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.

Author, Book review, Catherine Steadman, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Something in the Water’ by Catherine Steadman

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster UK; 368 pages; 2019.

If you found $1million that didn’t belong to you, what would you do? Take it and say nothing, or report it to police?

In Catherine Steadman’s debut novel Something in the Water, this is the moral dilemma faced by Erin, a documentary film maker, and her new husband, Mark, an out-of-work fund manager, who discover a bag filled with money — and lots more other “goodies” inside — when scuba diving during their honeymoon on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora.

When they decide to smuggle it home to London, the pair set in motion a chain of events that will tip both their worlds upside down.

A tightly plotted tale

Of course, as with every crime thriller I’ve ever read, it’s difficult to review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so forgive me if what follows is a little vague. Let’s just say that Something in the Water is a fast-paced, tightly plotted story that heads into some dangerous criminal underworld territory.

Apart from a few aspects, it feels largely believable throughout, which is some achievement given that Mark and Erin are portrayed as essentially squeaky clean lovebirds. How they get caught up in events much bigger than themselves makes the story more imminently relatable, because we are all capable of making bad choices or having our moral compass go a little skewiff when there’s a lot of money at stake.

Steadman, who is also British TV and stage actor, structures her story so that Erin’s working life  — putting together a documentary following three prisoners about to be paroled — collides neatly with her new criminal life, which adds an extra dimension of jeopardy to the tale. And it is this jeopardy that propels the narrative forward in a truly suspenseful and heart-hammering way. I don’t recall being this caught up in a crime thriller since reading John Grisham’s The Firm almost 30 years ago!

She also does something super clever: in the opening chapter she has her female protagonist digging her husband’s grave, so you immediately want to know how events escalated to that point. Did Erin kill Mark, or has she found Mark’s body and decided to bury it herself?

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave? Wonder no longer. It takes an age. However long you think it takes, double that.

The story then spools back to the honeymoon and then painstakingly outlines what happened on that fateful trip followed by the aftermath.

An intelligent thriller

Despite the octane-fuelled pace, Steadman doesn’t skimp on detail. Her characters are well drawn, the scenes are vivid and alive, the dialogue authentic, the sense of paranoia palpable. There’s an air of intelligence about the story, too: this isn’t a dumbed down thriller for a dumbed down audience.

And the best bit? The plot doesn’t hinge on the gruesome murder of a woman, which has become so de rigueur in this genre that I’ve stopped buying books (and watching films) that use this lazy device. There’s no gratuitous violence, either.

Apparently the film rights to Something in the Water have already been sold — to Reese Witherspoon’s production company — and I can see why, because it’s such a visual, plot driven, story. (The book is also a Reece Witherspoon Book Club Pick. I’m not sure that’s any indicator of quality, but it does mean the book will attract a large audience.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this crime thriller and look forward to reading Steadman’s next book, Mr Nobody, which is due for publication early next year.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Simon & Schuster, Sweden, TBR40, Tom Rob Smith

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster UK; 384 pages; 2015.

Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.

A parental tug-of-war

The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.

One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.

Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.

From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.

Who to believe?

What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?

What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.

Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?

And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.

Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.

This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Phoebe Locke, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, UK, USA, Wildfire

‘The Tall Man’ by Phoebe Locke

Fiction – Kindle edition; Wildfire; 368 pages; 2018.

A few years ago I watched the documentary Beware the Slenderman about a pair of young American schoolgirls who attempted to murder one of their friends. Their motive was to appease “Slender Man”, a fictional monster whom they believed was true, and which had originated as a horror-related meme on the internet. (You can read more about Slender Man via this Wikipedia entry.)

Phoebe Locke’s The Tall Man uses this incident, albeit translated to the UK, as the basis of her creepy, psychological suspense novel.

Divided into three separate storylines set in three different time periods (1990, 2000 and 2018), it largely follows the exploits of 18-year-old Amber Tanner, who is the subject of a documentary film project. Self-obsessed and self-aware, she’s very much a closed shop and the documentary makers are having a hard time getting her to open up about the murder she committed a year or so ago.

This storyline is intertwined with two earlier ones. The first focuses on Amber’s upbringing in rural England, abandoned as a young baby and raised by her father single-handedly to become a too-good-to-be-true devoted daughter, while the second charts how her mother, Sadie, having devoted herself to a sinister figure known as “the tall man” in her childhood, spends her adult life frightened of him because of his deep desire to steal daughters and, in particular, hers.

