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Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee @radiomukhers @VintageBooks #DeathintheEast

Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Harvill Secker  
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-1787300576

Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, are back for another rip-roaring adventure set in 1920s India.

1905, London. As a young constable, Sam Wyndham is on his usual East London beat when he comes across an old flame, Bessie Drummond, attacked in the streets. The next day, when Bessie is found brutally beaten in her own room, locked from the inside, Wyndham promises to get to the bottom of her murder. But the case will cost the young constable more than he ever imagined.

1922, India. Leaving Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham heads for the hills of Assam, to the ashram of a sainted monk where he hopes to conquer his opium addiction. But when he arrives, he sees a ghost from his life in London – a man thought to be long dead, a man Wyndham hoped he would never see again.

Wyndham knows he must call his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee for help. He is certain this figure from his past isn’t here by coincidence. He is here for revenge . . .

Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham/ Surendranath Banerjee series is one of the best crime series around and I am delighted to report that Death in the East is another sure fire hit.

Mukherjee’s writing has grown throughout this series and here he shows confidence in his characters by giving Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee lead status in the locked room mystery that poses a real conundrum for our two investigators.

The case this time has its origins in Sam Wyndham’s past. As a young Police Constable, Wyndham came up against a rich and vicious thug whom he suspects of being behind the death of Bessie Drummond, a young woman whom Sam had once had feelings for. The narrative switches between the young P.C. in 1905 where he is stationed in the heart of London’s deeply impoverished East End and 1922, where a seriously opium addicted Wyndham is determined once and for all to throw off his addiction. He travels to Assam for treatment from a Hindu holy man who treats addictions through a strict regime which brooks no recidivism.

Wyndham is travelling when he sees someone that he thought long gone; a foe he will never forget.   That sighting brings alive all his memories of Bessie Drummond and her murder in a locked room that Sam knows was wrongly attributed to someone else. So when that man whom Sam knows to be the murderer is found dead, also in a locked room, it is clear that Sam cannot be an impartial investigator. Fortunately, he has already called on Sergeant Banerjee for assistance.

Mukherjee draws attention to the decades of prejudice and ill treatment meted out to those who arrive in Britain as immigrants; poor and in need of refuge. In 1905 it is the Jews who are the brunt of prejudice and racism; in later decades it will be the Bengalis and then the Serbs and Romanians. Britain’s history is one of deeply ingrained prejudice against those who seek asylum and to make their living in our country and Mukherjee shows us how deeply ingrained it is in out psyche when he portrays the relationship between Sam and Surendranath. Because Sam is not a bad man, but he is simply unable to get over his own sense of cultural superiority and ingrained racism to Surendranath, a man whose name he has never bothered to learn to pronounce, despite calling him a friend.

But this book is set predominantly in 1922 and in India things are changing and changing rapidly. The move towards self-rule is gaining pace thanks to the adoption of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s policy of non-violence and civil disobedience, and the days of the Raj, while by no means over are beginning to look at least numbered.

This is reflected in the way that Surendranath and Sam interact in this book. Sam, because of his previous experience with the dead man, is deemed inappropriate to lead on the case, and so Surendranath finds himself in the position of being the lead police investigator in the death of a rich Englishman, working from a member’s club in Jatinga which would never allow any Indian to be a member.

It was terrific to see Surendranath taking more of a centre stage, albeit towards the end of the book. His relationship with Sam is changing, just as India’s relationship with the British is changing. The British see no irony at all in being incomers to India and yet asserting their (self-perceived) authority, while simultaneously doing all they can to suppress immigrants to Britain’s shores.

Mukherjee is beginning to assert Sergeant Banerjee’s character more now and as the Sergeant gains confidence so we should see the relationship between Sam and Surendranath shift to one which is more based on equals than the previous ‘enlightened colonialism’.

Oh, and the locked room mystery is a good one, which is solved neatly and with style. But this book is about so much more and Mukherjee’s characters grow in depth and complexity with every book. I think this is the best one yet and can’t wait for more.

Verdict: An elegant double locked room mystery layered with complex characterisation, atmospheric descriptions and conveying messages which resonate from 1905 through to the present day. This is top class storytelling of importance in a series not to be missed.

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Abir Mukherjee grew up in the west of Scotland. At the age of fifteen, his best friend made him read Gorky Park and he’s been a fan of crime fiction ever since. The child of immigrants from India, A Rising Man, his debut novel, was inspired by a desire to learn more about a crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. A Rising Man won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition and became the first in a series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It went on to win the CWA Historical Dagger and was shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. Abir lives in Surrey with his wife and two sons.

