Tag Archives: British crime series

Big Sky: Kate Atkinson

“There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.”

Big Sky is the 5th novel in the Jackson Brodie series from Kate Atkinson. If you’ve read some (or all) of the series, then you know Jackson’s troubled background and his fractured personal life. This novel finds Brodie on the east coast of Yorkshire, split from actress Julia (did we ever think it was going to work?) and now involved with his teenage son, Nathan. Julia initially denied Jackson was Nathan’s father, but “now that the worst years had arrived, however, it seemed that she was more than keen to share him.” With Julia “ferociously busy” in her role as a pathologist in a long-standing TV series, that means Jackson has the care of Nathan and Julia’s elderly Labrador, Dido. Jackson is still doing PI work, but his already shrinking business has shrunk even further. Brodie Investigations might have a glamorous ring, but the reality of his day-to-day work is “either following cheating spouses” or with the assistance of a “particularly enticing yet lethal” Russian woman named Tatiana, constructing “the sticky insides of honeypots (or flytraps as Jackson thought of them.”

Big Sky

Series PI/detective novels juggle the personal lives of the main characters with the cases under investigation, so here Jackson spends quite a bit of time with his 13-year-old son Nathan, ferrying him back and forth to Julia. Reggie, a character from the third Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News? also makes an appearance as part of a formidable two-woman police team: Reggie and Ronnie, known as the Krays. There are also scenes with Jackson’s daughter, Marlee and even Superintendent Monroe makes an appearance.

Two predators once hunted in this coastal region: Bassani and Carmody–two “council officials and respected charity supporters” who “shared an appetite for the same fodder.” They lured children “out of care homes and foster families or their own dysfunctional households.” They were lured with dangled opportunities: “amusement arcades and funfairs,” and the two predators organized “Christmas parties, outings to the countryside and the seaside, camping and caravan holidays.” There were “rumors of a third man. Not Savile.” Bassani died in prison, Carmody is about to be released, and some people in this seaside town wonder if he’ll “name names.”.

Big Sky contains a large cast of characters, and it’s hard at times to place these characters in terms of the plot as culpability/roles are obfuscated for a great deal of the book. We’re initially introduced to two sisters who then disappear until about 3/4 of the way through the book, and then there’s this handful of golf playing, smug affluent men who smirk at each other while making obscure in-jokes. This construction: adding characters without placing them in the context of the plot was unfortunate, but Brodie is a great character, and after a while, I gave up trying to puzzle out who all these people were and how they connected and instead just enjoyed the read.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the high-maintenance wives who choose to look the other when it comes to just how their husbands make all that money.  These are women who just can’t walk away, so there’s a high price for all that luxury. One of my favorite characters was Crystal: a plastic construct of a living walking Barbie doll. Ex manicurist, ex-topless model, ex- a lot of things, she has emerged and pragmatically accepted her position; she might as well have sex with one man rather than hundreds. She’s a good mother and a good stepmother. Her predecessor died in a strange accident after becoming a bit of a nuisance, but still …  Crystal thinks it’s best not to go there.

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction made from artificial materials–the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

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Blaze Away: Bill James

Bill James is the pseudonym for the author of the long-standing Harpur and Iles crime series which began in 1985 with the first novel You’d Better Believe It. Well here’s number 32 in the series: Blaze Away. While the novel worked as a standalone, with footnotes which gave pointers to the novels in which various mentioned incidents took place, it’s clear that the plot is founded on a basic affection for the many long-standing characters and their sometimes nebulous relationships.

Blaze awayThe novel starts off very strongly with an art theft gang known as “Cog,” casing out, via a laptop, photos of Darien, the country estate belonging to Jack Lamb. He’s known to house a substantial art collection, and the gang–composed of planner George Dinnick, Liz Rossol, in charge of recon and fieldwork, and art expert Justin Benoit, plan to rob Lamb knowing that since Lamb deals in both stolen goods and fakes, he won’t report the robbery to the police. The hope is that although the art is probably stored in a concrete strong room, that Lamb will roll over without the need for persuasive methods:

Dinnick said: ‘We take and then transfer our trove to that jolly friend in Ghent by customary methods, and it disappears into the great, shadowy, magnificently efficient arty elsewhere. Obviously it would be best if we could get there while the stuff is actually on display, easy to unhook and multi-filch. The strongroom could cause difficulties–delays, and the need to force the door–combinations from him. We all hate that kind of blood and bone-break thing, I believe, but Jack Lamb’s not some innocent, pure at heart, pictures fan, is he? We’ve dealt several times with similar obstructiveness. Lamb has chosen risk as a colleague. That’s us. Risk can move in on him and become not risk at all but authentic, professionally delivered pain. He’s hardly going to call the police, is he, running the kind of business he does?”

