A gripping thriller that's also heart-breaking
Wow! Yesterday I finished Alex North's best-selling novel 'The Whisper Man', and loved it. Two of the scenes towards the end of the book brought tears to my eyes. Not many books manage to do that, but it's wonderful when they do.
I had my doubts when I first picked up 'The Whisper Man', however. We're introduced early in the novel to DI Pete Willis, a man with a troubled childhood, a divorce in his rear mirror and a drinking problem. Cliché number one. Then there's the plot. A boy has gone missing, in circumstances that mirror the crimes of Frank Carter, now in prison. Is a copycat killer at work? Cliché number two. Except that 'The Whisper Man' is so beautifully written, and Alex North provides such a fresh spin on an old tale, that I couldn't help but get drawn in. I'm glad I did. The book was rated the best crime novel of the decade by Steve Cavanagh, and he's someone who knows how to craft an excellent read! Here's a taster of the plot:
If you leave a door half-open, soon you'll hear the whispers spoken . . .
Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start.
But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys.
Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as 'The Whisper Man'.
Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home.
Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely.
He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .
A novel of loss, love and the relationship between father and son
Creepy stuff, huh? Yet underneath all the horror the book deals with themes of grief, loss and love. Alex North masterfully portrays a father, still mourning for his dead wife, who struggles to understand his young son. They love each other, yet don't communicate well; Tom feels he's failing as a parent, while Jake believes he disappoints his dad. Both are wrong, yet it takes tragedy to convince them otherwise.
I've already said that DI Pete Willis appears at first to be a cliché. Yet Alex North hasn't made him that way out of laziness; reasons exist why the plot needs this character to suffer a troubled childhood and why he descended into alcoholism in the past. It all forms part of a coherent whole, as does the fact there's a copycat killer.
Along the way Alex North delivers great plot twists - one, about halfway through, stunned yet delighted me! In the same way, he avoids taking the easy option towards the end; when he could have delivered a nice, comfy happy-ever-after, he choose something different, in the first of the two chapters that made me cry. Here the writing could, in the hands of a lesser author, have descended into cheesiness, but it didn't. Instead, it was beautiful. So, too, was a later scene, in which we discover Alex has misled us as to the identity of one of the minor characters. I won't say more, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the wrap-up is excellent, including the fate of the copycat killer, who gets what he deserves as well as what he craves.
If you enjoy great crime fiction, do yourself a favour and read this book. At times spine-chillingly tense and at others heart-breaking, this is one of the best crime novels I've read this year.
What about you? Have you read 'The Whisper Man'?
If so, what did you think? Liked it, loathed it? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Following his excellent review of 'The Two Faces of January', I'm delighted to welcome back Michael Nutt as a guest blogger. Today's post will be a review by him of Elmore Leonard's 1987 novel 'Bandits'. The floor's all yours, Michael...
Snappy dialogue and interesting characters...
Written during a period when Elmore Leonard was turning out some of his very best crime fiction, 'Bandits' (1987) is written with the author's customary ease and economy, full of his snappy dialogue, a cast of interesting characters, and a plot that picks up pace along the way.
The story begins with a corpse, in a place where death is everyday business. We are in a mortuary in New Orleans and two men are working on a road traffic victim. The scene is set with some rapid fire dialogue between the two men as they work on the body. Or rather while one man works on it, while the other watches evasively. The evasive one is Jack Delaney, just turned forty, a one-time fashion model who ended up doing time in Angola penitentiary for burglary, and now working for his brother-in-law Leo Mullen who got him an early release through the rehabilitation programme by offering him a job as assistant in his funeral director's business.
It is clear from the start that Jack has not put his criminal past completely behind him. First there is the body that has appeared that day on the mortuary slab, and which Jack recognises as an acquaintance from his wild years. Then there is the revelation that he has been socialising with red-headed Helene, another character from his criminal past.
A scathing comment on US foreign policy
Soon Jack is on his way to the leper colony in Carville in the company of a nun, Sister Lucy, only the body they are going to collect in the hearse is not a dead one. And Sister Lucy, in her Calvin Klein jeans and heels, appears very well-attired for a woman of the cloth.