On the Up by Alice O’Keeffe @AliceOKeeffe @CoronetBooks @JennyPlatt90 #OnTheUp

Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Coronet
PP: 336
ISBN-13: 978-1529303353

By reading Style magazine, I was training myself not to want things. It was going quite well. I had already found that I did not want a pair of Yves Saint Laurent mules, a chandelier made from plastic antlers, or a diamond-encrusted necklace in the shape of a pineapple. I was still working on not wanting a fitted farmhouse kitchen in warm wood.

Sylvia lives in a flat on a council estate with her not-quite-husband Obe and their two young children. She dreams of buying a house on a leafy street like the one she grew up in. If she closes her eyes, she can see it all so clearly: the stripped floorboards, the wisteria growing around the door…

It’s not ideal that she’s about to be made redundant, or that Obe, a playworker, is never going to earn more than the minimum wage. As sleep deprivation sets in, and the RnB downstairs gets ever louder, Sylvia’s life starts to unravel.

But when the estate is earmarked for redevelopment, the threat to her community gives Sylvia a renewed sense of purpose. With a bit of help from her activist sister, and her film-maker friend Frankie, she’s ready to take a stand for what she believes in.

Warm, witty and brilliantly observed, On the Up is about relationships and community, finding a way through the tough times, and figuring out what’s really worth fighting for.

Sylvia is tired. Oh, so very tired. Her neighbour is the cause of permanent, late night noise, her two children are taking up all her energy, her partner Obe lacks drive and responsibility, preferring to muse on the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Yeats in times of stress.

Sylvia and Obe are poor. Not so poor that they can’t eat, but poor enough to be locked into their anti-social neighbour, Dawn; into Priory Court, their run down council block and to be unable to see any way out. For Sylvia that is an added cause of stress. Obe meanwhile, just coasts through enjoying his minimum wage role as playworker, which gives him the joy he needs in his life.

And therein lies the rub. Sylvia feels she should be moving upwards and onwards to something better but Obe is just too laid back and only wants space to dream. His existentialism is infuriating. He refers to the reservoir outside their block as the Hackney Riviera, and when Sylvia, explaining why their neighbour is causing her massive stress and not understanding why Obe can let it go, he says to her “Other things bother me. Like why we are here on this planet and whether there is a universal consciousness that unites us all and whether we can access that through artistic endeavour.”

It is to Sylvia’s eternal credit that she did not there and then beat him up, screaming loudly as she did so.

Their children are at that difficult age. Larkin (guess who chose that name) is a massive bundle of exhausting energy and the baby, Elliot is all grizzle, teething and screams.  Sylvia feels alone, resentful of her mother’s leafy Islington three bed villa which she lives in alone and pissed off at her sister who lives a hippy lifestyle in a squat.

Her one confidant, is Bill, the Council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Officer for whom she is keeping a daily journal – which resembles a stream of consciousness diary of her daily existence. It is Bill that she reaches out to when she wants to share a worry, test a theory or just vent. He may not be able to do anything about her anti-social neighbour, but he is there for her on the other end of the phone.

Sylvia is barely hanging on; her dreams of a better life are what keep her going, but all around her life is conspiring to make those dreams crumble.

Then it transpires that the Council are planning to knock down her nasty council block in favour of a regeneration scheme managed by developers. Suddenly the residents of Priory Court are up in arms and Sylvia finds herself leading the charge.

Alice O’Keeffe has created a believable and warm character in Sylvia and her situation is instantly recognisable to any parent. Struggling to get by in an age of unemployment and the gig economy, in a city where only the most affluent can afford to buy their own homes.

In the midst of all this, Sylvia is able to find a renewed sense of optimism and a community spirit that casts a different light on her situation and shows both her and Obe what really matters in life.

Verdict: On The Up, is a warm and witty observation on the nature of what is important. It is tender, acutely well observed and above all it offers hope to those who feel they are struggling under impossible domestic circumstances.

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Alice O’Keeffe is a freelance writer and journalist. She was deputy editor of the Guardian’s Saturday Review section, and writes book reviews, interviews and features for the Guardian, Observer and New Statesman. She has been a speechwriter at the Department for Education and literary programmer at the Brighton Festival. Alice lives in Brighton with her husband and two children.

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Violet by S.J.I.Holliday @SJIHolliday @orendabooks @annecater #Violet #Blogtour #Trainnoir

Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Orenda Books
PP: 276
ISBN-13: 978-1912374854

Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone.

Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is also desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available.

When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be…

Take not one, but two unreliable narrators. Place these two young women together on the Trans-Siberian Express with stopping places full of eastern promise and excitement and wait for the chemistry to impact and the sparks to fly.

Susi Holliday’s psychological thriller is an event laden thrill ride with dark and menacing undertones which lurk like basking sharks just beneath the surface.  

Violet is feeling bruised. Alone in Beijing she is missing her boyfriend with whom she fell out somewhere in Thailand and she is determined to carry on her backpacking journey alone. She tries to get a ticket for Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow but when she approaches the desk it appears that all tickets are sold out. Carrie is travelling solo, too. Her best pal, Louise, broke her leg just before they were due to go away and Carrie is e-mailing Louise regularly to let her know what she is missing. Violet bumps into Carrie at the ticket desk and the pair head off together to the bar for several drinks; leading Carrie to offer Violet her spare ticket for the sleeping compartment on the train. Their exotic and adventure filled journey is to take them from Beijing through Mongolia to Russia.

This is a story told from Violet’s perspective. Everything we know comes from her, save for the e-mails which Carrie writes to Louise. But those too have something to tell us if we look carefully.

It’s clear pretty much from the outset that Violet is not offering full disclosure and though both girls are happy to party, Carrie is the more outgoing one, ready to chat to anyone.  Violet is ready to take advantage of Carrie’s generosity though she wants to keep Carrie close.

Soon what looked early on like a great friendship is undermined by the actions of one or other of the women and we find it difficult to come to grips with either of them because their facades belie their true natures.  Amid the partying, drink and drugs something tawdrier is simmering.

I love Susi Holliday’s writing in this book. She presents her young women as happy backpackers, young and carefree, ready to live life to the max. They are like happy, smiling, alabaster dolls and then as we watch, their faces start to display the crackle of a damaged veneer and soon bits of plaster are falling off and what lies underneath is damaged and ugly. As I read, I couldn’t help visualising Violet as a bird hybrid. Part magpie, attracted by new shiny things that she just has to collect and part cuckoo, sizing up Carrie’s nest and worming her way in before taking up residence in a way that leaves no room for Carrie.

Violet is a fast paced and action packed psychological thriller, but it is also beautifully layered and the slow unpeeling of these layers is what makes Violet really special. While the action and interaction are in themselves engrossing, it is the simmering tension and heightened apprehension that is bubbling beneath the surface that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. I can see why the comparison has been made with Patricia Highsmith.

Verdict: Violet is a compelling cocktail of a toxic friendship riddled with obsession and laced with venom and it is chilling, dark, pernicious and completely immersive. I loved it.

Hive Books         Orenda Bookstore                        Waterstones                    Amazon             

S.J.I. (Susi) Holliday is a scientist, writing coach and the bestselling author of five crime novels, including the Banktoun Trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly), the festive chiller The Deaths of December and her creepy Gothic psychological thriller The Lingering. Her short story ‘Home From Home’ was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Prize. Encapsulating her love of travel and claustrophobic settings, her latest novel, Violet, explores toxic friendships and the perils of talking to strangers, as well as drawing on her own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express over 10 years ago. All of her novels have been UK ebook number-one bestsellers. Susi was born and raised in Scotland and now divides her time between Edinburgh, London and as many other exciting places that she can fit in.

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Highest Lives by Gordon Brown @GoJaBrown @StridentPublish @AnneCater #HighestLives

Source: Review copy
Publication: 8 October 2019 from Strident Publishing
PP: 272
ISBN-13: 978-1910829387

In cities across North America people are dying in seemingly impossible ways. Is history s most outrageous serial killer on the loose? When LAPD Detective Sarah Tracy is secretly instructed to recruit Craig McIntyre to help her investigate the deaths, she is unaware that his mere presence can transform people s darkest thoughts into action. As Sarah and Craig hunt the murky underbelly of LA for the malevolent figure responsible for the bizarre deaths, they stumble upon the most expensive narcotic ever to hit the streets – a substance that promises something so unbelievable that users are willing to risk death to experience it. With government black ops agency head Senator Tampoline always lurking in the shadows, Craig is used to being hunted. Now he is the hunter. And thousands could die if he fails to track down the killer.

I am delighted to welcome Gordon Brown to my blog today and excited to share with you an exclusive extract from his new thriller, Highest Lives.


(One year earlier)

The Man With Dead Eyes moves the gun in his hand from

vertical to horizontal.

