Only the Dead by Malcolm Hollingdrake

3/5 stars. I enjoy something different from the norm, and the standard of writing was high, with some terrific descriptive passages and plenty of authentic detail.

Description

Meet DCI Cyril Bennett, a man with a passion for manners and efficiency, as well as an eye for the ladies. His partner, DS David Owen, is naïve and untidy but keen. Together they make a formidable pair.

When the discovery of two infants’ bodies is made at a Teacher Training College, Bennett and Owen are given the case. Soon a number of suspects are identified.

At the same time, a killer is on the loose staging attacks using sulphur mustard.

Is there a link between the infants’ bodies and the sulphur mustard attacks?

Do the answers lie in the past or the present?

Bennett and Owen must work together to bring to justice a killer with revenge on his mind.

My thoughts

From the moment you start reading, it’s clear this is not going to be a conventional police procedural. I have to be honest and say I struggled with the opening chapters, which reveal a lot of detail about one of the two plots that compete for police resources. But once the story got going, the pace picked up and produced an enjoyable read with some exciting moments.

There’s Lawrence, a man bent on revenge for the way people in the care system mistreated his mother. His method of revenge is unusual and elaborate to say the least, but intriguing. I liked the care and attention lavished on him as it helped to explain his motives without condoning his actions.

The second plot strand involved some missing children, whose remains are found. Inquiries by DCI Bennet and DS Owen soon put them on the trail of a gang of ruthless villains, who exploit the most vulnerable for financial reward. There’s a great deal of detail and information about the villains and their operations, which help to lend credibility and realism to their crimes. There are also some ingenious plot twists to keep you guessing.

But I didn’t feel the same detail and attention was given to the police side of things. This might explain why I struggled to warm to DCI Bennett or Owen. Neither engaged me, perhaps because I didn’t really get to know their characters. I would have preferred a little more time being invested in their characters and the police investigation. No doubt the characters will grow and develop as the series progresses.

I also found it difficult to work out who was talking in a quite a few places. This took me out of the story as I had to backtrack to work out which characters were saying what. I had trouble distinguishing Peter and Phillip, for example, who seemed more like twins than lovers.

That said, I enjoy something different from the norm, and the standard of writing was high, with some terrific descriptive passages and plenty of authentic detail. The author did well to juggle the two competing plots, which help to show the pressures facing police officers, who often have to deal with many cases concurrently.

3/5 stars

Only the Dead

A Smuggler’s trail

No Remorse, the third Kent Fisher Mystery, has a cryptic puzzle at its core that has Kent Fisher following in the footsteps of the old smugglers, who made their living in this beautiful part of the South Downs.

Smugglers left their mark on the landscape of East Sussex, landing their contraband on the shingle beach at Cuckmere Haven above. From here, they took boats up the Cuckmere River, past the white horse on the hill near Litlington village.

Cuckmere River

If you look closely, you can make out the river behind Harvey and the chalk horse on the hill beyond. As the inspiration behind Kent Fisher’s dog, Columbo, Harvey’s keen to help me research the settings for the stories, especially if it involves a trip to the local pubs..

In Collins’ time the river was wider, making it easier to move goods by boat past Litlington village, which features in No Remorse, past St Andrews Church to Alfriston.

St Andrews Church

Stanton Collins, who ran the main gang, had his headquarters in Alfriston, a pretty village with many lovely old buildings.

In Waterloo Square at the centre of the village on the opposite side to the building above, stands Ye Olde Smugglers Inne, its weather boarded first floor housing the rooms used by the gangs.

The rich smuggling heritage not only plays a part in the history of this part of the South Downs, but offers some cryptic clues to baffle and test Kent Fisher as he tries to discover why Anthony Trimble was killed.

From looking back to moving forward

‘You were a bright lad, but you were in the wrong job.’

Two years ago, after 39 years of service, I quit my job in environmental health to write full time. I rang Ged, who was my first manager when I started as a student Environmental Health Officer (EHO) in 1977. He chuckled and said, ‘You were a bright lad, but you were in the wrong job.’