This is a slow-burner by Leonard's standards and the story takes a while to ignite. The plot has a conventional, linear structure - very different to the author's usual cross-cutting chapters that leap between characters and locations before bringing all the strands together. Written in the late 1980s, Leonard draws on the wars of Central America of the late 20th century - the conflicts in Nicaragua, Honduras - as a background to the contemporary story, introducing themes of responsibility and morality that have been lacking in Jack's life. There is more than a touch of bitterness in the way Leonard remarks on the USA's involvement in those dirty little wars in Central America. He does not spare his American readers the uncomfortable truths of US foreign policy and how it supported the most vicious and inhuman parties in those struggles. Leonard is angry, very angry, as he writes of the atrocities the US financed in Nicaragua in the name of anti-Communism.
An unlikely wild bunch
The bad guys are often the most interesting characters in Leonard's crime novels and he keeps us waiting to meet the villain of this story. Bertie - Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz - is an officer who served the deposed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and he has a personal interest in the girl that Jack and Lucy have taken out of Carville. He is on their case, while visiting the States to raise funds for his army of contras still fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lucy's father, a wealthy oil tycoon, could be just the man to help him. It is almost a third of the way into the story before we meet Colonel Diaz and we are left in no doubt about what Jack and Lucy are up against. The Colonel has the CIA and some smooth operators working on his side and Jack is going to need help from some people from his criminal past, so he calls on a couple of bandits: ex-cop Roy Hicks, whom Jack knew in Angola, and old lag Tom Cullen, recently released from a 27 year stretch into the care of a nursing home. This unlikely wild bunch have a chance of redemption, of using their criminal skills for the force of good against evil. But with their criminal backgrounds, will they stay as the good guys or succumb to the temptation of more than two million dollars?
Take a trip in Jack's hearse
I love this novel's New Orleans setting, the familiar street names and locales. I love the anecdotes that Leonard drops in to fill out the main characters' back-stories, each one a short story in itself. I love the way that Leonard will follow a plot thread and character for a while before leaving it and moving off in an entirely different direction. I love how this leaves the story open to so many possibilities, not just with the bandits' quest to steal the Colonel's funds but also in their relationships with each other. The story builds to its climax, with some twists and turns along the way, raising our anticipation like watching a car bomb primed to go off. It ends as it begins, with a live body being transported in a hearse. But we have come a long way in between, and so too have his characters. 'Bandits' is not up there with Leonard's best novels, but it is a thoroughly good read. Take a trip in Jack's hearse: it is a journey worth taking.
More about Elmore Leonard
Thank you, Michael, for another great book review!
A few facts about the novelist Elmore Leonard. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved to Detroit in 1934, where he spent much of his life. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns. He went on to pen several crime and thriller novels, the best known of which include 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch'. Many of these, including 'Bandits', have been made into films and adapted for television.
During his lifetime, Leonard was awarded various prestigious literary prizes, including the Grand Master Edgar Award in 1992 from the Mystery Writers of America, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 2008. Elmore Leonard died in 2013, aged 87.
The second in a great series
Readers of my blog will remember that I interviewed bestselling novelist Robert Bidinotto a while ago. (Click here to read the interview). The post mentioned Robert's second novel in the Dylan Hunter thriller series; I enjoyed it so much I decided to post a review for this blog. First, let's have a taster of the plot. Read how Robert describes it on his website:
At his cabin in the Allegheny National Forest, Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods have taken a month off to heal the wounds—physical and emotional—from their ordeal at the hands of twisted psychopath Adrian Wulfe. Annie, in particular, has been struggling with the aftershocks of witnessing the man she loves nearly die at her feet. She is frightened by the prospect that Dylan seems to seek or attract violent confrontations wherever he goes. She can’t accept the prospect of such a life with him. So, to build a future together, Dylan promises Annie that he’ll abandon his violent ways. But ideological zealots and Washington’s political elites have conspired to terrorize and plunder the hard-working locals. These victims have no protector against the bad deeds of the powerful and privileged. Except for one man. A man as ruthless and violent as they. A man committed to absolute justice. Because Dylan Hunter cannot walk away—not even if it costs him the woman he loves . . .
