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Friday, 30 December 2016

‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant

Published by Mulholland Books,
28 July 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-473-60833-7(HB)

One of the conventions of popular fiction in any genre is a character with whom the reader can connect: either someone to root for and want to succeed, or alternatively a rotter we love to hate and are glad to see come a cropper.

The latter is not unusual in a psychological thriller, and Paul Morris, protagonist of this artfully pitched example, falls firmly into that camp right from the opening chapter. His skilfully pitched first-person voice marks him out as pretentious, self-regarding and self-pitying, an unapologetic womanizer and an adept scrounger; these and other flaws suggest from the outset that he is riding for a fall.

But that doesn’t stop Sabine Durrant from lulling the reader into a sense of Paul’s impermeability: his talent for taking people in and (metaphorically) getting away with murder percolates three-quarters of the narrative. Broke and about to be homeless, he worms his way into the home, bed and life of human rights lawyer Alice, his machinations culminating in an invitation to join her group of friends on their annual holiday in Greece. And that’s where (minor spoiler alert!) it all starts to go horribly wrong...

Not that that should be unexpected; it is a thriller, after all. And not at first; for quite a few chapters, we could be observing an ordinary, scratchy family holiday, if it wasn’t for a ten-year-old murder and a more recent rape lurking in the background. And if Paul is dislikeable, Andrew, another member of the holiday party, is even more so. Add in a clutch of teenage kids of varying degrees of obnoxiousness; and the handful of other characters, equally well drawn and adroitly placed for the best effect, don’t exactly set out to win the reader’s sympathy. Only Alice herself and Tina are people we can warm to – and the fact that I never wanted to stop reading about them all showed me that this talented author knows exactly what she’s doing.

All of the above, plus a tense build-up with plenty of elliptical clues, a superbly drawn background on the Greek island (and also back home in middle-class London at first) and a satisfyingly oblique ending that leaves you wondering: what more does a fan of psychological thrillers need? Lie With Me was the first novel of Sabine Durrant’s I had read; I’ll certainly be looking for more of her work.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Sabine Durrant is a journalist and the author of the best-selling Having it and Eating It and the Connie Pickles series of children's books. Her first psychological suspense novel, Under Your Skin, was published by Hodder in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US in 2014. Her second, Remember Me This Way, was also published by Hodder in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US in 2015. Both novels have been translated into more than 15 languages. Her third novel, Lie With Me, comes out in hardcover in Summer 2016.  Sabine has written for the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph. She lives in south London with her partner, the writer Giles Smith, and their three children.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper

Published by Little, Brown,
12 January 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-4087

Aaron Falk returns to the birthplace from which he was hounded twenty years earlier, to attend the funeral of his childhood friend.

Luke, the friend, has apparently murdered his wife and son and committed suicide. But Aaron doesn’t quite buy it, and nor do Luke’s parents, or the local cop. Aaron reluctantly lets himself become involved in a semi-official investigation, which generates bad memories and bad blood, but makes him even more dubious about the murder-suicide verdict.

That’s the premise behind this highly assured, award-winning debut by an Australian journalist. It’s well-crafted, carefully paced and intricate, with clues subtly placed and one of the best pieces of misdirection I’ve encountered in a crime novel for a long time.

And that’s not all. Jane Harper has also recreated the tense, oppressive atmosphere of a small Australian town in trouble with the kind of skill many far more experienced novelists fail to exhibit. The book’s title refers to the fact that the bushland farming community has had no rain for two years; the temperature regularly hits 40 degrees centigrade and the risk of life-changing wildfires is ever-present. Tempers are stretched and farms are failing, and under the circumstances murder and suicide become all too possible.

Characters good and not so good are never less than human: damaged rather than intrinsically evil, flawed even when they’re clearly innocent and even the minor players are rounded and vividly drawn. Raco, the local cop, has a great deal more insight than many in similar jobs. Aaron, now a fraud detective, has skills that prove unexpectedly useful, but finds himself obsessed by the incident decades earlier which resulted in him and his father fleeing to the city.

Almost everyone has a secret, as befits the best crime novels, and some prove more surprising than others. In fact, it’s a story full of surprises, and also well-constructed and well written, either from good research or from sound knowledge of the world the characters inhabit.

On this showing, Jane Harper is a writer to watch. She richly deserves the acclaim The Dry has attracted.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Jane Harper was born in Manchester in the UK, and moved to Australia with her family at age eight. She spent six years in Boronia, Victoria, and during that time gained Australian citizenship. Returning to the UK with her family as a teenager, she lived in Hampshire before studying English and History at the University of Kent in Canterbury. On graduating, she completed a journalism entry qualification and got her first reporting job as a trainee on the Darlington & Stockton Times in County Durham. Jane worked for several years as a senior news journalist for the Hull Daily Mail, before moving back to Australia in 2008. She worked first on the Geelong Advertiser, and in 2011 took up a role with the Herald Sun in Melbourne. In 2014, Jane submitted a short story which was one of 12 chosen for the Big Issue's annual Fiction Edition. That inspired her to pursue creative writing more seriously, and that year she applied for the Curtis Brown Creative online 12-week novel writing course. She was accepted with a submission for the book that would become The Dry and wrote the first full draft during the three-month course. Jane lives in St Kilda with her husband and daughter.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto De Angelis

