January 16 2021

Weird stuff, true crime … Quite often we think it’s more like a separate genre than a snug fit with the world of crime fiction. And some of it has the feel of an author sprinting down the court steps after a court case to make a quick buck with a quickly knocked-out sensationalist account. But if you got yourself hooked on Peaky Blinders on TV, we can feed your addiction – and we promise we won’t make you listen to Midlander Sharon’s rant about the erratic Brummie accents!

Our reviewers don’t often venture into that frequently grim world of true crime, but this week John Cleal hasn’t so much dipped his toes into the chilly waters – instead, he’s jumped in headfirst! The Pottery Cottage Murders by Carol Ann Lee & Peter Howse is the first definitive account of the horrifying 1977 murders that shocked the nation, with just one survivor and a gripping police manhunt across the snowbound moors. John describes the book as a tour de force – but warns it’s not one for the squeamish or easily upset. Peaky Blinders turned the fashionably dressed, charismatic, but deeply flawed Shelby family into cult anti-heroes. Now in Carl Chinn’s Peaky Blinders: The Legacy, you can read the sordid facts behind their criminal legacy. John says whether you are a fan of the TV series or not, this is a rigorously researched and documented examination of a period of which the country should be ashamed. It’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of the TV series, though! The Scoundrel Harry Larkyns by Rebecca Gowers looks at a 140-year-old cold case investigation into a true crime of passion – the murder of bon viveur and conman Harry Larkyns by pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. John recommends this to anyone seriously interested in the genesis and effects of crime.

Right, onto the fictional side of things … Chris Roberts has escaped the usual January blues by doing some serious fictional globetrotting. He hops over to the Australian outback for Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road in which Constable Paul Hirschhausen has committed the heinous crime of whistleblowing on corrupt colleagues, and as a reward is posted to a rural backwater where life is a challenge. Chris was very taken with the book, which he describes as an excellent tale packed with incident that builds to a thrilling climax. He particularly praised the dusty outback setting which comes across very strongly. Closer to home in France he liked A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier where a man dreams of freedom and abandons his quiet life for a trip with his daughter, but things move in a rather unexpected direction. Chris says Garnier’s work is as noir as it gets, often macabre, but is written with such precision and style that there is plenty to admire even if you find the dark side of things difficult, although he does add that it helps to have a warped sense of humour!

Our reviewers have been busy on the Scandi beat this week, where we’ve got plenty of angst to go with the inevitable snow and trees. Sister by Kjell Ola Dahl is set in Oslo, where Frank Frølich is working as a private detective after being suspended from duty with the police. An assignment to find the missing sister of a young immigrant woman who is just about to be deported to her home country also sees him get involved in searching for an eyewitness from a ferry disaster 30 years ago. Ewa Sherman really enjoyed seeing the ordinariness of daily life in Oslo and surroundings, and the detailed descriptions of the locations which Dahl brings alive as the story progresses. She describes the book as an engrossing and interesting thriller with a suspenseful and confident plot. Ewa also enjoyed Lina Bengtsdotter’s For the Dead, which follows the emotional aftermath of events from an earlier book featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Lager. While working on another case and fearing personal burnout Charlie becomes fascinated by an old case. Ewa describes this as a poignant journey, full of unexpected twists and hard truths from the past. Viv Beeby takes on Jo Nesbo’s latest, The Kingdom, set in an enclosed and remote Norwegian mountain community where the rules of good and evil are played out in a manner more reminiscent of the Wild West. Viv says this isn't the usual Nesbo escapism and although she enjoyed the book, its exploration of the darker side of human nature, family relationships, loyalty, love, death and betrayal also left her feeling quite depressed

We’ve got a good crop of thrillers for you this issue. In The System, the discovery of a gun used in a shooting leads to the prosecution of two young men, one guilty and the other innocent. Chris says Ryan Gatiss conveys the choices of the protagonists so well that the fate of the key characters is genuinely moving. He says the pace is ferocious and the story entirely gripping. Linda Wilson also jumps on anything by Simon Kernick with a degree of unseemly haste, and Kill a Stranger was no exception. Matt comes home from a night out with friends to find his girlfriend missing and a dead woman’s body in their bed. The nightmare gets worse when he’s told that his girlfriend will die if he involves the police. To get her back, Matt has to do the unthinkable – kill a stranger. Linda enjoyed the sharp edge of danger suffusing the story but she’s starting to lose patience with unreliable narrators and is now hoping for a return to some series regulars instead. Chris Roberts liked Your Still Beating Heart by Tyler Keevil which sees a woman adrift after the death of her husband, but her life is given new meaning as a result of a chance encounter in Prague. Chris applauds the book’s final drama-filled confrontation.

