“Anatomy of a Scandal” Sarah Vaughan (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Anatomy of a ScandalThree stories are interwoven when a rape case lands in court. James, the defendant in a junior minister confident he’ll be found not guilty and will be able to return to government once the dust settles. An old Etonian who studied at Oxford alongside the Prime Minister, James’s life has been one of privilege and entitlement. He met his wife Sophie at Oxford. Her purpose there was to bag a husband to finance the comfortable lifestyle she aspired too. It was James’s idea she give up work after their second child was born, but she did so willingly. Now she has to face up to some uncomfortable truths about her marriage. It was easy for her to convince herself she had a special place in James’s heart as the mother of his children and turn a blind eye to his infidelities. But, in court, she has to endure hearing the evidence and understanding the truth she, until now, had never been ready to admit. Kate, the barrister for the prosecution, isn’t just prosecuting another rape case. There’s a personal angle to this one that points to secrets in her history.

The story is chiefly told through the viewpoints of Kate and Sophie, with occasional chapters in James’s viewpoint. His victim, as happens in rape cases, plays a secondary role as witness, someone who tells her story in front of the jury. She is humiliated and shamed by the defence who take every opportunity to remind her that she had willingly entered an affair with a married man and suggest she did consent on the occasion she now describes as rape. Kate knows her witness is telling the truth. Sophie watches her husband turn politician when it’s his turn to be witness. She learns that he sees the truth as interpretable and his belief that his version of the truth is more important that anyone else’s. The verdict comes around two-thirds of the way through the novel, with the final third focusing on repercussions and a life-defining event at Oxford twenty-three years before the trial. A secret that could end the careers of both James and his best friend the Prime Minister.

James’s saving grace is his relationship with his children. His lack of self-examination comes from a background where problems were brushed aside or someone was paid to make them go away. His powerful connections cause Sophie to feel trapped. She has no career and is dependent on James and can’t risk upsetting James’s plans to be back in government. She can’t just reveal the Oxford secret, not because of the impact on her security, but because James’s connections mean she can just be swept aside.

The case forces Kate to confront her demons too. She was a northern, working class girl who managed to get into Oxford but left after the first year, switching to Liverpool University where she focused on becoming a barrister. She nearly passed on this case. What stopped her was wanting to see justice done. The aftermath reaches out beyond Sophie and Kate. James’s mother questions the way she raised her son. Friendships forged at Oxford are put under the microscope and picked apart. Only those based on truth and respect can remain intact.

“Anatomy of a Scandal” is pacey but not so quick that readers don’t have time to absorb the drama or get to know the characters. Kate, Sophie and supporting characters are fully-rounded and credible. Readers want justice for Kate but also for Sophie not to be dragged down with her husband. There are moments where readers can empathise with James too. His privilege enables him but also gives him a blind spot, a weakness that leaves him vulnerable but gives him an ability to recognise his power and change. Sarah Vaughan asks questions, all too relevant in the #MeToo climate, but doesn’t preach. She shows awareness of capturing nuance, relating identifiable scenarios and lets characters speak for themselves as they demonstrate the effects of rape ripple out beyond the perpetrator and victim. “Anatomy of a Scandal” is a gripping court room drama with depth and a compulsion which makes the characters live on.

More details of “Anatomy of a Scandal” at Simon and Schuster’s website.

“Nothing Short of Dying” Erik Storey (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Nothing Short of DyingClyde Barr is an ex-Marine, sometime mercenary and former hunter/tracker in the African bush, camping in the Colorado wilderness after his ‘sensible’ sisters refused to meet him. He gets a phone call from his ‘wild’ sister, Jen, begging him to get her out. The call is ended by her captor before Barr can establish her location. The only glimmer of hope is that his sister is being used by her captor so Barr has a small window of chance to find her.

His first port of call is an old school friend, now married to Barr’s high school sweetheart, who reluctantly agrees to put him in touch with a local drug dealer who might shed light on Jen’s whereabouts. The local drug dealer points him in the direction of a bar nominally run by a small time dealer who likes to talk big but actually run by a barmaid, Allie, working what shifts she can to help with her mother’s medical bills. Allie’s seen Jen and offers to help Barr. The bar owner has a big brother, Alvis, who’s a bigger dealer with a slick drug operation based in the Colorado mountains. Jen had started working as a cleaner in a government owned building with a chemical store and it’s thought that’s what Alvis wants her to help gain him access to. Barr and Allie have to shake off a DEA team before they meet up with a former acquaintance of his to track down Alvis’s location.