A well-structured plot that avoids cliches
Powerful stuff! 'Bad Deeds' is a fast-paced action thriller, packed with more twists than a pretzel, and far juicier. It's a Formula One race to the end, with a break in the middle to deliver some back story about Dylan's father; this slows the pace down nicely, allowing the reader to draw breath.
The book is well-structured, with the prologue and epilogue seamlessly balancing and complementing each other. The latter, as is to be expected, teases the reader with a hint of the next book in the Dylan Hunter vigilante justice series. Throughout the action, Robert Bidinotto takes care to develop his characters further, via Dylan's efforts to incorporate the woman he loves into his life and Annie's struggles to deal with the psychological scars inflicted on her in 'Hunter'.
On now to the themes of the novel. I found the portrayal of the environmental extremists refreshing in that they weren't depicted as the good guys. It would have been so easy (and clichéd) to have written the environmentalists as saintly champions of America's green spaces and the fracking companies as ruthless pillagers of Mother Earth, but the author doesn't go down that route. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm reluctant to say too much, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the book is an interesting read for its perspective on green issues, although there's so much more to the story than that. Robert Bidinotto has conducted extensive research into this area, which is of keen interest to him; 'Bad Deeds' examines some of the complex ethical questions involved. The results may surprise you.
What about the romantic elements? Robert ensures they don't intrude on the action, but act instead as a counterpart to the fast pace of the rest of the book. I'm not a fan of romantic fiction, but Dylan and Annie's relationship is portrayed sensitively, without losing sight of the fact the novel is, first and foremost, an action thriller.
The bar has been raised to a great height...
As an animal lover, I was delighted that Robert delivered on his promise to me when I interviewed him! His gorgeous black and white cat, Luna, does indeed play a pivotal role in the plot - without her, events would have transpired very differently! I hope we'll read more about Dylan's feline sidekick in future Hunter novels...
Robert Bidinotto says on his blog how concerned he was to produce a sequel to 'Hunter' that would live up to his fans' expectations. I'd say he has more than delivered the goods; the number of 5-star reviews the novel is racking up on Amazon.com indicates other readers agree with me. With 'Bad Deeds', Robert Bidinotto has raised the bar even higher for himself and I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge with the next Dylan Hunter novel. Not much pressure, hey, Robert?!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! To find out more about Robert and his novels, go to www.bidinotto.com. He's an interesting guy!
Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American Life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.
Marriage can be a killer...
'Gone Girl' is Gillian Flynn's third novel, a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional relationships. It's as fine a portrayal of a psychopathic character as you're ever likely to read. To quote from the back blurb:
'Who are you? What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?'
A sharply written portrait of a psychopath
The first half of the story is narrated from the present-day viewpoint of Nick, under suspicion from the police, spliced with Amy's historical account of their relationship taken from her diary. We see how incidents from Nick's point of view take on a very different twist when told by Amy. Her journal entries show her growing disappointment with Nick's emotional reticence, ending with her revealing that she wants a gun to protect herself from him. There are doubts woven into the first half of the book, however. Nick is clearly no angel, being shallow and self-absorbed, but is he warped enough to murder his wife? On their wedding anniversary?
Maybe not. After all, the beautiful and brilliant Amy has attracted unwanted attention in the past, from a copycat schoolgirl friend to the stalker-like obsession of her ex-boyfriend. Could someone from her past be responsible for her disappearance?
'Gone Girl' is sharply written, with language designed to stimulate all the senses. 'The smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes'. 'Snow like sugar clouds'. Noelle Hawthorne's triplets trail behind her like a kite; Maureen Dunne's knitting needles click-clack while she 'talks in her contented-cat voice, all deep, sleepy purr'. Flynn paints vivid word pictures as she hustles the narrative along, her pace relentless.
