February 19 2022

Prepare to draw the curtains and sleep with the lights on! We’ve got some spine-chilling criminal woo woo for you this week …

There aren’t any harp-playing angels in The Dying Squad where Adam Simcox serves up a much bleaker view of the afterlife. The last thing DI Joe Lazarus expects to find when he breaks into a deserted farmhouse used a safe house by a county lines drug gang is his own dead body. Linda Wilson says that’s not the only surprise in this darkly entertaining police procedural. Kerry Hood braved Prayer by the late Philip Kerr, in which religion is the link between three separate cases worked by a lapsed Catholic FBI agent. Kerry warns that this is not a book to be read in the dark hours, so venture in at your peril.

Most people might think twice about working in a mortuary but Cassie Raven wouldn’t agree; she’s even happy to assist at the post-mortem of a favourite teacher. Linda Wilson felt that in Body Language, AK Turner, who also writes as Anya Lipska, crammed rather too many quirks into her characters but she enjoyed the light touch with the supernatural elements in this tale of murder and a disappearing body. Linda also enjoyed Nowhere to Run by James Oswald. DC Con Fairchild, on compassionate leave and holed up in a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, is reluctantly drawn back into her old job when she tries to help a young woman she thinks has been trafficked into drug-running and prostitution. Linda praised the sharp edge of otherworldly darkness and was amused by the flatulent Irish wolfhound. Anthea Hawdon has always enjoyed Syd Moore’s stories of Essex girl Rosie Strange and her witch museum. Strange Tricks sees the redoubtable Rosie off her usual patch in this tale of lost boys and family mysteries. Anthea enjoyed the book, despite its grimmer than usual subject matter.

There’s nothing grim about A Three Dog Problem by SJ Bennett. Her Maj the Queen is back, taking time out of her day job to team up with her secretary, Rozie Oshodi, on the trail of a stolen painting from Buck House to a naval exhibition in Portsmouth. Ardent republican Linda Wilson was wholly captivated by this subtle, clever mystery but says she would still draw the line at curtseying.

There’s even a creepy feel to our other police offerings this week. House With No Doors sees DI Henry Hobbes called to a death in a labyrinthine old London house where he finds disturbing evidence of the bizarre practices of its occupants. Chris Roberts says Jeff Noon sustains an uncomfortable dramatic tension from start to finish. Former copper Neil Lancaster’s impressive debut Dead Man’s Grave kicks off with an eery scene in an old graveyard. When the victim turns out to be the head of one of Scotland’s most notorious crime families, the police are bound to be in for a rough ride, as DS Max Craigie and DC Janie Calder soon discover. Linda Wilson enjoyed a fast-moving, realistic plot, laced with plenty of dark humour and unexpected twists.

Chris Roberts is globe-trotting again this week, starting in the US with The Conjure-Man Dies, set in Harlem in 1936; the first detective novel written by an African-American. The apparent sudden death of an African conjure-man leads to a surprise for a police detective and a local physician. Chris Roberts was immediately struck by the elegance of Rudolph Fisher’s use of language and the book’s ironic style. He then hops over to South Africa for The Strangers of Braamfontein by Onyeka Nwelue, Immigrants from various African countries gravitate to the Johannesburg suburb of Braamfontein, including many from Nigeria, such as the young painter Osas, who finds criminality a route to survival. Chris enjoyed this fast-paced story full of tough demands and desperate choices.

It's always entertaining to let John Cleal loose on action thrillers. This time it’s Black 13 by Adam Hamdy in which former SAS soldier turned exiled ex-MI6 agent Scott Pearce and his friends fight a secret war to stop a right-wing takeover. John compares Pearce to the indestructible Captain Scarlet but says that in its more serious passages, this is a frightening story that highlights the ease with which public opinion and events can be manipulated. Chris Roberts was very impressed by Paul Vidich’s The Mercenary where a traitor within the KGB offers a wealth of valuable information to the West but to gain that information, an agent must take a terrible risk in returning to Russia. Chris describes this as spy fiction of the highest quality.

