Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson @DoubledayUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 28 September 2020 from Doubleday
PP: 448
ISBN-13: 978-0857526557

My thanks to Doubeday for an advance copy for review

1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.

At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.

With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.

It’s 1926 and Nellie Coker is just out of Holloway after spending 6 months doing time. While she has been away, her six children have been looking after her network of London nightclubs, with varying degrees of success.

London is buzzing with a post war enthusiasm for anything that is bright and glittery and helps to blot out the pain of the recently ended war. Dancing girls, drugs and lounge lizards abound. All of this is Nellie Coker’s bread and butter. Her nightclubs include the elite ‘The Amethyst’ where royalty and film stars gather to party, though her personal favourite is ‘The Crystal Cup’ with its pristine pink palace rooms above the shop.

Criminals and dignitaries mingle and Nellie’s empire runs smoothly with the help of cops on her payroll and her sharp instincts for any sense of betrayal. She brooks no opposition and her intelligence network is formidable.  In her quieter moments she reads the future through her playing cards and is haunted by a ghost– a young girl named Maud who used to work for her – just one of the recent young women who drowned in the Thames but this one comes back to visit her.

As well as Nellie and her children, most notable of whom are the debonair Niven, dashing and devil-may-care and the scribbler Ramsay, a hopeless incompetent who dreams of writing a successful novel but lacks both application and ability and has an unhelpful cocaine dependence. Her daughter Edith is bright but not handsome; Betty and Shirley have half a brain between them and poor Kitty is the runt of Nellie’s litter.

Freda and Florence have run away to London from Yorkshire. Freda has dreams of making it on the London stage and Florence just wants to be away from her dreary life. It won’t be long before both girls realise that the streets of London are not paved with gold or dream employment opportunities.

As more young women go missing, what’s in store for Florence and Freda in their run down lodgings which double as a dubious refuge for girls in a particular kind of trouble.

Chief Inspector Frobisher is an honest man, which makes him a poor one. His marriage to a French woman, Lottie, is not easy, for Lottie suffers badly from depression and is not in the least interested in him or the rest of the world.

When librarian and former war nurse, Gwendolen Kelling comes to London to look for Freda and Florence at the behest of her friend Cissie, she finds herself in a difficult position – wanting to help Inspector Frobisher as an aide to finding the two young women but also finding herself captivated by Niven Coker, despite herself. She is divided between the devil and the deep blue river.

Added to this cast of characters are a bunch of even more unsavoury characters, some of whom have designs on Nellie’s Soho empire which was weakened by her absence.

Kate Atkinson presents a dazzling portrait of 1920’s London as a place where glitter is everything, living life to the max is all that matters and where young women are likely to be eaten up by a culture of brutal sexism, hedonism and debauchery, wrapped up in a gangland culture that is nothing more than brutal exploitation dusted with sparkle as a shoddy disguise.

Atkinson’s London is a heady mixture of life lived to the max and that goes hand in hand with corruption, exploitation and drug running. These are people struggling to find their place again in the aftermath of a horrible war and finding themselves in the grip of an equally vile culture dressed up as entertainment.

And yet Kate Atkinson makes all her characters irresistible; these are people you warm to, in the main and can even feel sorry for. These are vivid, sometimes rough, but often appealing characters and so you become fascinated by what their fate has in store for them.

Atkinson has used a broad canvas for this work and painted it in dazzling colours overlaid with some gold leaf and sparkles and it really works. Underneath though, the Thames is just as murky as ever it was and the deaths of so many young women are more than just collateral damage on the battlefield of gangland corruption and betrayal.

Verdict: It’s a brilliant, captivating read and well researched – some of it based on characters of the time. The tone is spot on, an omniscient narrator offers a witty and warm overview to this cast of disparate and often dissolute characters. It’s easy to see why it has been described as Dickensian. This book is teeming with larger than life characters in a chiaroscuro painting that is brimming with exuberance. I really loved it.

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Kate Atkinson is one of the world’s foremost novelists. She won the Costa Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her three critically lauded and prize-winning novels set around the Second World War are Life After Life, an acclaimed 2022 BBC TV series starring Thomasin McKenzie, A God in Ruins (both winners of the Costa Novel Award) and Transcription. Her bestselling literary crime novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie, Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog, became a BBC television series starring Jason Isaacs. Jackson Brodie later returned in the novel Big Sky. Kate Atkinson was awarded an MBE in 2011 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Harm by Sólveig Pálsdóttir  trs Quentin Bates  @solveigpals @graskeggur @CorylusB

Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 September 2022 from Corylus Books
PP: 240
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1916379787

My thanks to Corylus Books for an advance copy for review

When wealthy doctor Ríkarður Magnússon goes to sleep in his luxurious caravan and doesn’t wake up, detectives Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún are called to the Westman Islands to investigate what looks like murder.

