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.
Way back at the beginning of 2015, I reviewed a crime book, The Art of the Imperfect. The author, Kate Evans, was unknown to me, but she made a huge impression. In my review, I recalled the first time I’d come across Hilary Mantel (in 1985 with her book, Every Day is Mother’s Day. I talked about the huge impression that book had made on me, and how I’d been a Mantel follower ever since. I said, “Thirty years ago, I recognised Hilary Mantel as a name to watch. Today I give you Kate Evans as another.”
Well, it’s been a while, but now Kate Evans has proved me right. This year, Constable brought out her new crime book, A Wake of Crows. It’s been worth the wait. I often read reviews saying that a book contains many layers and when I read the book itself I usually find myself wondering what the reviewer meant. But A Wake of Crows is a book that reveals itself on many levels. It’s a straightforward police procedural. It’s a study of a complicated life that begins in East Germany when it’s still a Communist state and its inhabitants are sorely oppressed and ends, of all places, in Scarborough in North Yorkshire. And it’s a great many other things, too, between those extremes.
Kate Evans has the one gift without which writers cannot succeed. From the moment you start reading her book, you’re in the story, you want to know what happens, and you can’t stop reading until you do. The characters are sometimes odd, but they are always real, believable and multi-faceted. The same goes for the plot with its many turns and its slow unveiling of the depths of the story. Six years ago, I called Kate Evans a name to watch. I was right. Whatever else you do between now and Christmas, read this book.
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.
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.
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.
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.