While the gang carefully case Jack Lamb’s estate, they note two things: 1) Jack Lamb’s mother is there on holiday from America and 2) Jack has a visitor who drives a car with registration that, when checked, simply doesn’t exist. Conclusion: Jack Lamb has a friend in the force, and that perhaps Jack Lamb is a police informant.

After setting the scene with details about Jack Lamb’s art collection and his relationship with Harpur, the novel shifts to Ralph Ember’s “social club,” The Monty, “at present unquestionably a lovely building but, because of the membership, also unquestionably a scrap-heap, crap-heap.” Ralph has got it into his head that if he can “spruce up the club’s grubby character” with art, then he’ll appeal to a better class of membership. Fat chance of that happening. In spite of the club’s membership rules, which include a booklet which lists “no weaponry,” member Basil Gordon Loam aka Enzyme shot up a protective steel barricade which is covered with pasted on illustrations from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This has resulted in a lifetime ban for Enzyme and a renewed interest from Ralph in pursing an artistic theme in the club.

But even more than that, the shooting incident results in an article in the gossip column of the I Spy tabloid. The incident rattles Liz Rossol and she decides that it needs further investigation in case there will be an impact on their intended robbery of Jack Lamb. At the same time, Assistant Chief Constable Iles also reads the I-Spy article and decides to take proactive measures to ensure that Ralph doesn’t exact revenge against Enzyme.

So basically, the I-Spy article makes all the characters converge.

Stepping into this novel is like stepping into an alternate universe. As a crime novel, the mood and style are unique and quirky. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the leap required to accept that Liz Rossol would imagine that the shooting at The Monty Club was in any way a problem for the planned robbery at Darien, and credibility is stretched to imagine, in today’s world, that an Assistant Chief Constable would stop everything after reading an I-Spy story (even though I know this decision is founded in long-standing relationships). Large parts of this short novel include soliloquies on various topics such as the meaning of one painting and the damage perpetrated on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s also a long section which takes place in a daycare centre. Again the emphasis is on quirky rather than credibility or realism. Since this is a long-standing series with long-standing characters, Bill James has built a world peopled with eccentrics and eccentricities.

After coming across a mention of the Harpur and Iles series in a Ken Bruen novel, I’ve been meaning to read Bill James for some time and own several of the early books. I’ve read chunks from the earlier books and liked what I read, but still, as a newcomer,  in all fairness to the author and the series, I was unprepared for the novel’s tone and mood. I liked the novel’s style and the cultural references (which, in a circular way brought me back to Bruen). Some reviewers seemed annoyed by the banter between Harpur and Iles but I rather enjoyed it:

The two main cops around here, Assistant Chief Constable Iles, and Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur, behaved something like Enzyme. One of them would ask the other a question and either get no answer, or an answer that was another question, or even an answer to a different question that hadn’t been asked and had no relationship to the one that had. This was not caused by subconscious obedience to the uppish family past and genes, though, as with Enzyme, but by a playful, vicious determination in both Iles and Harpur to piss on the other’s peace of mind, confidence and sanity. That’s what policing at the highest levels must be like: conversations which were not; which were sessions of attrition and lively insult.

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham (1929)

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

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The Sussex Downs Murder: John Bude (1936)

The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.” 

Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.

The Sussex Downs MurderThe Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….

So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.

John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.

Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:

It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.

Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.

Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.

While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:

You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.

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Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 […]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

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Waiting for Wednesday by Nicci French

“We’re taught to beware of strangers,” she said. “It’s our friends most of us should worry about.”

Author Nicci French is an amalgamation of names for writing team, husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and together they’ve written a number of books of domestic, psychological  suspense and crime. I first across “Nicci French” through film adaptations, and curious, I turned to the books and have read several. A few years ago, a new crime series was launched which featured a London based psychotherapist Frieda Klein. First came Blue Monday, then Tuesday’s  Gone, and this is number three in the series: Waiting for Wednesday. Given my interest in books featuring psychotherapists, naturally I’m in for the series.

Waiting for WednesdayWaiting for Wednesday finds Frieda Klein recovering from injuries she suffered in Tuesday’s Gone. She’s been replaced as a consultant for the police by her enemy, snide, pompous Hal Bradshaw. So while her professional life is in the toilet, in her personal life, she’s in a long-term, but long-distance relationship with New York based Sandy. The book begins with the brutal murder in the suburbs of Ruth Lennox, a middle-aged woman, a seemingly perfect person–an excellent wife and mother, a health visitor for the local authority, and the epitome of respectability. Clues at the scene hint that this is a burglary gone wrong, but Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson soon has reason to doubt the easiest solution.

