I very nearly missed this. First of all, Susie Steiner used to work for the Guardian and I haven’t knowingly read anything by an inmate at that home for the differently sane since the days of Saint Mugg. Then, when I read a positive review of Steiner’s latest book in the Sunday Times, I followed my usual practice of ordering the author’s first book, The Homecoming. All I can tell you about that is that the first third is very well written but not my sort of thing. I didn’t get further than the first third, so I can’t tell you any more – except that it is not a crime novel, and crime novels were what the Sunday Times review had led me to expect. I’m still not sure why I persevered. Perhaps it was because The Homecoming, though not for me, was so well written and the characters so clearly understood by the author. Anyway, persevere I did, and I bought her second book, Missing, Presumed. This IS a crime book and it’s one of the best I’ve read for some time.
This is a heavily oversubscribed genre and writers are giving us every kind of dysfunctional nutcase as a copper in the hope of triggering interest from a TV company. And many people would call Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw a dysfunctional nutcase – but, if she is, she is an exceptionally well realised dysfunctional nutcase. In fact, in many ways, this is a novel about dysfunction. What Susie Steiner gives us is:
- A whole cast of well realised, fully understood characters
- A well worked out plot
- A satisfying ending that matches both plot and cast.
There are some really tasty attractions. The missing woman, Edith Hind, is a stunning model of self-absorption reminiscent of the “hero” of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Her chap is another. And as for the lonely detective sergeant’s idea of wooing, if I thought she had my address, I’d turn out the lights and lock the doors.
Steiner is at home, whether writing about the upper crust or the underclass. On the one hand, we have a surgeon to the Queen who thinks nothing of calling his old school friend and Bullingdon co-member, now Home Secretary, to get the police moving in his preferred direction. On the other, we have a mother struggling (and failing) to give her 10-year-old son even the most basic survival tools (food. Warmth. Shelter). And we don’t hesitate to accept either portrait.
An excellent book, which I warmly recommend.
The Nature of the Beast is the 11th book in Louise Penny’s books about Chief Inspector Gamache. I’ve read all of them. I was delighted when I found the first, and I went on to read subsequent books in the series with pleasure. But the pleasure has been fading for a while, as Louise Penny reached the point that all crime writers eventually reach when they write repetitively about one detective – the point at which readers know that the series should have stopped at least two books ago.
And that is The Nature of the Beast. Penny has done the little village of Three Pines to death, and she’s flogged the life out of all of the main characters, too. I believe that another book is scheduled. I won’t read it, and I hope with all the warmth I feel towards Louise Penny as a writer who has given me immense pleasure that she will realise that her hero’s time is done and that she should write no more about him.
Two stars. Failure. In the name of God, desist.
I read a lot of fiction other than crime fiction, but I do read a lot of crime fiction. For the most part, I don’t review the crime fiction I read, because more than 50% of it does not merit at least three stars and – with certain exceptions – I’m not prepared to review a book if I can only give it one or two stars. The fact is that a huge amount of published crime fiction is simply not up to scratch. It isn’t well edited, it isn’t well proofread, the grammar is appalling, the characters are wooden, the plot is completely unrealistic – the reasons are legion.
In the case of The Crimson Shore, none of those things is a problem. This is the first book in the Gold Detective series and the question I had to answer at the end was: is it three stars? Or is it four stars? I’ve gone for four.
The story is set in Anglesey, and it’s always good to read a book set in a place where not many books are set. The boss Detective is Amanda Gold (hence the name of the series), she has working for her a Detective Sergeant Dara Brennan who is – as the name suggests – Irish (we never find out, at least in this book, what an Irish cop is doing in Anglesey), and then there’s Detective Sergeant Kelly Jones. Kelly Jones is the sort of woman one would like to see more of <Cough> – and Brennan does.
Brennan makes a pig’s ear of his assignment, which is to lead an investigation, not least because he’s a bit of a twat, and Amanda Gold covers for him more than any reasonable boss should be expected to. If he gets there in the end, it’s as the result of a team effort and not because of individual brilliance. I appreciated the lack of that irritating cliché, the hunch-driven detective who follows wild leads because he’s a genius. Hamer doesn’t treat us with that sort of contempt.