Looking back, he was probably right. But I never had the courage, conviction or support to become a writer, as you’ll see if you read my post, Alas Poor Robert.

It may have been the wrong job, but I loved environmental health. It’s one of the most varied and rewarding jobs you can imagine. You’re out and about, meeting people and finding solutions to all manner of problems and issues to protect and improve public health.

Like nursing and teaching, it’s a vocation. And like many public sector jobs, it’s suffered in the last ten years as funding cuts and the media’s deriding, but false image of local government have taken their toll.

managerI was managing a team of officers by then. I spent much of my time justifying my actions and decisions to senior management, councillors, colleagues, my team, the press, the public and numerous other government bodies. It seemed crazy to me as I was following policy, working efficiently, within budget, and providing a good service.

In the end I couldn’t take any more and quit.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I had doubts right up to the moment I pressed send to email my resignation, but I’ve no regrets.

Okay, it took me 39 years to find the right job, but during that time I was hardly idle. I wrote and struggled like many other aspiring authors, working into the early hours most nights. A couple of novels drew interest from agents, but not enough for them to take me on and nurture what talent I had.

WritingDuring the 1990s, I sold articles to national magazines and had a column in Writers’ Monthly magazine. It was a hard slog, fighting for recognition among the stalwarts and regulars that magazine editors favoured.

And I wanted to write novels – crime novels.

As the millennium stepped up to the horizon, I’d already created my protagonist, Kent Fisher. Like me, he was an EHO, but that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike me, he was ex-army, married to the wrong woman, and in desperate need of a vice to fit in with all the other detectives on TV.

Kent appeared in three novels, shifting and changing like a chameleon as ideas came and went.

I was running low on rejection slips to paper the walls at Crouch Corner, so I sent the second novel to publishers and agents here and in the USA. One agent read it from cover to cover, but didn’t take me on.

Around the same time, I was promoted to manager and once more writing took a back seat for a few years. I loved the new role to start with. There I was, in control, setting policy, leading my team. Then I discovered the joys of meetings, human resources and memos. I also spent a lot of time checking the holiday planner to make sure we had enough cover on Fridays.

I immersed myself in service plans, performance management reports, and reading my manager’s mind so I knew what his priorities were. Like many senior managers, he never felt the need to explain what he wanted done.

Fisher's Fables coverKeen to record and poke fun at these moments. I named it Fisher’s Fables after my gung-ho detective EHO and let him be my mouthpiece. I created a fictitious environmental health team, populated by imaginary officers, who worked for a mythical local authority in a town that didn’t exist.

Over the years the length of the blogs increased as the number of post each year decreased.

By then, Fisher’s Fables was almost a sitcom, with a healthy following, which included the Chief Executive. I don’t know if he was disappointed to discover he didn’t feature in the stories, or relieved.

And that’s when it hit me between the eyes.

Not the blog, or the Chief Executive, but the realisation I had a cast of characters for my Kent Fisher murder mystery novels. More importantly, I’d found my author voice.

I don’t know whether it took 39 years to develop this voice, but looking back the clues were there from the age of 16. If only I’d stopped to look, to take notice of what my gut was telling me.

But that’s a story for another day.

Looking back

Over to you

Did you ever realise you were in the wrong job? What did you do about it?

If you’d like to find out more about Kent Fisher and the mystery series, click here to visit my website.

Heavenfield by LJ Ross

5/5 stars. I love the atmospheric locations, the sinister backstory and the engaging central characters, all wrapped up in some great writing.

Description

The hunter becomes the hunted…

When a man is found dead at the remote church of Heavenfield, DCI Ryan is the only other person for miles around. The police have no weapon, no motive and no other suspects.

Already suspended from Northumbria CID, Ryan must fight to clear his name. But soon, more than his career is at stake when prominent members of the mysterious ‘Circle’ begin to die. Somebody wants Ryan’s name to be next on the coroner’s list and to survive he must unmask the devil who walks among them – before it is too late.