While Karlsson and Detective Constable Yvette Long become embroiled in the murder of Ruth Lennox, another plot thread follows retired journalist Jim Fearby, a man who for years has relentlessly campaigned for the release of convicted murderer, George Conley. Conley was arrested near the body of a dead eighteen-year-old girl, and although he eventually confessed, Fearby is convinced that Conley is innocent. He believes that the dead girl was just one victim of a serial killer who operates by grabbing his pedestrian prey in lonely country roads.

The plot juggles the investigation behind the Lennox murder and Jim Fearby’s hunt for a serial killer. Also, of course, there’s also Frieda with a tarnished professional reputation, and now persona non gratis as far as Karlsson’s boss is concerned. Frieda becomes involved with the Lennox murder through a personal connection, and unfortunately that only serves to fuel Hal Bradshaw’s enmity.

As a series novel, Waiting for Wednesday shows the difficulties writers face when bringing readers up to speed. Initially synopses of past events cover an explanation for Frieda’s injuries and  exactly why she’s no longer paid by the police as a consultant. Readers have either read the earlier novels or not, and the explanatory passages are an annoyance if you’re read the other books.

The book’s title, Waiting for Wednesday, struck me as an interesting choice, because that’s just what the book seems to be–we’re waiting for something to happen, and the book seems, more than anything else, a breather novel in between catastrophes. For those who’ve read the earlier novels, the thing we’re waiting for  involves Dean Reeve, a major character in Blue Monday, a dangerous man who’s out there somewhere on the loose, watching Frieda, now acting like one psycho deranged guardian angel as he bides his time for some bigger agenda. While this novel includes a number of dead bodies and the hunt for a serial killer, somehow all the action seems overwhelmed by the evidence that Dean is still out there. The result is that when the solution to the serial killings arrives, it arrives with an anticlimactic whimper–not a bang.

Frieda was established as a recluse in Blue Monday, but now her life is chaotic and completely out-of-control. Her home, a former sanctuary, now gets more action than Grand Central Station, again with the result that the book seems to be waiting for something to happen… something to change. And then just how does Frieda make a living? It’s certainly not by seeing patients, although the odd one pops up occasionally. Again there’s the sense that a big storm is on the horizon but it doesn’t appear here in this novel; it’s brewing.

In the future, Frieda’s life must either get sorted or implode. Dean must either make a serious move in Frieda’s sphere or bugger off and forget his obsession. Frieda must decide whether or not to commit to Sandy and move to New York or else end this long distance romance and spare herself from his annoying e-mails. Many things have to happen, but none of them happened here.

When Frieda is finally allowed on the crime scene  (another problem with the book–after all, exploring the criminal mind, and not child-minding is what she does best), the novel lights up as she discusses her insights into the life of the murder victim, Ruth Lennox with Karlsson:

“There’s nothing here she wouldn’t want to be seen,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I always think that nobody’s life can tolerate a spotlight shone into its corners.”

“But?”

“But from everything you tell me and everything I’ve seen, hers seems entirely ready for the spotlight, don’t you think? As if this house were a stage.”

“A stage for what?”

“For a play about being good.”

“I’m supposed to be the cynical one. So you mean you think nobody can be that good?”

“I’m a therapist, Karlsson. Of course that’s what I think. Where are Ruth Lennox’s secrets?”

Another strength of the novel is character of Jim Fearby, a man so obsessed with finding a serial killer who may or who may not exist, that the rest of his life disintegrates without him even noticing. When Fearby meets Frieda, there’s a meeting of obsessives, and together their skills mesh to discover the truth. Waiting for Wednesday–the solution to the Lennox murder, and even the hunt for the serial killer (whose identity I guessed) seemed lethargic when compared to Blue Monday, but I’m hoping the quality improves for the next novel in the series.

 Review copy

 

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Hope Road by John Barlow

Hope Road sits at the feet of the optimistic, vertical city, close to the glamour but somehow cut off from it, left on the outside. This part of Leeds clings to its low-slung industrial past like an old drunk, scared to change his ways and knowing that, in any case, he’s not welcome anywhere. Victorian workshops and squat 1920s factory blocks are either bricked up or hide unnamed businesses behind steel-panelled gates topped off with coils of rusting barbed wire. Occasional splashes of colour announce exhaust refits and commercial printing services.  