Suspicion immediately falls on Ríkharður’s young, beautiful and deeply troubled girlfriend – but there are no easy answers in this case as they are drawn into family feuds, disgruntled friends and colleagues, and the presence of a group of fitness-obsessed over-achievers with secrets of their own.

As their investigation makes progress, Guðgeir and Elsa Guðrún are forced to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices as they uncover the sinister side of Ríkharður’s past.

Harm is the third novel featuring the soft-spoken Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson to appear in English. Sólveig Pálsdóttir again weaves a complex web of intrigue that plays out in the Westman Islands, remote southern Iceland and Reykjavík while asking some searching questions about things society accepts at face value – and others it is not prepared to tolerate.

This is the third book in Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s police procedural Ice and Crime series. You can read this book as a stand-alone, but of course you will get more of the character development if you start with the first book, The Fox. It is well worth doing so, as this is an excellent series.

In Harm, the reader is transported to the Westman Islands, an archipelago off Iceland’s south coast.  On a trip with friends to the Islands, well-off doctor Ríkarður Magnússon has been found dead in his luxury caravan and his partner Dilja has gone missing.

Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún are the assigned detectives and both have preoccupations of their own to handle as they begin their investigations. Guðrún is still getting over the events of the last book which caused her deep personal trauma and she sometimes struggles to handle everything she is faced with as well as trying to keep her professional relationships on track, while Fransson is concerned about his daughter’s relationship with a young man he doesn’t get along with.

 On the face of it, this case is not especially puzzling.  Diljá and Ríkarður were an ill-matched couple. She is younger and a fitness instructor. They are away with another two couples who are , like Diljá, fitness enthusiasts and who have little in common with Ríkarður.  Ríkarður himself seemed cold and a little controlling.

We know from the beginning that Diljá has drugged Ríkarður, though why is not clear. When Diljá runs before Ríkarður’s body is discovered, the case seems cut and dried. No-one on the trip seems especially cut up by Ríkarður’s demise, though it takes a lot of careful questioning to establish that not everyone in this group is telling all about what happened the night he died.

It’s all very middle class and obvious, until it isn’t. Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s novel looks at the stigma of mental health, the quest of the middle classes to find themselves by more outlandish ways and notions of the quest for youth as an aid prestige. It’s all a bit of a far cry from the lives our police detectives are leading.

Some of these themes though are reflected in the lives and relationships that Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún have and it is Elsa who seems to find more common ground with Diljá than she might have expected.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir has produced a well-tuned and cleverly plotted mystery that shows how painstaking detective work can always get to the truth. The detectives’ team work is a joy to read about, and their bosses daily motivational aphorisms are a scream. All of this takes place amid the beauty of the Icelandic setting which brings the reader beyond the usual settings into a fabulous world of ice and crime. I’ll be reading the next one in the series for sure!

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Sólveig Pálsdóttir trained as an actor and has a background in the theatre, television and radio. In a second career she studied for degrees in literature and education, and has taught literature and linguistics, drama and public speaking. She has also produced both radio programming and managed cultural events. Her first novel appeared in Iceland in 2012 and went straight to the country’s bestseller list. She has written six novels featuring Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson, and a memoir Klettaborgin which was a 2020 hit in Iceland. Silenced (Fjötrar)received the 2020 Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic novel of the year and was Iceland’s nomination for the 2021 Glass key award for the best Nordic crime novel of the year. Harm (Skaði), published in October 2021 in Iceland, made it to the bestseller list just like the previous books, and is her third novel to appear in English, following The Fox and Silenced. She took part in several crime fiction and literary festivals such as Bristol’s CrimeFest,Newcastle Noir, Aberdeen’s Granite Noir and Iceland Noir. Sólveig lives in Reykjavík.

An Honourable Thief by Douglas Skelton (Company of Rogues #1) @DouglasSkelton1 @canelo_co

Source: Review copy
Publication: 22 September 2022 from Canelo Adventure
PP: 304
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1804360156

My thanks to Canelo for an advance copy for review

1715. Jonas Flynt, ex-soldier and reluctant member of the Company of Rogues, a shady intelligence group run by ruthless spymaster Nathaniel Charters, is ordered to recover a missing document. Its contents could prove devastating in the wrong hands.

On her deathbed, the late Queen Anne may have promised the nation to her half-brother James, the Old Pretender, rather than the new king, George I. But the will has been lost. It may decide the fate of the nation.

The crown must recover it at all costs.

The trail takes Jonas from the dark and dangerous streets of London to an Edinburgh in chaos. He soon realises there are others on the hunt, and becomes embroiled in a long overdue family reunion, a jail break and a brutal street riot.

When secrets finally come to light, about the crown and about his own past, Jonas will learn that some truths, once discovered, can never be untold…

Douglas Skelton has written a cracker of a historical novel in An Honourable Thief. It is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction with a fantastic protagonist in Jonas Flynt, a well-defined and richly atmospheric sense of place and great style and pace throughout.

