December 17 2022

February 2023

A quick public service announcement for our eagle-eyed readers:

We haven’t absconded with the family silver … We’re offline for personal reasons, but intend to be back soon with lots of shiny new reviews and interviews. Be good and don’t do anything we wouldn’t do (although we realise this may limit your options!)

We are pleased to confirm the old rumour that size doesn’t matter – it’s how you use it that matters. Naturally we’re talking about literary issues – our reviewers have read a lot of short story anthologies this issue to come to this unequivocal conclusion!

And there’s a serious helping of the spooky stuff in some of those anthologies. Linda Wilson admits furtively that she’s never been much of a fan of short stories before – but she may have changed her mind! Ghosts from the Library, edited by Tony Medawar, collects little-known short stories from the Golden Age. Linda enjoyed the balance of crime fiction and hints of the supernatural. She wasn’t so sure about Simon Crook’s Silverweed Road, which is a place you don’t want to live. Linda says these loosely linked short stories felt too much like being slapped in the face by a dismembered hand rather than tapped lightly on the shoulder by one! A Sliver of Darkness by CJ Tudor was more like it, with 11 short stories sporting macabre twists. The moral ambiguity definitely appealed to Linda.

Oh, OK, we’re going to have to mention the c-word (no, not that one – we’re disappointed in you all!) You might want to lock the doors and block the chimney – just in case the bearded bloke with a white beard and a red suit turns out to be an uninvited guest with murder on his mind – then grab a mug of mulled wine and settle down for some spine-chilling seasonal short stories …

Linda Wilson and Viv Beeby divided up the spoils here and deserve an extra helping of roasties and then Christmas pud for their efforts. Linda’s verdict on Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer & Other Stories is that the collection showcases the late Reginald Hill’s much-missed talents, mixing pointed observations of human nature with equally sharp humour. Viv settled down with Murder in the Falling Snow, a collection of ten Golden Age stories, all with a wintery feel. She says that Dorothy L Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are among the writers contributing their own take on a chilling and shadowy festive season.

Viv has presumably been eating tubs of Celebrations and Quality Street for several months, as she also worked her way through three seasonal novels. Murder on the Christmas Express by Alexandra Benedict features the discovery of a body in a locked cabin when the sleeper train from London to the snowbound Scottish Highlands comes off the rails on Christmas Eve. Viv felt the ending was rather too neatly tied up and that several aspects of the story were unnecessarily gimmicky. And she was left scratching her head at Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh, which appeared in 1971. Christmas at Halberds Manor has Supt Roderick Alleyn and his wife Troy investigating when a visiting manservant disappears and the seasonal jollity turns to fear and suspicion. Viv says that it feels out of place in the period in which it’s set and that anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s will feel that they've stepped through a time warp into an altogether different era! Shuffling a little further back, Murder at the Theatre Royale by Ada Moncrieff is set at Christmas 1935. When a new production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol brings violent death to the West End stage, intrepid reporter Daphne King is just the woman to solve the mystery. Viv says it succeeds as Christmas entertainment and she was magnanimously prepared to overlook the lack of anyone questioning the amateur sleuth’s credentials!

The Golden Age and Agatha Christie both seem to have cropped up several times already this issue. And yes, we realise it’s the wrong time of the year for the first collection – but it might warm you up if you’re like us in the west country and have to contend with 12cm of snow! Sylvia Maughan reviewed Midsummer Mysteries, a collection of Christie’s short stories, each originally published in the 1920s. She reports that it’s light entertainment with an opportunity to exercise the little grey cells. Fast-forward to the 21st century and 12 modern crime writers have got their mitts on one of the genre’s most iconic amateur sleuths in Marple: 12 New Stories. The writers take on the challenge with varying degrees of success. In the end, it was the idea of Jane Marple practising Tai Chi that overstepped the mark for Anthea Hawdon!

And if you’re still looking for stocking fillers or for books that you can read in bursts between eating, socialising and sleeping, we have you covered. There’s another familiar face in the form of Inspector Maigret, with five stories from various stages of his career. Chris Roberts says that Georges Simenon’s Death Threats & Other Stories presents a diverse picture of Maigret and his career, and highlights his strengths under a range of circumstances. Also in France, Rosy & John by Pierre Lemaitre features Jean Garnier hiding seven bombs around Paris and demanding the release of his mother Rose from prison as the price of stopping the carnage. Chris says it packs quite a punch for a comparatively short book and he was taken by both the main character and the strong Parisian atmosphere.