Across the street, a young woman, pushing a crying baby

buried in a Silver Cross stroller, is trying to answer her cell

phone and steer at the same time. A young male, sitting on a

park bench, is munching on a sandwich from Subway, his last

meal – ever.

Three men, each manacled to the God of fashion, are ranged

across the sidewalk fifty yards behind the young woman with

the Silver Cross stroller. One is dressed in a white vest hiding

beneath a cream boating jacket underscored with lime pants.

His shoes are loafers from twenty years ago. Next to him, the

man with the longest hair is dressed as sharply as a bur from a

metal rod. His suit cost more than he can afford. His shirt cost

more than the suit and the tie cost more than both put together.

The third in the trio of fashionistas is sporting deceptive casual,

driven by dollar signs. His jeans, sweater, sneakers and leather

belt all display high-end designer labels. The three are on the

way to meet their partners. Had they a future, the resultant party

of four men and two women would boost the profit of a new

Nigerian fusion restaurant.

A police officer is located behind and to the left of The Man

With Dead Eyes. Had he stopped to pick up his usual morning

coffee from Zeta’s Café, he would be behind and to the right.

He would see the gun in the hand of The Man With Dead Eyes

and could take him down. But the police officer declined to visit

Zeta’s. A raging ulcer he refuses to deal with is a small volcano

in his gut this morning and drinking coffee is like pouring salt on

a severed leg joint. His fifteen-year service party, to be held this

Friday in Mulligan’s, will be flipped to a wake.


Now does that not sound compelling? My thanks to Gordon Brown for the use of this extract.

Gordon has been writing since his teens and has six crime thrillers published – his latest, Deepest Wounds, being the third in the Craig McIntyre series, is out now.
Gordon helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival and lives in Scotland. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange.

He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final.

Want to know more – go to
Follow him on Twitter @GoJaBrown

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The Crown Agent by Stephen O’Rourke @sorourke_ @SandstonePress @CerisAnne #TheCrownAgent

Source: Review copy
Publication: 7th November 2019 from Sandstone Press
PP: 228
ISBN-13: 978-1912240760

In 1829, disillusioned young doctor, Mungo Lyon, is recruited by the Crown to investigate a mysterious murder and shipwreck off the coast of Scotland. His adventures lead him on a pursuit across the Scottish countryside, to kidnap and treason, an unwanted trip to the West Indies, an insurrection and love.

A large part of the enjoyment of historical fiction for me is the ability of the writer to conjure in my mind the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Stephen O’Rourke has done that well in The Crown Agent and I loved his descriptions of maritime sailing, of a barge journey through the Forth and Clyde canal and of the hustle and bustle of Glasgow’s Broomielaw as it teemed with different nationalities seeking their new ports of call.

The Crown Agent is a fast paced adventure story, telling the exploits of Dr Mungo Lyon, a surgeon whose work has been discredited following the exposure and trial of Burke and Hare for murder and body snatching.

Called upon to act as an undercover agent for the government, his life is in danger from the very start of his adventures. Lyon stumbles upon a secret society whose tentacles spread throughout polite society and he has no idea who he can trust. 

Travelling from Edinburgh through to Greenock, he is challenged and hunted at every turn and must use his wits to get himself out of the hands of the evil criminals who are doing their masters’ bidding in hunting him down.

One man is there beside him, aiding his survival, but even he has a past that makes Mungo think twice about accepting his help. As our brave young doctor takes on a huge challenge, we see him take enormous risks to get to the truth and find those who are behind this devilish secret society, seeking to expose their plans for domination before it is too late.

Every chapter is action packed with impromptu surgeries, violent attacks and villains who are relentless in their desire to bring Mungo down. O’Rourke has a splendid descriptive style that allows the reader to visualise the countryside in all its glory as we follow Mungo’s tense and suspenseful adventures which take him from Campbeltown to Jamaica.

O’Rourke’s writing is vivid and authentic and his dialogue is well suited to this 19th century adventure story in the tradition of Stephenson.

Verdict: An exciting historical adventure story with plenty of action and suspense. I do love a good conspiracy thriller and Stephen O’Rourke has given me one I can really get my teeth into. Recommended.

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Stephen O’Rourke is an advocate and a Member of the Institute of Chartered Arbitrators. He formerly wrote a regular column for The Scotsman and has written for The Guardian, Caledonian Mercury and Think Scotland websites. In 2012 he won a short story competition run by The Daily Telegraph, which proved to be the basis for The Crown Agent.