Set in the time of the Jacobite rebellion, the action moves between London and Edinburgh with a trip to the battlefields of Sherrifmuir.  Our protagonist, Jonas Flynt, is scarred from the battles of his past and is now in hock to Colonel Nathaniel Chambers, a man with an extensive network of spies known as The Company of Rogues, which he purports to run on behalf of the Crown.

It is 1715 and Queen Anne has recently passed. Rumours abound of a letter she may have written naming her Catholic half-brother, The Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart as her heir and therefore King.  But there is no sign of this letter and Chambers charges Flynt to find it and bring it to him.

Of course Flynt is not by far the only one searching for a letter which could change the course of history and Skelton has laid in store for him a range of formidable enemies, not the least of whom is the delightful Madame de Fontaine, a worthy adversary.

In pursuit of the letter, Flynt has to face up to his past; a past he ran away from many years ago, leaving his family, friends and his lover, Cassie without a word. Now he must return to his birthplace, Edinburgh, and make amends as best he can.

Skelton’s writing is engaging and his characters leap from the page practically begging you to embrace them. They are richly drawn, vivid and easy to envisage in the mind’s eye. The action is taken at a rollicking pace and there are many revelations and twisty moments as Jonas tries to work his way through a quagmire of lies and betrayal in pursuit of his goal.

Verdict: There’s lots of intrigue, action and emotion in this historical novel which balances the personal and the historical rather beautifully to produce a rip-roaring novel that I’d be happy to gift to anyone this Christmas. This is the start of a new series and if the others are as good as this, I’ll happily sign up to read the lot!

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Douglas Skelton has published twelve non fiction books and ten crime thrillers. He has been a bank clerk, tax officer, shelf stacker, meat porter, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), reporter, investigator and local newspaper editor. He has been longlisted three times for the McIlvanney Prize, most recently in 2022. Douglas contributes to true crime shows on TV and radio and is a regular on the crime writing festival circuit.

The Bleeding by Johana Gustawsson trs by David Warriner  @JoGustawsson @givemeawave @OrendaBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 September 2022 from Orenda Books
PP: 300
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1914585265

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review

Three women

Three eras

One extraordinary mystery…

1899, Belle Époque Paris. Lucienne’s two daughters are believed dead when her mansion burns to the ground, but she is certain that her girls are still alive and embarks on a journey into the depths of the spiritualist community to find them.

1949, Post-War Québec. Teenager Lina’s father has died in the French Resistance, and as she struggles to fit in at school, her mother introduces her to an elderly woman at the asylum where she works, changing Lina’s life in the darkest way imaginable.

2002, Quebec. A former schoolteacher is accused of brutally stabbing her husband – a famous university professor – to death. Detective Maxine Grant, who has recently lost her own husband and is parenting a teenager and a new baby single-handedly, takes on the investigation.

Under enormous personal pressure, Maxine makes a series of macabre discoveries that link directly to historical cases involving black magic and murder, secret societies and spiritism … and women at breaking point, who will stop at nothing to protect the ones they love…

Johana Gustawsson is on fire in her latest and most shockingly vivid novel to date. She has written a strong, feminist gothic novel that ties together the lives of three women from different eras in an unflinching narrative that crosses continents yet manages to be intimate and compelling in its gaze.

Quebec, 2002 and Lieutenant Maxine Grant is investigating a murder. Grant is just back from maternity leave and is throwing herself back into work after the tragic death of her own husband. Now she is raising her baby and struggling to keep a good relationship with her teenage daughter when she is assigned the murder of Philippe Caron, husband of Maxine’s former teacher, Pauline.   

In the Paris of 1899 everything seems possible. It is a time of elegance and infinite possibility. But when Lucienne Docquer’s two daughters die in a fire, her grief drives her to take desperate measures as she look for ways to contact them in death.

Back in Quebec and now in 1949, Lina is a fatherless, bullied teenager driven to distraction until she receives advice from a woman she meets through her mother, who works in the local psychiatric hospital.

Gustawsson’s magic is to weave together the lives of these three different women, all the while showing us the ways in which society has conspired to suppress and contain women until they have no choice but to protect themselves and the ones they love.

Though the times may be different, each of these women has been forced to the edge. It is not immediately clear how much we can trust each of them as narrators, but we watch with horror as they relate in the first person how they are drawn into black practices and dabble with the occult in an attempt to regain control over their own lives.

It is a feminist narrative that runs through each of these women’s stories and while we may not condone their actions, it is not difficult to understand what drives them.

We understand early on that these three women have a connection and it is fascinating trying to work out how each might relate to the other. This makes for a riveting and compelling read which is very dark and feels so menacing.