If I had a problem with the book, it was only that the personal antipathy between DI Gold and her DCI, who would really like to see the back of her, has become another cliché of the genre, but that’s the only nit I could pick. A good solid four-star read.
I bought the second of these books because I bought the first. I guess that tells you how much I liked the first. Brian O’Hare writes about Northern Ireland, which is a closed-in society, in the United Kingdom but not of it and in the island of Ireland but, once again, not of it. It’s a society that would fascinate any student of human behaviour, and O’Hare explores its darker side, which is not only criminal but also religious. There is, perhaps, no place in a review like this for the reviewer’s personal views, but I’m giving mine anyway: if you want to be certain that an Irishman is going to tell you the truth, you’d better ask a Prod – but you may not like what you hear.
That is the world Chief Inspector Sheehan has to operate in and, in O’Hare’s hands, he makes a very good job of it. It’s unlikely that anyone reading one of these books (other, possibly, than a murderous psychopath) will think, ‘Hmm. Belfast. That sounds like a fun place to live.’ Well, you don’t have to move there to enjoy the books, which I recommend to you very strongly, because they are immensely enjoyable, however dark the settings, motivations and actions. The plotting is solid, the characterisation is first class, and the sense of place is conveyed with aplomb.
Full marks to Chief Inspector Sheehan. And also to my great-grandparents, who realised that Ireland was not the place for them.
The Beatrice Stubbs series by JJ Marsh began in 2013 with Behind Closed Doors. I gave it five stars, which I really don’t like to do, but I had no choice. Four more books have followed, all worth a solid four stars, and now the series is ending with the sixth and final book, Bad Apples. I bought it the day it came out, because that’s what Beatrice Stubbs does to you, and I’m pleased to say that the series has ended as it began – with a five-star book.
The series is ending because Beatrice is one month from retirement from her Scotland Yard job and ready to depart for Devon with the long-suffering Matthew. Characters like Matthew and Adrian who have been in Stubbs’s life since the first book show up once again, reminding us that one of the strengths of Marsh’s writing is the quality of the characterisation. I don’t mean that these are deeply worked out and fully realised psychological portraits (like those of, say, Rosalind Minett) because they’re not, but they do rise above the cardboard cutout caricature. You believe in them while you’re reading about them, and that’s what counts.
Plotting has been a strong feature of these books since the first and that holds true to the very end. However, what really marks Marsh out from the rest is her ability to build a feeling of dread so that you have to read on because you are desperate to know that the thing she has made you fear is not going to happen.
I don’t know what Marsh plans to do now that Beatrice is retiring, but I am sure of two things: that she will continue to produce high-quality novels, and that I will continue to read them.
Talking to young people (and anyone under 50 is young to me now), I’m often struck by the rails on which their entertainment and cultural lives run. It seems to me that people are told what is good and what they should buy — and that they accept the instruction. I remember in 1985 being in a bookshop and picking up Every Day is Mother’s Day by an author I’d never heard of: Hilary Mantel. I was bowled over. Stunned. I grabbed Vacant Possession when it came out a year later, and I’ve since read everything Mantel has published. Nutty as a fruitcake* she may be, but she’s one of the very few authors for whom I would ever be prepared to buy a hardback if getting the paperback or e-book version meant waiting.
Julian Barnes is another. Once again, I found him in a bookshop when I was browsing and came on Flaubert’s Parrot and, once again, I’ve since read everything he’s written.
It doesn’t seem to me that writers are being discovered today in that same browsing way – but I’m probably wrong. (I have been wrong, you know. Oh yes. I remember the occasion distinctly).
When I think about it, it was probably within the same 12 month period that I discovered both of those writers. And I’ve had a similar pleasure recently, but in a period of only two weeks. Neither Gillian Hamer nor Brian O’Hare is a brand-new writer in the way that Mantel and Barnes were when I found them, but they are new to me. I’d never read anything by either of them, and in the last fortnight I’ve read The Doom Murders and Murder at the Roadside Café, the first two books in the Inspector Sheehan series by Brian O’Hare, and Crimson Shore, the first in the Gold Detectives series by Gillian Hamer. I’ll be posting reviews of both of these books shortly, here and on Amazon and Goodreads, but right now I just wanted to open the window and shout for the benefit of anyone listening:
If you like crime fiction, then here are two writers you really need to add to your preferred author list.
