November 10 2018

Forsooth, ‘tis a veritable panoply of historicals this week. So if you fancy swanning back to both world wars, 1930s Singapore and Munich, then Georgian England and just after the death of Henry VIII, as well as Oliver Cromwell’s time, then this issue has your name on …

The latest in CJ Sansom’s superlative series featuring hunchbank lawyer/sleuth Matthew Shardlake went straight into John Cleal’s eager hands. He says Tombland is a remarkable book – totally immersive and vividly written. John’s also a great fan of SG MacLean’s books, and he describes the fascinating and brutal Destroying Angel, which features Captain Damian Seeker of Oliver Cromwell’s handpicked guard, as crying out for an ambitious TV or film director to turn the lead character into a Cromwellian Bond! 

The periods around the two world wars feature strongly in a number of this week’s books. John Barnbrook was transported back to 1938 Britain where Chamberlain and Hitler were in negotiations. He says Robert Harris’s Munich is both fascinating and an excellent read. Over in 1936 Singapore, a rich young Englishman is found dead, his body soaked in betel nut juice. Chris Roberts says that The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu does have some of the feel of the crime novels of the time, albeit in an exotic location.

And if you fancy an enjoyable take on the haunted house mystery, John Cleal says A House of Ghosts by WC Ryan, set at a house party on an isolated island, is a beautifully written and ingenious period piece. And John was rather taken with The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes (niece of Julian), which has the aristocratic Nancy Mitford investigating. Apparently it’s frothy, clever and historically sound (and we trust our historical expert reviewer implicitly!) Linda Wilson is sighing happily as she revisits the Richard Falkirk’s reissued Blackstone novels, set in 1820s London. She says Blackstone Underground, where the Bank of England is threatened with an audacious break-in, is vastly entertaining, as well as informative.

There’s also a healthy helping of international crime fiction, with a cherry on top. Ragnar Jónasson’s new series, featuring Icelandic Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik police, looks at the apparent suicide of a Russian asylum seeker. Ewa Sherman says The Darkness isn’t about big bangs and fireworks, but the mundane daily struggle, with its bleakness and quiet despair. Over in Cuba, layers of ambiguity and lies seem to cover every aspect of life. Anthea Hawdon describes Death Comes in Through the Kitchen by Teresa Dovalpage as a rich and spicy mix, but its interest is more for the evocation of a country and society than for any skill in plotting a detective novel. Chris Roberts was definitely impressed with Memo from Turner by Tim Willocks, set in Cape Town. A young girl is crushed in a hit-and-run, and the culprit’s rich family conspire to protect him. Chris says it’s an excellent thriller with lots of guns and fiendish unarmed combat techniques, and that Willocks' six-novel backlist is well worth exploring.

We’re quiet on the US front this week, but big-hitter George Pelecanos is back with The Man Who Came Uptown. Chris Roberts says that the story of a young man in a Washington DC jail, who’s given the chance to start again but who faces a huge challenge, is as good as anything he’s read.

On to Italy, where Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti is back in The Temptation of Forgiveness, investigating two seemingly linked events in the same family. Sylvia Maughan describes it as rather lacking in suspense, but still a relaxing read, based in the interesting setting of Venice and with a familiar detective. A group of teenagers is terrorising central Naples as they take over from the traditional Camorra. Chris Roberts says Roberto Saviano’s The Piranhas becomes increasingly horrifying, and the lead character’s personal story takes on Shakespearean dimensions.

Arnold Taylor is still happily working his way through the reissued Maigret series. He says Maigret’s Secret, where a well-known wealthy woman is found stabbed to death in a frenzied attack, shows once again the basic common humanity that Georges Simenon's French detective always displays. But Arnold wasn’t quite so convinced by Pierre Lemaitre’s Inhuman Resources, where a former highly paid human resources executive, now out of work, adopts desperate measures to obtain a new job. Arnold had reservations about aspects of the plot and felt the book's calmer sections worked best. John Cleal was delighted to see the reissue, 30 years on, of One Deadly Summer by Sebastien Japrisot. It’s a twisted tale of love, lust, obsession, revenge and murder, set in a small Provencal village. John says that the sympathetic translation by Alan Sheridan only enhances the authenticity of what so many years later is still a great novel.

Our present-day UK offerings this issue feature cops and PIs laden with personal baggage. In Kati Barr-Taylor’s inimitable words, one of the rather stereotypical Liverpool cops in Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson has more baggage than a long-haul flight! She adds, though, that this story of child-stealing is a sharp-paced book told with an assured voice. Mari Hannah’s The Insider is a strong police procedural focusing on a possible serial killer. Linda Wilson says the clues are there, but you’ll have to be on the ball to spot them, and even if you do, the knowledge won’t detract from a pacey story and some great characters. Linda is a fan of Barbara Nadel’s series featuring London PI Lee Arnold and his sidekick Mumtaz Hakim. She admits her fingers itched to bang a few heads together during the characters’ more obtuse moments in Enough Rope, and says the plot is complex but never impenetrable, and the audiobook helped her while away a long car journey!

This week’s YA slot is filled by The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily XR Pan. Leigh is struggling to cope with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide, but when a big red bird appears and speaks with her mother’s voice, Leigh knows she has one last chance to connect with her mother. Linda Wilson says it’s a remarkable book, weaving magic into the story – both literally and metaphorically – and will also help break down the taboo around discussing mental illness.

We’ve lured Rivers of London creator Ben Aaronovitch into the Countdown chair. We definitely agree that he’s on to something with his ten words to sum up his working life so far, although he probably gets through a lot of keyboards! And he’s a brave man when it comes to his drinking companions – we echo the call for a guarantee of safety …

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
Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch was born and raised in London and all his work has reflected his abiding fascination and love for what he modestly likes to refer to as the ‘capital of the world.’ He is the author of the Peter Grant/Rivers of London urban fantasy series, plus a spin-off series of graphic novels set in the same universe.

In his youth he wrote for Doctor Who (including the Remembrance of the Daleks episode), Casualty and the late, lamented space soap Jupiter Moon – a show so low budget that you were only allowed seven of the regular cast in any given episode!

He also wrote a series of tie-in novels for Virgin Books and Big Finish that turned out to be excellent practice for his fiendish plan to inflict his prose upon an unsuspecting world.

Ben still lives in London and is currently working on his next novel.

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

Bang your head on keyboard long enough and something happens.

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

Trees, late Victorian terrace, 1950s primary school, railway station, microwave relay tower, church spire, hill, dog, people.

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

Bread, something to put on the bread, some fruit, coffee.