September 7 2019

When it comes to this week’s books, we’re flaring our nostrils, waggling our eyebrows and insisting that size does matter … And how you use it is also important!

Both your editors gave up on Elizabeth George when dinosaurs walked the earth and when her books ballooned in length – and her view of the English class system got even more bizarre! Sylvia Maughan has more patience than us when it comes to the saga of the saintly DI Lynley and the perennially downtrodden Sgt Barbara Havers. She says that The Punishment She Deserves is well-written and she’s happy to see the familiar characters again – but that the book is definitely too long. But with our wimminz hats on, we're not too keen on the title, either ...

And while we’re doing our Frankie Howerd impersonations, we’ll mention that sex scenes don’t always add much to crime fiction. Kati Barr-Taylor is of that view after reading Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson. She’d be happy to read other things by this author and says the book is good escapism – but the twists are predictable and the ending mediocre. And she was underwhelmed by the rumpy-pumpy!

At the risk of turning this week’s editorial into a Carry On film, we can offer you the usual ration of willy-waving thrillers this week! You can rely on Linda Wilson to be like a rat down a drainpipe when it comes to Chris Ryan and the SAS mob. She says that Black Ops serves up rapid-fire realism with a whiff of unfinished business about it. John Cleal says that Mission Critical by Mark Greaney, where a former Russian military intelligence chief, obsessed with the idea the British killed his wife and son, masterminds a revenge bid which could destroy the major western intelligence services, is hard, fast and unflinching (ooooh errrr!), but there’s just much bang (nyuk nyuk, ooops, sorry!) for the buck and not enough story there. John was far more impressed with journalist Sam Bourne’s To Kill the Truth featuring former White House trouble-shooter Maggie Costello who struggles to foil an alt-right plan to destroy history. He says it’s both a brilliant and important book that lays out the devastating effect if Bourne’s clever conspiracy ever becomes fact. Secret Service, a thriller from another reporter, Tom Bradby, has Russians meddling in UK politics. Linda Wilson says there’s plenty going on, although the book never quite hits his stride. She also found the political characters rather flat – although she much preferred the flamboyant fictional Foreign Secretary to some of the real ones we’ve had recently!

We shall now wash out our mouths with soap and water and move onto cleaner topics … Arnold Taylor was underwhelmed with The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt by Sarah Armstrong where a woman who has been sent down from Cambridge rather unconvincingly ends up in Moscow. Arnold says it’s this flaw in the structure of the novel that makes it unsatisfactory and mostly dull. Chris Roberts does better with two international crime novels this issue. The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguin features Buenos Aires journalist Veronica Rosenthal who's investigating the number of deaths on the railways. Chris says it’s an excellent story, well told and translated, which sustains a high level of tension throughout. He was also impressed with Prefecture D by Hideo Yokoyama, made up of four novellas depicting internal friction within the Japanese Police Department. The greatest appeal, says Chris, arises from the clever and subtle machinations of featured characters that allow them to circumvent the rigid systems which govern their lives. There’s one Scandi offering this week – Hunting Game by Helene Tursten, set amidst the annual autumn moose hunt in a Swedish forest. Ewa Sherman says there’s an interestingly conflicted heroine and that weather conditions in the Swedish wilderness play an important role in the story, becoming characters in their own right, although she hopes that not too many moose were harmed in the making of this book!

There are a couple of US familiar faces this week, including James Lee Burke, a big favourite of John Cleal, who says that Burke’s uniquely indulgent writing is as close to prose-poetry as you’re likely to find in the crime genre. The New Iberia Blues again shows his innate understanding of the nature of good and evil and his mesmerising ability to paint a vivid picture of a scene or character. Blood Oath is the latest outing for Linda Fairstein’s series character Alexandra Cooper, a New York Assistant DA. Chris Roberts isn’t sure he’d want to meet ‘Coop’, and says some readers may find her perspective a little too bound up with the bureaucracy of the DA’s office, but the novels remain very readable, with a strong woman lead as a forceful advocate for all the right causes. Jason Starr’s Too Far is set mainly in Manhattan where one flippant remark triggers a chain of events that sends a man’s life spinning out of control. Kati Barr-Taylor says it’s a fast and furious read, even if there’s not a great deal of local colour.