My only criticism of the book is one echoed by other reviews I've read - the ending didn't sit well with me. Such a high-tension novel would, I think, be better served by a different finale, although I won't say what or why as I don't want to be a plot-spoiler! Other than that, though, 'Gone Girl' is a tremendous read, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Other novels by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn's first novel was 'Sharp Objects', which won a Crime Writer's Association Dagger Award. The book tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker, who searches for the truth behind the murders of two pre-teen girls whilst confronting her own tragic past. Whilst doing so, she finds herself identifying with the young victims - maybe too strongly...
Flynn's second novel is 'Dark Places', in which the thoroughly unlikable character of Libby Day earns money by selling details of the slaughter of her mother and two sisters, a crime that took place when she was still a child. Her brother, Ben, was imprisoned for the murder, but clues soon surface to show he may have been wrongly convicted. How reliable are Libby's memories? And if Ben wasn't the killer, then maybe his sister poking around in the past might prove dangerous...
More about Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, with a great deal of her childhood being given over to reading and watching movies. She studied English and journalism at the University of Kansas. Eventually she moved to New York City, with a ten-year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly . She has also worked as a TV critic. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, their son, and a giant black cat named Roy. You can find out more via her website, www.gillian-flynn.com.
Have you read 'Gone Girl'?
If so, let me know what you thought of it! What did you think of Amy and Nick? Did you see the plot twists coming? How was the ending for you - did you think it fitted what went before? Leave a comment for me!
Today's blog post is a guest offering by Michael Nutt, who has very kindly reviewed Patricia Highsmith's novel 'The Two Faces of January' for me. The novel has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst. Take it away, Michael!
A rather curious title...
Patricia Highsmith was the finest exponent of the psychological thriller. Her most famous works - 'Strangers on a Train' and the Tom Ripley cycle of novels - are some of the most enjoyable reads of my life. And now I must add the recently filmed 'The Two Faces of January', her ninth novel, first published in 1964, as one that I can thoroughly recommend.
The rather curious title refers to the connection between the month of January, in which the story unfolds, and the Roman god Janus, in whose honour the Romans named the month. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, as he looks both to the future and to the past. To the ancient Romans, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby associated with gates, doors, and passageways, as well as endings and time. You can find these themes appearing throughout the novel. The story begins with a passenger ship slipping through the Corinth Canal at night. On board are an American couple - Chester MacFarland and his young wife Colette - taking a vacation in Europe and arriving now in Greece. The opening descriptions are of a passage from one world to another, a transition between countries, but also an image that evokes birth, a new beginning. We soon learn that the man is a shyster on the run from the American authorities, trying to escape his past.
Locked in an unspoken pact of murder
They are observed by a slack young American, Rydal Keener, who is struck by Chester's resemblance to his recently deceased father (whose funeral he chose to miss), while Colette reminds Rydal a little of his cousin Agnes, his first, ill-fated love from some ten years ago.
Rydal is using an inheritance to fund a couple of years away in Europe writing poetry and avoiding a planned career in law back in the States. He amuses himself by playing games of chance, and starts to include the American couple, so uncannily reminiscent of those people from his past, in his latest scheme even if he is unsure quite what it might be yet.
Rydal is a particularly Janus-like character, looking both to the past and to the future. He carries the psychological scars of his relationship with his late father and his cousin Agnes, and this unfinished business in his past keeps drifting into the present and casting a fog over his future. Unwittingly, Chester and Colette drift onto his radar. By chapter three their worlds have collided - or dovetailed, it would be more accurate to say, as Chester and Colette find themselves locked in an unspoken pact with Rydal over an incidental murder.