Unfortunately for Ryan, the devil looks just like everybody else…

My thoughts

The beauty of a series is getting to know the main characters a little better with each book. In Heavenfield it’s the way the main characters come together and rally round DCI Ryan that lifts a story where there’s so much going on. He’s under attack from ‘The Circle’, whose members seem to be ruthlessly purging anyone who threatens their existence or exposure.

The events in this story have been brewing in the previous two books and lead to an intense and complex plot with many threads and a rather neat twist at the end. Hats off to the author for keeping so many plates spinning. At times it felt like there was too much going on, diluting the tension, but the thrilling climax more than made up for this.

I love the atmospheric locations, the sinister backstory and the engaging central characters, all wrapped up in some great writing that makes for exciting and dramatic stories that are an absolute pleasure to read.

I can’t wait to find out how the team deal with the aftermath of this story in the next book, Angel. From the standard of writing so far, it promises to be another great book.

5/5 stars

Heavenfield

A Clerical Error by J New

4/5 stars. Good writing and storytelling kept me entertained from start to finish.

Description

When the crime scene is pure coincidence and there’s no evidence, how do you prove it was murder?

Ella Bridges faces her most challenging investigation so far when the vicar dies suddenly at the May Day Fete. But with evidence scarce and her personal life unravelling in ways she could never have imagined, she misses vital clues in the investigation.

Working alongside Sergeant Baxter of Scotland Yard, will Ella manage to unearth the clues needed to catch the killer before another life is lost? Or will personal shock cloud her mind and result in another tragedy?

‘A Clerical Error’ is set in 1930’s England, and is the third of The Yellow Cottage Vintage Mystery series.

My thoughts

I enjoyed The Curse of Arundel Hall, the second in the Yellow Cottage Vintage mystery series, which introduced me to Ella Bridges, a woman of some substance, so I was looking forward to reading this.

With a personal mystery hanging over from the previous story, Ella soon becomes embroiled in the death of the local rector, who has only recently returned from his travels. While she seemed a little arrogant at times, there’s no mistaking her determination to organise the investigation and solve the mystery.

The style and atmosphere of the 1930s is beautifully evoked, leading to a gentle pace and style that allows the characters to shine through. I particularly like her aunt, who stole every scene she appeared in and helped Ella to solve the crime.

I found the solution a little convenient, but it was well set up and executed and doesn’t detract from the good writing and storytelling that kept me entertained from start to finish.

4/5 stars

A Clerical Error

Revising my opinions

Or did I really write that?

Yes, I’m afraid I did write it. When you’re writing a novel, there’s no one else to blame for the words you choose and the way you put them together. (Ghost writers excepted.)

It’s your name on the cover and there’s no hiding.

But before we get too carried away with responsibility, let’s go back to where it all started – the first draft.

Michael CrichtonNow, in writing circles, everyone tells you the first draft is the start. Michael Crichton said, books are not written they’re rewritten. And he’s right. Of course he is. The chances of turning out a perfect novel first time must be greater than winning the lottery. The opposite’s usually true – most authors could happily tinker away at their work for years to come. (We’re talking sentences and paragraphs here.)

We grow in confidence. We get better. We expect more of ourselves.

But we’re never satisfied!

Anyway, back to that pesky first draft. There’s a pretty good chance it will be too long, too meandering, repetitive, lacking suspense in the right places, or any number of other issues that mean it bears little resemblance to the perfectly formed creation in our imagination.

Ernest HemmingwayOr, if you’ll forgive the Anglo-Saxon, I’ll defer to Ernest Hemmingway, who apparently said, the first draft of anything is shit.

While I’ve no wish to argue with someone so respected, I would say the first draft of anything can usually be improved. So, why, on the third round of editing and revising, did I come across a chapter that made me wince?

Did I really write that?