Eventually, each of these three storylines coalesces into a powerful, if somewhat disappointing, ending, but this isn’t your average psychological thriller. Locke weaves in elements of horror, suspense and the supernatural to create a story right out of the Stephen King playbook.

An author in control of her story

She cleverly keeps certain “clues” at bay, so you are never quite sure who Amber killed until the very end, nor do you know whether Amber really believes in the Tall Man or whether she might just be using him as an excuse for her murderous behaviour.

And while Amber and Sadie aren’t particularly likeable characters (making it difficult for the reader to empathise with either of them), the young filmmaker Greta and the unreasonable demands she experiences from her boss provides an additional element to the story, including the ethics of documentary making and the ways in which young people are taken advantage of in the workplace.

Ultimately The Tall Man is an unsettling read rather than a thrilling one. There’s a few twists and turns along the way and the chopped up storylines provide an element of tension. The characterisation, particularly of Amber (elusive and narcissistic), Sadie (frightened, scatty and reliant on alcohol) and Greta (professional, ambitious but with a strong moral compass) gives weight to what might otherwise have been a fairly mediocre story.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR40. I purchased it last year as a Kindle 99p special having wondered if it might be based on the “Beware the Slenderman” documentary that had so freaked me out when I watched it on TV a few years ago. I’ve been fascinated by this modern legend ever since.

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

‘Take Me In’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – paperback; Mulholland Books; 352 pages; 2019.

Last summer I was completely besotted by Sabine Durrant’s Lie to Me, a wonderfully dark thriller set on a Greek island, so when I saw her latest one on special offer at WH Smith just as I was about to board a long haul flight, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Take Me In turned out to be another gripping psychological thriller, one that had me furiously turning the pages in a bid to find out what happens next.

It’s set in modern-day London, but opens on a Greek island, where middle-class couple, Marcus and Tessa, have gone for a week-long holiday designed to save their failing marriage. Their three-year-old son, Josh, is with them.

One afternoon, on the beach, Josh nearly drowns and is rescued by a fellow holiday maker — a bald-headed, tattooed Brit called Dave Jepsom — who dives into the ocean to save him. Marcus and Tessa, caught out by their own parenting inadequacies, feel indebted to Dave, even though they don’t much like him.

When they return to London, their marriage still intact (but only just), they find that Dave, who claims to be “in construction” and lives in Essex, has seemingly inveigled his way into their lives. He turns up on their doorstep uninvited with gifts for Josh and, on a separate occasion, to fix the couple’s leaky bathroom tap. At other moments, he appears in the shadows, spotted at restaurants, in shopping centres, in local streets, almost as if he is spying on them.

What does Dave want? And does he pose a threat to Marcus and Tessa’s safety?

Two intertwined voices

The story is told from two points of view in alternate chapters marked Him (Marcus) and Her (Tessa). This allows us to see their individual take on things (Marcus often feels inadequate as a man when he compares himself with big, beefy Dave; Tessa simply feels sorry for him but would rather he was not a part of their lives) and to find out more about their own internal thought processes. (Annoyingly, the tone of voice in both is quite indistinguishable, and Marcus doesn’t feel quite “male” enough to me, but that’s a minor quibble.)

It soon becomes clear that though they are both well-meaning people, they’re not particularly nice. Marcus is too focussed on his career as co-founder of a crisis management firm to much care about his family at home — it’s all about being on call 24 hours a day and saving brands from self-combusting — while Tessa feels so insecure as a mother and house wife that she’s having an affair with a man she once worked with when she was in PR.

They’re low-key social climbers, materialistic and over-protective of their child (except, of course, when he’s swimming at the beach). And they’re both paranoid that everything they’ve worked for might one day be taken from them, which goes some way to explain their fear of Dave and what he might be plotting.

As well as being a fast-paced psychological thriller, Take Me In is also a story about modern manners and morals — how do you thank someone for saving your son’s life? how do you extricate yourself from relationships you don’t want? is it okay to make friends with people from backgrounds so unlike your own? — and the irrational fears held by some middle class people against the working class.

It’s also a clever dissection of a troubled marriage and the burdens we can place on women to find fulfilment in the home if they give up their careers, as well as looking at the ethics of running a business where dodgy money is concerned.

And while the ending is a bit of a let down, the kind that throws open more questions than solutions, it’s a good put-your-brain-in-neutral read and it made a plane trip and a couple of days chilling out noticeably more entertaining for me. I will definitely read more by Sabine Durrant in the future.