Verdict: Johana Gustawsson brilliantly ties these stories together in a masterclass of intricate plotting. Just when you think you have the measure of these women she pulls the rug out from under your feet and allows you to fall flat on your face. It’s an astonishing feat of ledgerdemain and it works beautifully. There’s a reason that Gustawsson is known as the Queen of French Noir and this is evident in spades in this fabulous dark and sinister novel that will have you gasping as the revelations come thick and fast towards the end. This is superb gothic drama from a writer at the top of her game.

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Born in Marseille, France, and with a degree in Political Science, Johana Gustawsson has worked as a journalist for the French and Spanish press and television. Her critically acclaimed Roy & Castells series (Block 46, Keeper and Blood Song) has won the Plume d’Argent, Balai de la découverte, Balai d’Or and Prix Marseillais du Polar awards, and is now published in twenty-three countries. The third in the series, Blood Song, was longlisted for the CWA International Dagger. A TV adaptation is currently underway in a French, Swedish and UK co-production. Johana lives in London with her Swedish husband, and three young sons, and is currently working on the book four in the Roy & Castells series.

Marple : 12 New Short Stories from 12 best-selling authors @HarperCollinsUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 September 2022
PP: 384
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0008467319

This collection of twelve original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

· Naomi Alderman  · Leigh Bardugo  · Alyssa Cole  · Lucy Foley  · Elly Griffiths  · Natalie Haynes· Jean Kwok  · Val McDermid  · Karen M. McManus  · Dreda Say Mitchell  · Kate Mosse  · Ruth Ware

This was great fun to read and each of these terrific authors has brought something of their own to this brand new collection of stories about Agatha Christie’s most enduring detective, Miss Jane Marple.

The best of these stories concentrate on Jane Marple’s astute observations of human behaviour  – usually formed while knitting her way through endless balls of wool – especially when those being observed remind her of people she has known in her home village of St Mary Mead.

I enjoyed reading these stories, many of which have Jane Marple travelling around the world and quite a few of the selected authors have chosen to put Miss Marple in the company of her nephew, the writer Raymond West, for ease of moving her around the globe. The upshot is that poor Raymond does not always come out of these trips with his character unscathed, which is quite amusing.

There were several stories I really enjoyed and one or two that caused a raised eyebrow. Not all are murders, and where there are, one story in particular seems to me to leave Miss Marple in a morally questionable place which feels rather too contemporary than would perhaps have fitted in with the 1930’s ethos.

I enjoyed those stories from Jean Kwok and Dreda Say Mitchell which brought a multi-cultural dimension to the Jane Marple mystery while keeping the essence of Miss Marple’s detection style intact.

Lucy Foley’s Evil in Small Places is a clever opener, working perfectly as a short story and delivering an excellent mystery with great characters and an unpredictable conclusion that really works. It’s a tightly written short story that admirably captures the quintessential Marple

Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage is both clever and ingenious, utilising the same characters as in the original story and, as in the original, narrated by the vicar. A terrific take on the original creation and hugely enjoyable.

Verdict: There are too many stories here to highlight them all, but this collection of new Miss Marple short stories from a range of our best women contemporary writers is great fun and fantastic to dip into. There is a lovely touch of humour and reassurance in many of these stories. Some work more successfully than others but overall I can see this becoming a very popular Christmas gift in many households.

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The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy @adamhamdy @panmacmillan @laurasherlock21

Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 September 2022 from Macmillan
PP: 352
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1529088137

My thanks to Macmillan for an advance copy for review

David Asha wants to tell you a story about three people:

Elliott Asha, his son, broken by a loss that will redeem him.

Ben Elmys, a surrogate father and David’s trusted friend, a man who might also be a murderer.

Harriet Kealty, a retired detective searching for answers to three mysterious deaths, while also investigating a man who might turn out to be the love of her life.

Every word David tells you is true, but you will think it fiction . . .

Adam Hamdy has delivered something of a game changer with The Other Side of Night. I absolutely loved it. It is a beautifully told story told with a great deal of heart. A tale of love, loss, grief and redemption, it is also a brilliantly constructed story that will keep you fixed to the page as your brain tries to process all the devious ways in which Adam Hamdy’s mind works and follow the immense journey that his story takes you on.

 It’s best to just let this story guide you as you read. You may have an inkling of where it is going, but even then you won’t fully get the picture until you’ve read to the end.

David Asha begins this story. A writer, he relates the story of how he lost his son, Elliot. It is a story of profound loss and a clearly emotional Asha blames Harriet Kealty for what happened. Harriet Kealty lost her job as a police officer, after the man who attacked her partner died and she could not prove she was not responsible.

Isolated and lonely, she happens upon Ben Elmys and immediately the two have amazing chemistry. But although Ben seems as smitten as Harriet, writing poetry for her, he nevertheless abruptly cuts contact after only a few dates and Harriet thinks she’ll never really get over Ben, who seemed such a good fit for her.  She doesn’t understand why Ben will not discuss it.