It’s my own fault. I started writing the third Kent Fisher mystery, No Remorse, without an outline, a synopsis, or a plot. The story was a simple trail from the present into the past to discover a dark secret. Kent Fisher and I started with a challenge and set off on the trail. We discovered the clues, followed the leads, and dealt with the obstacles as they occurred, never quite sure where they would take us until everything began to fall into place towards the end of the story.

I was pretty pleased with the first draft, I can tell you.

Once written, I printed out the first draft and set the manuscript aside to distance myself before editing and revising. In this case, I allowed two months to pass before I read the story from cover to cover over three days, my trusty fountain pen in my hand.

Boy, did I make some notes and alterations.

EditingThe purpose of this read through is to discover whether the story hangs together, whether it works. But in addition to the structural elements, you soon spot errors, changes in character names, events referred to wrongly, repetitions, boring descriptive passages and so on.

More importantly, you get a feel for the overall balance of the story. Does it flow logically? Do the characters behave correctly, dealing with conflict after conflict in a realistic way?

I hesitated. There were a couple of chapters where things were a little too easy, a little too convenient for Mr Fisher. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to correct the problem, trying different ideas, until finally it felt right.

I wish!

Come the second edit and revisions, I reached the revised chapter and winced. I’ve no idea what happened when I rewrote the chapter, but clearly my brain and fingers were working to different agendas.

Do you ever suffer that? You’re thinking one thing but saying or doing something else?

Fortunately, I saw a solution that not only worked better than the previous two versions, it added something more meaningful to the character and story. And now, a few days after emerging from 10 days of intense editing and revision, I realise this process was a necessary evolution to get the story where it needed to be.

No pain, no gain, as they say.

And that’s why editing and revising are so important. I only discovered how important a little over two years ago while working with a publisher’s editor for the first time. We batted ideas, solutions and revisions back and forth for a couple of months. She showed me a different slant to my words. She helped me improve whole sections of the story, like polishing a tarnished surface to a shine.

It was fun. It boosted my confidence. It showed me how to distance myself from my work so I could look at it with an objective eye.

If only I could do the same with my life … but that’s probably a story for another day.


No Remorse is scheduled for release in May 2018.

If you’d like to know more about No Remorse or the other Kent Fisher mysteries, you can visit my website by clicking here.

Or if you want to learn more about the characters and stay up to date with new releases, you can join my Reader Group by entering your details below. I’ll never share your information or spam you, and you can unsubscribe any time. You’ll receive a free copy of A Health Inspector Calls, filled with humorous tales from my work, if you do.

U will be sadly missed

I have to confess I had to blink back a couple of tears when I wrote my review of Y is for Yesterday, which has turned out to be the last novel in the Kinsey Millhone series by Sue Grafton.

(Click here to read my review)

A is for AlibiAs I’m sure I’ve written elsewhere, I discovered A is for Alibi, the first in the series, in the late 1980s. The moment I began reading, I loved the feisty private investigator with her sardonic asides and no-nonsense attitude to life and criminals. But the stories were about much more than crime. Kinsey had an intriguing backstory concerning her family.

This began to play out over the series, adding an extra layer to the books.

Then there was Henry, her neighbour and landlord, who was her sounding board, protector and best friend throughout the series. From time to time, his colourful brood of relatives popped in to lighten a story.

We had Rosie, the owner of Kinsey’s local eatery where Hungarian dishes, made with various cuts of offal, complemented by cheap white wine, never failed to raise a smile. Then there were the police officers she knew, the detectives who helped her and vice versa, and an enormously entertaining support cast that you looked forward to meeting again in future stories.

I think G is for GumshoeSue Grafton brought something new and different to the private detective novel. There was no room for world weary detectives with smoky offices and cynical asides. She created a protagonist, who on the surface was not much different from you and me. She didn’t come with excess baggage, worried about taxes and parking while she struggled to make a living. She was a sucker for hard luck stories, fiercely independent, but loyal to her friends. But she had attitude and balls, tenacity and wit, often putting her life on the line as she did her job.