There are a couple of additions to two rather quaint long-running series. Sharon Wheeler has a soft spot for Margaret Duffy’s long-running adventures which shows no signs of fizzling out. In Gillard’s Sting, ex-military and spook Patrick Gillard and his author wife Ingrid Langley are pulled back into the action as they try to track down a missing top cop. Sharon says it’s not the best in the series as it verges on the talky, and she found it difficult keeping track of the sprawling cast of baddies. But it’s another intriguing look at a tough guy hero who’s starting to question both his state of mind and his methods. John enjoyed Ann Granger’s A Matter of Murder in which drop-out Miff Ferguson disturbs a killer disposing of his victim and is forced to flee to escape the man who now wants to dispose of the only witness to the crime. John says the book blends an almost gentle touch with a dash of wit and is, as usual, impeccably plotted, with sharp and astringent characterisation.

Backlash by Marnie Riches sees aspiring private detective Bev Saunders going undercover as a cleaner for a local man of doubtful reputation. Sylvia Maughan liked the depth of the main characters, who have a vulnerability that contributes to the constant sense of fragility and danger that she says makes the book so enjoyable. Watching from the Dark by Gytha Lodge gripped Linda Wilson from the start. When Aidan Poole logs onto Skype to talk to his girlfriend, he gets a nasty shock. Someone is in the flat with her, but she doesn’t seem to know it. And she’s in danger. Linda describes the book as an impressive mix of domestic noir and police procedural and she was very impressed by the way the two converging timelines, past and present, were handled.  Kati Barr-Taylor was equally impressed by Amy Engel’s The Familiar Dark where Eve is determined to make the killer of two women pay for their crime. Kati describes the book as a pearl; a story that should be read, not read about. However, she warns that this is a difficult read in places, one that will make some people squirm. Kati also liked The Girl From Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, in which a woman’s past is still shadowing her two decades later, endangering her life once again. Kati says the atmosphere Miranda creates with the various settings kept a current of cold air whispering over the hairs on the back of her neck.

We’re quiet on the historicals this issue, as John Cleal, our history expert, had his nose in the true crime selection! Fear for Miss Betony by Dorothy Bowers features former governess Emma Betony, who’s been asked to sort out a series of strange happenings at a friend’s struggling girls’ school. John says this is a clever story that hardly follows any of the usual formulae and cannot be rushed. He liked the passion and a personal quality about it, plus some acutely observed atmospheric descriptions.

John Barnbrook enjoys a dash of fantasy mixed in with his crime and The Stitcher and the Mute by DK Fields ticked that box for him. In the United Realms there are no elections – instead each year the leading group is chosen by picking which of them tells the most compelling story. As the election proceeds, Detective Cora Gorderheim becomes more embroiled in solving a crime and resolving some personal issues. John found the book fascinating but recommends reading the previous book in this series first.

Linda Wilson’s YA offering this week is Are You Watching? by Vincent Ralph. Teenager Jess is out to catch a killer. The only problem is that the killer might catch her first as she competes in a YouTube reality TV show against other teens to present the most watched personal story on the channel – and only the person with the most followers will go on to star in their own right for the next few months. Linda found the central concept so close to reality that she finds it hard to imagine that someone hasn’t already commissioned a reality show on exactly these lines. And she has a horrible feeling that if it did happen, she’d be glued to the screen along with millions of others.

We’ve got author Amanda Lees in the Countdown hotseat this week. We’d both like to invite ourselves to tea and spend a happy few hours ranting with her! And Linda promises to bring some of her homemade sloe gin along too …

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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Countdown with
Amanda Lees

Amanda was born in Hong Kong and survived both a convent boarding school and a Jesuit boys’ school before being summarily ejected from the latter. She gets her thirst for adventure from her parents who met in the jungle in Borneo where her mother had set up a hospital and her father, a former Gurkha Intelligence officer and Oxford-educated spy, was probably up to no good.

Amanda has a degree in drama and her first telly job was as a member of the Communist Resistance in ’Allo ‘Allo. This involved running around with a dachshund tucked under one arm and deploying her best cod French accent. It has all been dramatically downhill since.

Amanda has conducted a love coaching phone-in from the sofa of Richard & Judy and wooed the viewers on Channel 5 Live. She is currently working on a new spy thriller book series as well as a standalone psychological thriller.

She is the author of satirical novels Selling Out and Secret Admirer and YA thriller trilogy Kumari, Goddess of Gotham.

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

An amazing rollercoaster ride I wouldn’t change for the world.

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

A snoozing pup, a snoring cat, a vase of tulips, a rubber lizard, photos of my parents, three Chinese household gods, my mum’s rosewood cabinet that she left to me, my very last chocolate in its box and piles of books everywhere.

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

Rice noodles with tons of veg stir-fried with garlic, ginger, spring onions, mirin and soy followed by coconut ice cream with lashings of homemade sloe gin poured over it.