In flashbacks, readers get Barr’s background: his alcoholic mother and succession of abusive boyfriends, one of whom helped himself to Jen. Barr and Jen relied on each other to survive the abuse, which is why he’s prepared to go to such life-threatening lengths to rescue her now. Barr’s escape was via the Marines. Jen drifted in to drugs and was trying to get clean, using her cleaning job to restart her life when her path crossed Alvis’s.

Initially he thinks Allie is just along for the ride. But learns that her life’s reached a dead end. Toughened by caring, bringing herself up and bar work, she proves a useful side-kick. Although neither of them realise that their initial rescue of a drugged Jen was perhaps a little too easy.

Betrayed by his old acquaintance, the two have to regroup, restrategise and figure out how to rescue Jen a second time. Alvis ups the ante by threatening Barr’s other sisters and families. It’s not an idle threat: Alvis has both means and motive to see it through. Can they commit and carry out a second rescue and protect Barr’s family? Barr’s prepared to put his life on the line, but will Allie see it through?

Barr’s credible: drawing on local and foreign experience, military-trained strength and it’s clear he understands the situation. His isolation makes him reluctant to ask assistance from anyone he doesn’t know. He trusts Allie when she shows she’s capable, tough and packed with resilience. His shoulders are broad enough to carry a series. Female characters aren’t sidelined or boxed into feisty/pretty roles. Allie is allowed a vulnerable side. Jen spends most of the novel out on drugs but, when she’s awake, she’s aware, lacks self-pity and doesn’t make additional demands on her brother.

Erik Storey is firmly in control of both plot and character. Background information is filtered through on a need-to-know basis and flashbacks temper the action, giving variations in pacing. Gripping fight scenes are counterpointed by some credible tenderness. Allie helps humanise Barr. He may be strong and fit but he also tires and makes mistakes. He shows he wants to be a big brother to Jen but isn’t a superhero.

“The Truth and Other Lies” Sascha Arango (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Truth and other Lies Sascha Arango book coverHarry Hayden is in a hell of a mess. His name adorns novels written by his wife, whom he’s accidently murdered by shunting his mistress’s car off a cliff without knowing his wife, rather than his mistress, was inside. His mistress is pregnant. He’s falling in love with the mayor’s daughter. A bitter, obsessive man, who had known Harry when they were both boys, could reveal Harry’s past and has taken a room in the seaside village where Harry lives. There’s a small matter of a marten which has made a home in Harry’s roof, creating scrabbling noises and bad smells.

Harry reports his wife as missing, presumably drowned and tells his publisher that the next novel is twenty pages away from completion. That’s true, but he omits to mention that the novel will probably never be completed because its author is dead. His mistress reports her car has been stolen. The police seem to accept that Harry’s wife is missing, presumed drowned. Currently, while there seems to be nothing to link him with his mistress, Betty, other than their natural working relationship (she is an editorial assistant at his publisher) and gossip which he can bat away, and no evidence to suggest his wife’s drowning is anything but a tragic accident, Harry knows he’s OK. But he also knows that if his wife’s body is washed ashore, if the police discover Betty’s car underwater, his situation will quickly unravel. He starts spinning half-truths and lies to keep the inevitable at bay. When Betty’s replacement car is discovered after an explosion but no corpse is found in the burnt-out wreak, Betty is assumed murdered. She had what’s thought to be the only copy of the manuscript of Harry’s unfinished novel with her. Harry has an alibi: he was due to meet her at a crowded restaurant where every patron and the staff can confirm his alibi. Harry, used to thinking on his feet, uses the fact that the truth of a situation depends on the perspective of the person viewing it, concocts a story that links his wife’s presumed drowning and Betty’s disappearance satisfactorily enough to provide the answers everyone seems to be seeking. But then, the publishers discover Betty made a copy of the novel and Harry’s wife had posted the final twenty pages before her presumed drowning. Can Harry keep up his pretence?

Initially Harry doesn’t seem to be particularly sympathetic. However, his wife, Martha, did not want to publish her work; she just wanted to be left alone to write it so was happy to publish under Harry’s name. Readers learn fairly quickly that Harry spent his childhood in a succession of grim care homes where an ability to lie and an instinct for survival was necessary. Martha knew about his affair with Betty but did nothing to stop it. She tells Betty that you have to love Harry without knowing him. It doesn’t occur to Harry that Martha might be using him. Readers only get to know Martha through Harry’s eyes which see the truth he wants to see. He doesn’t pry through her things so she remains something of an enigma. Martha’s absence doesn’t stop her influence on Harry’s life and she still remains a key character.

