Archive | 2021

The Couple at No 9 by Claire Douglas

Starts brilliantly, but fades a little towards the end

I’ve given this four stars; really, that should probably be 3½. For at least two thirds of the book (and it isn’t short) I was gripped. As the author moved from twist to twist, I didn’t want to put the book down. Sadly, it’s a little like the party guest who you are delighted to see and who makes your party go as your parties have rarely done before – but then fails to realise that the time to go home passed a little while ago. It is, in other words, too long. It takes too many pages to unravel the final mystery. Disappointing, but I shall certainly want to read Claire Douglas’s next book. Anyone who can write this well is only going to get better.

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A Long Shadow by H L Marsay

Every serious reader from time to time picks up (or, in this case, downloads) books they haven’t heard of by writers they also haven’t heard of. That’s how I came to read this book. Quite often – I might almost say usually – the experience is a disappointment, but once in a while you realise that you’ve happened on something exceptional. And that is how I feel about A Long Shadow.

I chose the book in the first place because it was set in York, a city I love. What I found was that the author uses the place as an extra character. You can feel York in this book. In fact, you can almost talk to it. And that’s something it has in common with the other characters because they are real and believable. By the end, you feel that you know them. The motivations are genuine, so are the disagreements both major and petty, and the denouement when it comes seems a natural step onwards from the point we’ve already reached.

If you like crime fiction, I recommend this very strongly. You can find it here.

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A Killer Makes Himself Known

I’m writing a series of police procedurals under the new pen-name, JJ Sullivan. Book 1, Drawn to Murder, is already complete and when I went to bed last night I was 17,000 words into Book 2, Westwood, but I don’t plan to publish until I have three books ready to go.

Most people who read mysteries probably read them to find out who the killer is, and why. It may come as a surprise to readers who are not themselves writers to find out that that’s also why I write them. I want to know who the killer is, and what motivates him or her.

I say, “him or her,” because Drawn to Murder features two serial killers working together – and they are both women. I must have written 15,000 words of that book before I realised that the male serial killers I was writing about couldn’t have done what they were supposed to have done and the killers must be female.

What that tells you is that I’m a pantser and not a plotter. When I start writing the book, I know very little about what’s going to happen. Westwood starts like this:

Jensen Bartholomew was Zooming with his brother, Cedric. A stranger sharing Jensen’s screen would have taken it that Cedric was not doing too well – the room he sat in was poorly furnished and Cedric himself looked as though his next full meal would be his first for some time. Cedric had just finished the first ten minutes of a series of moans about his predicament that experience told Jensen was likely to last for some time when the door behind him opened and a figure entered covered from head to foot in a black gown and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As Jensen watched, the figure wrapped something around Cedric’s neck and pulled it tight. Cedric half rose from his chair. His hands struggled to free himself and his feet were stamping a furious tattoo on the worn lino beneath them, but the figure did not relent. In less than a minute, Cedric had sunk out of sight, to all appearances dead. The figure leaned in close to the screen and pointed through it at Jensen. In a deep and gravelly voice, it said, ‘You’re next.’ Then the screen went as dead as Cedric.

And that’s all I had. I didn’t know who killed Cedric, I didn’t know why he needed to die – I knew almost nothing. But I did have the confidence that comes from having written a large number of books, most of them published under other people’s names, to know that the characters would help me out. The most extreme case of that was when I was writing Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I wrote the first sentence:

All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers.

I didn’t know where that sentence would take me – but Billy, the lead character, extracted himself from the story and stood over me as I wrote. “Poppy wouldn’t have said that.” “It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this.” “Don’t forget to tell them about the anger management.” And so it went until the book was complete. You could say Billy McErlane wrote that book and not me – and Billy McErlane doesn’t exist.

Something very similar happened today. With a quarter of Westwood written, I still had no idea who had been doing the killing (the body count by then was three) and nor did I know why. And then, at 4 o’clock this morning while I was still in bed, the killer announced himself. ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘And this is why I’m doing it.’ He’s been in the book from the start and he hadn’t for a single moment been a suspect in my mind – but as soon as he identified himself, it made complete sense.

I’ve spent the day first in rewriting work already done and then in adding 3400 words to take account of what I know now and didn’t know before. This is the stage at which I know for certain that the book will be finished.

When it is, you’ll be the first to know.

Running Behind Time by Jan Turk Petrie

I’ve expressed my admiration for Jan Turk Petrie as a writer in the past. She has a very wide range: Dystopian Nordic Noir (I’m not sure, but I think she may have invented this genre); historical fiction; contemporary fiction – and she’s done a remarkable job in all of them. And now: Time Slip.

The idea of Time Slip is so inherently at odds with everything we know about Time (it moves in only one direction) that achieving a willing suspension of disbelief requires a very high standard of authorship. And that’s exactly what you get here. The genre shares with all other forms of fiction a need for the characters to be believable and to arouse our interest (we don’t have to like them). Running Behind Time delivers that, too.

And then there are the book’s individual pleasures. Chief, for me, was that I KNEW the secret the author was concealing about her two main characters and I was almost at the end of the book before I discovered how wrong I had been. That ability to lead the reader by the nose is one of the most valuable an author can have, and it’s – not rare, exactly, but fairly unusual.

When I’m reviewing a book, I look hard for the weakness that will allow me to reduce the rating from five stars to four. I didn’t find one here.

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