Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, London, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Finders, Keepers’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 320 pages; 2020.

Morally dubious characters are a mainstay of Sabine Durrant’s work, and Finders, Keepers, her latest novel, is no exception.

In this gripping story — which is right out of the Patricia Highsmith playbook — two women, poles apart in background and personality, develop a strange, obsessional relationship that culminates in a murder. As the pair dance around one another, their individual secrets are revealed one by one, in a carefully paced narrative filled with many a-ha! moments.

Told from the perspective of Verity, an eccentric woman in her 50s who makes her living working from home as a lexicographer for the English Oxford Dictionary, the story juxtaposes two narrative threads: a retrospective one that looks back on how Verity became friends with her neighbour Ailsa, and a current one that focuses on Ailsa’s new life awaiting trial for murder.

Murder by poisoning

When the book opens, Ailsa is staying with Verity after having spent several nights in a cell at the local police station. Someone has daubed “YOUR GUILTEY” in red paint on the front fence. We later learn that Ailsa’s husband has died, possibly from eating poisoned food, and that she has been charged with his murder. Her three children have been taken into care.

Verity, kind-hearted and eager to please, looks after her friend with unwavering devotion, the kind of devotion she had previously doled out to her aged mother, whom she cared for until her death five years earlier. Estranged from her only sister, Verity lives alone with only her dog Maudie for company.

Verity explains that when Ailsa moved in next door — after “13 months of drills and bulldozers, the clatter of scaffolding, the whining of saws, the bangs and shouts and music and oaths of the increasingly frantic builders” — it’s a relief that the renovations are over. She already knows that Ailsa, who works in HR, and her husband, Tom, who is a record company executive, have moved to London after a failed stint in Kent. She knows their taste in furniture and fittings (having seen it all delivered).

But their friendship gets off to a wonky start when Tom comes around to complain about the trees and ivy along the back fence (wanting her to cut everything back). Later, when she’s invited over for drinks (via a handwritten invitation on the back of a postcard), she drops by, unaware that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to convince her to clear up her garden.

This sets the tone for their friendship, though Verity seems genuinely unaware that she is being used or manipulated by both parties. Even when she begins (accidentally) tutoring their son, Max, who is struggling at school because of his dyslexia, Verity can never see it in herself to chase the promised payment.

Mutually dependent friendship

As the story unfolds and the two narratives, past and present, intertwine we begin to learn more and more about the ways in which these two women come to depend on one another, and we begin to see how Tom’s behaviour, bullying and rude, might have lead to his downfall.

Finders, Keepers is a clever, suspense-filled story, one that doesn’t follow all the conventional rules of the genre. It’s far from predictable and has the kind of satisfactory ending that makes you glad you took the time to read the book.

But it’s the characters that really make the story — the bitchy, manipulative Aisla, who is all sweetness and light whenever the spotlight is cast in her direction, is rather wonderful, yet it’s Verity, an oddball with her quirky interests, that gives the novel its real heart.

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Garry Disher, Hodder, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘The Divine Wind’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 151 pages; 2002.

I will admit that when I purchased Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind last year from a secondhand bookstore for the princely sum of $1, I did not realise it was a young adult novel. I associate Disher with adult fiction, usually crime, and because I’d never read him before I jumped on the name and thought it might be a good introduction to his work. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised my mistake…

Except it wasn’t really a mistake, because The Divine Wind turned out to be quite an entertaining read, perfect fodder for an over-tired brain that just wanted some escapism while the outside world went a bit mad.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, it’s essentially a coming of age story about four teenagers living in the pearling town of Broome, on the far north Western Australia coast, and what happens to them over the course of a few event-filled years.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Hartley Penrose, the son of a pearling master, looking back on his teenage years. He has a younger sister Alice, with whom he is particularly close following their mother’s return to England (she could never quite get used to her isolated, lonely life in Broome), and together they are friends with Mitsy Sennosuke, the daughter of a Japanese diver employed by their father, and Jamie Killan, who has just moved to town with his family. The four of them hang out regularly; they go swimming and sailing, or see films at the cinema.

But the carefree nature of their existence changes when a disastrous cyclone hits the coast which results in Mitsy’s father dying at sea and Hartley suffering a serious leg injury from which he never fully recovers. Not long later, the Japanese bomb Broome and soon Mitsy and her mother are viewed with suspicion because of their ethnicity; they are later interned.

Against all this drama, Hartley falls in love with Mitsy, who later becomes a nurse, but his feelings are never fully reciprocated because it seems that she may have given her heart to Jamie…

Love and adventure

As much a love story as it is an adventure story, The Divine Wind is a richly written novel that deals with some very adult themes including love, death, racism and war.