Chris also enjoyed The Cut by Chris Brookmyre where a chance meeting motivates a woman emerging from a long prison sentence for a murder she did not commit to investigate what really happened. Chris says this entertaining book is full of twists, deadly encounters, and unexpected friends. Viv Beeby usually enjoys anything by the husband and wife writing team who go by the name of Nicci French but she found their latest offering somewhat unsatisfactory. In The Unheard, a three-year-old brings home an ugly and menacing drawing from her nursery which sets in train a series of events that makes her lonely, vulnerable mother fear for their lives and her own sanity. Viv says that despite her reservations, this is a highly compulsive read. In Volta by Nikki Dudley, a woman flees to her therapist covered in blood in the belief that she has murdered her partner. John Verpeleti found the story rather predictable. Kati Barr-Taylor had better luck with The Friend by Charlie Gallagher. With his daughter in a coma, Danny wants someone to blame, but he should be careful what he wishes for. Kati describes this as a gritty, intelligent and relatively unusual story that kept her on her toes.

On the Euro beat this week, Riccardino sees Inspector Montalbano embark on his final case after receiving a phone call asking for a meeting, but then he finds that the caller has been shot dead. Sylvia Maughan says this is a compelling mystery and she was sad to come to the end of the late Andrea Camilleri’s iconic series. Our Scandi Queen Ewa Sherman was captivated by the sense of time and place in Black River by Will Dean, in which his unforgettable protagonist Tuva Moodyson returns to Gavrik and is thrown into the search for a friend who has vanished without a trace. Ewa predicts that after reading this, you’ll start to understand how an abundance of summer light can trigger excessive emotions. Ewa was very enthusiastic about The Rabbit Factor in which insurance mathematician Henri Koskinen unexpectedly loses his secure job and then inherits an adventure park from his brother. Henri has to deal with his brother’s huge debts, strange park employees, some nasty criminals and even something that might be love. Ewa adored the pure unadulterated absurdity of Antti Tuomainen’s story with its panicky creativity, peculiar characters and over-the-top cartoon violence. She says this is a fantastic, exuberant joy to read.

John Cleal dived headfirst into one of his favourite historical series with The Good Death by SD Sykes, learning how novice monk Oswald de Lacy became lord of Somershill when his past comes back to haunt him as his manipulative mother lies on her deathbed. John praises Sykes’ inventiveness and gift for description, and the very credible world she builds with all its nastiness, poverty, unfairness, brutality and lack of hygiene.

Thriller writer Charles Cumming is in the Countdown spotlight this week. We’re feeling a tad peckish at the moment and will very happily invite ourselves to lunch and settle down with him for a jolly good rant.

And in the meantime, take a look at what Reviewing the Evidence have been up to and catch up with their latest reviews of US and Canadian releases.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming was born in Scotland in 1971. He was educated at Ludgrove School (1979-1984), Eton College (1985-1989) and the University of Edinburgh (1990-1994), where he graduated with 1st Class Honours in English Literature.

In 1995, Charles was approached for recruitment by the United Kingdom's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). A Spy By Nature, his debut novel was partly based on his experiences with MI6.

He is one of the trustees of The Pierce Loughran Memorial Scholarship fund which provides tuition fees for the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. He is also the founder and President of the José Raúl Capablanca Memorial Chess Society.

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

Repetitive. Liberating. Frustrating. Rewarding. Surprising. Ceaseless. Dismaying. Worrying. Constricting. Lucky.

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

My garden. My wife. My youngest son on a baby monitor, sleeping. A pile of books I need to read. A poster advertising the 2018 World Chess Championships. A bag of peanuts. A Covid vaccination card. A suit I can no longer fit into. A DVD of Simon Schama’s History of Britain.

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

Sliced courgettes fried in garlic and olive oil tossed with penne and fresh basil.