Months later she meets Ben again in very different circumstances. She’s been following a slim lead after discovering a message written in a second hand book she found in a bookshop. Her search takes her to our first narrator, scientist David Asha, who disappeared after the death of his wife from cancer, in a presumed suicide, leaving behind the couple’s only son, Elliot.

Elliot has a guardian now and that is none other than the Asha’s family friend, Ben Elmys. Though the unmistakeable chemistry between them is still present, Harriet cannot help but think that Ben is implicated in the deaths of the Ashas.

The reader then moves back and forwards in a moving timeline story in which information is provided in the form of transcripts, letters and from the perspective of an unnamed narrator.

Beautifully written this book is a mystery, a thriller and a love story, wrapped up in an enigma. It’s the kind of book where you just have to go with the flow and let the power of the story telling and the emotion of the characters take you where they will.

Verdict: A fabulous twisted and poignant story to immerse yourself in and one that will keep your brain alight as it confounds your expectations and delights your senses. Adam Hamdy’s prose is warm and velvet like rich melted chocolate and the emotional quotient is high enough to massage your tired heart back to life. There’s a lot going on in the extraordinary The Other Side of Night and it’s all mind-bendingly good.

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British author and screenwriter Adam Hamdy works with studios and production companies on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the author of Black 13, a Scott Pearce novel, and the Pendulum trilogy, an epic series of conspiracy thriller novels. James Patterson described Pendulum as ‘one of the best thrillers of the year’, and the novel was a finalist for the Glass Bell Award for contemporary fiction. Pendulum was chosen as book of the month by Goldsboro Books and was selected for BBC Radio 2 Book Club. Prior to embarking on his writing career, Adam was a strategy consultant and advised global businesses in the medical systems, robotics, technology and financial services sectors.

One of Our Minister is Missing by Alan Johnstone   @Wildfirebks @alan_books  @bookywookydooda

Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st September 2022from Wildfire
PP: 384
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1472286215

My thanks to Wildfire Books for an advance copy for review

On holiday in Crete, Lord Bellingham had been solo trekking in the White Mountains when he mysteriously disappeared. After a vast search and rescue operation, the local police have no leads, save for a mobile phone discarded on a cliff edge.

Assistant Commissioner Louise Mangan of the Met Police is sent to assist in the investigation but soon discovers that there are more layers to this case than the local police realise.

Lady Bellingham is less than forthcoming, the family nanny is hiding something, and a scandal is brewing back in London that could destroy the minister’s reputation for good.

Under pressure from the powers that be, can Louise find the missing minister, or will she discover something much more sinister at play?

Alan Johnson is an engaging writer who knows how to develop characters and keep relationships lively as he builds his mystery storylines. One of Our Ministers is Missing is partly set on the beautiful island of Crete where a Peer of the Realm, property developer and Junior Minister at the FCO, Lord Bellingham has a holiday home. A keen walker, he disappeared on one of his regular hikes into the White Mountains leaving his wife Miranda and his children distraught.

Meanwhile, back in London, Assistant Met Commissioner, Louise Mangan is preparing security arrangements for the forthcoming visit of Turkish literary figure and dissident Burak Bayram to Stoke Newington.

When the Met are looking for someone to act as liaison with the Greek Police in the disappearance of Lord Bellingham, Louise Mangan who knows Crete reasonably well, is happy to lose her far too constricting uniform and had off to do some actual detective work alongside the Greek Police.

Alan Johnson writes with an easy, fluid style and his mixture of politics, assassins, criminal behaviour and personal liaisons leading to thrilling outcomes is a heady and attractive mix. Johnson keeps the reader on their toes as he throws in false clues and diverting story lines in sub-plots designed to throw the reader off track.

Verdict: The dual settings of London and Crete work well and Johnson has a good eye for sympathetic characters. His depiction of the tensions between police officers on Crete is excellent and adds another layer of interest to an already fascinating mystery. With killers, corruption even a sleazy tabloid journalist, Johnson has left nothing to chance and his plotting is good and his characterisation even better. This is prime easy and engaging reading. If you haven’t yet had your holiday, this is one to take with you.

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Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir THIS BOY was published in 2013. It won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political writing award. His second volume of memoirs, PLEASE MR POSTMAN (2014) won the National Book Club award for Best Biography. The final book in his memoir trilogy, THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD (2016), won the Parliamentary Book Award for Best Memoir. IN MY LIFE – A MUSIC MEMOIR was published in 2018 and his highly acclaimed first novel, THE LATE TRAIN TO GIPSY HILL was published in 2021. Alan was a Labour MP for 20 years before retiring ahead of the 2017 general election. He served in five cabinet positions in the Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown including Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. He and his wife Carolyn live in East Yorkshire.

