January 12 2019

Happy new year! Your editors are starting to think they’ve metamorphosised into teenage boys this week – the sort who yell “ewwwwwww, gross!” if anyone mentions snogging and rumpy-pumpy. So they’re fully in sympathy with reviewers who aren’t entirely convinced by the seemingly obligatory portrayal of leading characters’ tangled love lives.

Our thriller expert Arnold Taylor had mixed luck this week. Paris in the Dark by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler sees an American journalist in Paris seeking the culprit responsible for a bomb blast. Arnold says that even the minor characters are convincing and the main ones totally so.  Also, unusually for a crime book, a romantic interest is very convincing. He wasn’t so taken with The Gravediggers' Bread by Frédéric Dard, though, in which a man searches for an attractive woman, so he can return a lost wallet. He says this crime novel doesn't allow space for the development of a love story.

And we can offer you some new releases from the willy-waving side of the thriller genre! Linda Wilson is always a sucker for anything in this field. She enjoyed the latest hair-raising exploits of SAS operative Danny Black in Chris Ryan’s Head Hunters. Danny is in Afghanistan on a mission to hunt and kill the Taliban, but soon finds that he’s the one being hunted – for a war crime he didn’t commit. Linda says Ryan’s writing is sharp and to the point, and he doesn’t pull any punches in this taut action thriller. In Battle Sight Zero, Muslim extremists plan to smuggle assault rifles into Britain for a series of deadly attacks. John Cleal says veteran thriller writer Gerald Seymour gradually builds up the tension with some clever characterisation as he sets the scene for an ending that will leave you with sweaty palms. In Home Grown Hero, a man helps to foil a terrorist attack but afterwards, neither MI5, who forced him to help, nor the terrorists, are prepared to leave him alone. Chris Roberts was impressed by the way Khurrum Rahman builds the tension.

If you want some balance, there’s a good crop of books at the cosier end of the genre this week. John Cleal says Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death by MB Vincent is a well-plotted, pacy mystery with a unique main character – a failed university lecturer – who has a suitably wacky cast of friends to help this investigation into a series of gory murders. Linda Wilson was very impressed by Elizabeth Mundy’s debut, In Strangers’ Houses, which has another unusual lead character. Hungarian cleaner Lena Szarka has problems getting anyone to take notice when her best friend goes missing in London, so she decides to combine her day job with some sleuthing to find out what’s happened to her friend. Linda says Mundy scores highly with her ability to paint vivid pen portraits of her characters and their lives, and is a fresh voice in the genre. Another woman has gone missing in Laura Marshall’s Three Little Lies, and again, her best friend is the only one taking the disappearance seriously. Kati Barr-Taylor says the book is a fast, easy read, but she felt it lacks thrills and a sense of danger. John Cleal enjoyed Bright Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes, where a treasure hunt ends in tragedy and where the Mitford sisters are involved in the investigation. John describes the book as an accomplished, frothy, clever, historically sound and believable story with timely reminders of the inequalities of 1920s life.

Among the Euro releases, there’s Cold Breath, where officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir’s new task is to protect an enigmatic guest of Iceland’s controversial Minister of Justice. The man is either a saviour of war zone refugees or a manipulative arms dealer. Ewa Sherman praises the visual quality of Quentin Bates’ writing and says the strong sense of location enhances the plot. She enjoyed this meticulously plotted thriller, infused with black humour, and says it’s full of insight into contemporary Icelandic life. Ewa also praised The Lies We Tell by Kristina Ohlsson, in which a successful Swedish-American lawyer must prove the innocence of a dead woman accused of a string of murders in the US. This is a complex book but Ewa says there’s a method in this creative madness that leads to a very satisfying conclusion, which she describes as brilliant in its simplicity. Also on the Euro beat, Sylvia Maughan heads back to her beloved Italy for The Lizard Strategy by Valerio Varesi where Commissario Soneri has to investigate the case of a missing man. Sylvia says this is a thoughtful, enjoyable and well-written story.

Across the Irish Sea, a Special Branch inspector investigating the IRA murder of a Garda, a pitched battle between racecourse gangs and the partly burnt bodies of a family of five soon discovers all the incidents are connected and that his own life is in danger. John Cleal says The City of Lies by Michael Russell is a brilliant read and a solidly fact-based explanation of Ireland’s delicate balancing act as a strategically key neutral on the close fringes of the war in Europe, and on top of that it’s a clever and utterly believable crime story.

