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.
It’s 1919 and Sam Wyndham, a Scotland Yard policeman who had a traumatic time in the trenches in WWI and then lost his wife to the peacetime influenza, has been recruited to join the police in Calcutta. He is thrown straight into the deep end when a senior civil servant is found murdered. Efforts to prevent him learning the truth and direct his investigation into channels acceptable to the authorities come right from the top.
Abir Mukherjee paints what I’m sure is an accurate picture of the British in the Raj with their snobbery, violence towards the natives, cupidity and indifference to justice and fair dealing. The book is carefully plotted. And yet I feel able to grant it only three stars. There are signs here of a great deal of promise and I shall certainly want to read Mukherjee’s next book in the series, but it isn’t possible to ignore the shortcomings of A Rising Man. The characterisation is thin – the main characters are more than cardboard cutouts, but not much more – and Mukherjee relies too much on the Deus ex Machina; long-standing readers of detective fiction have become tired of the hunch that tells the detective what the answer to the mystery must be. We demand more than that, and Mukherjee does not – yet – deliver it.
It’ll make a good TV series, though, and I’m sure someone is working on that right now.
Yesterday, I placed here a post that I’d taken from the Mandrill Press blog. Here’s another. I do get asked from time to time how I came to be mixed up with my two Mandrill Press co-authors. I’ve even been accused of being Kat Carlton and Suzie Hopkins in disguise — a suggestion I take exception to. This post attempted to explain to Mandrill Press subscribers the (wide) differences between the three of us.
Mandrill Press: Three Very Different Writers
What to expect from the three Mandrill Press authors
Our regular readers know this, but there has been a significant influx of new subscribers to the site over the past few days and – given the very different writing styles and worldviews of the three Mandrill Press authors – it’s probably a good idea to set out for the new subscribers exactly what they can expect to see here.
My name is John Lynch, I’m (with Suzie Hopkins) one of the two founders of Mandrill Press, and I handle all of the admin for the three of us so the chances are that you will hear from me more often than from anyone else. I write contemporary fiction and historical fiction as well as non-fiction and working as a writer for hire. You’ll find a description of my currently published books here. Of the three of us, I like to feel that I’m least likely to cause offence because I don’t write what the others call “erotica”.
Suzie Hopkins is Canadian but currently lives in Abu Dhabi where she is a Marketing Manager. You can find details of her published books here. I mentioned erotica earlier; some of Suzie’s books are quite frankly and straightforwardly rude (The Binding and The Transformation of David) while the best way to describe a book like Lovers in Their Fashion is to say that it’s a strong contemporary romance that does not shrink from describing its characters’ sexual doings. In detail. Oh!
I suppose, if I’m honest, that to tell you about Kat Carlton (and that could, perhaps, be rewritten as “to warn you about Kat Carlton”) is the reason for this post. Kat writes what she calls Erotic Christian Romance (see her books here) and her work is explicit. If seeing the word “Christian” makes you think, “Oh, well, if it’s Christian it can’t be too filthy”, you had better read what Kat says here. And here. As well as love between man and woman, Kat specialises in LGBT and M/M – that is, love – physical love – between two men. If this is not for you, I suggest you stick to the other two.
There you are. You have been warned. Now I’ll stand back and just say, take a look at the books. See what we have that you might like.
A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.
That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂
I’ve been making flyers for the upcoming litfests at the London Book Fair on 17 April 2015 and Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on 23 April 2015. This is the one I’ve made in A5 size for Sharon Wright: Butterfly:
A5’s a bit small for the screen, so here’s the text:
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.
In Sharon’s deprived childhood, Buggy was Top Cat – the one everyone went in fear of. Buggy ruled the roost and Buggy’s girlfriend could be the Number One female. So she married him. Of all the mistakes she could have made, that was the biggest. But mistakes don’t have to be final
All Sharon wants is a better life – a husband who takes care of her, the kind of food they have in magazines, and civilized conversation. Is it her fault that she is in the middle of a plot involving two hitmen? Well, yes, actually. It is. But Sharon is a survivor who makes her sure-footed way in a man’s world. And when she woos Jackie Gough she does it the way a female mantis might, knowing that when she is sated she may kill him. Until then she lets him think they are equal partners and will share the money she sets him up to steal. Poor Jackie.
ISBN (Paperback) 978-1-910194-10-2
ISBN (eBook) 978-1-910194-08-9
What John Lynch has to say about Sharon Wright: Butterfly
It takes a long time to write a book. By the time I’d finished Sharon Wright: Butterfly I knew my star character so well we were on snogging terms – except that snogging Sharon would be a risky thing to do. Jackie Gough tries it, and realises too late that the dumb blonde is no more dumb than she is blonde.
My sympathies are with Sharon. She’s born in a rundown place into a family that doesn’t care. Because she’s female, she’s expected to accept that her place will always be second to a man’s. She learns to hide her intelligence, but hiding it is not giving it up. She’s surrounded by South London criminals and assorted lowlife who would kill her without a second thought if they thought she posed a threat. And still she survives.
(Or does she?)
A word about the cover
When the book was done, I trawled Getty Images till I found a face and when I did it was “Beam me up, Spotty!” There she was! Her! The woman I’d got to know so well in a year of living side by side in the same little room (the one I write in). My Shazza. Then Scarlett Rugers McKenzie, an Australian book designer of genius, took the pic and made exactly the cover I wanted.
You can find more about Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.
Behind Closed Doors is a Beatrice Stubbs novel by JJ Marsh. Beatrice, a Scotland yard detective with problems of her own, is loaned to Interpol in Zurich to help with the pressing problems of others when a Swiss policeman notices resemblances between a series of deaths of fat cat enemies of the people (in some eyes, at least) which have all been classified as suicides. Characterisation is sometimes rudimentary but I’m not recommending this book for its deep psychological insights – what marks this out as a gripping “must read” is the pace and believability of the writing. I regularly read reviews that say, “I was gripped from page 1 and I couldn’t put this book down” and think, “Well, I wasn’t and I could. And did. And I couldn’t pick it up again”. But Behind Closed Doors gripped me from page 1 and I couldn’t put it down. JJ Marsh is a British author who lives in Switzerland and the setting and local habits are completely convincing. The plot grips. The restaging of the apparent suicides, seen from the viewpoint of the person who dies, are writing of the highest quality. You know well before the end who the killers’ final target is going to be, you desperately don’t want it to happen and you are on tenterhooks as the action unfolds. I hate giving five star reviews because they should go only to the very best books – five stars should mean “This is a superlative read and there are very few like it”. Well, this is a superlative read and there are very few like it.
See more reviews of other people’s books here
I’m asked where the character of Sharon Wright came from in a way that no one ever asks about Billy, the central character in Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I don’t find that puzzling; it reflects the unwillingness of people to accept the pursuit of self-interest in a female character when it would not trouble them in a male. It’s clear that some people find Sharon disturbing. Personally, I love the woman 🙂
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth and making sure she kept it. I had better make it clear right now that I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses – my problem was with people who accepted that there must be limits on a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I actually wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Sharon Wright was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Zappa’s Mam is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of consuming him for lunch when he has served his purpose. She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says,
‘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.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says,
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?