May God Forgive by Alan Parks @AlanJParks @BloodyScotland @CanongateBooks @Brownlee_Donald

Four books have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year in Bloody Scotland’s 10th Anniversary year. They are:

Liam McIlvanney – The Heretic (HarperCollins)
Alan Parks – May God Forgive (Canongate)
Ambrose Parry – A Corruption of Blood (Canongate)
Louise Welsh – The Second Cut (Canongate)

I have read all four of these books and each has gained a well-deserved place on this year’s shortlist, sponsored by The Glencairn Glass. The winner will be announced at an event on Thursday 15 September 2022. All of the shortlisted authors will be invited to a VIP reception at the Church of the Holy Rude at 7pm and to lead the torchlit procession from Stirling Castle to The Albert Halls where the winner of both the McIlvanney and the Bloody Scotland Debut Prizes will be revealed at approximately 8.30pm. They will then be interviewed on stage by BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth.

I am absolutely delighted to be highlighting one of this year’s four shortlisted books in line for the Bloody Scotland McIlvanney Prize. Alan Park’s May God Forgive is an outstanding contribution to the Scottish crime canon and is, in my view, the outstanding book of this series so far.

If you haven’t read the series, I’d urge you to do so from the beginning. Park’s protagonist Harry McCoy is a flawed, complex character and through him Parks asks some very difficult moral and ethical questions. His depiction of 1970’s Glasgow and the divide between the wealthy and the poverty stricken is acutely drawn and his crimes are often hard to stomach.

May God Forgive is a very worthy shortlisting for this years McIlvanney Prize and I commend it to you. Here is the publisher’s description followed by my full review.

Glasgow is a city in mourning. An arson attack on a hairdresser’s has left five dead. Tempers are frayed and sentiments running high.

When three youths are charged the city goes wild. A crowd gathers outside the courthouse but as the police drive the young men to prison, the van is rammed by a truck, and the men are grabbed and bundled into a car. The next day, the body of one of them is dumped in the city centre. A note has been sent to the newspaper: one down, two to go.

Detective Harry McCoy has twenty-four hours to find the kidnapped boys before they all turn up dead, and it is going to mean taking down some of Glasgow’s most powerful people to do it . . .

MAY GOD FORGIVE follows Detective Harry McCoy, just released from hospital after treatment for a bleeding ulcer and living on a diet of Pepto-Bismol and cigarettes alternately washed down with alcohol and milk.  

A hairdressing salon in an insalubrious part of Glasgow has been fire-bombed, killing three women and two children. The City is up in arms. Three boys are charged with the crime and then as they are being transported to the prison, their armoured van is hi-jacked and the boys abducted. One turns up dead the following day with a note pinned to his chest which says ‘One down – two to go’.  McCoy’s boss, Chief Inspector Murray is under the cosh. Now responsible for running two police stations, he has little confidence in the police in his new station in Tobago Street.

He sees that the abduction and murder of one of these boys is no more than vigilantism and he is not prepared to stand for it, no matter how many coppers and members of the public think it’s only fair justice. Now McCoy has twenty-four hours to find the other two boys before they suffer the same fate.

This is not a walk in the park for the police force. It’s not clear who sprung the escape plan or why but McCoy fears that there are no good intentions behind this escape. Not fully recovered, though he protests the contrary,  McCoy is put on behind the scenes enquiries, doing what he does best, making use of his contacts and ferreting out what small nuggets of information he can. He’s also keeping an eye on Wattie’s case – the murder of an unidentified young woman whose body was found strangled and dumped at Sighthill Cemetery.

Harry has always walked a fine line between the law makers and the law breakers in Glasgow and now it seems that some of the latter are trying to redeem themselves through good works.

As McCoy picks his way through his network of criminal contacts his enquiries lead him to the turf war going on between Jimmy Smart and Dessie Kane. Smart is building up quite a business empire and Dessie Kane is pinning his immortality and rise to respectability on his charitable links with the church and especially the next Archbishop of Glasgow to whom he is close.

Of course Harry also calls in on gangland boss Stevie Cooper, whose son Paul has gone missing. Somehow all these threads, floating in the wind, can be pulled together and made into something that resembles a pattern; if only McCoy can work out what that pattern should look like.

Never one with a strong stomach at the best of times, this is McCoy at his most vulnerable. And when a man is down, that’s the best time to kick him. Alan Parks makes the most of McCoy’s vulnerability to expose more of his past and to allow us to understand just how McCoy came to be the damaged adult that he is. It’s a difficult, poignant and heart-aching story and Harry McCoy’s vulnerability is laid bare as we understand more of what has happened to him.

Through his dredging of the depths of his contacts, he finds himself up to his neck in seedy squalor. How the apparent suicide of ‘Dirty Ally’ porn mag purveyor is connected to the disappearance of Paul Cooper and the fire-bombing of a hairdressing salon isn’t very obvious, but connected they are.

Parks does a sterling job of making McCoy’s illness match exactly the stomach churning activities of the criminals he’s investigating. It’s a perfect match – the bleeding ulcer in McCoy’s stomach meeting the rotting heart of these criminals’ endeavours.

