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The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill By C S Robertson

Crime Fiction Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This

Craig Robertson was a new writer to me, and this was one of those serendipitous discoveries for which you thank the fates. I can’t remember what led me to this book, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in any genre for a considerable time and certainly the best in crime fiction. Grace McGill’s job is deep cleaning and disinfecting rooms, flats and houses after someone has died there and not been found for long enough that they have decomposed. Robertson leads us step-by-step through a series of undiscovered and apparently natural deaths of old people before plunging us into the mystery of a young woman’s disappearance decades earlier. What happened to her? Was she murdered? If so, who by? Robertson unravels that mystery with great skill – and equally great humanity. Strongly recommended.

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Lake of Echoes by Liza Perrat

Can it really be two years since I reviewed The Lost Blackbird by Liza Perrat? Yes, it seems it is. But the two years were worth it because they gave her time to write Lake of Echoes. When you find a first class writer who is new to you, you know that the only thing you can expect is improvement. The next book will be better, and the one after that will be better still. And so it has proved. Lake of Echoes, like The Lost Blackbird, is historical fiction. What I want from historical fiction is that the writer should not just show me what happened sometime in the past but should make me feel I’m there and I understand why. Liza Perrat does that. Years ago, on one of many cycling holidays in la France profonde, I found myself in a village deep in the French countryside and with a strong sense that in such places no-one looks at you – but everyone knows what you do. At the time, it made me shiver. I had that sense again with this book. The author understands the people she writes about. She knows the currents in small French villages. She can get into the minds, not just of “normal” people (whatever they are) but also of the slightly crazed and the totally barmy. And she presents all this in a harrowing tale of abducted children. Every parent’s nightmare – something that rips apart not just communities but also marriages. Something that promotes gossip and spite as well as the desire to help. But never at any point do you feel any wish to stop reading. It’s a tour de force by an Australian woman who has lived in France for twenty years, raised a family there, and knows the place backwards. She is also one of the English language’s most accomplished writers. Strongly recommended.

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Still Life with a Vengeance by Jan Turk Petrie

It seems like so long ago that I first read The Old Boys by William Trevor. And, in fact, it IS a long time ago – fifty-seven years, in fact. Where have they gone? I became a lifelong fan of William Trevor; what particularly drew me to his books was his ability to show us a world that looked just like the one we know – and then, with one deft feat of great writing, to remove the ground we think we stand on and show us the abyss below. He revealed that life is not just strange but unknowable. I’ve become a fan of Jan Turk Petrie for many of the same reasons. Her writing reminds me of Trevor’s – cool, distant but at the same time deeply involved with the characters and the reader and committed to writing as an art.

Still Life with a Vengeance is exactly the kind of story William Trevor might have told. It’s like watching interlinking lives play themselves out on stage. Each time we think we understand what’s going on, Petrie makes a slight adjustment to the scenery or the dialogue and a whole different set of questions emerges. The book is also very timely in the way it looks at how rumour can lead to a career and, indeed, a person being cancelled. The thing I had to accept when I read William Trevor was that, like it or not, this world he shows me is my world – the one I live in. In Still Life with a Vengeance, Jan Turk Petrie shows exactly the same skill.

Five stars. Read it. You may not be the same again.

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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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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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The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson Translated by Victoria Cribb

It’s a broccoli book – and I hate broccoli

If, like me, you were raised in a book loving family, one of the things you were taught at an early age was that books, once started, should be finished. You should read to the end, even if you don’t want to. I’ve no idea why we were taught that as children – I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was taught all sorts of stuff that I had to disabuse myself of before I could even dream about a happy life. One of those things was eating broccoli. I did it for years. Why? Because people told me I should. It was good for me. And I hated it. And then, one day, maybe ten years ago, maybe a little less, I was in mid chew and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care how good it is for me – I hate the stuff.” I haven’t eaten it since. I’ll never eat it again.

