April 24 2021

Book plots are like buses, wait ages then then they all come along at once! And this week we’ve dug up two that feature metal detecting …

Elly Griffiths’ long-running Ruth Galloway series is back, with the forensic archaeologist called out to a dead body found by a group of detectorists on a bleak north Norfolk beach. All clues lead Ruth and DI Harry Nelson to the isolated Black Dog Farm and the local legend of a ghostly hound whose appearance precedes violent death. Viv Beeby says The Night Hawks is elegant and subtly written, with a punchy emotional cliff-hanger that left her wanting more. In Russ Thomas’s Nighthawking, the discovery of a young woman’s body in a shallow grave leads DS Adam Tyler into the murky world of the nighthawks – metal detectorists who usually don’t bother to get permission for their investigations. Linda Wilson praises a bunch of mostly likeable characters who – for once – aren’t schlepping around too much personal baggage, unless you count a copper whose father might have been murdered.

We’ve got a strong crop of historicals for you in this issue. John Cleal took a trip back in time to the Anarchy, a turbulent period in 12th century England brought vividly to life by Sarah Hawkswood in her long-running Bradecote and Catchpoll series. In Hostage to Fortune, Worcester’s undersheriff Hugh Bradecote is about to get married, but his wife-to-be is kidnapped by a psychopath who kills for pleasure. John says the book is as much about personalities, relationships and ambitions as it is about murder. He calls it completely compelling, praising the writing and the meticulous research. And according to John, who can spot sloppy research at 50 paces, Execution by SJ Parris is equally good. Here, renegade monk, heretic and philosopher Giordano Bruno goes undercover to expose a plot to assassinate the queen. John enjoyed the strong sense of immediacy expertly conveyed though the atmospheric sights, sounds, and smells of Elizabethan London.

In The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell, first published in 1938, lost cargo on the River Thames leads the police and two unlikely detectives to an apparent suicide, a smuggling ring and a bunch of murderous drug importers. John Cleal says this moody classic set in the south London docklands is as much a police procedural as it is a murder mystery.  He enjoyed the background detail and the setting as well as surprising amount of humour and romance woven into what might otherwise have been a rather grim tale.

Bent by Joe Thomas takes a fictional look at key episodes in the life of Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor: first in Italy as an SAS commando in World War II and later as a notorious detective sergeant in 1960s Soho. Chris Roberts says that despite his moral weaknesses, Challenor comes across as a larger-than-life character, hugely entertaining and representative of a breed of men now largely passed into history. Whether this is for the best or not, you’ll need to decide for yourself. John Cleal suggests that if you’re on the hunt for a change from serious and heavy investigations then look no further than The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer. The infallible amateur sleuth Mr Verity must unravel what John describes as one of the best locked room mysteries ever created and he enjoyed relaxing with some unashamed, straightforward fun.

Juris Jurjevics’ Play the Red Queen, set in Saigon in 1963, features army investigator Ellsworth Miser who’s tasked with hunting down a female Viet Cong assassin responsible for the deaths of three US army officers. Chris enjoyed the combination of history and a thrilling story. John Cleal was equally impressed with an immaculately researched re-examination of one of the most sensational Old Bailey murder trials of the 20th century. He describes The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury by Sean O’Connor as a gripping tale of murder and almost heart-breaking romance.

On the other side of the Pond, Dave Robicheaux and his private investigator friend Clete Purcel are back in A Private Cathedral. The pair become involved in Louisiana’s longest running gang feud and must also face a supernatural threat from a centuries-old killer. John Cleal was impressed by the way James Lee Burke brings a remarkable touch of poetry even to subjects such as violence, greed and cruelty. There’s cruelty in The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, as well. Until she was 18, Rose Gold was subjected to intensive unnecessary medical interventions by her abusive mother. Now, after five years’ imprisonment for aggravated abuse, her mother is being released … John Barnbrook quickly became involved in the lives and opinions of the two main protagonists, occasionally feeling sympathy but mostly experiencing distaste and antipathy. He says the storytelling is very atmospheric, as well as being both engaging and gripping.

Linda Wilson normally briskly sidesteps missing kid stories but took a chance on Alex’s Hart’s Take Me Home in which Harper, a struggling photojournalist, comes across a lost child in a shop, but doesn’t anticipate that finding the child’s parents will turn out to be quite so difficult. Linda says the book has well drawn characters, an intriguing mystery at its heart and amply lives up to its early promise. Stoke on Trent is the setting for Liar, Liar by Mel Sharratt, in which a child is injured falling from a block of flats. DS Grace Allendale has a strong feeling that it wasn’t an accident, despite the parents’ claims to the contrary. But proving who is lying and why isn’t an easy task. Linda says Sharratt does a good job of getting under the skin of her characters. They’re all real people, whether you like them or not. Grace and her police colleagues come over as decent coppers doing their best despite finding it almost impossible to take down the criminals that have such a stranglehold on their town. According to Linda, the book’s certainly not going to put Stoke high on the list of tourist destinations!