Betty too is a weaver of fiction. Ambitious for the publisher where she works, she sees herself as Harry’s gatekeeper, keeping media intrusion at bay and enjoying an affair with the publisher’s most successful author. She has no dreams of Harry leaving his wife until she falls pregnant. She fools herself into believing that Harry will leave Martha and he wants her to have his baby. Although Harry does nothing to shake her fantasy, Betty fails to realise that his childhood is a place of fear and fatherhood for him is unthinkable.

The situation is handled with a large shot of dark humour which keeps the reader’s empathy with the characters. “The Truth and Other Lies” has to be read as comedy: the deceased characters are treated as if they are merely waiting in the wings ready to re-emerge when the script demands. If you’re looking for an entertaining, pacey, tragicomic, rascal of a story-teller, Harry Hayden’s your man.

“The Fifth Gospel” Ian Caldwell (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Fifth Gospel Ian Caldwell book cover

Set in 2004 when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. An exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums but, before it is opened, the curator is discovered dead from a gunshot wound. The curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest, discovers a break-in at his home that appears to be linked to the curator’s death. To complicate matters, the obvious suspect is his brother, Father Simon Andreou, a Western Catholic priest.

Father Alex had been stuck in a kind of limbo, single-handedly raising his son after his wife Mona left. (Later readers discover that post-natal depression seems to have triggered her departure. This information should have been included sooner because it leaves Mona as a malign mystery hovering over the early chapters.) Father Alex doesn’t believe Father Simon killed the curator and when the gendarmes reach an impasse, Father Simon is put under house arrest at an unknown location and the decision is taken that he will be tried under Canonical Law rather than criminal law. This won’t be a ponderous, lengthy process as the trial has to be completed before the exhibit is due to open, giving the plot an urgency. Father Alex has to turn detective. He knows the curator was researching the four Gospels plus the little-known Diatessaron, also known as the fifth Gospel, to uncover what they revealed about the Turin Shroud so he tries to reconstruct the research in order to try and find out what the curator had discovered and the consequences of that discovery for the world’s two largest Christian churches. In his research, he discovers that Father Simon had been secretly travelling to Eastern European countries to invite Orthodox clergy to the exhibit. When crucial evidence that would exonerate Father Simon is left dumped in a secure car part and excluded from the court, Father Alex realises his brother is caught up in a conspiracy to prevent information from the Diatessaron from coming to light. It trying to clear his brother’s name, Father Alex doesn’t realise that the evidence is pointing towards him as the guilty party.

Despite their separation, can both brothers somehow protect each other and uncover the truth or will they find themselves scapegoated by internal political struggles left by bishops jockeying for position under an ailing Pope? Can they protect Pope John Paul II’s wish against those seeking to keep the schism?

Fathers Simon and Alex are sympathetically drawn: two priests on different paths seeking to enable the Pope’s dying wish. Simon is an active man who prefers to do rather than think but feels a fatherly responsibility towards his younger brother. Alex is a scholar and a teacher trying to do the best for his own son, Peter, and trying to protect him from the gossip that implies his favourite uncle is a murderer. However, in his attempts to protect Peter, Alex prevents him giving a key piece of evidence that Peter was eyewitness to. In a moment of frustration, Peter blurts it out and Alex realises his mistake.

It’s a scholarly thriller as well as a detective one in a world where hierarchy and appeasement matter. As readers follow Father Alex’s research, prior knowledge of the Bible or the texts Father Alex studies is not required. Father Alex is a teacher and in that role explained to the curator what their research was uncovering and put it in context of the teachings of the Church. The reader is given the same clues as Father Alex and the key to the mystery does not lie in some elaborate, obscure research but in a letter from the curator to Father Alex.

Life in the Vatican is a very regimented one where everyone is treated according to rank. It’s also a very male world, which is why the lack of information and explanation around Mona’s disappearance and separation from Father Alex is frustrating: as one of the very few women in the book her words and actions are amplified. Her sole purpose seems to have been to emphasise the isolation Father Alex feels as the hunt for truth is underway. Mona’s role as plot device is further underline by her relatively trouble-free reunite with Father Alex and her son. Meanwhile the court’s attempt to establish the truth is frustrated by witnesses, who have taken an oath to a high-ranking bishop, being unable to break that oath to give evidence. Eventually it takes the intervention of the Pope to uncover the truth and both Father Alex and Father Simon discover the crime at the heart of the matter is worse, in the Church’s eyes, than the murder it seemed to be.

