September 19 2020
This year marks the 20th anniversary of reluctant teen spy Alex Rider’s debut in Stormbreaker. Since then, Anthony Horowitz has followed this up with 12 more full-length novels and one book of short stories. Linda’s love of the series was rekindled by the recent release on Amazon Prime video of an eight-part series based on Point Blanc, the second book in the series.
In Stormbreaker, 14-year-old Alex Rider is sent to Cornwall to investigate a rich philanthropist who plans to install a new generation of computer in every school in the UK. Alex soon realises that there’s a lot more to the technology than meets the eye and is plunged headlong into danger. Linda recommends starting here and getting to know a young spy who can hold his own in adult company any day. Point Blanc sees Alex being sent undercover in an exclusive school for the rebellious offspring of some of the world’s richest people to find out what links two unexplained deaths to the secretive academy in the Alps. Alex is brave, resourceful and very likeable, qualities that Linda says are well brought out in both the books and the Amazon series. She’s now hoping that the remainder of the series gets the same treatment for the small screen, and she’s also making grabby paws for more books as well.
We feel we need a fanfare and 21-gun salute, as our reviewers have finally reached the end of the reissued Maigret series. Chris Roberts did the honours with Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Monsieur Charles. Here, Maigret investigates the disappearance of Monsieur Charles, a wealthy lawyer well-known in Paris nightclubs. Chris describes Simenon’s writing as masterful and says he seems effortlessly able to convey the essence of the lives brought into the detective’s orbit, each different but with a distinctly French flavour. Chris recommends this as a series to keep on your bookshelf and dip into from time to time to remind yourself of the best in the genre. John Cleal revisited some old French haunts in Wild Dog by Serge Joncour. Retired actress Lise persuades her producer husband to holiday in the wild hills of the Causse de Limogne, where he has to come to terms with his fear of nature and rediscover the basic instincts common to both man and animal. John says this is a typically French masterpiece with plenty of suspense, as well as rich and beautiful writing that does justice to an equally beautiful area.
Also on the Euro front, Viv Beeby toddled over to the Italian Alps for The Man in the Woods by Ilaria Tuti. Viv describes this story of a creepy man in the woods with the face of a skull as a straightforward procedural investigation, led by a different kind of detective with the right amount of psychology thrown in along with a plausible ending. Chris Roberts got to catch up with two of his favourite authors this issue, starting with The Night of Shooting Stars by Ben Pastor. Lieutenant-Colonel Martin von Bora is in Berlin in July 1944, directed to investigate the murder of a prominent clairvoyant, but the rumours of political conspiracy suggest that Bora himself is at risk. Chris was impressed by the way Pastor unerringly guides the reader through the dark politics of the Nazi state, providing a subtle appreciation of the flow of power between the various competing authorities. Hitler’s Peace by the late Philip Kerr is set within a clever and convincing alternative history in autumn 1943, with the tide of war having turned and Germany putting out peace feelers. Chris says this book lives up to Kerr’s best in every way.
On the Scandi front, in The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst, Chief Inspector William Wisting is assigned to lead a top-secret investigation into the life of a recently deceased controversial politician. Ewa Sherman says that with his trademark complex but flowing narrative style Horst calmly and with precision guides his main characters through the maze of puzzling pieces from the past to the shocking and startling finale. And Chris Roberts was over in Japan for The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, which features the mysterious poisoning of celebrants at a Japanese family birthday party. Chris found the build-up of key facts to be skilfully handled and whilst the pace might be frustratingly slow for those more accustomed to a direct route and a simple resolution, he says that with sufficient patience the masterful build-up of atmosphere and understanding is something to appreciate.
Journalists often feature in crime fiction and in Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark, investigative journalist Gina Kane receives an email describing the abuse of a woman by a well-known figure at a television news network that’s on the verge of a multi-billion dollar stock market flotation. John Cleal says this is a totally gripping book that will leave you thinking, with millions at stake, how often this sort of thing goes on in corporate real life. Linda Wilson wasn’t quite so taken with Michael Connelly’s main character in Fair Warning and she wondered if journalist Jack McEvoy had ever bothered to acquaint himself with the concept of conflict of interest when he finds himself under suspicion after a woman he dated once is murdered. As a result, Linda's sympathy for him soon evaporated. Despite that, she says that even when Connelly isn’t on top form, he’s still able to deliver a serviceable crime thriller with enough twists to sustain her interest.