A Minute to Midnight by David Baldacci (Atlee Pine #2) @davidbaldacci @panmacmillan @laurasherlock21

Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Pan MacMillan
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-1509874453

‘My sister was abducted from here nearly thirty years ago. The person who took her was never found. And neither was she. Her abductor nearly killed me. So I’m back here now trying to find the truth.’

Atlee Pine has spent most of her life trying to find out what happened that fateful night in Andersonville, Georgia. Her six-year-old twin sister, Mercy, was taken and Atlee was left for dead while their parents were apparently partying downstairs. One person who continues to haunt her is notorious serial killer Daniel James Tor, locked away in a Colorado maximum security prison. Does he really know what happened to Mercy?

The family moved away. The parents divorced. And Atlee chose a career with the FBI dedicating her life to catching those who hurt others. When she oversteps the mark on the arrest of a dangerous criminal, she’s given a leave of absence offering the perfect opportunity to return to where it all began, and find some answers. But the trip to Andersonville turns into a roller-coaster ride of murder, long-buried secrets and lies.

And a revelation so personal that everything she once believed is fast turning to dust.

I am really enjoying my exploration of David Baldacci’s characters. After his brilliant One Good Deed with Aloysius Archer, I have turned to Atlee Pine and the second book in his series about this tenacious and prickly FBI agent.

Atlee Pine is a 35 year old FBI agent, stationed in Shattered Rock, Arizona, where she is the sole FBI agent patrolling the rural and remoter areas of south west America. Atlee is haunted by the abduction of her twin sister, Mercy when she was only six years old. After that, the family fell apart. Atlee’s parents divorced and her father killed himself on Atlee and Mercy’s birthday. Then Atlee’s mother left and Atlee has no idea where her mother is now.

Atlee is a tenacious agent. Physically very fit, she is an expert in MMA and kickboxing and an Olympic standard weightlifter. She is an experienced profiler, but eschewed a place in the Bureau’s Behaviour Analysis Unit because she doesn’t want to profile – she would far rather be in the field catching the monsters.

In A Minute to Midnight, Atlee is in seriously would up mode. She has been visiting notorious psychopathic serial killer Daniel Tor in prison. Tor was in the Andersonville area when Mercy was taken and Atlee was injured and left for dead. She wants to know if he was responsible, but Tor is content to simply wind her up and disclose nothing.

Then, hunting down the perpetrator in another case, Atlee takes out all her frustrations on a child abductor and beats him hard. After that incident her boss gives her a leave of absence, suggesting that she gets her head straight by investigating what happened to her in Andersonville 30 years ago so that she can finally lay her ghosts to rest.

Of course, nothing is ever quite as simple as that. Taking her assistant, the redoubtable mother of six, Ms Carol Blum with her to Georgia, Atlee quickly becomes embroiled in another murder. This time the first victim is a woman dressed in a wedding veil and left posed and placed in the small town of Andersonville.

Atlee can tell from looking that this is the work of someone who is just beginning, and that proves to be the case. The question in her mind, however, is whether these killings are related to her coming home to Andersonville, or whether this is simply coincidence and the work of an unrelated serial killer.

FBI Agent Eddie Laredo known to Atlee from her time at the BAU, is brought in to assist and he and Atlee, though they are not exactly bosom buddies, work together to identify this serial killer.

As Atlee works the case in parallel with conducting her own investigation into her sister’s disappearance, she meets a cast of characters who have all played an important part in her early years, though she remembers none of them clearly.

What she does discover though is a series of revelations – some deduced, others coming more from left field – which leave her reeling.

David Baldacci has created a really memorable and likeable character in Atlee Pine, though one who is never going to be at peace until she finds the truth. His storytelling is nuanced, layered and immensely compelling.  Baldacci has that ability to create characters that you can visualise in your mind’s eye, make you like them and then place them in life threatening situations so that your heart pounds when danger approaches.

Verdict: Atlee Pine is a brilliant new contemporary character. David Baldacci’s storytelling is layered, complex and full of characters that you want to know better. His pacing is that of a super sleek racing car and his plotting full of twists, turns and surprising diversions that have the reader double de-clutching to work out what’s going on.  Baldacci knows how to ramp up the tension and his mixture of thrills, suspense and family secrets is completely gripping.

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David Baldacci is one of the world’s bestselling and favourite thriller writers. With over 130 million copies in print, his books are published in over eighty territories and forty-five languages, and have been adapted for both feature-film and television. David is also the co-founder, along with his wife, of the Wish You Well Foundation®, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting literacy efforts across the US.