You felt you knew Kinsey. She was someone you could talk to, someone who would support you. She was someone you wanted as a friend. But she’d tell you straight if you were wrong. And fight for you if you were right, whatever the odds.

Sue Grafton showed me a different way to write the private detective novel, inspiring me to create Kent Fisher, an ordinary man who would learn to solve murders. He had wit, humour and tenacity, a love of animals and the underdog.

When a small independent publisher in the United States published the first novel, No Accident, in June 2016, I sent a message through Facebook to Sue Grafton. I never expected her to read it. Let only reply, but she did, wishing me a long a productive career.

I couldn’t believe it. My favourite author was talking to me.

It was the start of a conversation that ran for six months. I asked her lots of questions, she replied candidly, sometimes surprising me with her honesty about her early struggles as an author, about the problems of writers’ block and how long it took her to write a book.

I believe she was an intensely private person, who still seemed baffled by her success and struggling with the pressures it brought – as if there weren’t enough challenges, having to produce 26 novels eventually.

Sadly, she didn’t quite make it, but her legacy will live for many years. I’m sure new fans will discover Kinsey Millhone and come to enjoy her adventures as much as I have. While not every story reaches the same dizzy heights, the novels never fail to entertain. They offer a glimpse of life in 1980s California, in a fictional seaside town, lapped by the Pacific Ocean, where the smell of Henry’s baking beckons you over for a chat and a glass of wine as you try to solve some of the most intriguing and original crimes you can imagine.

U is for undertow

U will be missed, Sue Grafton.

 

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

4/5 stars. It’s sad that this will be Kinsey’s last adventure, but she bows out with her head held high at the end of a remarkable series.

Description

The darkest and most disturbing case report from the files of Kinsey Millhone, Y is for Yesterday begins in 1979, when four teenage boys from an elite private school sexually assault a fourteen-year-old classmate–and film the attack. Not long after, the tape goes missing and the suspected thief, a fellow classmate, is murdered. In the investigation that follows, one boy turns state’s evidence and two of his peers are convicted. But the ringleader escapes without a trace.

Now, it’s 1989 and one of the perpetrators, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Moody, unrepentant, and angry, he is a virtual prisoner of his ever-watchful parents–until a copy of the missing tape arrives with a ransom demand. That’s when the McCabes call Kinsey Millhone for help.

As she is drawn into their family drama, she keeps a watchful eye on Fritz. But he’s not the only one being haunted by the past. A vicious sociopath with a grudge against Millhone may be leaving traces of himself for her to find…

My thoughts

In what has sadly turned out to be Kinsey’s last investigation, she’s given a hot potato of a case where all the participants have plenty to hide. As she digs into the details with her usual tenacity, flashbacks to events ten years earlier show what really happened.

Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows is Ned Lowe, a violent killer with a score to settle. Add in a few domestic issues with Kinsey’s cousin and some unexpected visitors who take advantage of her landlord, Henry’s, hospitality, and there’s plenty to occupy my favourite private detective.

Reading Sue Grafton is always like meeting up with an old friend, catching up on events, revisiting familiar settings and the characters that bring such colour to the novels. Granted, the pace is often gentle (until the fireworks commence), but the stories are filled with intrigue and danger, laced with Kinsey’ sardonic observations and one-liners.

There was still time for a couple of neat twists to the story and a range of vivid characters to keep the story moving on to its exciting climax.

It’s sad that this will be Kinsey’s last adventure, but she bows out with her head held high at the end of a remarkable series. I tip my hat to anyone who can write a series of 25 novels, maintaining a consistently high standard of stories that entertain, intrigue and satisfy her fans.

I shall miss Kinsey Millhone, but I’m so glad I discovered Sue Grafton’s books 30 years ago. Something tells me I’ll be reading them again soon and for many years to come.

4/5 stars.

Y is for Yesterday

The Good Mother by Karen Osman

3/5 stars. The plot and the twist placed constraints on the way the story was told, draining much of the tension and suspense from it.

Description

How far would you go to protect your children?