Psychological thrillers are often a hard sell to most of our reviewers, but one theme that has emerged from the latest crop is that it doesn't half help to have engaging characters. In Sophie Hannah’s latest, Haven’t They Grown, a woman sees an old friend for the first time in 12 years. Her friend has aged appropriately, but her children appear not to be a day older, leading the woman to question herself. Sylvia Maughan says that the main character’s tortuous thinking, self-doubt, analytical capability and determination make her the perfect lead character for such a drama. In Lake Child by Isabel Ashdown. Eva Olsen can’t remember much about the last year of her life and is horrified that her parents are keeping her locked in an attic room with no contact with her old friends. And her parents are behaving oddly. John Barnbrook feels Eva’s isolation, her flashbacks, her potentially likeable father and her ostensibly cold mother are all well-drawn and her relationships are all explored in an interesting and engaging fashion.
Kati Barr-Taylor had slightly mixed luck this time. She enjoyed Forget Me by Andrew Ewart, in which Hannah wants to know the secret her husband can’t remember, whatever the cost. Kati felt that as a thriller, this debut definitely delivers. The characters are written with conviction and there’s plenty of tension and suspense, which creates a meaty story. In The Stranger Game by Peter Gadol, Rebecca’s boyfriend is missing, but she’s unsure if he’s just licking his wounds, or if has he become another victim of an increasingly dangerous game sweeping Los Angeles and beyond. Kati was unimpressed by the amount of tell not show and felt the book became bogged down in swathes of backstory.
Linda Wilson rarely dips her toes into domestic noir, but decided to take a look at The Last Wife by Karen Hamilton. After Nina’s death, her best friend Marie steps in to help her grieving husband with two children and a large house, gradually taking over more and more of her friend’s former life. But not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. Despite not liking any of the protagonists, Linda felt that the book works well as an examination of an obsessive friendship. In Laura Purcell’s Bone China, nurse-companion Hester Why flees London for a position at the lonely Morvoren House on a desolate Cornish clifftop where she finds herself faced with a dark and dangerous situation linked to events of 40 years before. John Cleal praises the quality of the writing but says that the story, despite its atmosphere, underlying tensions, drama and rich history, loses itself in weak protagonists and a messy, convoluted plot.
John Cleal is a long-time fan of spy thrillers and he describes The Stranger by Simon Conway as by far the best work on the subject for a long time. MI6 agent Jude Lyon has to deal with past events which threaten the credibility of his agency, as well as a terrifying new threat to the whole of the British establishment. John praises the well-drawn characters, evocative descriptive passages and cleverly balanced narrative structure, all of which carry this tale of dirt, death and double-dealing through some convincing unexpected twists to a final nail-biting sequence. Chris Roberts enjoyed Hammer to Fall by John Lawton in which Joe Wilderness spies for Britain in 1960s Finland and Prague. Chris says the writing generally flows very well, with short chapters pushing on the pace. He even discovered a Skoda joke he hadn’t heard before!
On the non-fiction front, John Cleal bravely takes a look behind the scenes at a mortuary where there’s the sale of body parts, theft, bribery and kickbacks in the grimly fascinating Corrupt Bodies, the autobiography of Peter Everett, a former superintendent at Southwark Mortuary. John says the book is graphically and brutally illustrated by background descriptions of some of the more famous cases which crossed Everett’s slabs during his time in the world of the dead.
In the Countdown seat this week, we have author Dror Mishani, who produces an eclectic bunch of drinking chums. And he has a great salad recipe we’d like to try! We think we’ll invite ourselves over for lunch – especially given he can see clear blue Mediterranean sky from his window …
Our friends across the Pond at Reviewing the Evidence are on hiatus at the moment, but don't forget that they have a humungous archive of reviews for you to browse through – and so do we, for that matter!
Ten words to sum up your working life to date ...
"My unhappiness is due to being deprived of it" (Kafka)
Nine things you can see from where you're sitting ...
The neighbors' bedroom, a poster of an old film called Maigret Voit Rouge with Jean Gabin, a carpet, a figure in the carpet, the most important part of my library (the one with crime fiction), an old couch I really have to throw away, a black and white photo of my dad and I when I was three years old, What Happens in Hamlet by John Dover Wilson, a generous slice of very clear blue Mediterranean sky.
Eight minutes to prepare a meal. What's it going to be ?
I can make it in less than eight! A freshly sliced salad from a handful of cherry tomatoes and one onion, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon and salt, and on top of it a generous portion of tahini.