation. Andrew Wilson has created his Agatha Christie as a strong, intelligent woman who has found herself backed into a corner as she tries desperately to protect her errant husband, she still loves him dearly despite the fact that she knows he is having an affair, and her young daughter. Despite that it took me a couple of chapters before I was convinced…

First to the facts; Agatha’s car was found with a suitcase of clothes and her driver’s licence at Newlands Corner near Guildford in Surrey. She’d left her house, Styles in Berkshire with a note to her housekeeper saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her husband, Archie Christie had chosen to spend the weekend at his friend’s house in Godalming in Surrey, at a party which his mistress Nancy Neele was attending. But despite a massive man-hunt nothing else was known until Agatha was found ten days later in a hotel in Harrogate where she’d registered as Mrs Teresa Neele from Cape Town. Andrew Wilson has cleverly plotted around these facts so much so that at before long I had to remind myself this was fiction.

To add authenticity the book starts with a meeting between the man who is determined to use Agatha for her own advantage. She is well-known for writing murder mysteries, even if she is struggling with her latest novel, and he wants to use this knowledge for his own purposes.

The reader is allowed inside the head of the man trying to hoodwink Agatha and he is definitely one bad guy, I’d go as far to say that he is one of the creepiest protagonists of all time, and his confident that he’s outwitted Agatha, but is he right? To balance out the creepiness we have an eye on the official investigation into her disappearance led by Superintendent William Kenward with particularly satisfying moments when he puts Archie on the spot about his real feelings for Agatha, and Nancy with Archie being outed as the philanderer he was!

Not only do we have some fab characters that could have stepped from one of her own novels, we are exposed to her knowledge of poisons the settings used are the perfect backdrop to this dark yet utterly enjoyable novel along with references to the early works completed at the time.

With sublime plotting to seal the deal A Talent For Murder gets the thumbs up from this reader for a thoroughly enjoyable read, which I fully admit I approached with a sense of fun because of course I knew that Agatha would be alright in the end, but as to the rest of the cast? Well you’ll have to read A Talent For Murder to find out for yourself.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book as part of the review panel for Lovereading and a shorter version of this review will appears on their site.

 

First Published UK: 6 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
No of Pages: 416
Genre: Crime Fiction – Historical
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction
4*s

This is a book steeped in the folklore and superstition that I’m sure reigned worldwide at the beginning of the nineteenth century but possibly had its most ardent followers in the Irish countryside with its stories of fairies, changelings and many rituals to ward off evil.

Set in County Kerry in 1825 in a remote valley lying between the mountains of south-west Ireland,near the Flesk river we meet Nóra Lehay when she learns of the death of her husband Martin. Only earlier that year the pair had suffered the loss of their only daughter Johanna and as a result their four year-old grandson Micheál. Poor Micheál is unable to walk and Nora has kept him hidden from her neighbours but now with the house about to fill up with mourners, she decides to give him to her neighbour, Peg O’Shea to mind.

The women gather at the well and swap gossip and Nóra’s bad luck is part of the daily currency. Peg is more understanding, with Nóra struggling to cope as she refuses to take Micheál out of their home, she suggests she goes to the hiring fair to get herself a young girl to lend a pair of hands.

This book is beautifully written and I became immersed in the small house, the winter pressing down on an already bleak home. The simple lifestyle with the local handy woman dispensing herbs and cures for all manner of ills was easy to imagine with the lyrical writing and the occasional Gallic phrase served to add a layer of authenticity to what felt like a meticulously researched book. The superstitions that seemed so quaint at the opening of the book soon take a darker turn with many of the villagers reporting bad luck in the form of the drying up of milk from the cows and the lack of eggs from the hens. These basic needs are so important when the inhabitants are living from hand to mouth, and soon the murmurs of something causing the bad luck begin to turn into positive finger-pointing and some of those fingers point at Micheál.

