October 27 2018

Cor, strike a light, guv! If you fancy a trip to the smoke this week, we can do you a load of London-based books at no charge. (Wanders off muttering about pearly kings and queens dahn the old east end, and Buck House where her Maj lives …)

Robert Galbraith – better known as JK Rowling – returns with London-based private investigator Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott in Lethal White, a complex tale of blackmail and possible child murder. Linda Wilson says that Rowling weaves her usual magic with a long, infinitely complicated story about shifty politics in the corridors of power and dodgy dealings in an aristocratic family. John Cleal was impressed with Dominick Donald’s debut Breathe, set in the cloying fogs of the 1952 winter that stopped Britain’s capital city in its tracks. A probationer copper sees a link that others don’t in a series of deaths. John says the book is an extraordinary mix of fiction and fact so real it made his skin creep, coupled with the beautifully detailed sights, sounds, grit and desperation of post-war London. John stuck with his beloved historicals this week with Murder at the Bayswater Bicycle Club where the redoubtable Frances Doughty is asked by a mysterious government agency to keep an eye on goings-on at a posh West London cycle club by a mysterious government agency and enters a world of corruption, murder, espionage and personal danger. John says Linda Stratmann’s style is like her heroines, laid-back almost to the point of becoming cosy, and a cross between Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, with the plotting as sharp and observant as her humour.

The title character escapes London in MRC Kasasian’s Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire. A partly disabled Met sergeant avoids being invalided out when a transfer is arranged to the Suffolk force. She returns to the town where she grew up to find a police station in chaos and a murderer on the loose. John Cleal enjoyed the nicely complex plot, genuinely funny moments and some serious observations about the approaching war.

We’ve got a strong European flavour for you this week, starting in Italy with Sandrone Dazieri’s Kill the Angel, where a train from Milan pulls into Rome’s Termini station with everyone in its Top-Class coach dead. Deputy Chief Colomba Caselli discovers the bodies and sets out to find the culprit. Sylvia Maughan says the book is complex and thought-provoking. In Keeper by Johana Gustawsson, a famous actress is abducted in London in circumstances that are just like murders committed ten years earlier – a case that was believed to have been solved. Then a similar murder is reported in Sweden. John Barnbrook was engrossed in the atmospheric dialogue and descriptions and found the book very plausible and entertaining. Arnold Taylor, who is working his way through the series, picks up another Maigret this week. In Maigret’s Failure by George Simenon, the iconic French detective is visited by a village school acquaintance he had never liked, who has been receiving letters threatening to kill him. Although reluctant to get involved with the man, Maigret makes enquiries. Arnold comments that the difficulty of establishing a motive here was problematic, and so made this book less satisfying than usual.

A Summer of Murder by Oliver Bottini sees Chief Inspector Louise Boni of the Freiburg Kripo back on duty. She’s immediately pitched into a major case involving the movement of weapons across Europe. Chris Roberts enjoyed the contrast between the formality of the officials and Boni’s rather wild behaviour and disregard of orders. Despite her behaviour – or perhaps because of it – he praises the interesting protagonist. The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories has 13 short stories set in and around Barcelona. Chris enjoyed the variety of apparently respectable characters who become involved in serious crime and was impressed by the distinct voices that Teresa Solana brings to each one. The stories all have an off-beat flavour that is frequently macabre as well as humorous. In The Master and Margarita, a mysterious professor of black magic arrives in Moscow with a bizarre entourage in tow to wreak havoc among the city’s intellectual elite and ordinary citizens. Ewa Sherman says Mikhail Bulgakov’s book is a fascinating read, full of tension and drama, dry humour, questionable jokes and a colourful riot of ridiculous surrealism. It’s also a satirical, sad and truthful portrayal of a society and political era lacking freedom of expression which could as easily fit into 2018 rather than the 1930s.

Cry to Dream Again by Jane Hawking starts in a French village where a 17-year-old girl on holiday there has an insatiable desire to become a ballet dancer. On the ferry journey home, she encounters a handsome young man and develops a second obsession. Arnold Taylor found himself gradually becoming more intrigued by the story and the main character. Our European journey ends in Sweden where a gang has set out to commit the country’s biggest cash robbery. John Cleal says that former publishing boss Jonas Bonnier can certainly write. He describes The Helicopter Heist as a brilliant ‘factional’ interpretation of a multi-million robbery that will grip both true crime fans and fiction readers.