As McCoy lumbers through the violence, the poverty and the exploitation of women and children, in his relentless pursuit of the truth, we can see he is killing himself. At the heart of this book there are so many questions about ethics and morality. McCoy draws his own moral lines and though they may not be straight, he is true to them. His loyalty to and relationship with Stevie Cooper is complex and goes way back but McCoy can see how others are exploiting the system and the fine line between gangland boss and businessman grows finer by the day, with respectability being bought by charitable donations and the conversion of money from illegal activities into the veneer of respectable businesses.

Alan Parks brilliantly re-creates 1970’s Glasgow and the divide between those who have and the have-nots. His violence is unremitting; the crimes are hard to stomach. But the characters are stand out brilliant, the plotting is superb and the sense of place second to none. Alan Parks asks some hard questions of his flawed protagonist and the answers do not come easily.

This is noir good and proper and it is an outstanding read. This whole series is utterly magnificent and completely unmissable and this book is the pinnacle of the series so far. Compelling, bleak and heart-breaking, this is a book not to be missed.

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Alan Parks was Creative Director at London Records in the mid 1990’s, then at Warner Music, where he created ground-breaking campaigns for artists including All Saints, New Order, The Streets, Gnarls Barclay and Cee Lo Green. He was also Managing Director of 679 Recordings, a joint venture with Warner Music. His debut novel BLOODY JANUARY propelled him onto the international literary crime fiction scene immediately and his work has been hailed by contemporary writers and critics alike. Alan was born in Scotland and attended The University of Glasgow where he was awarded a M.A. in Moral Philosophy. He still lives and works in the city that is so vividly depicted in the 1970s setting of his Harry McCoy thrillers.
Photo c.Euan Robertson

Each day this week until Thursday, one book from the shortlist will be highlighted by a blogger. Read about them all on this blog tour

Red As Blood (Áróra Investigation #2) by Lilja Sigurðardóttir trs Quentin Bates @lilja1972 @graskeggur @OrendaBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication:  13 October 2022 from Orenda Books
PP:  276
ISBN-13: 978-1914585326

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review

When entrepreneur Flosi arrives home for dinner one night, he discovers that his house has been ransacked, and his wife Gudrun missing. A letter on the kitchen table confirms that she has been kidnapped. If Flosi doesn’t agree to pay an enormous ransom, Gudrun will be killed.

Forbidden from contacting the police, he gets in touch with Áróra, who specialises in finding hidden assets, and she, alongside her detective friend Daniel, try to get to the bottom of the case without anyone catching on.

Meanwhile, Áróra and Daniel continue the puzzling, devastating search for Áróra’s sister Ísafold, who disappeared without trace. As fog descends, in a cold and rainy Icelandic autumn, the investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, and confusing.

This is a series that is rapidly getting in to its stride. Easily read as a stand-alone, Red as Blood is the second in the Áróra Investigates series, on the heels of Cold as Hell. The more I learn of Áróra, the more I like her. She is a muscular protagonist in all senses of the word. She knows her own mind, works out daily, has no qualms about confronting danger but equally does not take stupid risks and above all, she is an intelligent, forensic investigator who knows just how to follow the money trail in any investigation.

And yet for all the doggedness and ability to weigh up all the evidence, she is an investigator with a strong emotional core and it is nice to see her wavering slightly as she recognises the impact that the Police Detective Daniel has on her.

Áróra is still searching for her missing sister, Ísafold, but when she is asked to help handle the case of Gudrun, a missing Icelandic woman who disappeared from her home while making dinner she is happy to earn some money to help her continue her search.

Written in fairly short chapters the narrative pace is good as Áróra brings the police into the case, ensuring that the kidnappers are not aware of any police involvement through various subterfuges. To do this she has to enlist Daniel’s help. There is nothing obviously remarkable about the missing woman and the assumption is that she has been taken because her husband, Flosi, is a wealthy man with sufficient funds at his disposal to pay a hefty ransom. When Gudrun disappeared, a letter left on the kitchen table says that if Flosi doesn’t pay, Gudrun will be killed.

As Áróra investigates, a lot is uncovered about the life of this family and it seems as if this investigation is going to go along traditional lines. But then there is a gear change and the case takes on new life and a new direction, increasing the danger quotient and ramping up the tension as it becomes clear that more is afoot than was originally suspected.

This is a case in which the Police investigation plays as large a role as Arora’s own enquiries and she and Daniel must work hand in hand. It was good to meet more of Daniel’s colleagues in the police too and I especially enjoyed the new character, Helena whose personal life is as complex as Áróra’s. This type of joint working makes the case so much more interesting than just the lone detective narrative, though the search for Ísafold still leaves her working a lonely trail and increasingly sure that it is a body she is looking for.