The Darkness is like that. It’s very well written and, although I don’t speak a word of Icelandic, I can tell that Victoria Cribb’s translation is first class. And I read 80% of the book before I thought, “Why am I struggling on like this? I’m bored to tears. I couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens to them. My time has been woefully imposed on.” And I stopped. I didn’t finish it. I never will.

I know from looking at the reviews that there are people who think The Darkness is a wonderful book. I’m very pleased for them. I’m also very pleased for people who like eating broccoli. But both sets of people are deluded.

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Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill

I’m a long-time admirer of William Trevor. I like the way, as an outsider (a Protestant in Catholic Ireland, and someone who had moved often in his childhood), he observed the people around him and presented them accurately in his fiction. I like even more his ability to indicate that what we are seeing when we read his books is not all that’s there. Sometimes, there’s a curtain between what we see and what is just out of sight but every bit as real. Sometimes, instead of a curtain it’s the ground beneath us and we know that it could suddenly move and we’ll be staring into the abyss. Those are great gifts in a writer and you don’t come across them very often. They are present in Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill. Hill lets us know that there’s more to the story than she has shown us – and, just occasionally and just for a moment, she lets it emerge from the darkness and stand before us.

As a man, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the way men are dealt with in this book, and I don’t just mean that there are three deaths and all of them are male. What made me uncomfortable was the qualities the men shared: all three of them took so naturally to controlling the protagonist (Carol Cage, who tells her story in the first person) that it was clearly second nature, and one of them also beat her. I know it happens. I don’t like knowing it happens. I don’t like watching it. But it is very well done here.

Carol spends most of her life in the shade of others. She knows it’s possible to be happy, but it seems to be beyond her reach. She reaches a kind of settlement at the end, and she does it as the reader reaches a different kind of ending. I said that all of the deaths are male; the title of the book is Killing the Girl, but the girl who dies is the naïve twelve-year-old who lives inside Carol Cage’s head and it’s long past her time to leave us.

It’s a challenging read, but worth it, and easy enough because, about a quarter of the way in, I found it had become one of those fairly rare books that grab you and pull you inside to the point where you’re living inside them and you can’t stop reading even if you want to (which I did, at one point, because of the kind of men I was having to look at. And I didn’t like the picture on the cover one little bit). It’s a first novel and it isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I look forward to the next by this author.

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4½ Stars for Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

This is a very clever book on a number of levels. Peter Swanson has pulled off two very difficult tricks in one book:

  • He has made us care about a character who, if not actively dislikeable, has nothing to commend him. The protagonist makes a point of telling us that he finds it easy enough to make someone’s surface acquaintance but almost impossible to move beyond that to real friendship, and that is exactly the way the reader feels about him
  • He has written a new version of a very well-known book – probably one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and most written about – without our realising that that is what we are reading until quite late in the book. We know something is going on and Swanson nudges us in that direction with a cleverly inserted musing on the history and current popularity of the unreliable narrator – but it isn’t until the final two chapters (which closely parallel the final two chapters of the Christie book) that we completely understand what the author is up to.

This is not really a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, because the unravelling does not come from a series of clues – instead, as is normal in mystery fiction today, the killer is simply introduced to us at the appropriate point. The reason I’ve taken half a star if you’re reading this on my blog and a full star if you’re reading it on Amazon from something that is otherwise five-star perfect is that there is no “Of course!” moment – you don’t think, as you do with the very best mysteries, “How did I miss that? It’s been staring at me almost from Page 1.”

Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book and I recommend it.

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Towards the Vanishing Point by Jan Turk Petrie

Before reading this I read all three of the author’s Eldísvík novels and before that I read Too Many Heroes, so I guess you could call me a Jan Turk Petrie fan. What I like most is the way she creates real, believable characters and then carries them forward in a plot that makes sense and doesn’t get lost on the way. In Towards the Vanishing Point, she’s done it again. The author’s photograph suggests she isn’t old enough to remember the 1950s in England, but I do. It was a dishonest decade, ten years that we’re lucky to be rid of, and Petrie captures it as though she lived through the whole thing. I look forward to her sixth book.

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