Ewa Sherman escaped the UK winter for a trip to northern Sweden for some snow, trees and angst. In The Last Snow by Stina Jackson, Liv Björnlund leads a lonely existence with her teenage son and elderly father in a small, isolated village. When her father is killed, gossip about their dilapidated house and apparent hidden fortune intensifies as the police search for the killer. Ewa describes Jackson as a talented, intuitive storyteller, able to create a haunting, sorrowful atmosphere and provide an evocative tale of grief and hurt. Viv Beeby wasn’t quite so convinced by Ragnar Jónasson’s Winterkill set in an equally snowy landscape in northernmost town in Iceland, where a young girl falls to her death from a balcony onto the main street. When an old man in the local nursing home writes 'she was murdered' on the wall of his room, Police Inspector Ari Thor Arason has a puzzling case on his hands. Viv found it hard to care about the characters and felt the conclusions were rather predictable.

There’s no snow, but there is an abundance of angst in A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone. Rising young film star Amelia Hart is the toast of the media. She gives up her career for her accountant boyfriend, then he is accused of child sexual abuse. John Cleal was very impressed by this breathtakingly dark, moving, emotional psychological story that peels back the glitter of celebrity to uncover a more sinister world dominated by greed and lies. Lightseekers by Femi Kayode, set in Nigeria, is a dark read, too. Three students are seized by a mob, beaten and then burned to death with petrol-filled tyres around their necks. The theme of manipulation of social media by those with an axe to grind is very much in the news and as a result Chris Robert found the story very convincing..

In The Quickening, a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage accepts a commission to photograph the contents of a faded Victorian country house. Things take a sinister turn with a spate of unpleasant incidents. Sylvia Maughan says Rhiannon Ward  has provided an enjoyable, uncomplicated read with just the right amount of intrigue and suspense to keep the story moving along nicely. Kati Barr-Taylor dived on Strangers by CL Taylor with indecent haste. Ursula, Gareth and Alice don’t know each other, but over the course of a few days, they realise they need one another to stay alive. Kati enjoyed the strong, punchy pacing and praises the book’s intimacy and immediacy. She had slightly less luck with The Fallout by Rebecca Thornton, when a woman’s moment of distraction costs the life of her best friend’s little boy. Kati couldn’t connect with the characters and gave up caring about the outcome as drama tipped into melodrama. Ewa Sherman got on better with The Wives by Tarryn Fisher. Thursday’s husband has two other wives that he sees on different days of the week. This is an arrangement that Thursday accepts at first but then begins to doubt. Seth is charming to her and never violent, but eventually she starts to believe that something could be seriously wrong and that he might be violent with the others. Ewa saysThursday makes a poignant and emotional journey of discovery as she searches for ways to deal with her trauma. The constant theme of secrets forms the undercurrent of all the decisions, rivalry, jealousy and insecurity in the book.

Alex Urban’s The Kingfisher Secret sees journalist Grace Elliot seeking to revitalise a flagging career with a biography, but her subject has secrets that are well protected. Chris Roberts found Grace to be a sympathetic protagonist and says the importance of her discoveries and problems in getting a hearing make for great excitement. In Amer Anwar’s Stone Cold Trouble,  Zaq Khan is trying to keep out of trouble when his brother Tariq is badly beaten. It doesn’t matter to Zaq whether this was a problem of Tariq’s own making, or a message from someone in Zaq’s past, he still needs to take them down. Chris enjoyed a fast-paced tale full of action.

If you’re fed up with not being able to go away for the last few months, then our middle grade offering is a good way to beat the lockdown blues. When Flick Hudson goes window shopping in her new hometown she’s she isn’t expecting to learn that magic is real. She’s also not expecting the fate of the world to land on her shoulders. Linda Wilson says The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by HD Lapinski is fresh, funny and exciting, and will leave you wanting to haul your own battered suitcase out of the attic.

Graphic novelist Andrew Cartmel takes a seat in the Countdown spotlight this week. We’re salivating unbecomingly at the thought of his scrummy mushroom recipe! And even as laydees, we will admit to using one of his favourite words when faced with parked cars pumping out noxious fumes.

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
Andrew Cartmel

Andrew Cartmel was born in London and grew up in Canada where, among other things, he learned the meaning of the words “wind chill factor.”  Ever since he first learned to read (Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, the Oz books), Andrew never wanted to be anything except a writer. On returning to London to study at university, his game plan was to support himself writing scripts for television while getting established as a novelist. This led him into a detour — and down a rabbit hole — which included a distinguished sojourn script-editing Doctor Who for three years (google “Cartmel masterplan”).

At the same time, very much under the influence of Alan Moore, Andrew began writing for comics, first the Doctor Who strip and then Judge Dredd and, most recently, collaborating on the Rivers of London series of graphic novels with their creator Ben Aaronovitch — an old comrade in arms from his television days.

Andrew is also a passionate playwright, with several runs of his work already produced on the London fringe, and many more to come when the theatres eventually reopen. He also had a brief but memorable career as a stand-up comedian, where he learned that being heckled is far from the worst thing that can happen to you. Andrew Cartmel lives in London with too many books, too many records and just enough cats.

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

Books, plays, screenwriting, graphic novels and now books for kids.

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

A remarkable record player, two lovely single ended triode amps (monoblocks, since you ask), two majestic speakers, one magnificent record playing on the remarkable record player (vintage Rolling Stones on Decca, soon it will be the Beatles on Parlophone), two more LPs ready to go… And rather a nice house plant, Aloe vera, edging into view over the speakers.

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

The portabella mushrooms with tarragon vinegar and Sicilian olive oil poured into the inverted caps. And then you put the slices of taleggio on top and just stick it under the grill and cook briefly until the shrooms are succulent and the cheese melted. You snap the stems off the portabellas first, of course, you fool.