Dark Nights, Dark Deeds in Grantown at The Wee Crime Festival @BookmarkMarjory @MichaelJMalone #WeeCrimeFestival

There is nothing quite as awe inspiring as an autumn drive up the A9. The variety of trees and colours is simply spectacular and though the day was a little dreich it was still a pleasant journey.

Grantown on Spey is a splendid little Highland town in the centre of the Scottish Highland on the northern edge of the Cairngorms National Park. The town’s Square and High Street are lined with unique, independent and interesting shops and businesses selling everything from children’s clothes to whisky, fishing line to pottery.

Most importantly, the town has a terrific bookshop owned and run by an amazing woman called Marjory Marshall. She has owned The Bookmark since 2007 and personally selects every title and the astonishing range of stock squeezed into limited shelf space is testimony to her own eclectic and very varied reading.

It felt a bit strange this year, travelling up to the 7th Grantown on Spey Wee Crime festival, knowing that neither of my fellow ‘fairies’ Sharon Bairden or Louise Fairbairn were (for different reasons) able to be present. Still, I knew there would be other friendly faces, so despite the horrid mist and rain, I girded my loins and got underway.

Roadworks on the A9 slowed me down a tad, but I was still able to make it to my, by now, regular first stop for lunch at Muckrack House Hotel. Sadly, their head chef has moved on so there is no longer a pie of the day, but I’m delighted to report that the new chef produced a splendid lunch and Muckrack will remain in my excellent places to lunch repertoire.

Then, nicely fuelled, it was off to Grantown and to check in to my hotel ready for the evening’s entertainment. Arriving, I bumped into Marjory Marshall, the Festival Supemo, who was ensuring that Fiona and Denzil Meyrick were settling in well. Denzil was scheduled to appear in several guises over the weekend – as interviewee, interviewer and in that evening’s entertainment.

The Pagoda

There was, of course, a packed house in the Pagoda for the latest Skelton extravaganza. Sadly Caro Ramsay was unavailable, so there was no Carry on Sleuthing, but Douglas had put together a varied selection of entertainment, nay, a cabaret even, for our delectation.

The identical TimTom twins made an inevitable appearance, there was an excellent Sherlock sketch, Lesley Kelly, with her stand-up comedy experience,  entertained us royally on the subject of Amazon reviews and Denzil Meyrick brought just the right amount of dry, comedic disdain (as befits an author who has sold 2 million books) to the proceedings.

Highlight of the evening though has to go to Douglas Skelton for his rendition of the ageing hippy singing the Crime Writer Blues. Reader, we were in tears. (and that was just the singing).

Then it was back to the hotel for a wee nightcap before bed.

Remains of the Day
Was the first session of the morning with Margaret Kirk and Hania Allen being interviewed by Lesley Kelly. The authors read from their work and then discussed the evolution of their characters. Margaret’s Detective, Lukas Mahler, sprang pretty much fully formed into a short story she was writing and she then used him as the central character in her police procedural series.

Hania Allen, Margaret Kirk and Lesley Kelly

Hania Allen’s lead character is Sergeant Dania Gorska, a Polish Detective living in Dundee where her brother is an investigative journalist. Like Lukas Mahler, Dania has left the Met to come to Scotland and both detectives have interesting back stories that are revealed as their series develop.

Hania talked about how the spectre of Brexit has been hanging over all her novels and that she has addressed that as she has been writing over the last few years, but the difficulty of predicting what might happen when books are published around 2 years after they are first submitted is a real headache. Crime writers, these authors suggested, are the real victims of Brexit!

Lesley Kelly wanted to know how the writers managed to keep their books so dark, and Margaret thought that being Scots really made that not difficult at all. Though of course there is light and shade in all of her books, – in Margaret’s case it is Fergie’s ridiculously smelly car which she describes as a mobile dustbin.

Hania’s Dania plays classical piano, mainly Chopin and loves her vodka, while Lukas Mahler is more of a Runrig and Julie Fowlis fan and as a non-drinker, coffee is his stimulant of choice.

Margaret started her crime fiction writing after attending a course at Moniack Mhor , which, she says, injected her with so much confidence that she felt able to carry on writing and eventually submit the beginning of her book to the Good Housekeeping competition, which she then won – and that gave her an agent and a publishing contract.

Hania, who holds a physics doctorate, wanted to be the first British female astronaut, but was pipped at the post by Helen Sharman. Her inspiration came from two sources; the first was a visit to an Ice Hotel in Lapland and the second was attending an Arvon Foundation writing course with Alan Guthrie and Louise Welsh.