They are not like each other, and nor do they mimic the styles of other crime writers. They are, in other words, originals. What they both possess is a mastery of the English language and an ability to grab the reader’s attention and not let go.
My brother-in-law has a saying, “As far-fetched as a bucket of shite from China,” which has led – in our house at least – to the rather more polite expression, “Chinese buckets,” and none of these three books is entirely free from a touch of Chinese buckets, which reinforces the idea that here are two very good writers. When you read the Midsomer Murders** books by Caroline Graham (and, even more, when you watch the TV series) some of the plots are so far-fetched that all you can do is laugh. O’Hare and Hamer also present plot ideas that sometimes stretch the imagination – but the writing is so good that you accept them without question.
More on these two shortly.
*I’ll take back that remark about Hilary Mantel being differently sane, not least for fear of finding myself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, and simply say what I said about writer Ellie Stevenson – that the inside of her head must be a very interesting place to be.
**By the way, if you’ve watched the Midsomer Murders TV shows but not read the books, you might find it instructive to do so, because it tells you a lot about how books can be modified when adapted for TV. To take only one example, TV’s Sergeant Troy is an eligible bachelor who is something of a feminist and always respectful towards women. Right? Well, in the books, Sergeant Troy is a rather different character. For a start, he’s married. And, in one of the earlier books, while he’s making love to his wife – and you can scrub that; he isn’t making love to her, he’s having sex with her – he tells her, “There’s no need to wake up if you don’t want to.” Does that sound like the Sergeant Troy TV has you accustomed to? No, I thought not.
Made for TV!
This is the first Robin Peacock book I’ve read, and as soon as I finished it I went online to buy the next in the series. That’s how much I enjoyed it. And yet, I’m giving it only three stars. I debated that in my head because I really wanted to give it four but, in the end, I decided that there were two factors that meant I couldn’t. (Five was out of the question, because that is only for exceptional books, and three stars, at least as far as I’m concerned, means, “I enjoyed this book and I recommend it). The two factors were: the lack of proofreading – or, at least, inadequate proofreading; and a little twist which I’ll describe like this. There’s a plot device common to crime fiction in which the suspect says something and the detectives miss it at the time. It’s a good device, because it’s a lot better than what we see increasingly now in crime fiction when the crime is solved and the criminal identified as a result of a piece of information that we as readers never had. That’s cheating, and Robin Peacock does not cheat. There are two problems with the device in this book: the first was that I noticed it immediately, thought, “Why haven’t they picked that up?” and realised that this would be key in unravelling the mystery. That’s fine – but it was only after I finished the book that it came to me that the whole point of what the suspect had said was that only the murderer could have known it – but the suspect was not the murderer!
In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter, because you don’t notice that sort of error in a TV programme and the whole point of this book is that it is itching to be adapted for television. If Robin Peacock gets the breaks he deserves (yes, Robin Peacock is a man), then Detective Superintendent Veronica Reason could become as popular on the box as Vera. The characters are real and you believe in them; the same goes for the events. It’s just a pity that the proofreading lets the book down – it isn’t so obvious early on, but by the end the errors are far too frequent.
Nevertheless, I’m delighted to have discovered Robin Peacock and to have become a fan. I shall devour the rest of the books.
How Sharon Wright: Butterfly came to be written
I just published a new video on YouTube. I’m posting the script here, just in case you’d rather not go to YouTube to watch it:
Hello. I’m John Lynch, and I’m here to talk about my book, Sharon Wright: Butterfly. Writers get lots of questions about their books. Maybe this will answer some of them.
The first and most obvious question is: Where do you get your ideas? I always say the same thing: I have no idea. And sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it isn’t. What is true is that I never know when I start writing a book how it’s going to finish. An idea comes into my head. Maybe it’s a conversation. Maybe it’s just a person. And I put the words down on paper and look at them. Which isn’t actually true – I put them on a screen – but readers like to think about it going on paper. Writers say a lot of things that aren’t true. You might want to remember that while I’m talking. Or while any other writer is talking.
