October 26 2019

You name it, crime fiction has done a crossover with it – horror, romance, fantasy, science fiction … Mysteries married with westerns are a bit thinner on the ground, though. But it’s given your editors to chance to go misty-eyed at the memories of The Virginian on TV and of recreating Champion the Wonder Horse using kitchen brooms, while Sharon recalls shelves of JT Edson books in her grandfather’s front room – apparently the nearest he’d been to the wild west was Leicester (that’s Edson, not Grampy Wheeler!)

John Cleal says it doesn’t matter whether you’re a western fan or not – Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison, featuring a 17-year-old girl riding out to find her outlaw older brother, is beautifully written and has an exciting plot along with a rich array of believable characters.

We can do you some other crossovers, too … His Dark Sun by Jude Brown is set in the very near-future – 2022 – where the world is sweltering in the grip of a permanent heatwave and a 19-year-old lad knows only he can halt the inevitable. Linda Wilson says the book remains thoroughly grounded in the ‘real’ world, especially London. If you’re more into fantasy, Linda praises The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson, describing it as a darkly modern take on an age-old story, rooted deep in the Irish landscape.

Both of your editors have been known to turn their shapely noses up at books if characters sport silly names – the only person allowed to get away with this crime was the late and great Dick Francis! Once Linda got past the lead cop being called Washington Poe, she says that The Puppet Show by MW Craven is head and shoulders above the run-of-the-mill serial killer fare and that it really caught her imagination. Where the Truth Lies by MJ Lee also has a serial killer on the loose, and Anthea Hawdon liked sympathetic protagonist DI Tom Ridpath who she describes as human in his struggle with his recovery from cancer and determination to see justice done.

Along the other police procedurals standing by their beds for your approval, Keep Her Close by MJ Ford sees DS Josie Masters plunged into the world of Oxford colleges. Arnold Taylor says the protagonist is efficient, persistent and not easily persuaded that she is wrong. Students are also being bumped off over in New Zealand in The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon. Chris Roberts felt that the failure of the rest of the Dunedin police to make much of a contribution, except as a foil for central character Sam, rather rankled, and that the story might appeal to the young and young at heart who may be sympathetic to the protagonist’s complaints that life is so jolly unfair (cue the editors tossing their fringes and chanting ‘what-ev-ah!’ as they flounce to their bedrooms). The Fatherland Files by Volker Kutscher sees Inspector Gereon Rath facing a case that leads him into confrontation with the rising Nazi party. John Cleal says that against this darkening background, the frequently annoying Rath is at his best, alone and living on his wits. Night by Bernard Minier combines Detectives Kirsten Nigaard from Norway and Martin Servaz from France on the trail of a notorious serial killer. Ewa Sherman says that it’s more twisty than the nocturnal train route from Oslo to Bergen or the alpine roads in bad weather!

It’s a busy week for crime fiction set far and wide. In Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann, journalist Andrew and his photographer boyfriend Carlos come across a body in the street, Carlos pushes for answers and pays a terrible price. Chris Roberts says the fiction element certainly grabs your attention with plenty of menace, and the central character is just possibly dotty enough to achieve revenge! John Cleal was very taken with Diary of a Dead Man on Leave by David Downing where, as war looms, a Soviet undercover agent faces a crisis of belief when he becomes involved with the German family he lodges with. Our history expert reviewer says that if people don’t want history to repeat itself, they need to pay greater attention to the actions of their governments, and that the book is a brilliant, biting read. John also praises Savages 2: The Spectre by Sabri Louatah where France’s first Arab president is shot on election night. He says that Louatah’s vulnerable, flawed characters and often near-luminous descriptions of place and mood have the intensity and resonance of first-class fiction. And there’s a non-fiction offering in the shape of TJ English’s The Corporation which focuses on the exiled Cubans who contested Castro’s leadership from the USA, and of one who built a lottery-based organisation which moved into money-laundering, drug trafficking and murder. Chris Roberts says the book links a number of crucial areas of recent US history which cannot help but be of interest.

On the legal front, Linda Wilson admits that it’s rare that she ends a book with a mental gasp, but Take It Back by Kia Abdullah, where former barrister Zara Khaleel is branded a traitor to her religion when she starts working with a white teenage girl who accuses four seemingly well brought up Muslim boys of rape, is one of those books. And it was a very loud gasp! Things are much lighter in the thoroughly entertaining Call the Next Case by Peter Murphy, where a judge presents a slice of his court life. Chris Roberts recounts the ‘wanker’ test with great relish!

Elsewhere, Laura Lippman returns with Lady in the Lake, where a respectable housewife decides she needs a change, so she goes to live on her own and tries to get a job on a newspaper. And then she finds a body … Sylvia Maughan says the book’s main strength is in the detailed descriptions of the newsroom: the pressure, the untidiness, the awareness of deadlines, and the petty jealousies all making it sound very realistic. Kati Barr-Taylor had mixed luck this week – although two out of three good ‘uns isn’t bad! She waved her arms enthusiastically at A Version of the Truth by BP Walter where a boy opening a file on his iPad sends his mother’s life into freefall. Kati says it’s ugly but bold, thought-provoking and incredibly daring for a debut novel. She also recommends The Closer I Get by Paul Burston, which is a great study in the dark nature of obsession. Kati liked author Lesley Kelly’s dry sense of humour, excellent pacing and confident writing style in Death at the Plague Museum where two of the four attendees at a secret meeting in Edinburgh are dead and a third is missing, but she closed the book unsatisfied. Also north of the border, Rowan lands what seems to be her ideal job – a role as live-in nanny with a family in a remote village in Scotland, paying a generous salary, bonus and with all living expenses covered. But what should have been a dream turns into a nightmare. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware really hits its stride when Rowan’s sanity starts to unravel, says Madeleine Marsh.

In the Countdown hotseat this issue is Alex Marwood (you might also know her as journalist and novelist Serena Mackesy) – and she’s clearly had a varied working life to date. And your jewellery queen editors will be inviting themselves round to paw through her collection of necklaces and to binge on the I, Claudius boxset!

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
Alex Marwood

Alex Marwood doesn’t really exist, being the imaginative construct of the sometime journalist and novelist Serena Mackesy, who eventually tired of no one being able to pronounce her name.

Born in Oxfordshire to expat Celts, she always intended to be a writer, but got there via a series of jobs like door-to-door sales, barmaiding, crossword editing, teaching, lexicographical proofreading, typing up violent crime appeals at the Royal Courts of Justice and pretending to be a tarot reader.

She lives in London, once trained as a hypnotist and does most of her work in bed. She spends a lot of money on mattresses.

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

Barmaid, sales, teacher, cruciverbalist, hack, one-hit wonder, alias, killah.

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

The DSM5,
I, Claudius boxset,
Door draped in necklaces
A bottle of CBD oil
Carry-on suitcase (I’m off to Lisbon this afternoon)
A Georgian linen press (I don’t do coathangers)
Burmese cat, on back
Rolling tobacco (burn the witch!)
A four-foot-tall pot with a picture of an angry Iranian girl with an eye patch, squeezing a pomegranate (it’s by my oldest friend, Claudia Clare; I buy a piece of art for every book I have published)

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

Um… well, yesterday I had scrambled eggs on marmite toast with smoked eel chopped up in it. It was lush.