August 10 2019

One of your editors is most partial to her crime fiction served with a healthy helping of woo-woo (Sharon pretends she isn’t fussed – until a new Phil Rickman book hits the shelves!) So Linda was one very happy bunny this week …

Our northern lass was also attracted to Stacey Halls’ debut novel The Familiars, as it’s set in an area of the UK that she knows well. Linda says that the book, set in 1612 under the shadow of Pendle Hill in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, is stunning historical fiction. And Linda’s also a big fan of James Oswald’s police procedural series and assures us that Nothing to Hide is as sharp as you’d expect with an added element of darkness and something just a little out of the ordinary to spice up the mix. If you’ve been following Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, you can nip over to Germany in the novella The October Man. Anthea Hawdon says the main pleasure is seeing magic police in another milieu and seeing the Folly – or reports of the Folly – from another angle.

And now we’re off Down Under for a double dose of Aussie crime fiction. Chris Roberts says that Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher has the added bonus that there are too many fictional policemen of the morose alcoholic variety for whom grisly murders are light relief, and it is nice to find one who counts his blessings and does his best to improve life for those around him. You may well remember Thomas Keneally from his 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark, that was made into a film. He now teams up with his daughter Meg to write historical crime fiction. John Cleal says The Unmourned, where the brutal superintendent of a prison has been murdered, evokes the place, time and attitudes of early colonial life, and is a magnificent novel.

Get your bags packed and sun cream slapped on, as we’re really on the move this week. Scandi princess Ewa Sherman says that The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup, that focuses on the horrific murders of young women in Copenhagen, weaves a very complicated web of connections, past mistakes and future consequences, bringing together well-drawn characters and a convincing storyline. Chris Roberts, meanwhile, travels from Europe to South America. In The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor, young German volunteer lieutenant Martin Bora is in a relatively quiet area of the Spanish civil war front when he finds the body of national poet Garcia Lorca. Bora, who has a strict belief in duty and responsibility, is a character you either love or hate, but you know he will never give up the chase, says Chris. Barbara Nadel’s Turkish hero Cetin Ikmen has fallen into depression after his retirement and his wife’s accidental death, but he’s reinvigorated when he is asked to investigate a case long gone cold. Chris says that A Knife to the Heart fully exploits the potential of Istanbul as an ancient city with secrets around every corner. Over in Mexico, Don’t Send Flowers by Martín Solares takes place amidst the breakdown in society. Ex-cop Carlos Trevino is on the trail of a kidnapped woman, and Chris says that the hero is a great detective, standing out as incorruptible and competent in a quagmire of sleaze.

Further north in the United States, Michael Koryta serves up a tense thriller in If She Wakes where Tara Beckley is lying in a hospital bed, locked inside her own mind. Linda Wilson particularly liked the fact that despite her condition, Tara is still thinking, fighting and winning. There are no female victims here, just strong, competent women, adds Linda. The Last Brother by Andrew Gross features Morris Raab, who fights his way up from a poor New York East Side upbringing to be a major player in the rag trade, but has to take on gangsters who are determined to take a slice. Chris Roberts says it’s a gripping tale.

Speaking of the US, you know when you have what an American friend calls a cultural moment with a baffling reference in a book. Linda Wilson had always wondered what Homecoming Kings and Queens were. She got to find out in this week’s YA offering, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus. Ellery is determined to uncover some small-town secrets, including the disappearance of her aunt 23 years ago. Linda says it’s an excellent teen mystery, with some real depth at its heart.

John Cleal did have some doubts about an American writer’s take on the traditional British cosy, though. Dangerous Deception at Honeychurch Hall by Hannah Dennison comes with lashings of nostalgia and lifts the lid on today’s grand country estate in all its tarnished, inbred glory.

Fortunately, John had better luck this week with a duo of impressive historical novels. He praises the meticulous research in A Suspicion of Silver by PF Chisholm, where Sir Robert Carey, swashbuckling Elizabethan courtier and cousin to the Queen, hunts a would-be assassin of Scottish King James on both sides of the border. John says that Carey is the ideal hero. He’s impulsive, courageous, often too clever for his own good – Errol Flynn in a ruff! Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert features a former French Resistance fighter on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her wartime British special ops controller. John rates it as a complex, clever, yet beautifully presented and explained story that’s on a par with anything Agatha Christie produced.

Elsewhere this week, there was mixed luck for our reviewers. On the grounds we’d always rather have the bad news first, Arnold Taylor was left distinctly underwhelmed by John Marrs’ Her Last Move where a super-recogniser is brought in to help a harassed police officer when a man is murdered in a crowded tube station. Kati Barr-Taylor says that The Suspect by Fiona Barton, featuring journalist Kate Waters chasing a scoop on two girls who have gone missing in Thailand, is an easy, one-sitting read. But Kati wasn’t so convinced about the characterisation. She loved Freefall by Jessica Barry, though, which she says is a thriller that thrills (and believe us, a lot don’t!) Kati says the writing is simple but evocative, the author balances action and introspection, and the believable characters are likeable but flawed. John Barnbrook praises the plotting, pace and style of You Let Me In by Lucy Clarke, where a successful author who lives in a beautiful house on a Cornish cliff is convinced that someone has access to her house and to her secrets. And to finish us off on a high note, John Cleal was more than happy with The Darkest Place, the latest addition to Jo Spain’s Irish series featuring out-of-favour DCI Tom Reynolds. He says that her clear, unfussy prose makes for a riveting but easy read, with the pace building slowly, much like the investigation into a mass grave on an island off the Kerry coast, to a tense and surprising climax.

This week we welcome Scottish author Shona (SG) MacLean to the Countdown chair. We think her dog and Jurgen Klopp might be rather entertaining drinking companions – the Liverpool manager would certainly talk a lot – and would make up for the absence of the other five! She also has splendid taste in words, and extends our Scottish vocabulary even further.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
S.G. MacLean

Shona (SG) MacLean was born in Inverness and grew up with her four siblings in various small hotels run by her parents around the Scottish Highlands. The writer Alistair MacLean was her father’s brother and a very kind and perceptive uncle. She studied History at Aberdeen University, with a view to an academic career, but the logistical demands of family life led instead to fiction-writing.

After over 25 years around Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, she returned with her family to the Highlands in 2010. Her husband is gainfully employed in education, but not all the ills of society are his fault. Her four children are almost all grown up now, and she should have more time for writing, but on the loss of their much-loved old Labrador last year, the family bought a puppy who is unimpressed by literary pursuits.

She helps run a toddlers’ group at her local church and is secretary of the local Pipe Band. The toddlers are a good deal less trouble than the Pipe Band. Her favourite pastime is cycling, in which no lycra is involved.

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

A rigorously-pursued attempt to avoid getting a proper job.

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

A facsimile map of 1650s Bruges
A photo of my Dad strolling along in the sunshine
The new, bigger kilt that my son was given at Pipe Band last night;
The Stuart Kelly book on Walter Scott and his legacy that I’ve just finished reading
Some sort of plant I bought at a school fair nine years ago that is miraculously still alive
The small hand-bell marked ‘tea’ my children gave me for use in emergencies
A book bag from the 2008 Edinburgh Festival
A small, oval-framed snapshot of my uncle Alistair (Alistair MacLean) looking at me with wry resignation
A ‘3 wise monkeys’ ornament which my father loved and my mother loathed – a happy reminder of them both

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

A disaster (eight hours preparation time would have the same result).