“The Fifth Gospel” is an intelligent thriller that makes the best use of its setting and theme without excluding a general reader looking for a pacey murder mystery.

“The Widow’s Confession” Sophia Tobin (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book coverThe confession is split into sections and a chapter built around each section so readers can see the back story to the confession and draw their own conclusions to what happened as the story unfolds. It’s set in Broadstairs, Kent in 1850 and the writer of the confession is Delphine Beck (although readers later learn that’s not her real name). Delphine has come to Broadstairs to paint and escape attention after leaving New York, where she was born and grew up, in mysterious circumstances. She has travelled with her sister Julia. Locals are suspicious of the widow, thinking her unconventional ways – walking about the town without a companion and painting – will bring bad luck and some look at her suspiciously when the body of a girl washes up on the beach. Delphine and Julia are not the only strangers in town though. The vicar, Theo Hallam, has a guest, Edmund Steele who later meets his aunt at the local hotel. She befriends two ladies, an aunt and a niece and their circle is joined by Mr Benedict, another painter, who is in Broadstairs to indulgence his artistic temperament, temporarily away from his wife and children, as much as paint. The group come together for excursions, beach walks and picnics, visits to almshouses and other local attractions. Delphine watches Mr Benedict’s efforts to separate aunt and niece and assumes he has designs on the niece, whom she gently tries to warn. The niece reveals she is adopted and has to look to marriage to secure her future. She is worldly enough to know there’s no future in Mr Benedict’s efforts, which are not aimed at the extramarital affair that everyone assumes. Delphine also watches a gentle romance develop between Julia and Edmund Steele which she fears will result in her having to reveal her own secrets. She also puzzles over Theo Hallam’s reaction to her which seems to veer between hatred and tenderness with no apparent cause.

The local doctor and police are content to write the girl’s death off as accidental drowning. To other otherwise would mean spending scarce resources or funding an investigation from their own pockets. Even two further deaths fail to provoke a reaction: the bodies of a couple were found in a chalk pit and it’s assumed they fell in after drinking too much at a nearby tavern. Without the resources to investigate or families to demand action, it’s down to the group of visitors and vicar to try and uncover the truth, limited by the lack of forensic data available and the reluctance from townsfolk to talk about the deaths.

From Delphine’s confession, readers learn she’s been disowned by her family by an act of teenage rebellion which brought unintentional disgrace on her. This led her to travel to England with her sister – also disowned – to forge a new life and new identity. So far the pair have been careful not to forge friendships or set down roots in any of the places they’ve visited. When Mr Benedict discovers Delphine’s true name via an art dealer with a loose tongue, Delphine makes plans to move to London. A move that might be scuppered by Julia’s desires for Edmund Steele.

Mr Steele’s visit to Broadstairs isn’t entirely one of a tourist either. He and Theo Hallam have a mutual friend who is concerned about Theo’s wellbeing and had asked Edmund to spend time in Broadstairs to check on Theo. The vicar had previously been on a mission to Africa and is trying to conceal his guilt over a chain of events he set in motion before returning to England. Although not his fault, he carries the burden of a woman’s accidental death and has convinced himself that he is not worthy of another woman’s love. A problem that has parallels with Delphine’s secrets.

A third potential victim is rescued and the group’s attention turns back to the serial killer in their midst. The killer’s motives are very much in keeping with the social constraints and values of the period, making the historical setting justified. Similarly, Delphine’s and Theo’s secrets are very much of their time and their issues have echoes in the killer’s motives.

“The Widow’s Confession” is very much from Delphine’s viewpoint as she struggles to make sense of her situation and reflects on the situations of the group she finds herself in. She knows she cannot go back to her life with her family in New York but has to make sense of the past before she can live in her present. Fortunately she is an empathetic character, practical, down to earth and as observant as you would expect an artist to be. It is also easy to warm to Edmund Steele, the sensible friend, and Theo Hallam, a man struggling with his own past and desire to be helpful to his parishioners. Julia, the niece and her aunt seem to be hiding secrets under a veneer of manners and expected behaviour. The confession enhances the story behind the murders and the two are credibly woven together so both are integral to the story.

Overall “The Widow’s Confession” is engaging with both the historical and thriller elements carefully sown together.

Next week, there will be a guest post from author Sophia Tobin discussing why she set this novel in Broadstairs and the challenges involved in writing about a place that has a direct personal connection.

Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“Deadline” John Sandford (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Deadline by John Sandford book cover

Virgil Flowers, with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has a knack of making work for himself. In tracking down a dognapping gang, he uncovers a meth lab and then a possible connection to the murder of a journalist on a local paper, all in the backwoods of south east Minnesota, where he only agreed to help out with the dognapping case to stop the local rednecks turning into lynch mob. Readers, having been party to the school board meeting where a motion to kill local journalist Clancy Conley was passed, already know the who, why and how of the murder, which means John Sandford has set himself an uphill task of keeping readers hooked through the twists of investigations and getting them to care about the outcome.

Luckily there’s a lightly done thread of humour and well-drawn characters, who aren’t stereotypes or there to add local colour, to keep readers interested. It doesn’t take Virgil long to discover a flash drive that belonged to Clancy Conley with all his notes and evidence of the story he was working on that got him killed. Virgil’s clue is a song title. Readers have already figured out the hiring place due to the frequent references to it every time Virgil enters or leaves the journalist’s trailer. Conley had uncovered the school board’s scam: overcharging on essentials like fuel for the school buses and creaming the profit for themselves. Over the best part of a couple of decades, that amounts to sizeable profit. A profit the school board aren’t above protecting with murder. Their initial plan is to kill Conley to kill his story. Then, to throw Flowers off the scent, they agree to kill one of the town’s undesirables, who happens to be linked to the dognappers, and then throw in an arson attack on the offices the school board uses as good measure. Sandford keeps the pace fairly slow so readers get to know the individual school board members, their reasons for getting involved in the scam and, in a couple of cases, their getaway plans if they were caught. Although one of the board members does observe that Flowers is “sharper than he looks”. The incongruity of school board meeting to pass a unanimous motion to commit murder is played for humour.

Meanwhile Flowers has to keep the lynch mob, who know the dogs are on their way to be sold to bunchers who then sell the animals on to research laboratories, at bay so the DEA can take down the meth lab, as well as figure out the weakest link in the school board so they give each other up. No one pretends that’s not going to happen. Flowers is a laid-back fisherman with a love of vintage rock tee shirts, cowboy boots and his current girlfriend, Frankie. Frankie, a single mother of a brood of children, has survived two of the eight novels in the Virgil Flowers series so far so she looks like a keeper. Unlike most detectives’ love interests, Frankie copes with the danger inherent in Flowers’s job. Flowers doesn’t drink excessively, have anger issues or a dodgy family background so manages to escape the clichés and avoid looking too much like a Minnesota version of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux or Elmore Leonard’s Raylan. But John Sandford does share the same observant eye for the landscape and rural poverty and treats his subjects with compassion.

The one weakness was the touch of sentimentality that crept into the final scenes. After anti-vivisectionists gate-crash a dog fair, to prevent dogs being sold to research laboratories, and the ensuing chaos, one dog takes to following Virgil and Virgil winds up taking the dog home. I didn’t see Virgil actually doing this. From “Deadline”, Frankie seems far too practical to take on the challenge of another mouth to feed. The scene felt more like an opening into the next novel rather than integral to “Deadline”. I didn’t buy it.

“Deadline” is a smooth read, a thriller with more focus on humour than grit or motivation, written by an author who has justified confidence his characters will hold the readers’ focus. It’s a book to be read for the story rather than as a whodunit.


“Trust in Me” Sophie McKenzie (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Trust in Me

Livy, turning up for a pre-arranged lunch date, lets herself into her best friend Julia’s flat and discovers Julia’s body. Julia’s family are satisfied that Julia took her own life – there were no signs of a break-in or struggle and fatal levels of Nembutal in Julia’s system plus a note on her laptop, which had been left on. However, Livy suspects foul play. She is not in denial, but keenly aware that Julia’s strength of character and attitude towards life rules suicide out as an option. Julia’s mother arranges a lacklustre funeral designed to wrap up the tragedy. However, at the funeral, Livy meets Julia’s boyfriend who also doesn’t believe Julia would have taken her own life.

Livy lets herself into Julia’s apartment – they both have keys to each other’s homes in case of emergencies. The police have taken Julia’s laptop, but not her appointments diary. Livy can’t find any other clues. Julia had made an appointment to meet a Shannon in a local night club. Livy goes in Julia’s place, but Shannon makes a quick exit before Livy can find out what the meeting was about. Leaving the club, Livy bumps into Julia’s boyfriend Damian and they move on to a pub. During their conversation it quickly becomes apparent that they both agree Julia’s death wasn’t suicide and both want answers so agree to team up. Damian tells Livy that Julia had turned detective and was trying to solve Kara’s murder.