A tale of two Ripleys
It is typical of Highsmith that these are deeply flawed characters, psychotic anti-heroes whose appearance of normality hides psychopathic personalities and murderous tendencies. As in her 'Talented Mr Ripley', she describes a world of European exoticism, as her characters tour the sun-drenched Mediterranean; the novel was published a year after its American author had permanently relocated to Europe. Highsmith keeps the reader guessing about the games these three con artists might be playing. It is a tale of two Ripleys, as Chester and Rydal manoeuvre warily around each other, with a devious woman thrown into the mix for good measure. Gradually, insidiously, Chester becomes increasingly dependent on Rydal as the trio go on the run to Crete, while taking in a spot of tourism along the way as they travel the island. And all the while Colette seems to be taking a seductive interest in Rydal... You know that things can only go badly for these people, and it is not long before the body count rises and events take on their own crooked logic.
Highsmith is always adept at pulling off a surprise, taking the story in an entirely different direction from where you thought it was heading. Like a card sharp flicking an ace from the palm of her hand, she throws in a key scene set in the deserted Temple of Knossos that causes the narrative to lurch into a crazy, unexpected turn, tying the two male characters to each other in a mutually destructive relationship. Rydal now plays a dangerous game with Chester, who finds himself unable to free himself from the deadly grasp the other has on him.
Dark but humorous stuff...
This is dark but humorous stuff. You suspend any feelings of disbelief and go along with these miscreants for the ride, which takes us across Europe. Rydal works out his latent hatred and resentment of his father on Chester, who has assumed the role of his substitute father. It is a poisonous relationship reminiscent of that between Guy and Bruno in Highsmith's 'Strangers on a Train', except here both parties are as cracked as each other. Who will come out on top? The drink-addled con artist or the hate-filled chancer? And what sort of game is Rydal playing by the time the players get to Paris? Each chapter leaves you eager for the next and every time I picked up the story again I was excited to be reacquainting myself with these rather nasty people. Highsmith conjures a strange yet satisfying ending that tidies up some unfinished business, completing a transition of sorts. I look forward to reading more of her novels someday soon.
Thank you, Michael!
Thanks to Michael for a very thorough and informative book review.
Disturbing the past can destroy the present...
The Lewis Man is an excellent read. It's a murder mystery, centring on the death of a young man found buried in a peat bog on one of the Outer Hebridean islands. The only clue to the identity of the corpse is a D.N.A. sibling match to a local farmer, an elderly man suffering from dementia. A man who has always claimed to be an only child.
The novel is narrated through third person chapters spliced with those related by the dementia sufferer, Tormod MacDonald. These chapters are poignant, contrasting his present-day mental confusion with his clear memories of the events of fifty years ago. His story is moving, portraying the religious bigotry souring his childhood, his harsh teenage years at the Dean Orphanage, together with his determination to keep the promise he made to his dying mother.
When the story reverts to the present day, we meet Fin MacLeod, a former policeman battling to rebuild his life after his son’s death and his subsequent divorce. Will he find the resolution to his problems in his childhood home of the bleak Lewis landscape? And how does Marsaili, his former girlfriend and mother of his other son, fit into the picture?
Wild flowers, biting winds and peat bogs...
The Lewis Man is set against the backdrop of the unforgiving Hebridean weather and is richly evocative of the landscape, with May's descriptions of soft black peat, skin-scouring winds, wild flowers and bog cotton. Peter May also details the close Hebridean community of Lewis, strongly rooted in island culture, a way of life that draws Fin MacLeod back for good when his life reaches a crisis point.
The issue of Tormond's dementia is handled with sensitivity and the novel gives a touching portrayal of the effect this condition has on those who care for dementia sufferers. Tormond's childhood, and the cruel treatment of orphans by the Church and local authorities, is also handled well, although those parts require the reader to suspend belief, given that they are narrated by an elderly man with dementia. That doesn't detract from their poignancy, though.
The novel delivers an engaging read that never fails to entertain. The twist at the end is satisfying, and the last few paragraphs are truly moving. I'll definitely be reading more from this author.
More about Peter May and his novels
The Lewis Man is the second in the Lewis trilogy, all set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, although the book works perfectly well as a standalone novel. The other titles are The Blackhouse and The Chessmen.
In The Blackhouse, a bloody murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar one in Edinburgh. Fin Macleod, still working at the time as a police detective, is sent to investigate.