It’s a highly evocative account of a particular time and place, where non-whites, whether Asian or Aboriginal, are treated with prejudice. It’s also an unsettling portrait of a harsh and demanding climate; of a lifestyle that is remote and lonely; and a community that isn’t always forgiving.

It’s wonderfully moving and powerfully told.

This is my 10th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Blood Safari’ by Deon Meyer

Blood-safari

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 384 pages; 2009. Translated from the Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers.

I seem to have been going through an (unplanned) mini South African fiction phase lately — I recently read and reviewed both Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Damon Galmut’s The Good Doctor — so when I was casting about for something easy to read when on holiday in Australia earlier this month, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was a good fit.

In many ways Blood Safari, the author’s fifth book, is an unconventional thriller — the protagonist, Lemmer,  is a bodyguard with a shady past, rather than a policeman or a journalist, for instance — and it’s imbued with a real sense of what it is like to live in modern South Africa, where the past and the present have an uneasy relationship, and where black and white tensions still remain despite the birth of a new nation.

But it also features some typical (or should I say lazy?) clichés: there’s a budding romance between Lemmer and his client, a beautiful young businesswoman, and there’s plenty of gun action, car chases and the like. But, to be honest, those things don’t really matter when you’re in the throes of a master storyteller — and Meyer is, indeed, one of those.

Mistaken identity?

The story, which is a heady mix of politics, environmental activism, corruption and greed, centres on a rich young woman, Emma Le Roux, who believes she has seen her long-dead brother on TV, the prime suspect in a murder case in which four poachers were killed. However, the suspect and her brother have different names, so is Emma merely mistaken or has her sibling been “reborn” under a new identity?

Not long after she contacts the police to tell them of her suspicions, her house is burgled and it seems Emma’s life may be in danger. She hires Lemmer as her bodyguard and then begins her own investigation into her brother’s disappearance, but her probing questions ruffle feathers and she’s thwarted at almost every turn.  When she is put out of action by a serious accident, Lemmer picks up the mantle and finds his own life  is suddenly on the line…

That’s when things really begin to heat up — and when the tone of the story changes from seemingly innocent “detective” work to one of pure vengeance.

Lowveld setting

Aside from the obvious drama and adrenalin-fuelled narrative, which twists and turns so you’re never quite sure who to trust or who to believe, the book’s unique selling point is its setting: the Lowveld province of Limpopo, where Kruger National Park is located, a region plagued by political unease and ongoing land claims. One character describes it as follows:

This is still the old South Africa. No, that’s not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. And that makes for an ugly combination. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation . . . those things do not lie well together. And then there’s the money and the poverty, the greed.

The social commentary that runs throughout the story brings to mind the likes of Australia’s Peter Temple, for Meyer is very good at painting a portrait of the deep unease between the Afrikaners and the English speakers, between the police and civilians, between black and white, between the various different black tribes keen to advance economically. He shows how corruption affects almost every level of society and he reveals how tourism —  “the lifeblood of our country, a bigger industry than our gold mines” — has become a monster growing out of control, pitting development against nature in a way that threatens to destroy the very thing the tourists pay good money to see.

Similarly, he also highlights the dangers of “the new wealth”, which is changing attitudes and behaviour, and creating a population — “white, black and brown” — frenzied by consumerism but marked by a deep unhappiness:

I couldn’t understand it. The Russians and the Romanians and the Bosnians would collect their children after the evening karate class and they would say, “This is a wonderful country. This is the land of milk and honey.” But the South Africans complained. They drove smart cars, lived in big houses and seafront flats, they ate in restaurants and bought big flat-screen TVs and designer clothes, yet no one was happy and it was always someone else’s fault. The whites complained about affirmative action and corruption, but they forget that they had benefited from the same for fifty or sixty years. The blacks blamed apartheid for everything. But it was already six years since it had been abolished.

Blood Safari isn’t the perfect thriller, but its mix of social commentary, politics and action gives it an edge over the usual run-of-the-mill fare you might expect in this genre. It kept me entertained on the road for a week or more (at a time when I didn’t want anything too challenging to read) and piqued my interest enough to make me want to explore more of this writer’s back catalogue.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hodder, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘Broken Harbour’ by Tana French

Broken-Harbour

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 544 pages; 2012.

Last week Tana French‘s Broken Harbour won the Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. I read it back in July, within a week or two of its release, after I’d trawled every independent book store near Charing Cross Road looking for it. Not one shop had it in stock and I had to resort to buying it from Amazon as a Kindle edition.