Kara was Livy’s younger sister who was raped and murdered while at university. Julia blamed herself because Kara went to a party that Julia was supposed to go to and Julia feels if she’d been there, Kara’s death wouldn’t have happened. Livy and her family never blamed Julia. The murder was never solved. Damian tells Livy that Julia had solved the case but wanted to talk to Livy before going to the police. Livy points out that there were no files in Julia’s apartment and the police have her laptop so they have no way of reviewing what Julia had discovered.

Between them, they work out Shannon worked for a honey-trap agency where clients engaged employees to make a date with husbands or boyfriends suspected of cheating. Livy has the perfect set up to get an appointment at the agency. Her husband, Will, had had an affair with a colleague. After much soul-searching, Livy had decided to forgive him, largely for the sake of their two pre-teenage children. So they concoct a story that Livy will say she thinks Will might be cheating again and Damian will barge in to create a scene hopefully giving Livy chance to find out who Julia had engaged to be a honey trap for. Their plan works and they learn two things. Shannon no longer works at the agency and Julia had hired her to trap Will.

On a visit to Julia’s mother, to hand over Julia’s keys and get her keys back, Livy learns that Julia’s mother has burnt Julia’s things including notebooks and her laptop which have been left in the bin bags just off the drive. Julia’s mother accuses Livy of stealing an emerald and diamond ring from Julia’s apartment. Livy denies stealing. After the exchange of keys, Livy leaves, shoving the bin bags in the boot of her car as she does so. Back home, she and Damian try to go through the bin bag contents to see what they can find. Damian thinks the laptop’s hard drive might be salvageable but the remaining embers don’t reveal much. Later, when Damian’s left, Livy sticks his name in a search engine but can’t find anything about him, the results only link to people with the same name.

Livy decides she has to ask Will about Julia’s honey trap. Will reacts angrily, accusing her of not trusting him and denying that Shannon had approached him. While he is at work, Livy gets a call from his manager’s wife who tells her that Will has reignited the affair he had previously. Livy has no reason not to trust what the manager’s wife tells her. Livy searches through Will’s things, trying to find any evident of this affair. Finding none, she puts a load of laundry in the washing machine and discovers she’s out of washing powder. Going to the garage to get more, she realises that the garage makes a perfect hiding place because she rarely goes there. She decides to search. Hidden in a tool box Livy finds Julia’s emerald and diamond ring.

Devastated by her discovers, Livy now has to decide who she can trust. Is Will lying when he denies his affair and how did he get Julia’s ring? Can Damian be trusted to help her prove Julia’s death wasn’t suicide? Can she find Shannon and, if so, can Shannon tell her why Julia hired her to trap Will? Can she trust her own instincts and uncover what Julia found out about Kara’s death?

Layered amongst Livy’s detective work are chapters from Kara’s murderer’s viewpoint, although he is not identified until Livy figures it out. Kara is not his first victim but the one he is most proud of. Like most serial killers, he has a box of mementoes taken from his victims. When he realises that Livy is close to finding out who Julia had identified as Kara’s killer, he decides to make plans for Livy’s death before she works out who he is.

Livy is entirely engaging and sympathetic as someone who’d overcome her sister’s murder, settled into the role of wife and stay at home mother to two children, Hannah just coming up to teenage and Zack is younger, deciding to stay with Will after his affair to give their marriage a second chance. The twists and turns of the plot keep readers guessing and drawn to make the same mistake as Julia. In “Trust in Me” Sophie McKenzie has written a pacey, page-turning thriller that explores a reader’s darkest fears that you may not be able to trust your closest friends and partners when the worst happens, the murder of someone close.


“Savage Magic” Lloyd Shepherd (Simon and Schuster ) – novel review

Savage Magic

The Indefatigable, a ship, docks in London in 1814. One of the passengers is Maggie Broad, moving back to England after managing a successful farm in New South Wales despite her husband being a known alcoholic. Her knowledge of plants earnt her a reputation as a witch. She’s come to seek revenge on behalf of her daughter, Maria.

Constable Charles Horton has been despatched by magistrate Aaron Graham to investigate strange occurrences at Thorpe Lee House, owned by Sir Henry Tempest. Graham knows about these disturbances because his estranged wife is living there as Tempest’s mistress. The house’s occupants are willing to write off the strange occurrences – including broken mirrors and the death of two dogs – as being the results of witchcraft.