Plotting is tight, the pace is strong and my interest was never less than focussed intently on how this compelling tale would pan out. Lilja Sigurðardóttir writes stories with strong contemporary relevance and her crimes are the kind that takes a contemporary sleuth with strong analytical skills to unravel. That makes her protagonist both fascinating and incredibly relevant and Áróra’s instincts are both intuitive and trustworthy, leading her into a dogged pursuit of the truth. In a cold and damp autumnal Iceland, the weather seeps into every corner of this investigation, though the shivers come more from the nature of the heinous crimes committed.

Verdict: A brilliantly told, suspenseful murder mystery with superb and engaging characters. Atmospheric with a strong sense of place and a sharp, contemporary edge this is excellent storytelling that will leave you excited and full of anticipatory desire for the next in the series.

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Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written five crime novels, including Snare, Trap and Cage, making up the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, and her standalone thriller Betrayal, all of which have hit bestseller lists worldwide. Snare was longlisted for the CWA International Dagger, Cage won Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year and was a Guardian Book of the Year, and Betrayal was shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key Award and won Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year. The film rights for the Reykjavik Noir trilogy have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.

Sometimes People Die by Simon Stephenson @TheSimonBot @BoroughPress @MidasPR

Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st September from The Borough Press
PP: 350
ISBN-13: 978-0008547622

My thanks to The Borough Press and Midas PR for an advance copy for review

The year is 1999. Returning to practice after a suspension for stealing opioids, a young Scottish doctor takes the only job he can find: a post as a senior house officer in the struggling east London hospital of St Luke’s.

Amid the maelstrom of sick patients, over-worked staff and underfunded wards a darker secret soon declares itself: too many patients are dying.

Which of the medical professionals our protagonist has encountered is behind the murders? And can our unnamed narrator’s version of the events be trusted?

Sometimes People Die is entirely a first person narrative. It is written by an unnamed junior doctor who, to be fair, is unlikely to make anyone’s list of top doctor of the year. Deeply flawed, he struggles by with the bare minimum of medical knowledge and working in St Luke’s, a place of last resort where recruitment is largely drawn from the medical register of ‘who is left who couldn’t get a job anywhere else?’

With a known opiate addiction for which he is undergoing mandatory psychotherapy, our doctor‘s narrative is reminiscent of Adam Kay, but with less anger and more resignation towards the very real difficulties of working in the under-resourced NHS where mistakes are always going to happen and by some miracle they don’t happen nearly as often as they might.

This narrative very much carries the ring of authenticity. It is clear that Simon Stephenson knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the life of a house officer in a hospital. Utilising a somewhat sardonic tone, our unnamed doctor takes us on a tour of the sick and the dying, recounting the saves and the near misses as he goes.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that not all is well in St Luke’s, beyond the obvious lack of resources. Patients are dying of things that they should not die from and the number of patients that are passing without a clear cause is growing.

As he relates this story to his readers, he intersperses his narrative with tales of famous cases of medical murders. From so called Angels of Death to Harold Shipman, we are treated to the most notorious of medical murders over the past several decades.

It all lends additional plausibility to out protagonist’s narrative and serves to add a more chilling tone to his often witty telling of this tale. Unsurprisingly, given his background, it is not long before our doctor becomes a suspect in what evolves into a serial murder enquiry. Though he is interrogated, there’s not really enough evidence to charge him and he returns to work, though the killings do not stop.

Speculation is rife throughout the hospital about what is going on and who might be responsible and the doctors even mock up a murder board in their mess room with their own darkly humorous suggestions.

As our doctor, who is at least improving his medical skills as he learns on the job, begins to investigate who might be responsible his investigations lead him into more trouble and he suffers badly when a housemate fails his exams and falls by the wayside.

I found this to be a fresh and captivating tale, told well and with credibility and conviction. It is a refreshing take on medical murder mysteries and held my attention well throughout. It makes sense that a doctor is best placed to find out what’s going on than the police, whose instincts are always to look for those with flawed pasts.

Verdict: An entertaining, credible and informative medical thriller with a difference. I loved the tone and enjoyed our narrator’s perspective. The conclusion was both fascinating and surprising. I really enjoyed it.

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Simon Stephenson originally trained as a doctor and worked in Scotland and London. He previously wrote Let Not the Waves of the Sea, a memoir about the loss of his brother in the Indian ocean tsunami. It won Best First Book at the Scottish Book Awards, was a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, and a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. His first novel, Set My Heart to Five was a Bookseller Book of the Month and was described by the Daily Mail as ‘Funny, original and thought-provoking.’ It has been optioned by Working Title Films to be directed by Edgar Wright from Stephenson’s screenplay. He currently lives in Los Angeles, in a house where a famous murder took place. As a screenwriter, he originated and wrote the Benedict Cumberbatch starrerThe Electrical Life of Louis Wain and wrote the story for Pixar’s Luca. He also contributed to everybody’s favourite film, Paddington 2.

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