November 16 2019

Our theory number 19 of crime fiction is that Cold War and wartime thrillers will never die. Just think of all those dark eastern European streets and dodgy blokes in hats. Enter, stage left, Alec Guinness looking lugubrious … We rest our case.

We have an orderly queue of reviewers who are happy to get their mitts on 20th century thrillers. Chris Roberts enjoyed Black Sun by Owen Matthews, where a KGB major is sent to a secret Soviet site. He says that if a grounding in particle science and its application to warfare combined with an exploration of mid-20th century Soviet society doesn’t grab you, there is always the crime story. And it’s stiff upper lip time in Michael Gilbert’s Death in Captivity, where Captain ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles must solve the mystery of a death in an escape tunnel at an officers’ prisoner of war camp in northern Italy. John Cleal says the two film versions of it – one British, one American – are worth watching. But read the book first! And look, look, we have a Scandi noir thriller with a wartime angle! In 1942 a Jewish courier is betrayed in Oslo, but she escapes the Norwegian Gestapo and meets a resistance hero in Sweden. But, 25 years after he supposedly died, he reappears. Ewa Sherman says that The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl is a murder mystery with a totally unbalanced moral compass.

Closer to the present day, our thrillers maestros Arnold Taylor and John Cleal encountered a rum bunch. Arnold wasn’t entirely convinced by the shadowy organisation in A Killing State by Judith O’Reilly which wants an MP assassinated for asking too many awkward questions. Across the Pond, The Washington Decree by Jussi Adler-Olsen shows a country lurching into chaos when the president orders radical measures. John says this entertaining and exciting rollercoaster should be a must for every student of international events. There’s another president behaving oddly (do we detect a pattern here?) in The Grid by Nick Cook. This one is convinced a series of nightmares are a warning of his approaching assassination. John says the book is difficult to follow, frightening in its subject matter and brilliantly written.

There’s a significant US presence in the ranks this week. Linda Wilson, who usually runs a mile from serial killer books, took her chance with Hunting Evil by Chris Carter, featuring possibly the most prolific known murderer in the USA. She says it’s a quality police thriller for anyone with a strong stomach who doesn’t mind jumping in at the deep end of a long-running series. Linda’s been there from the start with Kristen Lepionka’s series featuring PI Roxanne Weary. The Stories You Tell is a convoluted yarn, but Roxanne’s personal baggage never threatens to derail the story. Linda describes it as good, old-fashioned private detecting. Chris Roberts, who is rapidly turning into our go-to reviewer for short stories, says Here Is What You Do by Chris Dennis is a haunting collection featuring a wide variety of people, but all involving pain or loss. A family relocating from South Korea to rural Virginia is at the heart of Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. The book focuses on a fire and explosion in a therapeutic hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which kills two and injures others. Chris says it’s gripping reading, with characters whose concerns are brought vividly to life.

Finding characters you care about isn’t always as easy as you might think across the crime fiction field - trust us, we've been reviewing since dinosaurs walked the earth! Linda Wilson is definitely invested in Barbara Nadel’s series featuring East End private investigators Mumtaz Hakim and Lee Arnold. They take on a very cold case in Displaced, and Linda says the plots are rich and complex, with characters that she can - and does – care about. Our YA queen was also taken with the intricate plotting in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, where A-level student Pippa Fitz Amobi decides to look into the murder, five years ago, of one of the girls from her school. Linda says the book sets a high bar for any other teenage sleuths to jump, and there are plenty of adult investigators who could pick up some tips from the indomitable Pippa!

There are two books this week from Scotland – and for once John Cleal doesn’t complain loudly about miserable Tartan noir! That may be because he’s a big admirer of Denise Mina … He says that Conviction, where a barrister’s wife faces a threat from her past, shows Mina at her best – not wasting a single word in this intricate and complex tale that evolves through a series of emotional and edgy twists towards a surprise ending. Kati Barr-Taylor reviewed Runaway by Claire MacLeary, and found the author’s use of dialect speech and slang tedious and somewhat corny. She comments that too many writers whose stories come from north of the border seem to overdo the och-aye-the-noo Scottishisms!

Rather further afield, Auckland cop Matt Buchanan is traumatised by unsolved crimes involving the murder of young children in The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackwell. Chris Roberts says it all feels realistic and he found himself galloping through to find out what happened – but felt the effing and blinding was rather overdone! Our Italian correspondent Sylvia Maughan was up in the mountains with Sanctuary by Luca D’Andrea, where a woman leaves her criminal husband, taking with her his very valuable collection of sapphires. Unfortunately, she crashes her car in a blizzard and is rescued by a strange man. She says the final part is gripping, but there are issues with the conclusion and the coherence of the book.

Elsewhere, John Cleal has been enjoying Ali Carter’s series featuring artist Susie Mahl. He says that The Colours of Murder, where Susie blags an invite to a Norfolk country house party, is a clever piece of social commentary – well-plotted, absorbing, charming and funny. John Barnbrook enjoyed a visit to a safe, secure suburban street in an up-and-coming area of London in Those People by Louise Candlish, where the peace is suddenly disturbed by new neighbours who definitely don’t fit the mould. He kept reading because he wanted to know which of the outraged neighbours had caused the book’s catastrophe! Kati Barr-Taylor had mixed luck with two books. Before I Find You by Ali Knight features a woman desperate to find out a secret. Kati says that reading the same scene from two or three points of view slowed the pacing in places and was, at times, tedious. There are multiple perspectives in The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts, where a girl has gone missing. Kati describes the writing as almost poetic at times, and says the book is thought-provoking, if rather lightweight.

This week we welcome MW Craven to the Countdown seat. He’s clearly had an eventful working life in the army and the probation service, before taking up a life of crime (so to speak!) We’re most intrigued by the menagerie of animals he’s housed at various times (um, yes, a crocodile …?) And we’re still tittering at the thought of his drinking chums, and agree that it’s likely to end in a bout of fisticuffs!

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
M.W. Craven

Although he was born in Cumbria, MW Craven grew up in the north east of England before running away to join the army as soon as he was 16. After training as an armourer for two and a half years (that’s an army gunsmith to you and me), he spent the next ten travelling the world having fun.

In 1995 he left the army, and after a brief flirtation with close protection and bodyguarding, decided on a degree in social work with specialisms in criminology and substance misuse. In 1999 he joined Cumbria Probation Service as a probation officer, working his way up to chief officer grade. Sixteen years later he took the plunge and accepted redundancy to concentrate on writing full-time, and now has entirely different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals.

Between leaving the army and securing his first publishing deal, he found time to keep a pet crocodile, breed snakes, get married, and buy a springer spaniel named Bracken. He lives in Carlisle with his wife Joanne, where he tries to leave the house as little as possible.

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

Soldier
Student
Probation officer
Chief probation officer
Full-time author

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

Alice Teale is Missing by Howard Linskey (my current read)
Herdwick sheep coffee mug
Iron Maiden beer stein
Official England cricket team sunhat
Pond
Frogs
Blue sky
Wife
My English Springer Spaniel (Bracken)

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

Marmite and cheese sandwich on a walnut cob, pack of jalapeño and cheese ridged crisps.