Translated by Jill Foulston
Published by Pushkin Vertigo,
8 September 2016.
ISBN: 978 1 78221 72 7

Milan 1938 and in the fashion house of Christiana O’Brian the showing of the season’s latest designs is in full swing. But the unexpected appearance of someone that Christiana doesn’t want to see causes her to rush out of the showing. That someone is a woman called Anna Sage, sister of Christiana’s ex-husband Russell Sage, business tycoon and former bank robber now freed from prison, Russell Sage. Is Russell himself now in Milan? Does he suspect Anna of having betrayed him to the Chicago police? But when the distraught Christiana seeks refuge in her bedroom, there is a corpse on her bed. It is her employee, the youthful Valerio, and he has been strangled. Detective Inspector De Vincenzi of the Milan Police is the investigator and he needs all his subtle intellect and intuitive powers to unravel the mystery. In the end he does so and confronts the main participants – Christiana herself, Anna Sage, Madam Dolores Firmino the company’s artistic director, Prospero O’Lary the company secretary, Marta the company’s director. Some of them are lying, but only one is the murderer.

For me, the main interest of this book arises from the author’s position as, according to the informational material accompanying the text, the first native Italian mystery writer, although crime fiction had been extremely popular in Italy for some years and the publisher Mondadori had a full list of British and American titles in his giallo list. And much in The Three Orchids is reminiscent of classic Agatha Christie, in particular the final confrontation scene. Tragically, De Angelis fell foul of the Fascist regime of Mussolini which was critical of anything that could be implied as criticism of the regime, was imprisoned and on his release was beaten up by fascist thugs and later died of his injuries. But I wish could be more enthusiastic about the book itself, some of the author’s observations would raise eyebrows today: ‘Lying and distraction come easily to women; their deviousness is automatic’; ‘How could one distinguish truth from falsehood in a woman’s statements, and how could one find logic in her words and actions?’ ‘Science and statistics tell us that it is much more common to find criminal brilliance in women than in men.’ Not the sort of nonsense that the great Agatha would have uttered. Nor the great Margery or the great Dorothy L. Nonetheless The Three Orchids is of considerable historic importance.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Augusto De Angelis (1888-1944) was a Italian novelist and journalist, most famous for his series of detective novels featuring Commissario Carlo De Vincenzi. His cultured protagonist was enormously popular in Italy, but the Fascist government of the time considered him an enemy, and during the Second World War he was imprisoned by the authorities. Shortly after his release he was beaten up by a Fascist activist and died from his injuries. The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses are also available from Pushkin Press.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

‘Chef Maurice and the Wrath of Grapes’ by J A Lang

Published by Purple Panda Press, 
15 July 2015. 

Chef Maurice is head chef and owner of Le Cochon Rouge, the finest (and only) restaurant in the Cotswold village of Beakley.  Following an unfortunate incident in which a bottle of rather fine Barolo became an ingredient in what was agreed to have been a splendid red wine jus, it has been decided to provide some staff training and so the Cochon Rouge Wine Appreciation Society was established.  Chef Maurice’s love of food and drink is boundless and so, when renowned wine collector Sir William Burton-Trent turns up to the Society’s first meeting and invites him to a dinner and wine tasting the following evening, he is delighted.

With his friend, food critic Arthur Wordington-Smythe, Chef Maurice makes the snowy journey to Sir William’s home, where they chat with their fellow guests, unaware that in a short time they will find themselves involved in a classic locked room mystery.  Their host is found dead in his own wine cellar.  Chef Maurice is no stranger to murder and he, Arthur, and his colleagues at the Cochon Rouge, together with the local Police Constable Lucy (will she and Patrick, the sous-chef, ever get together?) use smart logic and a kipper sandwich to solve the fine wine mystery in fine style. 

This book is the second in what is developing into a delightful series.  It is a cozy with Golden Age trimmings; the plotting is deft, the characters are attractive, and the writing has a light touch – altogether a entertaining read.
Reviewer:  Jo Hesslewood
Other books by the author:  Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle;  Chef Maurice and the Bunny-Boiler Bake
J.A. Lang is the author of the Chef Maurice Mysteries, set in the fictional Cotswold village of Beakley, conveniently located within driving distance of her home in Oxford, England. She lives with her husband, an excessive number of cookbooks, and a sourdough starter named Bob.When not at her writing desk, she enjoys cooking, eating, travelling to places with good food, drinking good wine, and thinking about her next meal. (Please note that any similarities between J.A. Lang and her main character, Chef Maurice, are purely coincidental.)

Jo Hesslewood.  Crime fiction has been my favourite reading material since as a teenager I first spotted Agatha Christie on the library bookshelves.  For twenty-five years the commute to and from London provided plenty of reading time.  I am fortunate to live in Cambridge, where my local crime fiction book club, Crimecrackers, meets at Heffers Bookshop .  I enjoy attending crime fiction events and currently organise events for the Margery Allingham Society.