June 13 2020

We’re going to go all lit crit on you this issue and start talking about authors breaking the fourth wall – you know, that imaginary barrier that separates a book from the real world. Don’t worry, it’ll be normal service again soon, but we came across two books where characters in them made us do a double-take.

Both your editors are huge fans of Martin Walker’s Bruno chief of police series that’s set in the Dordogne. Sharon Wheeler enjoyed A Shooting at Chateau Rock, although it’s not the best in the series by some way and has a tendency to plod via lots of tasty meals and Bruno building a hen house. Faintly bemusing, though, was the presence of a long-standing mate of Linda Wilson’s, who was piloting a chopper! And we were equally surprised by an appearance from our dear friend Ayo Onatade, who has a guest spot as a pathologist in Bones in the River by Zoe Sharp. Yes, we know it’s common in crime fic, but it always brings us up short! As for the book, which is set amidst the annual Appleby Fair, Linda says it’s intelligent and cleverly written, with well-drawn characters and a plot that twists and turns like a true Cumbrian road.

Among the familiar names – authors, not mates – this time are new offerings from Harlan Coben and Sharon Bolton. You know what you get with Coben, not least characters popping up from previous books, and Linda Wilson says that nothing is ever straightforward in The Boy From the Woods and this is anything but a standard tale of missing kids of the sort that seems to have flooded the genre at the moment. And Linda says that Bolton has pulled off a very difficult trick in The Split, where a glacier expert gets her dream posting to South Georgia – making her care about all the characters, even when she didn’t understand them or particularly like them.

John Cleal returns to a couple of ongoing series, with mixed results. He wasn’t convinced by the portrayal of lead character Detective Sergeant Geraldine Steel, who is out to discover what links the deaths of vulnerable men. But he says Leigh Russell's Deathly Affair is a story blended with drama and humour, and full of tension, misdirection and mystery. And John thought that Hi Five by Joe Ide, which features unconventional PI Isaiah Quintabe, has moved away from the more cerebral Sherlockian nature of the early stories to become a lot more action-packed. But the irreverent and explosive mixture of social issues, urban horror, naivete and wit still fascinates, says John.

Our reviewers are still working their way through Penguin’s reissue of Georges Simenon’s Maigret books. Chris Roberts says that the great detective moves with characteristic confidence in Maigret and the Informer, and that his prey never really stands a chance against a man who so easily brushes aside their attempts to conceal the truth. Also over in France, John Cleal enjoyed another outing from Captain Paul Darac in Knock ‘em Dead by Peter Morfoot, set on the French Riviera. Keeping a continuing character interesting is never an easy task, but Morfoot achieves it with both flair and imagination, says John. Scandi queen Ewa Sherman describes Kristina Ohlsson’s writing style as apparently understated and unassuming, yet it has huge impact in The Flood, delivering terrifying truths or descriptive passages, bursting with menace. And Chris Roberts nips over to the Caribbean island of Camaho, where author Jacob Ross has created a convincing world, full of beauty and challenge, where a small band of flawed heroes, fronted by young detective Michael ‘Digger’ Digson, fight to protect their home in Black Rain Falling.

We’re a bit cautious when it comes to unleashing John Cleal on books set in Scotland, as he tends to fulminate about some of what passes for Tartan Noir! But he’s a fan of the Ambrose Perry series – that’s the pseud of author Chris Brookmyre and his consultant anaesthetist wife Marisa Haetzman. The Art of Dying is set in Victorian Edinburgh and features doctor Will Raven. John says that for Britons who have only ever known the NHS, this is a sobering illustration of the reality for many in the rest of the world. And he praises the research which sits comfortably alongside the thrills and chills. Chris Roberts was over in Glasgow with Tom O Keenan’s The Family, which focuses on a collective of 12 crime families up against an ISIS zealot. Chris found it hard to believe that such a hopelessly compromised bunch could hold down positions of authority in any form of organisation!

Chris moved slightly south to Yorkshire for another tale of family firms of the less salubrious kind … Helen Black’s Playing Dirty features an out-of-town gang muscling in on the family territory. Chris says that whether you like them or not, the two strong female characters stand out and demand to be reckoned with. John Cleal wasn’t so sure about the librarian main character in Murder by the Minster by Helen Cox. He says that cosy fans may be able to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a story which has an old-fashioned feel despite all its 21st century references. He found it a bit dated with some of the plotting and storyline stretching credulity. There’s also a rather different YA novel set in the north east where a 17-year-old girl joins forces with her neighbour to track down his stolen campervan that contains his prosthetic leg. Linda Wilson says that Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal is an emotionally complex story that perfectly captures the turmoil of anyone who feels they’ve never fitted into the neat pigeon-holes the world around them seems to prefer.

Among the other unusual investigators this issue is a former church minister who’s now a card-carrying atheist! He’s called in to advise police on devil worship when a vicar is attacked by his own son during a service. Linda Wilson says that the hero of Peter Laws’ Severed makes a reasonably interesting protagonist, but didn’t seem to have any great insights to offer. Adrian McKinty’s The Chain has the protagonist being victim, then criminal, then survivor before she can break that chain. Viv Beeby says that despite all the gismos and hardware the book is, at heart, a well-written, old-fashioned page turner. John Barnbrook seems to be cornering the market in reviewing crime fiction with a strong science fiction angle. Witness X by SE Moorhead allows the inventor of a machine to enter a serial killer’s mind and see their memories for herself. He says the book is intriguing and provides fleeting glimpses of what life may be like in 15 years’ time.

Kati Barr-Taylor was rather taken by Megan Miranda’s ability to create atmosphere in The Last House Guest where a woman looks likely to be charged with her friend’s murder. She says that the backdrop of a seaside town in Maine oozes superficial beauty, but has an underpinning of darkness and danger. And a friendship is set to crumble in Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan. Kati says it’s a perceptive and at times poignant book about motherhood and the dark side of early childhood.

Please welcome author Sheila Bugler to the Countdown slot this issue. That noise you hear is us cheering loudly at her rants! And we will be stowing away in her suitcase when she runs away to four very enticing destinations.

Don't forget to take a trip across the Pond to see what our friends at Reviewing the Evidence think about new releases in the US, Canada and Australia.

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
Sheila Bugler

Sheila Bugler grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at University College Galway (now called NUI Galway) she left Ireland and worked as an English language teacher in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina.

She eventually settled in London and tried out a number of different careers before realising what she really wanted to do was write crime fiction. She started writing 13 years ago, after her second child was born, and hasn’t looked back since.

In 2008, she won a year’s mentoring with crime writer, Martyn Waites. This kick-started her writing career and helped shape her first novel, which was eventually published as Hunting Shadows, featuring DI Ellen Kelly. This was the first in a series of novels, all based in South East London, an area Sheila knows and loves.

She now lives in Eastbourne, on the beautiful East Sussex coast. Eastbourne is the location for her series of crime novels featuring investigative journalist Dee Doran.

She is married with two children. When she’s not writing, she loves walking, reading, going to the cinema and eating out. She has recently started running and takes part in her local Parkrun each week. She runs with her husband and daughter, who are a lot faster than she is – but she’s determined to beat them one day!

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

Tried every job under the sun before I started writing.

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

My garden, my son’s laptop, my daughter’s school work, my husband’s vast CD collection, my dog, my beautiful cactus plants, paintings from my parents’ house, higgledy piggledy piles of books, antique candelabra.

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

Pasta, garlic, olives, anchovies and olive oil. Cook the pasta, drain it, mix in the other ingredients, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.