Remember when you were young? And you said something that wasn’t true? And your mother told you “Don’t tell stories”? Well, that’s what writers do. We tell stories. Sometimes they’re true. And sometimes they’re not. If you can tell the difference when I do it, let me know. Because I usually can’t.
Anyway. Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I fell in love with Sharon while I was writing the book. Even though I knew that falling in love with Sharon would be a stupid thing to do. Because Sharon is an interesting sort of young woman. When she woos – as she woos Jackie Gough – She does it the way a female mantis might. Knowing that, when he’s served his purpose, he may have to die.
When the book was written, we talked about covers. And I was sent this picture.
I looked at it and I thought, “I don’t believe it! That’s HER! That’s my Shazzer!” Now, I am to graphics what Wayne Rooney is to the violin. So I left the cover design to someone who designs covers. I’m the writer; she’s the designer. It’s a good idea always to remember what you’re good at. And what you’re not.
And what Sharon Wright is good at is getting her own way. The tagline of the book is: “Nobody gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.” Shazzer comes from a very unfortunate background. Men think… Well. Let Shazzer tell you in her own words. This is an extract from the book:
She moved forward and smoothed the collar of his shirt. She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
Gough shook his head. ‘You’re not, are you?’
As I said, while I was writing the book, I fell in love with Sharon. I hope you will, too. You can find out more about her here. And you can buy the book at any newsagent (ISBN: 978-1-910194-10-2). Or, of course, from Amazon.
Why Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and JJ Marsh are the best British contemporary crime novelists writing today
There’s a huge number of British novelists writing today about contemporary crime. A search of Amazon throws up a lot of them. Some are not much cop, as you’ll find if you open the Look Inside that Amazon so helpfully provides, but some are good. Quite a few British writers of contemporary crime are well worth spending a few evenings with – you’ll get a lot more pleasure and satisfaction from them than you will out of the average evening’s television schedules.
But the best three?
Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and JJ Marsh
I’d put these three ahead of Peter James, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and a number of others with a good following. What they all have in common is:
- They write about real people, and however bizarre the plots may sometimes be (and Elly Griffiths has some dillies), you believe in the story as it unfolds because you believe in the people. More than that – you recognise the people. They have characteristics, strengths and weaknesses just like those of the people you know. Just like your own, in fact;
- While the authors may have – in fact, they do have – political leanings, there is no virtue signalling in their books. They know what they think; they don’t attempt to tell you to think the same thing. That is a lot rarer than I would wish;
- The plots are well worked out and none of the three ever leaves you thinking, “You cheat! You hid that from me! If you’d told me that earlier, I’d have known who done it”;
- They are in control of the back story; they realise when they need to reprise something from an earlier book but, unlike, say, Rankin, they ease it skilfully into the telling of the story. And I guess that’s it; they’re on this list because, good as some others are, these three are the best technically as well as in all the other attributes a crime writer needs.
This is not a blanket endorsement. Ann Cleeves has four series in print; Shetland and Vera are both very good indeed, and well deserving of their TV success, but I’m less enamoured by her George & Molly and Inspector Ramsay offerings.
As for the other two:
I can recommend both series by Elly Griffiths (that’s not her real name): she has the Dr Ruth Galloway books about a forensic archaeologist in
Norfolk and the Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto books; both series are excellent, but Stephens and Mephisto isn’t actually contemporary, because it’s set in the years immediately following the Second World War. Max Mephisto is a magician, which can lead to some plot points that challenge the reader’s willingness to believe; come to think of it, one of the central characters in the Ruth Galloway books is a druid called Cathbad, so both series have a strong magical element, but that does not detract from the sheer joy of reading these books.
Jill Marsh is a Welsh woman living in Switzerland who writes in a room on the top floor of her home there so that she can gain inspiration from looking into the cemetery next door. Yes, well…we are talking about crime fiction, after all. She is about to publish the final book in the Beatrice Stubbs series and promises that a new series with a new protagonist will follow. Given the quality of the Beatrice Stubbs books, I have every confidence that the new series will be excellent. For anyone who has not yet come across Beatrice, there’s a review of the first book in the series here.