There is no doubt at all that Hannah Kent knows how to tell a story, she is a master of the show and not tell with the various superstitions on which the villagers rely on are seamlessly interspersed throughout the tale. The atmosphere she creates as the backdrop oppressive with little relief and I felt that I was immersed in a world far away from my home comforts. The characters were well-drawn and although I wouldn’t have wanted to share the bleak winter with some of them, had enough of a back-story for me to understand them. This wasn’t after all a world where a battered wife could up sticks and leave. There is one woman, the handy woman, Nance Roche, who lives close to the part of the forest where the fairies are thought to dwell, whose life seemed to be a litany of hardship, and was one of many who illustrated quite how strong the survival instinct is. Her story combined with that of Mary the maid, just a young teen, confronted with caring for a young boy who couldn’t walk or talk and screamed through the night was almost too awful to imagine. The hardship was sadly all too easy to imagine.

The Good People is a heart-breaking novel which provoked a feeling similar to that I had when reading the author’s debut book Burial Rites, a feeling that the outcome was inevitable, yet I read it desperately hoping for something to happen that would change its course. The story is all the more devastating because like Burial Rites it is inspired by a real event.

I’d like to thank the publishers Pan Macmillan for allowing me to read a copy of The Good People ahead of the publication of the hardback on 9 February 2017.

First Published UK:  9 February 2017
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
No of Pages:  400
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Historical Crime Fiction 5*s
Historical Crime Fiction
5*s

I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at this book which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 when I realised that it made a neat fit with my recent historical crime reads, both factual and fictionalised.

I have to admit I was slightly confused when I opened the first page to a realistic looking statements from the residents of Culduie, I was sure this was a work of fiction but apart from the smattering of Scottish dialect this could have been lifted from my recent non-fiction read, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane by Jane Housham, which was set only three years prior to His Bloody Project. So we are in August 1869 and the residents of Culduie are giving their views of Roderick Macrae, who is accused of three murders.

The book is structured as if it were a work of non-fiction with the longest section given over to Roderick’s only statement, written at the behest of his advocate Mr Andrew Sinclair while he was awaiting trial at Inverness Castle, having been swiftly detained after the bodies had been found. The account of Roderick Macrae is surprisingly well crafted considering the boy was just seventeen, a crofter who had grown up in a small village and one whose boundaries he had rarely crossed. This discrepancy however had already been covered within Graeme Macrae Burnet’s foreword to the book, if you are going to pick up this book, don’t skip this section!

This was a book that kept my interest on so many different levels. I didn’t know much about the life of a crofter, I know far more now. Life in a small Scottish village was tough, ruled by the Laird through his minions, the crofters pretty much lived from hand to mouth, hoping for a good harvest to keep them in food throughout the black months. Roddy was one of four children living with their father following the death of their mother a year earlier. Jette, Rodderick’s sister acting as mother to the two youngest children, kept house and looked after their strict, morose father. In short a grim life that is hard to imagine. When a new Constable is elected to look after the Laird’s interest in Culduie, life takes a turn for the worse.The most I will say about the section containing Roderick’s account is that it raises a few questions and I’m sure each reader will have a slightly different take on the information. It also introduces us to a range of characters, some of which we naturally met within the statements, others only appear through Rodderick’s eyes.

I loved the structure of the books, I was continually reminding myself that this was a work of fiction, and following the preface, the statements and Roderick’s account we finally get to the trial itself. Here, if you didn’t already have enough questions, you will have plenty more to add to the pile! What is brilliant is that I still have questions, I still want to know more about a few of the characters – yes this is a book I want to read again, knowing what I now know to see what else the pages will give me in the way of certainty. For me the mark of a cracking good read.

Although this book isn’t a crime thriller read in the normal sense of the word, there is very little doubt who committed the murders, it more than makes up for it with the whys. For those readers who enjoy something that challenges the norm, and definitely one that makes you think, you really don’t want to miss out!

First Published UK: 6 November 2015
Publisher: Contraband
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
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