I have a long relationship with Tana French, having read (and loved) In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. And because I knew this one was set in the aftermath of Ireland going bust — a topic that’s only now just emerging as a common thread in Irish fiction — I was eager to read it, hence my search for it on foot (and then online).

Murder mystery

The story is essentially a locked room murder mystery: a young man, Patrick Spain, has been stabbed to death in the family home; his two children have been smothered in their beds; and a fourth victim, Jennifer Spain, is in intensive care but is not expected to recover. There are no signs of forced entry. However, something is clearly not right.

This is how Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, the detective in charge of the investigation, puts it:

‘There was something very weird going on in that house, and I’m talking
about well before last night. We’ve got a bunch of holes in the walls, and no clue who made them or why — if you can find us any indications, fingerprints or anything, we’d be very grateful. We’ve also got a load of baby monitors — at least two audio and five video, going by the chargers on the bedside table, but there could be more. We’re not sure what they were for yet, and we’ve only located three of the cameras: upstairs landing, sitting-room side table, kitchen floor. I’d like photos of all of them in situ. And we need to find the other two cameras, or however many there are. Same for the viewers: we’ve got two charging, two on the kitchen floor, so we’re short at least one.’

As Scorcher’s investigation develops he discovers some strange things about the Spain family, specifically Patrick, who was made redundant from his well-paid job and then spent countless hours on the internet trying to find out what was making a noise in the interior walls of his house. Was he  paranoid — or depressed? Or was there really something living in his house he couldn’t catch?

Suspenseful narrative

French does a wonderful job of building suspense — the Spains were living on a “ghost estate”, a housing development called Ocean View that was never completed when the Irish economy went bust. Only a handful of homes are habitable. This “haunted blackness of the estate, scaffolding bones looming up out of
nowhere, stark against the stars” gives  the house an eerie setting. The fact that “Scorcher” has bad memories of the area from his childhood, when it was known as Broken Harbour, adds to the claustrophobic feel. The place reverberates with menace and French mines that trench expertly.

She is also an expert at characterisation — and boy, there is an extensive list of well-rounded characters in this one: Patrick and Jennifer Spain, Jennifer’s sister Fiona Rafferty, rookie cop Richie and Scorcher’s troubled younger sister, Dina.

Scorcher, of course, is the standout — he’s appeared in French’s earlier novels, but is the least likable of all the police she has previously introduced us to. He narrates Broken Harbour in a voice that is full of bravado and egotism, a voice that I found annoying pretty much from the start.

I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place.

But Scorcher has a softer, more humble side, and as you get to know him over the course of the book it becomes clear that his arrogance is a cover for deep, personal insecurities. He’s actually a damn nice bloke with his heart in the right place — once you understand that, you really want him to figure out “whodunnit”  so that he can maintain his impressive “solve rate”.

An ambitious novel 

But, of course, there are some downsides to this novel, too. Broken Harbour is big, rollicking, often repetitive and sometimes unwieldy. It could have lost a good 200 pages and been all the better for it. There are too many divergent threads, too many red herrings and too many sub-plots going on. This means it takes an age to get to the conclusion — and when you get there you’re so exhausted (or bored or confused) it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. It’s not. I enjoyed it and doubtless plenty of others will, too. Aside from French’s tendency to overwrite things, this is a suspenseful murder mystery that breaks normal crime novel conventions — this is more about why the crime happened and less about who committed it. It also has a kind of Scandinavian feel to it, by which I mean it puts the abhorrent crime into a social context: what part did the rampant consumerism and the subsequent credit crunch have to play in the deaths of one man and his two young children?

In a way, you could probably say they had been broke even before Patrick lost his job. He had made good money, but their credit card had a six-grand limit and it had spent most of the time maxed out — there were a lot of three-figure charges to Brown Thomas, Debenhams, a few websites with vaguely familiar girly names — and then there were the two car loans and the mortgage. But only innocents think broke is made of how much you earn and how much you owe. Ask any economist: broke is made of how you feel. The credit crunch didn’t happen because people woke up any poorer than they’d been the day before; it happened because people woke up scared. Back in January, when Jenny had spent two hundred and seventy euros on some website called Shoe 2 You, the Spains had been doing just fine. By July, they had been broke as all hell. Some people get hit by a tidal wave, dig in their nails and hold on; they stay focused on the positive, keep visualising the way through till it opens up in front of them. Some lose hold. Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined. It can nudge a law-abiding citizen onto that blurred crumbling edge where a dozen kinds of crime feel like they’re only an arm’s reach away. It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror. You could almost catch the stench of fear, dank as rotting seaweed, coming up from the dark space at the back of the closet where the Spains had kept their monsters locked down.