A gripping psychological suspense, with a shocking twist that will leave you reeling…

Catherine is a good mother and a good wife. The family home is immaculate, her husband’s supper is cooked on time, but when she starts writing to Michael, a prisoner convicted of murder, she finds herself obsessing about his crime and whether he can ever truly be forgiven…

Kate has no time for herself. Caught in the maelstrom of bringing up two young children with no money, and an out-of-work husband, she longs to escape the drudgery of being a wife and a mother. And she soon starts taking dangerous risks to feel alive…

Alison has flown the nest. But university life is not what she had hoped for, and she finds herself alone and unhappy. Until the day her professor takes a sudden interest in her. Then everything changes…

Three women – all with secrets. And as the days tick down to Michael’s release, those secrets can no longer be ignored.

My thoughts

I was puzzled when I finished this book – not at the ending, but my reaction to it. The shocking twist didn’t leave me reeling – quite the opposite.

“Is that it?” I thought, not sure why I felt flat. The story is well-written, cleverly plotted, and I thought the characterisation of Kate, Alison and Catherine was excellent overall. They came to life from the first paragraph and kept me intrigued as their stories unfolded.

I don’t think the tagline – gripping psychological suspense, with a shocking twist that will leave you reeling – was to blame. I ignore these overblown and all-too-frequent claims by publishers. However, this didn’t feel like psychological suspense to me. The tension didn’t build or grip me, especially towards the end when two of the story strands faded out.

This turned out to be necessary for the twist.

And that’s why I felt flat. The plot and the twist took over. They placed constraints on the story and the way it was told to disguise the twist. The resulting compromises affected character behaviour and some of the decisions made by the women. The overall result, I feel, was to drain much of the tension and suspense from the story.

It’s a shame because I think the author is talented. She brought the characters to life with some excellent writing and insights, and had she not gone for the clever plot and twist, I think The Good Mother could have been a tense, suspenseful story.

3/5 stars.

The Good Mother

Not Dead Enough by Peter James

5/5 stars. I hope Peter James enjoyed writing this story as much as I enjoyed reading it.

Description

Appearances can be deceptive; but the truth is a dangerous thing . . .

On the night Brian Bishop murdered his wife he was sixty miles away, asleep in bed at the time. At least that’s the way it looks to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, who is called in to investigate the kinky slaying of beautiful socialite, Katie Bishop.

Roy Grace soon starts coming to the conclusion that Bishop has performed the apparently impossible feat of being in two places at once. Has someone stolen his identity or is he simply a very clever liar?

As Roy Grace digs deeper behind the façade of the Bishops’ outwardly respectable lives, it becomes clear that everything is not at all as it first seemed. Then he digs just a little too far, and suddenly the fragile stability of his own troubled world is facing destruction . . .

Not Dead Enough is the third bestselling title in the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series from the number one bestselling author Peter James.

My thoughts

I hope Peter James enjoyed writing this story as much as I enjoyed reading it.

I loved it from the first page to the last, revelling in the wickedly devious plot that began with a murder and a clear suspect in Brian Bishop. Only he didn’t do it. He’s adamant about that. And I agreed with him, even when the evidence began to build up against up him. And then I worked it out, which increased my enjoyment as I watched the plot twist and turn, the tension build. Only I was wrong, because along came another masterful twist to sweep me into the dramatic endgame, which left me breathless by the end.

It’s a long story, but it will live longer in my memory for many reasons.

The author’s customary attention to detail not only adds realism and authenticity – it builds trust in the reader, building a bond that increased my enjoyment and admiration. After the previous novel, Looking Good Dead¸ (read my review here) I wanted to learn more about Roy Grace’s life and the mystery of his wife’s disappearance. Then there’s the politics of policing, struggling with decreasing budgets, concerns about how the Crown Prosecution Service will view the case – still highly relevant and part of the climate today.

All these factors support and enhance a terrific plot and crime story that I would recommend to anyone.

Peter James is a writer at the top of his game and an inspiration.

5 stars

February 2018

Not Dead Enough