Horton’s own wife, Abigail, has sought temporary respite in an asylum, Brooke House. After Horton’s last case where she ingested part of a hallucinogenic plant, she is still suffering strange visions. At Brooke House, she finds a far from therapeutic environment and ends up helping with the patient in the room next to her. Maria has been confined to a straightjacket, suffers terrible visions and is clearly extremely distressed.

Against this strange background, Graham discovers a series of locked-room murders of aristocrats who all belonged to a secret society dedicated to pleasure. At their most recent party, a trio of prostitutes were procured. One of them, for whom it became apparent that the party was her first night as a prostitute, is called Maria. Both procurer and one of the two remaining prostitutes are found dead, apparently by their own hands.

Graham and Horton discover that Tempest is also a member of this secret society/ Horton uncovers evidence that Tempest was at the party. He also discovers that the drinking water had been tampered with. Through a contact at Kew Gardens (used in his previous case), Horton learns the leaves found in the drinking water are from a plant that grows in New South Wales.

Can Horton and Graham uncover the link between this plant and the attendees at the party before any more deaths occur? Having befriended and tried to help Maria, has Abigail put herself in danger?

Lloyd Shepherd weaves history and the elements of a thriller together expertly and deftly. Despite the historical restrictions, the plot is pacey. The magic and witchcraft elements are handled credibly. The underlying logical explanation is not withheld and unwrapped as a final denouement, but revealed clue by clue as Horton investigates. The investigation is interwoven with notes from Dr Bryson, in charge at Brooke House, where Abigail and Maria find themselves. The notes offer insight into treatment methods for those consider to be insane at the time.

“Savage Magic” is a satisfying tale that will appeal to lovers of historical fiction, readers looking for a thriller that isn’t a police procedural or full of forensic jargon, and readers looking for a good story fluently told.


“An Evil Mind” Chris Carter (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

An Evil Mind Chris Carter book cover

A freak accident leads to the discovery of a serial killer. A couple of Wyoming police officers decide to breakfast at a diner off a freeway. Whilst they are placing their order, a car, clearly out of control, runs off the freeway and hits one of the diner’s outbuildings. No one in the diner is injured but the car driver is dead; later it’s discovered he had a heart attack and was probably dead before the crash. However, the out of control car hit a Ford Taurus left in the diner car park, popping open the trunk. The police officers discover two human heads, just about recognisable as female but carrying sufficient injuries to make facial recognition impossible. The Ford Taurus driver is arrested and the FBI called in. The driver, first identified as Liam Shaw and then as Lucien Folter when it’s discovered the first identity was fake, refuses to talk unless he can talk to Robert Hunter.

Robert Hunter is with the Violent Crimes Unit in LAPD and is a brilliant criminal psychologist; known to the FBI for the textbook they use. Actually about to go on a rare holiday, Hunter reluctantly agrees to be involved in the investigation. He recognises Lucien Folter. They used to be roommates at college but lost touch after graduation. Lucien mentions the twin theory: the exploration of why one twin is happy to theoretically explore criminal psychology and why another isn’t satisfied with theory but tips into exploring what it’s like to actually kill someone. It doesn’t take Hunter or the FBI Agent Courtney Taylor who’s been assigned to work with him, long to figure that Lucien is the worst type of psychopath: completely incapable of feeling anything for his victims. Initial evidence suggests his victims were mainly, but not exclusively women, of differing ages and body types so trawling through unsolved murders and/or missing persons for a certain type of victim isn’t an option.

They quickly work out there could have been around thirty-three victims. Their job now is to identify who they were and where their remains are so that their relatives at least have a chance of closure. In order to do that, they need Lucien to cooperate. But Lucien likes playing games and his background means he can tell when Taylor or Hunter are lying. Unable to inflict physical pain on Taylor and Hunter, Lucien goes for mental and emotional pain. The death of Hunter’s mother when he was only eight years old is a good starting point and Hunter knows he’s got to play along if they’re going to get answers. Can Hunter stomach Lucien’s terrorising games long enough to get him to reveal the names and locations of his victims?

For all that Lucien tries to persuade Hunter that their places could be swapped, Hunter doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Lucien can only see others as tools, a means to use as he sees fit. Lucien’s complete lack of compassion, combined with practiced mental discipline make him utterly dangerous. Lucien wants notoriety. He wants his journals to become criminal psychology text books: his immortality. Hunter knows the value of those journals, but needs to deny Lucien.