Hania draws on her parents Polish heritage for her novels as well as their experience of the war and the warmth that the Scots showed towards Polish soldiers, especially, she says, at Hogmanay. She talked movingly of finding, amongst her parents photographs of their travels, a whole host of silver tokens (from Christmas pudding) that they had collected from their time in Scotland.

All at Sea

Then it was time for coffee before we moved on to a session Douglas Skelton chatting to Denzil Meyrick in a session titled All at Sea.

Now, as Douglas was quick to point out, Denzil has sold over two million copies of his D(C)I Daley books, of which Whisky from Small Glasses was the first. Denzil credits the title with being something that helped the book stand out and the humour and the warmth of Campbeltown, where the series is set, are reflected in his books. Denzil is a great supporter of Campbeltown charities and was incensed when he heard that jobs could be lost at a local wind turbine factory there – up to three quarters of the workforce, more than 70 people, could lose their jobs. That would, he said, be a huge blow to Campbeltown especially following on from the failure of the Campbeltown Creamery despite the best efforts of a crowd funding campaign. Campbeltown is an area he feels has been neglected by the Scottish Government.

It’s clear when you listen to him talking that he has a huge passion for both the area and the people, though he says not all his characters are based on real people, even if the residents think otherwise!

The series rings the changes as some are more horror based and one or two are more historically centred, keeping the series fresh for both the author and his readers.

Douglas asked Denzil about the importance of accuracy in police procedurals, especially given that Denzil used to be a copper, but Denzil’s view is that there can be too much emphasis on that as people want to read books to enjoy them, not to pore over the detail of forensic analysis.

What does he read? He enjoys Zola, Patrick O’Brien, historical writing and he says, Scandi noir, because the scandi writers are ‘as dark as I am.’ Does he enjoy writing, Douglas asked? ‘It’s great when you’re doing it, he responds, but thinking about doing it is just terrible.’

A Netflix series of the Daley and Scott books is under discussion and Meyrick has his sights set on Rory McCann for Jim Daley and Brian McCardie for Brian Scott. That’s a casting that garnered huge approval from the Grantown audience and I’d very much hope it comes to fruition.

Meyrick isn’t resting on his laurels though. He has a new series in the pipeline focusing on Paisley, which he describes as a gangster series and he is writing a black satire set on a private housing estate.

Meanwhile the next book (he’s not saying if it will be the last) in the Daley and Scott series, Jeremiah’s Bell, will be out next May.

After lunch we convened for a session called Corruption and Lies, with Theresa Talbot and Gillian Galbraith, chaired by Michael J Malone.

Gillian Galbraith, Theresa Talbot and Michael J Maolone

Gillian, who I had not seen before has had an excellent career trajectory. She started in DC Thomson’s, doing the stars column where, she told me later, Capricorns always got the best predictions as that is her birth sign. She moved on to become an agony aunt on teenage magazines, where she both wrote and then solved the problems, before retraining and ending up as a leading Q.C. specialising in medical negligence cases and agricultural law where, inter alia, she worked on the Penrose Enquiry into the contaminated blood scandal. She has also been the legal correspondent for the Scottish Farmer and has written on legal matters for The Times.

Theresa Talbot has written about the contaminated blood scandal in her book Keep Her Silent and her new book, The Quiet Ones, is about an abuse scandal in a boys’ football club, which she calls the Caledonian Club.

Gillian’s latest book, The End of the Line is a bit of a departure for her. This time it is not  police procedural but is written in the first person from the perspective of Undertaker and antiquarian bookseller Anthony Sparrow. After the death of leading haematologist Professor Anstruther, antiquarian book dealer Anthony Sparrow is tasked with clearing out his mansion of its books and papers. He soon begins to question the real circumstances of the old man’s death: was he in fact murdered, and if so, who was responsible? The answer might be found in the personal diaries and letters which Sparrow unearths. But as he closes in on the answer, the perspective suddenly shifts and everything which he was sure about dissolves into darkness and shadows.

Gillian took her inspiration from reading Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project, where the case was laid out in documents and from Notes on a Scandal and she then added an unreliable narrator in the form of Sparrow, a bit of an oddball who clears houses. She is at pains to stress that her fiction is entirely different to anything that happened in the Penrose enquiry.

Theresa Talbot is fascinated by major crimes that go unpunished. She sees the contaminated blood scandal as something truly criminal where the victims were wholly innocent and yet the problem  had been known about since the 1940’s. There was, she told us, lots of evidence that this was a problem out in the public domain but it was never highlighted as a major scandal. Theresa read interviews and examined the evidence that was given, recognising that the Scottish story was slightly different, as most of the blood in our case was given by Scots rather than bought in. In the US she told us, blood can be sold and drug users will queue up to do that for $7 a pint.