That is a long quote to finish on, but I think it showcases French’s prose style and her understanding of what makes people — and society — tick. It also represents the heart and soul of this quite ambitious but slightly flawed novel.

For other, more positive takes on Broken Harbour, please see Guy Savage’s review at His Futile Preoccupations and Danielle’s review at A Work in Progress.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hodder, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘Faithful Place’ by Tana French

Faithful-Place

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 448 pages; 2010.

I have Irish writer Tana French to thank for getting me out of my recent fictional reading slump. I read this novel, her third, in just a couple of days and found it enormously entertaining if slightly over-written — and over-wrought — in places.

Faithful Place is a crime thriller, but it doesn’t feature any of the main characters from her previous two novels — the police procedural In the Woods and its sequel The Likeness. It’s a completely stand-alone work of fiction, but the story does tread similar territory in that it focuses on a murder investigation in modern day Dublin.

The investigation gets under way when the suitcase of a woman once believed to have left Dublin for England 20 years ago mysteriously turns up in an abandoned home. The contents, which include her birth certificate, have not been disturbed. Does this mean she never left the city? And if she didn’t leave, what happened to her?

Enter undercover cop Frank Mackey, who has an exceptional interest in the case: the suitcase belonged to his girlfriend Rosie Daly. Twenty years earlier the pair had been planning to run away together, but Rosie never turned up to their agreed rendezvous point, 16 Faithful Place, and Frank assumed he’d been unceremoniously dumped. It is something he has never quite come to terms with.

Frank, who is a bit of a maverick, is not officially on the police case, but this doesn’t stop him from carrying out his own inquiries on the sly. What emerges is a portrait of a complicated man, who has unceremoniously ditched his working-class roots to pursue a career as a garda. But despite going up in the world — he marries a nice middle-class girl, whom he later divorces, and has a beautiful daughter — Frank can never quite let go of his troubled past.

His off-the-record investigation means re-establishing contact with people living in Faithful Place, the street he grew up on and thought he’d left behind. This includes his over-bearing mother, his alcoholic father and his four siblings. Then there are Rosie’s childhood friends — and Rosie’s judgemental parents.

I’ll admit there are elements of this story which are a bit soap-opera-ish, and Frank’s voice doesn’t feel particularly authentic as a male (he’s far too sappy about Rosie, for a start), but this doesn’t take away from the sheer enjoyment of ploughing through this book to find out what happens next. There are lots of unexpected plot surprises, and the story of Frank and Rosie’s teenage past, told in a series of seamless flashbacks, is nicely done.

What I like about French’s writing style is her ability to nail life in modern Ireland so perfectly you really feel as though you’re sitting in a Dublin pub having conversations with old friends. She gets the politics, the corruption, the consumerist lifestyles and the class divides down pat, but does so without making it seem contrived.

And her ability to write dialogue is also pitch-perfect. There are scenes in this book between squabbling older siblings which have a genuine ring of authenticity about them, perhaps a skill she has developed from her life in the theatre (she trained as an actor at Trinity College). Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Faithful Place wasn’t adapted for the screen at some point, because it would make a good film, complete with the over-the-top, sort of unexpected and not wholly believable, ending.

And while the book could do with a good edit (it’s at least 100 pages too long), it has an intelligence rarely seen in big commercially successful crime novels. French knows what makes people tick, she knows the inner-most secrets of big rambling Irish families, and she knows how the places we grow up in shape our lives and personalities.

In a nutshell, Faithful Place is perfect fare for those who appreciate good solid storytelling with a twist at the end. For me, this is the kind of comfort read that gets me out of the bookish doldrums with a jolt.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Sarah Addison Allen, Setting, USA

‘Garden Spells’ by Sarah Addison Allen

GardenSpells

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 327 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but when this one came thudding through the door, courtesy of the publisher, I practically salivated over this soon-to-be published paperback, not so much because I was dying to read the story, but because the artwork was so delicious. The image shown here doesn’t do the real hold-it-in-your-hands cover justice, because it doesn’t quite convey the gorgeous embossing that glitters like fairy dust on the dress and curlicues. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.

But does the cover match the contents, I hear you say. Well, the story is certainly magical — think English author Joanne Harris transported to North Carolina — but Garden Spells isn’t going to win any top literary awards. This is comfort reading: enjoyable, fluffy and fun. In fact, I read this book in two longish sittings while the rain pounded against the window one miserably wet Saturday and it was perfect fodder for an entertaining weekend read.

The story revolves around two sisters, the relatively strait-laced Claire Waverley and her younger wayward sister Sydney, from Bascom, North Carolina.

