March 13 2021

At least one of your editors admits to having a soft spot for the Judge John Deed series on TV. Yes, OK, that’s mainly because Martin Shaw played the lead role. It certainly wasn’t for the subtlety of the plots which seemed to involve m’lud shagging around and then doing his best to upset the establishment …

Chris Roberts likes a good courtroom battle, though, and he enjoyed the sniping and courtroom action in Guilty – Until Proven Otherwise by GF Newman, where Deed makes the leap from screen to page and finds himself doing battle (surprise, surprise) with government ministers. Scott Turow serves up plenty of courtroom action in The Last Trial, which sees octogenarian lawyer Sandy Stern and his daughter defending a Nobel Prize-winning doctor against accusations of fraud and murder arising out of the marketing of a new cancer medication. Chris describes this as just the best for courtroom drama with breathtaking revelations from the dock and brilliant oratory, all delivered with a confidence and affection derived from the author’s life in the legal profession.

On the other side of the law, we have three books this issue focussing on drugs, two of them real-life stories. Pure Narco by Luis Navia and Jess Fink is the autobiography of Navia who was involved for 25 years with organised shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the US and Europe. It didn’t find much favour with Chris Roberts, mainly due to the author’s apparent lack of any sense of remorse for his participation in a trade that has meant misery for so many people. John Cleal was more complimentary about Secret Narco, Wensley Clarkson’s new look at the life and death of Great Train Robber and career criminal Charlie Wilson. John describes Wilson, who also had links with the cocaine trade, as a man of contradictions and says that despite its limitations, this is as good a stab at making sense of him as we are likely to get. On the fictional front, Blinded by the Lights by Jakub Zulczyk features Kuba, who deals cocaine to the wealthy of Warsaw, affects a cool attitude but desperately wants a holiday abroad. He just needs to make it through one last week. Chris found the amount of nihilist moaning from the protagonist a lot to take and warns of a few very nasty passages. Overall, this one was pretty depressing, as books featuring the drugs trade so often are.

Linda Wilson indulged her love of crime fiction that has an element of the supernatural, and James Oswald can always be relied on for some entertaining woo-woo in his long running series with maverick Edinburgh cop Tony McLean. In What Will Burn, he’s been busted back down to DI for failing to follow procedure in his last investigation, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him! Linda says this is a series that consistently delivers on all fronts, from police procedural to something with a darker edge even than murder.  For a more conventional police yarn, John Barnbrook turned to One Eye Open by Paul Finch, where the investigation into a crashed car with fake number plates containing a large amount of cash uncovers a complex history. John praises the pace and plot and says this was a thoroughly enjoyable but not always comfortable journey.     

This issue we allowed Linda to wallow in a number of her favourite genre pools. She loves thrillers and she loves graphic novels, and got a double whammy courtesy of the recent movie The Old Guard, which promptly sent her off in search of the original source material. The Old Guard: Opening Fire by writer Greg Rucka and artist Leandro Fernandez features a team of mercenaries who hide a huge secret, that of apparent immortality. They don’t understand it and don’t necessarily want it, but someone else does. Linda says this action thriller has consistent depth of characterisation and a strong storyline. She liked the dangerous and deadly team, even though she does mutter that so far as the men are concerned, their on-screen versions are considerably better-looking!

Former soldier John Cleal can often be grumpy (we’re good at understatements!) about military stuff, but A Question of Time by James Stejskal, got his seal of approval. Master Sergeant Kim Becker and his Special Forces ‘A’ Team are tasked to bring out a vital highly placed intelligence source from behind the Iron Curtain that divides 1979 Berlin. John says this is faction at its best, with plenty of suspense. Stejskal convincingly describes the mission’s build-up and progress in the face of endless problems, not least a notoriously trigger-happy East German police and military. John was also very taken with Marc Elsberg’s Greed where the world is on the brink of a new financial crisis and a Nobel Prize-winning economist with a possible solution is murdered on his way to an international summit. John says it’s a gripping, visionary and timely tale. Linda Wilson was equally as enthusiastic about Stop at Nothing by Michael Ledwidge. When a plane crashes in the sea off a remote island in the Bahamas, a diving instructor ends up in possession of a very dangerous secret and on the run from some ruthless enemies. Linda always likes a good chase thriller, and she says that here the stakes are high, the action is relentless without being boring and there’s almost excruciating levels of tension.

Ewa Sherman has been busy on her beloved Scandi beat, starting with A Nearly Normal Family by MT Edvardsson, in which 18-year-old Stella is arrested for the murder of a rich charming businessman. Stella’s parents are desperate to fight for their daughter and to do anything possible to stop the destruction of their family, but the lies and the truth might be too much for them. Ewa says Edvardsson creates a very compelling and ultimately heart-breaking story, with tension, surprises and excellent narrative pace. She also enjoyed The Witch Hunter by Max Seeck where Detective Jessica Niemi has to handle a complex investigation into a brutal ritualistic murder. And as the body count in Helsinki increases, Jessica realises that the killer’s motives might be personal. Ewa praises the strong sense of place, with cold snowy Helsinki playing a large part in the story. She tips Seeck’s creation as the new fictional detective to watch. Viv Beeby liked The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg, which is set in Copenhagen. A body is floating in the waters of a historic fountain and drained of all its blood is the start of a new and gruesome case for Investigator Jeppe Korner and his assistant Anette Werner. For Viv, the USP of this well-written thriller is that it took her into some of the darker and more disturbing aspects of the world of psychiatry.      