Gillian Galbraith didn’t plot The End of the Line; she let the story flow through. For her the theme came first. Asked about what advice she would give to aspiring writers she says firmly ‘don’t get it right, get it written (and avoid clichés).

As a journalist Theresa Talbot is used to writing every day. She thinks that there’s a lot of her in her protagonist, journalist Oonagh O’Neil, who is also very much riled up by perceived injustice and understands that bad things can happen when a few people are prepared to turn a blind eye. Hers is crime based on facts but made fictional. Next she will be looking at the awful crime of people trafficking.

Gillian’s next book will take the plague in 18th Century India as its starting point – you can tell she’s looking forward to writing about rats…

 Hidden Secrets and Tangled Lives

The final panel of the day was Douglas Skelton and Michael J Malone being out through their paces by interrogator Denzil Meyrick.

Skelton, Malone and Meyrick

Was it hard, he started by asking Douglas, writing from the perspective of a 23 year old female journalist in Thunder Bay? Not so hard, said Douglas, he just treated her as he would any other character. Turning to Michael J Malone (or Malky Maloney as he insists on calling him) he asked Michael about his choice of unusual subject matter in In The Absence of Miracles. Michael explained that In The Absence was actually the first book he ever wrote. He wanted to write about male victims and so he researched and found some taboo subjects that hadn’t been much written about before.

His writing is done with respect for the people whose life experience this is though – that is clearly very important to him. He believes that difficult issues should be discussed and his focus is not to on depicting the violence or the graphic elements of the crime, but on demonstrating the impact of such crimes.

Moving on to Douglas Skelton, whose career has encompassed being a journalist as well as writing tue crime, Denzil wanted to know what Douglas thought about the demise of newspapers and what if any advice he had in the face of that decline?

Douglas’ experience is in weekly newspapers which is a different beast to the daily and so he has never been ‘banged out’, the traditional farewell to a journalist leaving a daily paper.  But times in newspapers are hard and yet the need to hold the powerful to account has never been stronger.

Discussing Thunder Bay, Douglas said that he built his fictional island, Stoirm, from the ground up. When he was writing his musical choices were designed to create the atmosphere he desired, so there was lots of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, and masses of Sibelius, too.

Michael talked about the hidden – the crimes in his books are driven by what is hidden and he reminds us that we are more likely to be damaged by those closest to us rather than a stranger and that’s what fascinates him – that journey in people’s lives.

The panel discussed what makes a book successful, with the suggestion that luck plays a huge part and suggested that publishing is a multi-million pound industry being run like a cottage industry.

They also chatted about the importance of research and using that research both lightly – without reams and reams – as well as using it respectfully. Flavouring the narrative and only using that which helps you tell the story rather than lecturing was the concensus.

Douglas talked about settings and using what he called his ‘sense memory’, i.e. his impressions and the sounds, smells and sights that he recalls to build up an atmospheric picture.

Are there places Michael wouldn’t go in his writing? Not, he says, if it is treated sensitively enough. He talked a bit about another hidden statistic – that of same sex domestic violence where he tells us the most affected group are lesbian women. Until these things are explored and talked about, there is always going to be a political subjectivity to the treatment of domestic violence which surely cannot be appropriate?

So what’s next for these two writers, Denzil wanted to know? Douglas has just finished the next book in his new series, with reporter Rebecca Connolly, this time the setting is Inverness. After Thunder Bay, I can’t wait to read the next one.

Michael is writing a book with the provisional title of A Song of Isolation about an actor whose boyfriend is accused of something terrible and who then goes on the run (sounds intriguing!).

Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for a night of mayhem and madness in the Pagoda with Crime and Dine, a murder mystery play.

Lots of fun and laughter as amid the excellent food courses, a troupe of actors committed murder (with both the script and the cast) and the audience was asked to solve the crime. Cue much hilarity, some marvellous accents and a lot of excellent ham to flavour our experience.

And there. Gentle reader, I’m afraid I have to leave it. There was a Sunday session with the marvellous Olga Wojtas, but I had committed to giving some friends a lift back down the road and we were not able to stay, but I have no doubt that, aided by the traditional bacon rolls, everyone would have had a splendid morning!

My thanks to Marjory Marshall of the Bookmark Bookshop and all her team of helpers. Roll on next year!

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