You’ve heard of the Year of the Four Emperors? This is the Day of the Three Reviews of three crime novels by three different authors.
‘Last Seen Alive’ by Claire Douglas
The title is apt and intriguing. This psychological thriller starts with mc murdering her husband.
Libby and her lovely, cuddly husband, Jamie, have taken a holiday cottage in Cornwall in an informal house-swap arrangement. Libby, a teacher, has recently achieved fame in the press by rescuing children from a fire and the Cornish holiday is to aid her recovery. But they can’t understand why the Heywoods would why anyone would want to exchange the Hideaway, their beautiful Cornish holiday home in Cornwall, for their poky little flat in Bath. Strange things happen, such as their finding a taxidermy workshop in the cellar, but surely this is because Libby is overwrought after the fire incident and a miscarriage shortly afterwards?
This novel has one of the most complex and complicated plots I have ever read, with several twists and changes of pov. Congratulations to author Claire Douglas for devising such an intricate storyline and keeping it together. The action alternates between Cornwall, Bath and Thailand and she writes with confidence about all three settings.
*** So why am I awarding it only three stars? It’s a strong three stars, I’ll grant, but I couldn’t take a liking to any of the major characters and the crime story-line was slow to get going.
‘Beware the Past’ by Joy Ellis
By one of my favourite crime authors, and with a draw-me-in title if ever there was on, Amazon cites this as a Noir thriller, so this must be right.
The story starts in the 1990s with Matt Ballard as a rookie police officer discovering the body of an eleven year old boy in the Fens, the last murder by a serial killer, whose identity the police think they know but who was never charged because he died in a motor accident. What Matt sees will haunt him for ever. Move on several decades, to him being Detective Chief Inspector Matt Ballard, in charge of a team and on the point of retirement, and another eleven year old boy is murdered… and a further one kidnapped. The case has not waited for Matt Ballard. In fact, the killer seems to be pulling all the strings, leaving messages for the police and having Matt and his team running around and getting nowhere. Moreover, the killer seems to possess a lot of information about Matt and his team, where Matt took a respite break in Greece many years ago, for instance, and the names of Jason, his assistant’s, children. Matt is a troubled man; his wife died and his only other serious girlfriend disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The killer knows all this and is probing deep into police lives.
Joy Ellis has two series on the go, both police procedural and set in the Fens (the Nikki Galena series and the DI Jackman and DS Marie Evans series), this book is a stand-alone, and, seeing as Matt Ballard is about to retire, will probably remain so. Any novel which features murder and torture of eleven year old boys is going to be gruesome and there were elements that made me gulp, although Joy Ellis knows when to back off and move on to content more readable. A very complex plot – again – and a very exciting read, with characters I could like and emphasise with. One of Joy Ellis’s best.
**** Four stars.
‘PorterGirl: First Lady of the Keys’ by Lucy Brazier
A non-police-procedural crime story at last. Bliss? Maybe.
This novel arose out of a blog which, in itself, arose out of the author’s private diary of her career as a porter at an illustrious Cambridge college. We are invited into the archaic world of Oxbridge, to admire its quaintness and laugh at the foibles of academics, and so we do, but the main thrust of the crime plot begins very very late in, at about 50% on my Kindle. The reader gets the feeling that the detective bit is secondary to depicting a word photograph of college life.
The author’s tone is sardonic, bringing up some useful turns of phrase. My favourite is:
‘Not quite a pregnant pause, but certainly a pause that is “late” and is considering weeing on a stick.’
Some threads were left unresolved, such as the progress of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour.
‘Portergirl’ is written in the first person, present tense. Most characters are referred to, in the narrative, by their office (Deputy Head Porter, Head Porter, Junior Bursar, Head of Housekeeping) and also in conversation, when characters are addressing each other. Professors and other academics are identified by initials, as in Professor K. Towards the end of the book, mc (Deputy Head Porter herself) invites Head Porter to call her by her first name, but he declines. At the very end, Professor Fox (the only person given his full name) does ask her what her real name is: it turns out to be Lucy, the same as the author.
Characters are well-drawn and distinct, although Head Porter wobbles precariously between goody and baddy, without any real substantiation. Mc herself has two unladylike traits: a voracious appetite (She’s greedy!) and a liking for the bottle, both easily accommodated in a college environment. To my mind Professor Horatio Fox, supposedly Amercian, was an enigma; his manner of speech was very stilted and certainly did not belong on the other side of the pond and the attraction between him and mc fades into nothing, despite her being all over him like a rash in the first chapters.
*** An enjoyable read, definitely, but rambling, even for cosy crime.
So where is that nice reviewer who will only give good reviews, and pass over what she can’t review nicely? The truth is many books are curates’ eggs, good in parts, and, as writers, we learn by looking at ‘all kinds of everything’ (to quote Dana inappropriately). What is very evident is that all three of these books were written out of love and for the enjoyment of the reader – and that is the way I like it.
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