A couple of releases nearer home score better on this front. Linda Wilson says that Lucie Whitehouse captures the flavour of Birmingham, a sprawling multi-racial city that is both loved and loathed by some of its inhabitants (your other editor Sharon wants you all to know she loves Birmingham, and tried to stop Linda retelling a Jasper Carrott joke, but lost that argument!) Critical Incidents features former Met detective Robin Osborne, who’s back on her own turf working as a benefit fraud investigator but gets involved when her best friend’s husband goes missing. Over in Ireland, young lawyer Finola Fitzpatrick receives an emotional appeal from a father to investigate his daughter’s suicide in Catherine Kirwan's Darkest Truth. Chris Roberts forgave Finn her enthusiasm for country music and says that the glimpses of Cork and snatches of Irish vernacular also give the book a taste of the society it’s set in.

Elsewhere, Kati Barr-Taylor was ambivalent about One More Lie by Amy Lloyd which forces the reader to confront the personality of child killers and to weigh up the impact of public loathing on these individuals as they grow up and seek to live reformed lives. Kati did enjoy the book and did feel challenged – she would just have liked to feel more. Kati praises the fresh, assured voice of Zosia Ward in The Accusation, where Eve must find out if her husband is lying, or she will lose her daughter. She says it’s a great read.

If you want an outstanding and challenging read, John Cleal points you in the direction of this issue’s non-fiction release – Dark City by Simon Read that revisits some of the most violent and spectacular crimes and criminals when muggers, rapists, gangsters, looters and killers roamed the wartime streets. John says there’s nothing nice about this book, but that it’s a brilliant piece of factual reporting on a time and its crimes that we should never forget.

Audiobook fans might want to pin back their lug-holes for An Act of Kindness by Barbara Nadel, an addition to her east London series. The disappearance of a homeless man she’s befriended worries Nazreen Khan. Then, when he’s found dead, she turns to private investigator Mumtaz Hakim for help. Linda Wilson says it’s an outstandingly good book that will make a lot of people very angry – just not all for the same reasons.

Linda, who’s our queen of the younger end of the crime fiction spectrum, was delighted with The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell, where Vita Marlowe is determined to get her grandfather’s home back from the conman who cheated him out of everything he owned. She describes it as a standout children’s adventure, with both dark and light elements in the story.

Please welcome author Linwood Barclay, as he settles himself comfortably into the Countdown seat. We don’t think we’d get much done if we lived in his house, based on the, erm, varied sights he can see from his window! And we’re firmly on-board with his five favourite words – as we never tire of saying, the sun is over the yardarm somewhere in the world …

Don't forget to take 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
Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay was born in the US, but his family moved to Canada just as he was turning four and ran a caravan park called Green Acres in Ontario. This is where Linwood grew up, and after his father’s death Linwood ran the family business until a Canadian daily newspaper offered him a reporting job.

After that, Linwood worked in journalism for 30 years as a reporter, columnist and editor, including a stint on the night shift piecing together the layout for the day’s newspapers.

Linwood now lives in Toronto with his with, Neetha, and they have two grown children. He’s also a self-confessed model railway nerd.

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

Fishing camp operator, newspaper reporter, editor, columnist, public speaker, novelist.

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

- Woman on sidewalk, waiting with bag in hand, for dog to make a deposit on our front lawn.
- Models of, among other childhood things, Gerry Anderson’s Supercar and Fireball XL5, and the Seaview submarine from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, on my shelves.
- Fire hydrant directly in front of our house, which means no one should be parked there, but a red Kia’s been there two hours and still hasn’t got a ticket, which is amazing in this neighbourhood, where the parking enforcement officers are ninjas, popping out of nowhere.
- Real estate agent putting a SOLD sticker on For Sale sign next door.
- My framed Harry Benson photo of Alfred Hitchcock on the wall next to my desk.
- Framed animation still of the Dark Knight from Batman: The Animated Series.
- Guy across street horking from his second-floor balcony.
- My most treasured book, a personally inscribed hardcover of Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald.
- A 1960s photo of my dad, Everett Barclay, in the photo studio of the Toronto ad agency where he once worked.

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

Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and, if we have any, some diced ham to mix in with it.