Lancashire lass Linda Wilson ventures oop norf to both sides of the Pennines. She’s a former property solicitor and cringed in a corner when the main character in David Tallerman’s The Bad Neighbour rushes into a house purchase in a rundown area of Leeds and quickly regrets his decision. She says the book paints an all too real and depressing picture of urban squalor but it’s also a well-written and cleverly imagined crime thriller with a knife-sharp edge. On the other side of the hills, Crook’s Hollow, midway between Manchester and Liverpool, hides some dark family secrets. Linda says Robert Parker manages to keep his people just on the right side of believable, without descending into caricature, and his story of rapacious developers struck a chord with her.

Across the Pond, Chris Roberts says Ace Atkins' Quinn Coulson series just gets better and better. In The Sinners the sheriff finds his wedding plans disrupted when two rival drug suppliers come into conflict and disturb the calm of Jericho and Tibbehah County. Chris says Atkins entirely captures the essence of a redneck backwater. He thought The Ways of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake smacked of the Wild West with a modern twist as the title character’s first attempt at robbery goes badly and he ends up doing a long stretch at a Texas state prison, feeling sore about the partner who left him behind

Elsewhere, The Friend by Teresa Driscoll features two boys in hospital. One of them is Sophie’s son Ben – but no one knows which child Ben is. Kati Barr-Taylor praises the mix of introspection, conversation and action and says this is a good book for snuggling up on the sofa with. Mr Godley’s Phantom by the late Mal Peet is set after the horrors of World War Two. A man struggling to come to terms with his experiences is plunged into a dark mystery when he takes a job in a lonely part of Devon, John Cleal describes this as a truly haunting novella, sharply observed and wonderfully written, with some of the sharpest descriptions of time and place you will read this year.

Linda Wilson freely admits that she’s had it up to the ears with missing kids in fiction, but she’s made two exceptions to that rule in this week's YA slot. A Darkness of Dragons by SA Patrick deals with the most notorious child kidnapping of all time, the one that took place in the rat-infested town of Hamelyn. The children have never been found, but it’s some consolation for the families that the man responsible for their disappearance is safely under lock and key. That is until the dragons decide to take their revenge … Linda says this is a story that will delight and amuse, but it’s also capable of throwing a chill into the mix. She now wants more dragons in crime fiction! Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp, set in Alaska, doesn’t oblige on that front, but it does have plenty of chills. Seventeen-year-old Corey’s best friend is dead, and she wants to know how and why that happened, but her questions don’t make her popular in the isolated community. Linda says the book has a strong sense of place and an even stronger sense of the importance of friendship, tolerance and the need for a better understanding of those judged by society to be ‘different’.

We’ve interrogated thriller writer John Lawton in the Countdown slot this week. He has some intriguing claims to fame from his TV past. And we like him already – he knows all about potatoes! Your editors and reviewer Ewa Sherman are all staunch fans of the spud!

We’ll be back in a fortnight with 20 new reviews and an interview with a top name on the crime fiction scene. If you have a moment, see what our friends at Reviewing the Evidence think about new releases in the US, Canada and Australia.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
John Lawton

John Lawton was a producer/director in television for many years, mostly interpreting the US to the English, and occasionally vice versa. He has worked with Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Scott Turow, Noam Chomsky, Fay Weldon, Harold Pinter and Kathy Acker. He's the author of the Inspector Troy series of thrillers.

He thinks he may well be the only TV director ever to be named in a Parliamentary Bill in the House of Lords as an offender against taste and balance—he has also been denounced from the pulpit in Mississippi as a communist, but thinks that less remarkable.

John spent most of the 1990s in New York—among other things attending the writers’ sessions at The Actors’ Studio under Norman Mailer. Since 2000 he has lived in the high, wet hills of Derbyshire, with frequent excursions into the high, dry hills of Arizona and Italy, as he finds he cannot write about England while he's in it. 

He’s not sure he has any hobbies, but grows 12 different varieties of potato every year.  He is smartphone allergic and social media resistant. He has spent much of his life in search of the perfect hi-fi. He is devoted to the work of Franz Schubert, Cormac McCarthy, Art Tatum, and Barbara Gowdy.

Ten words to sum up your working life to date ...

Wilful, erratic, subversive, secretive, obsessive, (mostly) enjoyable, (mostly) solitary, provocative.

Nine things you can see from where you're sitting ...

Monte Amiata, a white cat, a fig tree not even in blossom, the church on the other side of the valley, the rock I rest on when out hiking, the white trail up the hill opposite, Ugo in his cloth cap, someone’s bonfire, Isidore's farm but no sign of his donkey.

Eight minutes to prepare a meal. What's it going to be ?

Linguine, with raw vegetables, olive oil, lightly toasted garlic, Parmesan.