The Chessmen sees Fin discovering the body of his friend, musician Roddy MacKenzie, who disappeared seventeen years previously, in the wreckage of a light aircraft. Roddy's corpse reveals that he was savagely murdered...
Peter May was born and raised in Scotland, and before turning to writing novels he enjoyed a successful career as a television writer and producer. He now lives in France. He has also penned the China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell; the critically-acclaimed Enzo Files, set in France, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod; and several standalone books, the latest of which is I'll Keep You Safe. You can find out more about him and his novels via his website www.petermay.co.uk.
Affiliate links have been used in this blog post.
High suspense meets the legal thriller
Apple Tree Yard is a psychological thriller about one woman's adultery and an insightful examination of the values we live by and the choices we make, from an acclaimed writer at the height of her powers.'
The novel is written in the first person, present tense, which I find always adds a certain punch to the prose. Doughty presents the story through an internal conversation between Yvonne and her unknown lover, who she believes to be a government spook unable to reveal details of his work. Although an intelligent woman, a respected scientist and married, she’s naive around this man, believing herself in love. The thrill of this illicit relationship, combined with risky sex, whisks her away from a life that’s become predictable and dull towards events that almost destroy her.
Excellent courtroom drama
Genetics versus gender issues...
Here comes the science bit! Louise Doughty weaves elements of genetics into the novel, playing on the fact that her protagonist is a geneticist. Yvonne refers to her unnamed lover as X, focusing on how they've reversed roles, he being an X and she a Y. Furthermore, her family have names or nicknames that begin with the letters A T G & C, another nod towards the field of genetics in which she works.
Doughty also examines issues of women's place in society. Yvonne has struggled to balance her career with motherhood, reflecting with some resentment how her husband's role in child-rearing appears to be an opt-in one, whereas hers has defaulted to an opt-out one. Although her marriage is good, the cracks exist, fissures that eventually lead to her susceptibility to a passionate affair with a stranger.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong man
Louise Doughty also touches on the vulnerability of women. Yvonne is a woman who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man, and the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Women can have careers, children, successful marriages, and yet they are ultimately vulnerable to overheated testosterone, and it can be the seemingly nice guy next door who poses the danger.
Moving on from this, Doughty looks at how the legal system can be skewed against women, illustrating her point by citing the case of a fifteen-year-old girl, not very bright, who suffers a gang rape by five men. She then has to face not one but five defence lawyers, all insinuating she was a drunken slut who asked for what she got. If a highly intelligent woman like Yvonne Carmichael can be broken in the witness box, what chance do any of us have?
Self-preservation versus a loved one...
Doughty examines the question of how far each of us would go to protect a loved one, or whether self-preservation will always win out in the end. She cites some distinctly unpleasant animal experiments that demonstrate that even maternal love can't compete with the innate urge in all of us to save our own skins if push comes to shove. Altruism will only stretch so far, a principle that will eventually lead to Yvonne's meltdown on the witness stand.
George Orwell examines the same topic in his novel '1984'. The way Yvonne's lover behaves is no different to the way Winston Smith eventually breaks down in front of his tormentor O'Brien. In screaming the words 'Do it to Julia! Do it to her, not me!', he cements his own brainwashing. The ultimate betrayal. So too with Yvonne's mystery lover, as he turns traitor on her in court, leaving her vulnerable to a sharp defence lawyer as the truth about Apple Tree Yard is revealed.
More about Louise Doughty
Louise Doughty is the author of eight novels, including Apple Tree Yard. Her novels have been shortlisted for various awards and she has also won awards for her radio drama and short stories. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.
In 2007, she published her first work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her newspaper column of the same name. She has written major features, columns and cover articles for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday. Her broadcasting career includes presenting radio series such as BBC R4′s A Good Read and Writers’ Workshop. She is a regular guest on the radio arts programme Saturday Review.
Doughty was born in the East Midlands and grew up in Rutland, in a rural area that later provided the setting for her third novel, 'Honey-Dew'. She now lives in London.