Just when the tension couldn’t be tighter, Lucien discloses that one victim is still alive: imprisoned and beginning to suffer dehydration but still alive. Lucien demands he accompany Hunter and Taylor to retrieve the victim. At the same time, Lucien pushes Hunter for details about his late fiancée, particularly how she died. Hunter knows Lucien is planning to use this retrieval to escape, but can Hunter thwart his escape and save the victim?

“An Evil Mind” is a taut as a tuned guitar string played by an accomplished guitarist, who doesn’t just play the tune but owns it. Chris Carter, a former criminal psychologist, doesn’t just dump his background knowledge on the page, but crafts an engaging story with compelling characters.


“You” Caroline Kepnes (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

You by Caroline Kepnes book cover

Joe works in a bookshop in New York and takes it as a sign when a young woman, his type, stands in the “F – K” section, clearly braless under her sweater and asks if a book by his favourite author is in stock. He notes her name on her credit card, Guinevere, although she prefers Beck, her surname. He stalks her, discovers she has a ground floor apartment where she never closes the curtains, is a student, writes short stories, has three best friends and is sort of dating Benji. After a girls’ night out with Joe stalking at a distance, Beck drunkenly tumbles onto subway tracks and Joe rescues her. They arrange a date, but, more importantly to him, Joe has her phone.

After guessing passwords, Joe now has access to Beck’s email and text messages. From this he learns her movements, what she thinks of fellow students from her classes and even topics she discusses with her therapist. Beck’s parents divorced and she’s told her friends that her father’s dead, but he’s remarried and she can’t stand her stepmother or her much younger half-siblings. Despite this, she leans on her father for money because it’s easier than taking a part-time job. Joe learns that all of her friends are trying to talk her into dumping Benji. Joe hatches a plan: get rid of Benji so Beck will date him instead. The removal of Benji from Beck’s social circle proves easy. The dating starts well: he holds back on sleeping with her, uses her emails, texts and social media updates to learn more about her likes and dislikes.

The only downside is Peach, a wealthy lesbian who also has designs on Beck. Peach is going to be trickier to remove. She tolerated Benji because she knew Beck wasn’t really serious about him, however, Beck has feelings for Joe. Peach claims to have a digestive problem and a stalker so calls on Beck when she’s feeling ill or when she claims her stalker’s broken into her house, playing the scared victim so Beck will stay. Joe pretends to tolerate this. When he looks up Peach’s digestive problem on the internet, he discovers she has the right symptoms but seems to have no problems eating foods that should cause a problem. Peach manages to interrupt several dates and pull Beck away from Joe, persuading her to take a break from him. This break involves a weekend away at Peach’s family’s holiday home. Joe pretends he’s OK with Beck going, but drives out and holes up in a neighbour’s boathouse so he can spy on them.

So far, Joe is a confused mix of hopeless romantic and creepy stalker. He wants to make Beck happy and be her perfect boyfriend, not coerce her into being with him. He casts himself into a guardian angel role, looking out for and over her. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Joe is a compelling character and carries the novel.

However, when he sees the unsent letters she writes following an exercise her therapist has given her, the power balance changes and readers start to wonder who is playing whom. Beck had confessed to Joe about telling her friends her father is dead when he’s actually still alive. She confesses to exhibitionism – leaving her curtains open when boyfriends stay over, that she had Joe make out in a changing room and the bookstore Joe works in while the shop is still open – and talks about having “daddy issues” and struggles with intimacy. Joe discovers she’s acquired a new computer so he’s not seeing her emails anymore and has bought some curtains for her apartment so watching her is harder. Joe decides to create an excuse to see her therapist to try and find out if Beck’s current behaviour can be explained there. What Joe discovers forces him to re-assess his relationship with Beck. Will Joe’s romantic side win over his creepy stalker side?

Beck too has two sides: the ditsy student who doesn’t do housekeeping or cooking, and the self-centred manipulator who gets daddy to fund her lifestyle and tries to wreak a marriage. She’s not a straightforward victim of Joe’s stalking. She encourages him but pushes him away when it’s more advantageous to her to spend time with Peaches. Her vacillations justify Joe’s behaviour: he doesn’t know where he stands so it’s OK for him to use her phone to find out. Up to the point of the final showdown, they seem to deserve each other.
“You” is the story of an obsession. Through Joe, Caroline Kepnes explores the logic behind stalking and, by making Joe’s target the manipulative Beck, she can present issues without reducing it to a simple equation of stalker = bad, victim = good.