And if you fancy an antidote to the cosier stuff, please step this way, avoiding the mistletoe if you prefer, and we’ll start you off with another compilation of short stories. But Chris Roberts warns that Addis Ababa Noir, edited by Maaza Mengiste, conveys an uneasy picture of life in the Ethiopian capital and is universally dark and depressing. If you can cope with the cold, then go for The Dark by Emma Haughton, where Kate North takes a job as resident doctor during the winter at a UN research station in the Antarctic – and realises that the death of her predecessor may not have been an accident. Chris says lugubriously that the book misses no opportunity to pile on the angst. Scandi queen Ewa Sherman has picked up the latest book from David Lagercrantz, the chap whose intriguing pedigree includes biographies of footballers and taking over the Millennium series after the death of Stieg Larsson. In Dark Music, a young football referee and Afghan refugee is murdered after a tense match in Stockholm. Links are soon uncovered to a disturbing international agenda. Ewa says it’s a complex and unsettling book, and a joy to read.

Elsewhere, John Verpeleti comes across reality TV, trolling and murders in The Match, the latest from the ever-reliable Harlan Coben. And John says that the story of a now successful 30-something, who grew up alone in woods and now seeks to find his family through DNA testing, is a typically engaging mystery from Coben with no dead spots. Kati Barr-Taylor immerses herself in an exotic setting in The Other Guest by Helen Cooper. The perfect Italian resort drips with opulence, elegance – and a casual indifference to the tragic drowning of the owners’ daughter last year. Kati says the characters are vibrant, three-dimension and relatable, even if they’re not likeable. And Kati discovers a fascinating story of love, deceit, passion and loyalty in Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know where a woman agrees to talk to a journalist more than 30 years after the murder of her husband. Sharon Wheeler settled down with the 23rd book in the DCI Bill Slider series and says that under Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ fond eye the series is still sailing on serenely. Dying Fall presents the usual engaging police team and a spine of steel under the frothy dialogue.

Linda Wilson was onto a winner with The Spy at the Window, given she adores YA books and boarding school stories. Elly Griffiths’ book is set in 1939 and Justice Jones has to contend both with evacuated boys and the possibility of spies in their midst at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk.

Please welcome author CL (Cally) Taylor to the Countdown chair – we’ve equipped it with a fleecy blanket because it’s blimmin’ cold outside! We’re particularly intrigued by her revelation that Simone de Beauvoir and Oscar Wilde were to blame for getting her locked in Père Lachaise cemetery in her 20s. And yes please, we’d happily run away to the Scottish Highlands or Paris or Mauritius or Devon (although we haven’t committed a crime, honest, and we’re sure Cally hasn’t either!)

Do take a look at what our friends at Reviewing the Evidence have been up to and catch up with their latest reviews of US and Canadian releases.

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Season's greetings to everyone and thanks for your support during 2022. We'll see you in the new year.

Linda and Sharon

Countdown with

CL (Cally) Taylor struggles to answer the question, 'Where are you from?' because she was born in Worcester then spent her childhood ping-ponging from the UK to Germany and back as her father's regiment moved from one army base to another. She's currently from Bristol, because that's where she lives.

She studied Psychology at the University of Northumbria and went on forge a career in instructional design and e-Learning before leaving to write full time in 2014.

She credits Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected for her fascination with the dark side of human nature, dystopian classics for helping her to survive school and Simone de Beauvoir and Oscar Wilde for getting her locked in Père Lachaise cemetery in her 20s.

A night owl and an introvert, she likes nothing more than staying up until 4am watching TV when the world is quiet and her family is asleep. She doesn't like early starts, noisy people, coach journeys or structural edits. Her favourite part of writing a book is the bit where she's thinking, rather than writing.

Ten words to sum up your working life to date ...

A mixture of luck, hard work, exhaustion, failure and success.

Nine things you can see from where you're sitting ...

South Bristol, the sunset, fairy lights, knitting, flowers, books, my dog, my cold feet and an empty ready salted crisp packet.

Eight minutes to prepare a meal. What's it going to be ?

Spaghetti bolognese with underdone spaghetti.