You can find out more about Louise and her books at www.louisedoughty.com. To view Apple Tree Yard on Amazon, click or tap the book cover image at the start of this post (affiliate link).
Have you read Apple Tree Yard?
If so, what did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
A rollercoaster ride of a thriller...
‘Witness The Dead’ is the first novel by Craig Robertson I've tried; based on my enjoyment of what I’ve read, it won't be the last. The novel delivers a rollercoaster ride of a thriller, dealing with the exploits of a serial killer in modern-day Glasgow. Here's an extract from the back cover blurb:
‘Scotland 1972. Glasgow is haunted by a murderer nicknamed Red Silk - a feared serial killer who selects his victims in the city's nightclubs. The case remains unsolved but Archibald Atto, later imprisoned for other murders, is thought to be Red Silk. In modern-day Glasgow, D.S. Rachel Narey is called to a gruesome crime scene at the city's Necropolis. The body of a young woman lies stretched out over a tomb, bearing a three-letter message from her killer - the word SIN scrawled in lipstick upon her body.
Now retired, former detective Danny Nielsen spots a link between the new murder and those investigated in 1972 - details that no copycat killer could have known about. But Archibald Atto is still behind bars…’
A novel laced with tension and intriguing sub-plots
The tension in the novel ratchets skyward as more dead women are discovered, each one posed on a tomb in a different Necropolis. A race against time to prevent further deaths ensues, with the murders mirroring the 1972 Red Silk killings. The plot weaves through sharp twists and turns, as Archibald Atto dispenses information that may be accurate, or simply the warped machinations of a crazed mind.
‘Witness The Dead’ is an unusual novel in that it doesn’t have a protagonist as such. Danny Neilsen, his nephew Tony Winter and Detective Inspector Derek Addison are given equal prominence as the team intent on unearthing the link between Archibald Atto, the murders and the significance of the dumpsites at the city’s Necropoleis. Detective Sergeant Rachel Narey plays second fiddle to this trio in a side role as Tony Winter’s former love interest.
Overarching the main players is the chilling character of Archibald Atto, a psychopath who revels in baiting Winter when he detects the guilty thrill the man gets from photographing dead bodies. Robertson doesn’t flinch in portraying his characters with all their flaws. Danny Neilsen is haunted by a terrible mistake he made in 1972, one that has estranged him from his only daughter. Tony Winter struggles to accept his failed relationship with Narey, as well as his self-disgust at his enjoyment of what he sees as the beauty of death. In an amusing subplot, Addison is both taunted and attracted by a member of the forensic team on the case, whilst battling his hatred of his superior officer and struggling to hold the investigation together.
Hotpants, kipper ties and Glaswegian slang
The backdrop to the narrative is the vibrant city of Glasgow, both in its modern-day incarnation and in 1972. The latter is played out in a nightclub called Klass, with its patrons sporting platform shoes, kipper ties and hotpants. They dance to music from The Sweet and Johnny Nash, richly evoking the zeitgeist of 1970s Glasgow, whilst defying the murderous danger posed by Red Silk. Robertson peppers his narrative with Scottish slang such as 'gallus', 'hen' and 'blootered', thus further immersing the reader in the spirit of the novel.
‘Witness The Dead’ is not without its flaws – some of the plot elements didn’t stack up for me, but that’s a minor criticism, given the overall thrill supplied by the narrative. Having started with 'Witness The Dead', I’ll be looking for more Craig Robertson novels to add to my reading list. And thanks to Craig, I now know that the plural of necropolis is necropoleis!
More about Craig Robertson
Craig Robertson is a Sunday Times bestselling author, and his debut novel, Random, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger. His novel Murderabilia was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2017 and the McIlvanney Prize 2017.
You can find out more about Craig and his novels from his website, www.craigrobertsonbooks.co.uk, and I'll be interviewing him in a future blog post.
Have you read 'Witness The Dead'?
If so, what did you think of it? Or do you have any recommendations for other Craig Robertson novels? Leave a comment for me!