John Cleal has changed his tune about one of the familiar faces on the crime fiction scene! He’s always preferred Peter Lovesey’s Victorian hero Sgt Cribb, but he was very taken with Beau Death, which features the grumpy Det Supt Peter Diamond. The demolition of a terraced cottage lands Diamond with the coldest of cold cases when a skeleton in 18th century clothes is exposed. John says this is Lovesey at his absolute best in what is one of his cleverest stories and describes the book as intriguing, solid, and well-written, with a light touch to it. On to another long-running series, and Linda Wilson says Stephen Booth can always be relied on to produce a good solid police procedural, which he does in Fall Down Dead, where a woman falls to her death in the fog on the bleak moorland of Kinder Scout. For DI Ben Cooper it’s the age-old question of did she fall or was she pushed.

Chris Roberts is always first to dive into anything with a legal angle. In The Ash Doll, lawyer Charlie Priest has a high-profile case which he looks like losing when his star witness fails to show in court, and subsequently turns up dead. Chris says James Hazel has some good ideas but maybe too many, which leaves inadequate time to fully develop them.  Chris likes Priest, even though his adventures don’t entirely make sense. He liked Abi Silver’s The Aladdin Trial in which a woman hospitalised for a minor operation is found dead after a fall from the 11th floor. Chris says the book will appeal to anyone who likes courtroom dramatics.

Across the Pond, Michael Connelly unites new series character Detective Renée Ballard with veteran crime-solver Harry Bosch in Dark Sacred Night as they work together to reopen a cold case in the hope of finally bringing the killer of a teenage runaway to justice. Linda Wilson says there’s plenty of tension, and Connelly proves yet again that he’s still at the top of the tree when it comes to writing police thrillers. Chris Roberts was impressed with David Gordon’s The Bouncer featuring a strip club bouncer with a Harvard education and a military career about which no records exist. An FBI agent finds him very attractive, despite her best instincts. Chris enjoyed the action and says there’s some clever technical stuff that never gets to be too preposterous. He also liked the book’s underlying sense of humour.

On the teen front this week, Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon features Down’s syndrome teenager Rosie, who makes a hazardous journey to be reunited with her boyfriend, despite opposition from her parents. Linda Wilson says the book is a triumph of how to write for teens from the point of view of a teenager.

Please welcome historical writer Nancy Bilyeau to the Countdown seat. She’s definitely got an eye for the evocative words when it comes to summing up her working life. And we’ll happily carry her suitcase for her when she runs away to some dream locations.

Don't forget to make a trip across the Pond to 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
Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in the Midwest. The daughter of a lapsed Irish-American Catholic mother and Protestant-turned-atheist artist father, she attended Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then a hotbed of political radicalism, but her memories are dominated by the nearby suburban shopping malls and the rock concerts.

While gaining a bachelor's degree at the University of Michigan, studying history and English literature, she became infected with the journalism bug, worked as a reporter and editor for the student newspaper, and has been a professional writer pretty much ever since.

Nancy’s first job was copy editor at the Boca Raton News (Spanish for 'mouth of the rat') in South Florida, moving up to police reporter, when she was once chased off someone's property by a Doberman. She moved north at the age of 23, working at another newspaper and then starting in the magazine business. She's been a staff editor at Rolling Stone, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, Entertainment Weekly and more.

In the middle of it, she married a Canadian and moved to Toronto, living there for almost two years. She learned the importance of knowing people with wonderful cottages and drinking Creemore beer. Dragging her spouse back to New York City, she had two children there, a boy and a girl. She wrote three screenplays, two of them reaching the semi-finals of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

Nancy is now the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, affiliated with John Jay College/City University of New York, writing about issues such as solitary confinement and immigration. She also writes freelance for various websites, newspapers, and magazines, including Town & Country and the Wall Street Journal. She loves to cook, read, hike, and binge watch every sort of crime series, ranging from Shetland to The Wire.

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


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

Stuffed bookshelf of mine and husband’s favourite novels
Framed watercolour lighthouse painting by my father
My toes showing pedicure
Sun rising to the east, direction of Long Island
Television (off!)
Christmas cards, too late to send now
My Coach handbag
Framed black and white photo of Bob Dylan saluting
Daughter’s homework on kitchen table

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

An omelette, sautéed in a little butter, with chopped scallions and grated parmesan folded in. Sliced tomato on the side.