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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

‘A Killing Winter’ by Tom Callaghan

Published by Quercus in hardback,
26 February 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-84866-975-8

The setting is eastern Europe; the crimes are violent, extreme and graphically described. Neither of these are factors that would normally draw me to a book.

But sometimes it does you good to move outside your comfort zone. Not that comfortable is a word that could ever be applied here; the first twenty pages include drugs, prostitutes, gangsters, rape, a lot of vodka and even more blood, gore and vomit, and one of the most sadistic and horrific mutilations of a dead body that I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.

But I’m a sucker for good writing, and though I can’t call this debut novel entertaining, it’s certainly very well written, sometimes with an almost poetic quality. The richness of the prose  grabbed me and carried me along until eventually – and not very far in – I simply needed to finish it to find out what was going on.

And a lot was going on. That graphic murder in the opening chapters was only the start of a chain of events which plunged the protagonist into a trail of bodies and a complex web of intrigue. Briefly: Inspector Akyl Borubaev, ace detective of the Kyrgyzstan Murder Squad, still mourning his dead wife, sets out to find the killer of a top government minister’s daughter, and finds the path leads not only to the dark underworld but also deep into the tangle of loyalties and enmities that passes for a political system in that part of the world. Everyone has an agenda; no one can be trusted; danger lies round every corner.

Akyl is possibly the only character in the book who shows more than one side to his personality, though others, notably his uncle-in-law Kursan, a big noise in the rural underworld, and Saltanat, a beautiful security services officer, are vividly portrayed and high visual. Others, and there are many, step in and out of the shadows, and for the most part are bad guys of one kind or another.

But the book is not about character, it’s about  the darker side of a way of life, and on that score Tom Callaghan has clearly done his homework. His evocation of the bitter Kyrgyz winter made me shiver, and the descriptions of the bleak living conditions of the country’s less fortunate people turned my stomach when they weren’t bringing tears to my eyes. His accounts of labyrinthine eastern European politics did not offer clarity, but they did make it plain how best to deal with the situation: trust no one and keep your head down.

A Killing Winter is a highly accomplished debut – not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for loves of ‘cosy’ crime novels, but excellent of its kind nonetheless. Tom Callaghan is a name to watch.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Tom Callagham was born in the North of England and educated at the University of York and Vassar College, New York. After graduating, Tom joined Saatchi & Saatchi, working for several years in London, New York and Philadelphia as a Creative Group Head, before joining the newly-formed M&C Saatchi. After living in Singapore where he pursued interests outside advertising, he moved to Dubai, where he worked as Creative Director for one of the region’s leading boutique agencies.

An inveterate traveller, he divides his time between London, Prague, Dubai and Bishkek

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.


  1. After hearing Tom Callaghan speak at the 2015 Bristol Crimefest I decided,having been rather vague about where Kyrgyzstan was, that if I couldn't go there the next best thing would be reading about it. Which I did and I wholeheartedly agree with Lynne Patrick's enthusiastic review. I thought it was an excellent book. True, there is a great deal of violence, verbal and physical, and the depiction of Kyrgyz society is grim but the writing is so good and in places so beautiful that it held me the whole way through. Endearingly, the author in a postscript not only praises the kindness of the Kyrgyz people but recommends a hotel in Bishtek and an ecotours travel company! And according to The Guardian (December 2015) it is the latest hot destination for mountaineering holidays!

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