Claire lives alone in a beautiful Queen Ann style house that has been in the family for generations. The house has a garden with magical qualities, including an apple tree that bears fruit all year round. In fact, if you eat an apple from the tree the greatest event of your life will be revealed.

Claire uses ingredients from the garden in the delicacies she cooks as part of her profitable catering business. These ingredients affect the eater in curious ways — want to be able to keep secrets, then eat Claire’s biscuits made with lilac jelly; want to make sure you are understood, then eat turkey salad made with zucchini blossoms; want to recall good memories, then drink rose geranium wine.

Unfortunately, Claire’s culinary talents have marked her out as a being a little strange, and unless she’s doing business with someone, most of the locals keep their distance.

But Claire is not the only Waverley who has a reputation for being odd. Her Aunt Evanelle has the ability to predict people’s needs and will present them with odd objects — a brooch, a mango slicer, two dimes — that will come in especially useful at a later date.

Sydney, very much aware of her family’s reputation, fled Bascom ten years ago. But now, with an abusive boyfriend on her tail, she returns to the family home — the only place she has ever felt truly safe — with her six-year-old daughter Bay in tow.

But if Sydney’s reappearance upsets Claire’s equilibrium, the arrival of a handsome man moving in next door is set to turn her carefully tended life completely upside down…

Garden Spells, a kind of chick-lit meets culinary novel meets 21st century fairytale, is an enchanting read, if a little on the silly side. It’s slightly predictable and the romantic elements are cliched, but this is balanced by a tightly written plot and such glorious descriptions of food you can’t help but feel hungry as you turn each page. If you like magic realism, you’ll love this; if you like your novels grounded in reality, you won’t. But either way this is a fun read — and the cover is a knock-out!

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hannah

‘Little Face’ by Sophie Hannah

LittleFace

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 357 pages; 2006.

Little Face was one of those books I added to my wishlist after I read several favourable reviews online. Last week I was lucky enough to obtain a free copy via Bookmooch and as soon as it arrived I ripped open the envelope and waded in.

The story is one of those rip-roaring woman-in-peril narratives that starts out at a ferocious pace but eventually loses steam and ends up making the reader want to throw the book across the room out of disappointment and frustration. If truth be told, that’s actually what I did, and I do believe the words “what a crap ending” came out of my mouth!

Little Face capitalises on every mother’s fear: the loss of a child. And Sophie Hannah does this with aplomb, making her main protagonist, first-time mum Alice Fancourt, nervous, jittery and anxious even before anything happens to her new bub. Then Alice’s nervous disposition morphs into very real fear and paranoia when she becomes convinced her two-week-old daugher, Florence, has been “swapped” while in the care of her husband, David.

Of course, David thinks the claim is ridiculous, but Alice’s mother-in-law, a control freak who is not all that she seems, isn’t quite so sure. Over the course of the next few days Alice’s world is turned upside down as her husband becomes more vindictive and nasty towards her. It is only later when the reader realises that David’s first wife has been murdered that you begin to really fear for Alice’s safety — physically and psychologically.

The strength of the narrative is the fact that the reader is never quite sure whether Alice is telling the truth or whether she might just be suffering from some severe form of post-natal depression.

Hannah builds the tension by having the story told from two different perspectives — Alice’s version is told in the first person, while the police investigation is told in the third person. I quite liked this treatment and thought it worked well, with two reservations: I tended to find Alice’s voice slightly whiny and the police procedural aspect seemed amateurish, as if the only research the author had done was to watch a bunch of TV cop shows.

Other quibbles included the often unrealistic and clumsy dialogue, and the stereotypical characters, particularly Alice’s mother-in-law, a kind of wicked witch of the west character, so absurd that she didn’t seem at all believable.

All that aside, the book is an entertaining read, and as long as you’re not expecting anything too literary, it’s an enjoyable romp. Just don’t aim the book in my direction if you find the ending disappointing!

Andrew Taylor, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting

‘An Air That Kills’ by Andrew Taylor

AnAirThatKills

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 266 pages; 1994.

The bones of a baby are discovered in a disused privy as workmen demolish an old inn in a small market town on the England/Wales border in the 1950s. Newly arrived Detective Inspector Thornhill is called in to investigate what appears to be an old Victorian murder case. But all is not what it seems in this fairly pedestrian murder mystery by Andrew Taylor.

The characterisation — a tarty barmaid, a busybody who owns the town’s newspaper, a cantankerous elderly resident, among others — is poor and the plot moves along slowly. It’s a bit like a badly written Agatha Christie novel.

And the ending, described on the back cover as “satisfyingly chilling” by The Times, is as predictable as they come. I found this a disappointing read given that I loved Taylor’s Roth Trilogy.