I’m going to admit that the idea of a new series of no less than 9 crime novels is a daunting prospect–even for a die-hard crime reader like me, but the good news is that this is an opportunity for those interested to get in at the ground floor level for a mere 2.99. The books I’m talking about are the LS9 series written by John Barlow. John, a self-described mid-list author went straight to kindle with his book Hope Road, and you can find his (well-worth reading) explanations for that  here. Last year, thanks to Tom at A Common Reader, I discovered Conan Kennedy and his kindle e-book The Colour of Her Eyes. The kindle (and yes I own one) opens up worlds of possibilities for authors and readers, and I think it’s rather exciting.

So back to Hope Road which I bought after checking out a sample chapter (another great feature of the kindle). First of all, I can see the mini-series now, so Mr. Barlow, I hope you’re working on the second book. For those who watch television crime mini-series, think Finney or even The Take (based on the book by Martina Cole), and you’ll have an idea of where Hope Road slots into the crime genre. Yes this book is the first entry in what promises to be a sprawling saga of a notorious crime family from Leeds.

The novel’s main character is John Ray, the only surviving son of Tony Ray, a much-respected Leeds crime boss. In Tony Ray’s heyday, he had his finger in many pies, and his used car business served as a front for his less-legit concerns. But those days appear to be over. Wheel-chair bound, geriatric Tony Ray is spending his sunset years drooling at Oakwell Nursing Home,  and John Ray’s brother, Joe “a hardened, joyless version of their father,” who took the family crime business to the next level,  had his brains blown out  two years before. The crime remains unsolved. This leaves the youngest son, John Ray, the ‘white sheep’ of the family, and when the book begins, John Ray who denounced the criminal life years earlier and worked as an accountant, is back in Leeds running the old family business Tony Ray’s Motors, and he appears to be making a success of it.

John Ray runs the shop with the help of two employees: a distant relative with murky connections, the libidinous Connie, and the young reformed crook, Freddie. It looks as though John Ray may be winning the respect of the local business community when he’s awarded the Autotrader Used Car Dealer of the Year Award. On top of that, John Ray is also dating copper Denise Danson, and that relationship has people on both sides of the fence upset.

John’s world begins to crumble when the body of a prostitute named Donna is found in the boot of one of his cars, and before long, Freddie, sweating it out in Millgarth police station, is the odds-on favourite for the crime. The police however, also found 50,000 pounds of forged pound notes in the car, and since the Ray family dabbled in counterfeit notes, suspicion also falls on John, but the police can’t make the crime stick to John no matter how hard they try. 

Hope Road follows John’s investigation of the death of  Donna as he tries to prove that Freddie is innocent of the murder, but with every step he takes, he digs deeper into the Leeds underworld and finds that the local crims and coppers alike both mistrust him. All roads of the investigation seem to take John back to the seedy rundown motel called the Eurolodge. Here’s one of my favourite scenes between former barmaid Sandy, who now works at the motel, and John Ray as they discuss the Eurolodge:

“Adrian Fuller, owner-manager…”

She sniffs. “He’s all right, Fuller. He inherited the building a couple of years ago, had an idea for business hotels, budget ones. Eurolodges all over the country. Told me one night when he was pissed.”

“So what happened?”

“Place didn’t take off. Then he started getting funny guests. Blokes, groups of ’em all in one room, asking for big discounts. They’d book by the week, or longer, and they’d be coming and going at all hours….”

“Let me guess. The kind of people my dad used to employ?”

“Something like that. Before he knew it, his normal customers had disappeared.”

“I bet.”

He watches as she puts out her cigarette and immediately lights another.

“Ahh, that hits the spot,” she moans, almost curling up in pleasure.

“Jesus, I spend years trying to get it down to two-a-day, then one-a-day. Suddenly I’m surrounded by women who just adore tobacco.”

“It’s about the only pleasure I can afford, love,” she says, and takes another draw.

 Hope Road asks some relevant questions: can a person whose past is immersed in crime ever make a complete break, and even if he does will anyone believe that he’s not chosen the same path as the rest of his family? This is an intriguing beginning for author John Barlow. The first is the series is often the weakest, but this is a strong start which establishes core behaviours and core characters and sets the foundations for a sprawling crime family saga amidst the seedy hotels, drab flats and various low-lifes of Leeds. I particularly enjoyed how John Ray runs into Sandy, once the object of his adolescent fantasies, and while the meeting is a reality check, John Ray isn’t exactly a Hollywood type either:

Shirley Kirk studies John Ray’s features, strong nose, high forehead, thick black hair. A heavy-set man with faded good looks. Attractive? Up to a point, but there’s something else. A frisson of excitement with him, the fact he comes from serious criminal stock, old school crims, love their mothers, all that shit. It’s not his fault, but it’s not as if he does anything to hide it. We’re all playing somebody, she tells herself, and this is how Mr. Ray has chosen to play it.

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