Sylvia Maughan is always first in the queue for anything set in her favourite holiday destination. A Quiet Death in Italy by Tom Benjamin has the body of an elderly man found in one of the canals beneath Bologna. Daniel Leicester, an Englishman who works in the city as an investigator, sets out to investigate with his boss who also happens to be his father-in-law. Sylvia says the plot is clever but might need reading twice. We don’t come across much crime fiction set in Uruguay. Crocodile Tears appealed to Chris Roberts, who thought Mercedes Rosende’s penetrating insight into the motives and behaviour of her characters came across as absolutely genuine in this story of a kidnapper released from prison when the wife of the man he kidnapped declines to identify him – but he finds that his freedom comes with demands quite beyond his capacity.

We then scoot up to North America. First up is Black Widows by Cate Quinn, set in the Utah wilderness, concentrates on the death of polygamist Blake Nelson, where the police have to ignore the lies and their own prejudices to find out who killed him. Kati Barr-Taylor says the book is fascinating and evocative but she warns that it portrays cult lifestyle, child abuse, misogyny, and sexual exploitation in full colour. Then there’s an uncomplicated read, according to Kati, despite two possible unreliable narrators, with Michele Campbell’s A Stranger on the Beach, where a woman is already regretting her revenge one-night stand, because the man in question can’t - or won’t - accept the idea of one night. On the teen front, Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli also addresses sexual exploitation. A young gymnast has her sights firmly set on the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but her back injury is a complicating factor and then the ultimate shock rocks the team when one of the girls fails a drugs test and their coach is accused of sexual misconduct. Linda Wilson says this is story about power of friendship, with its ability to make or break lives, combined with a penetrating look at the world of elite athletes and the rigours they face to succeed in a world where one tiny slip can bring ambitions crashing down. It’s also an empowering book for both girls and women facing abuse from those in positions of power.

The historicals in this issue veer wildly from 12th century England to a 1950s European ski resort by way of 16th century Italy. Vale of Tears by Sarah Hawkswood took John Cleal back to Worcester in the year 1144 where a wealthy horse dealer is found dead. He’s been stabbed, but not robbed. Under Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his helpers face a series of mysteries as their investigations go far beyond the obvious to a web of greed, obsession and murder. John says the writing is crisp and descriptive and the sleuthing is well done. Moving swiftly on to Florence in 1536, City of Vengeance by DV Bishop also found plenty of favour with John. Court officer Cesare Aldo has to find the killer of a prominent Jewish moneylender in a city riven by internal plotting, rivalries and strife. John describes this as a fine example of quality historical fiction, rich in period detail, atmospheric, fluid and fluent.

John then jumped forward several centuries for Three-a-Penny by Lucy Malleson, who was forced to pose as a man to establish a career as crime writer during and after World War I. John describes her as a woman ahead of her time and says the book is written with anger as well as plenty of humour. It’s a superb depiction of a topsy-turvy world that sees Malleson emerge as sympathetic, charming, surprisingly modern, yet wise and endlessly funny – particularly on the subject of men! Then John was whisked to the next world war for The Ghost Tree by MRC Kasasian, in which Inspector Betty Church must mobilise the incompetent police she leads to investigate the disappearance of her childhood best friend. John likes this clever and beautifully written series and admires Kasasian’s sheer storytelling ability and his skill to turn a run-of-the-mill cold case plot into a first-class and enjoyable read. Viv Beeby found herself in the Austrian Alps in the 1950s with Carol Carnac’s Crossed Skis. The victim of a ruthless murder, burned beyond recognition, is found in a room at a guest house. There’s little in the way of clues – except the distinctive impression of a ski stick left in the mud outside the front door. Viv found this an undemanding but enjoyable read, especially if you like your mysteries to be slightly old-fashioned and with added snow!

Please welcome author Patrice Lawrence to the Countdown drill this issue. We can all sympathise with hair traumas from our youth (Sharon is refusing to confirm or deny the existence of photos showing a very unfortunate perm!) And we also feel the need to riffle through her record collection – and while we’re having a good nose, we hope she’ll make us that delicious-sounding eight-minute pasta dish!

Our friends over at Reviewing the Evidence are back, so go and catch up with their latest reviews of US and Canadian releases.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
Patrice Lawrence

Patrice Lawrence was born in Brighton and brought up in an Italian-Trinidadian household in Mid Sussex. This meant great holidays and even better food. She found her way to east London in the 1990s and has acquired a cat called Stormageddon.

Patrice worked for more than 20 years for charities supporting equality and social justice. These themes (along with a serious amount of music – her ideal mixtape includes drum 'n' bass, Bruce Springsteen and Studio Ghibli soundtracks) inform her stories and music can't help creeping into her books.

Her first book for young adults, Orangeboy, won the Bookseller YA Prize and Waterstone’s Prize for Older Children's Fiction.

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

Cheque-sorter, chips-profferer, civil servant, call centre, charity, crime.

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

Cushion with a stylised Debbie Harry design
Vase of wilting sunflowers
Discarded question mark and exclamation mark earrings
Collection of photos of my daughter charting her impressive hair through the years
Notebook with a dog on the cover that looks like Dr Spock
A Bobblehead T’Challa
A Paperchase discount voucher
Rustling trees
The sea

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

Nigella’s lemon, mushroom, garlic and thyme linguine. Eight minutes for the prep plus a bit extra to make sure your pasta isn’t crunchy.