Paul Johnston bounces back with "The Death List" and a bumper pack of London-based crime fiction that feels a bit like a BOGOF (buy one get one free) deal, all rolled into one. The novel spreads to all the corners of contemporary crime fiction and it’s long, perhaps too long at 427 pages, but its page-turning momentum cannot be denied, all the way to the end.
In a nutshell: our hero, author Matt Wells has been dumped by his ambitious and professional City-working wife, his uppity literary agent and finally, his publisher; but he has one fan of his novels who remains in contact via email. The Devil has appreciated his historical novels, more than most, but he also has another reason for staying in touch with Wells. This fan likes crime fiction and wants to make it real, first picking off from his own "Death List" and then working on what he perceives as Wells’s own revenge "Death List". He very cleverly enrolls Wells in his killing endeavours, with no obvious way out. It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Wells implicated as an accomplice, where the Devil has Wells writing his story. Can Wells escape from this from this veritable gorefest, and how?
As I noted some time ago, Michael Robotham is doing things differently in the world of crime fiction and doing them rather well. Loosely based around the same team, he’s changed protagonist with each novel. His first, The Suspect centred on Joseph (Joe) O’Loughlin, a psychotherapist and main suspect in an investigation led by Vincent Ruiz of the Metropolitan Police; in The Drowning Man (formerly called Lost), DI Ruiz becomes the main protagonist, with Joe his ever present mate and we also meet Alisha Barba. As The Night Ferry opens, Ruiz has retired and here it’s Alisha that takes the lead (with Joe making no appearance at all, but with Ruiz ever present).
An extra to the anticipation for this series is that you just don’t know what Robotham will deliver next. Books one and two both presented potential dead ends or short lives for the characters. Joe is a sufferer of Parkinson’s disease. Ruiz was obviously coming up for retirement. Alisha had a very nasty accident…
But start each book and you quickly realise you’re in skilled hands when it comes to storytelling. All for me have felt like a magic carpet suddenly arriving, scooping me up and not letting me go until the very final and satisfying moment of reading the last words on the last page. I read The Night Ferry in two sittings and only because I had to. So what’s it all about?
I’m not sure when I became aware of Keith Allen and the fact that he had some Welsh ancestry; it was certainly by 1994 when he played Jonas Chuzzlewit in the TV series "Martin Chuzzlewit". Around the time that "Twin Town" was released in 1997 – in which he had a part and which his brother Kevin directed and co-wrote, as well as possibly launching the career of one Rhys Ifans – I recall a Sunday newspaper magazine article that reflected on Keith Allen’s unconventional past, if indeed "unconventional" is the right word to describe it. But my overriding memory from reading that article remains. This was an actor who had been to borstal and prison and who had been involved with drugs. He’d had 7 children by 5 women (which, if updated is now an 8 to 6 ratio); however, this is something he neither confirms nor denies and is one of the reasons he has little time for the red tops in this country (a subject which came up in his Hay Festival interview this year).
And so, in 2007, just as he’s achieving another level of fame as Lily Allen’s dad, we see what might be the first volume of his memoirs "An Autobiography: Grow Up". One thing’s for certain, when this man is on screen in an acting capacity, he’s a charismatic magnet of great acting talent, stealing the scenes but somehow managing not to overpower his fellow actors – even as the short lived character, and later corpse of Hugo, in "Shallow Grave". All of the above is what led me to this year’s Hay Festival, where Allen was interviewed by oneword radio’s Paul Blezard. And then I read the book. So what does this memoir bring to the table?
Natasha Mostert certainly likes to write a mystery and push the boundaries. The title "Season of the Witch" perfectly sums up this novel; but then there’s more. Far more. In this case it’s something called "remote viewing" which that Wikipedia link describes as "…the purported ability for a viewer to gather information on a remote target consisting of an object, place, or person, etc., that is hidden from the physical perception of the viewer and typically separated from the viewer at some distance or time." This is clearly a mystery that deserves a tag of "and now for something completely different". So what do we get?
In a nutshell: Gabriel Blackstone is a computer hacker based in London. He also has the talent of remote viewing, something he left behind some time ago after a bad experience. But the girlfriend he let down at the same time re-enters his life asking for his help. She’s now married to man who has lost his son and both she and her husband would like Gabriel to investigate the son’s disappearance. The last known whereabouts of the son had him ensconced in a certain Gothic pile in Chelsea in the company of two sisters, the wonderfully named Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk who are descendants of John Dee and significantly appealing in more ways than one. And so begins another investigation for Gabriel as well as another journey that uses his remote viewing skills and leads him into very dangerous territory…
Joanna Hines was a new author to me when I picked up "The Murder Bird, but I see that she’s written ten novels, one of which has been televised: "Improvising Carla". So what led to "The Murder Bird" making it onto my radar? It was an interview with the author on "The Between the Lines show " on Oneword radio, that did it for me. (Just follow the link if you want to receive the benefits for yourself and believe me, you may want to amend your book buying budget when you do.)
After that, it’s called a "hook" and it’s the best one I’ve read. The opening sentence and paragraph should make a classic example of an opening hook in all those writing courses taking place across the world. How could you not want to read on after reading this?
"Five weeks after Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband. Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering away on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband’s chest."
Oh dear, Henrietta Clancy at the Guardian Books Blog has no time for hardbacks. She considers them to be "lovely presents", but with an impracticality that makes them "more of a curse than a blessing". She believes "…the most common reasoning behind purchasing a hardback (assuming that the paperback is available and this is an option) is the belief that ‘it makes a nice gift’". They are too big to carry in a handbag; have inflexible spines; are too "space-hogging" on the tube; have pointless dust jackets; and are only really any good as flower presses. Phew!
Yes they do make lovely presents and books can be things of beauty in their own right, with the dust jackets often having a major part to play in that. The dust jacket is also an essential marketing tool for a book; an eye catching good one that conveys the theme of the book will entice readers. Some of us actually prefer reading hardbacks; they are more solid and enduring than paperbacks and can still look unread after one reading, if you’re careful. Paperbacks, on the other hand, end up looking like fans in 3D, with curly creased spines, used and abused, and battered.