So Shall You Reap (Commisario Brunetti #32) by Donna Leon @HutchHeinemann

Source: Review copy
Publication: 9 March 2023 from Hutchinson Heinemann
PP: 272
ISBN-13: 978-1529153316

My thanks to Hutcheson Heinmann for an advance copy for review

On a cold November evening, Guido Brunetti and Paola are up late when a call from his colleague Ispettore Vianello arrives, alerting the Commissario that a hand has been seen in one of Venice’s canals. The body is soon found, and Brunetti is assigned to investigate the murder of an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant. Because no official record of the man’s presence in Venice exists, Brunetti is forced to use the city’s far richer sources of information: gossip and the memories of people who knew the victim. Curiously, he had been living in a garden house on the grounds of a palazzo owned by a university professor, in which Brunetti discovers books revealing the victim’s interest in Buddhism, the revolutionary Tamil Tigers, and the last crop of Italian political terrorists, active in the 1980s.

As the investigation expands, Brunetti, Vianello, Commissario Griffoni, and Signorina Elettra each assemble pieces of a puzzle-random information about real estate and land use, books, university friendships-that appear to have little in common. Until Brunetti stumbles over something that transports him back to his own student days, causing him to reflect on lost ideals and the errors of youth, on Italian politics and history, and on the accidents that sometimes lead to revelation.

32 books devoted to one character is quite an achievement and it is testimony to Donna Leon’s crafting of Commisario Guido Brunetti that we still have things to learn about him.

As Brunetti undertakes a regular cull of his books to make way for new ones and muses on the three sessions a week that his wife Paola teaches at the University he is called to the aid of a colleague. Alvise has surprised Brunetti and Ispettore Vianelli by becoming caught up in a protest and arrested. Such matters are delicate not so much because of the nature of the protest, but rather because the delicacy of navigating the protocols over the arrest of a fellow officer is a tricky one to traverse. But this is, of course, where Brunetti excels – in understanding the language and the body language and what needs not to be said in order to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion.

Signora Elettra has been away at an important cyber security conference but returns unimpressed. The Italian Police have a long way to go before they catch up with her quietly impressive skills.

Brunetti hears news of a well-known burglar who is reputedly now back in operation in Venice but that has to be put aside when he is called out to the discovery of a hand, quickly followed by a body, lifted from the Canal. Brunetti is surprised to discover that he has met the man, a Sri Lankan, only recently. Such is the way of Venice that, in the course of following up a query from his father in law, he had enquired only recently at the Palazzo in whose somewhat neglected grounds the Sri Lankan lived , to see if the property might be for sale.

The Palazzo has a nunnery as a neighbour and as Guido investigates he finds more about Inesh Kavinda, the murdered man, who was undocumented. He used to do odd jobs for the Palazzo’s owners, including helping Professore Molin to take his daily walks. So the team have to piece together the scraps of information they can find in order to make a complete picture of the man. One of the odd things they discover from looking through his shed/cottage in the grounds is a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings that he has kept.

Kavinda had a finger bone in his pocket which is curious to say the least. And the newspaper cuttings relate to past terrorism activities in Italy which seems very much at odds with the Buddhism he practiced.  

Brunetti is acquainted with one of the owners. Gloria Molin he knew from his youth, though they have not met since. Professore Molin, in the process of trying to lay claim to a noble heritage, is not very helpful but Brunetti is effusive in his humility as befits one of the lower orders. “Brunetti gushed with thanks, as though he were the public fountain in Campo Santa Margherita, free to spill its freshness at the feet of Professor Molin.” Flattery and obeisance is clearly the way to secure the co-operation of such an esteemed figure and as always it is Brunetti’s understanding of the human psyche that gives him his advantage.

Gloria Molin describes Inesh as a man who was a tireless worker; who helped many older people and was kind and gentle with them and who loved his family and his books. Though his reading matter was mainly English novels, he also had an interest in Italian History and had asked her about The Red Brigade.

As Brunetti, Vianello and Claudia Griffoni investigate, with the help of Signora Elettra’s distinct specialist skills, they have to piece together the various scraps of information they are able to garner in order to establish a fuller picture of what happened.

It is Brunetti’s understanding of life, the class system and Venetians that makes these books so special. Together with his trusted team, they work diligently on the small bits of information they gather until they can see the whole picture and when it comes together it isn’t pretty.

But as always, Brunetti is calmed by his contact with the rhythms and cadences of the city and its people and as he follows the case through we learn a little more about Guido as a young man and why especially he is less than fond of jackets with leather patches on the elbows.

Verdict: Donna Leon again delights with the well-plotted investigations of Guido Brunetti. We love to understand his resentment of the surveillance age even as his investigations benefit from it. We enjoy his reflections over various espressos – because leaving his place of work at the Questura helps to restore balance to his life and certainly nothing does that more than heading home for lunch with his wife and children. It is in the trivialities of life that Guido finds his peace; that and knowing that wrongdoing will not prevail under his watch.                                  Waterstones                      Hive Stores

Donna Leon is author of the much-loved, best-selling series of novels featuring Commissario Brunetti and one of The Times’ 50 Greatest Crime Writers. Widely considered one of the best detective series ever, with admirers including Ursula K. Le Guin and Antonia Fraser, the Brunetti Mysteries have won numerous awards around the world and been translated into thirty-five languages.

One Moment by Becky Hunter @Bookish_Becky @CorvusBooks @RandomTTours

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd March 2023 from Corvus
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1838958664

My thanks to Corvus and Random Things Tours for an advance copy for review

One moment in time can change everything…

The day Scarlett dies should have been one of the most important of her life. It doesn’t feel fair that she’ll never have the chance to fulfil her dreams. And now, she’s still … here – wherever here is – watching the ripple effect of her death on the lives of those she loved the most.

Evie cannot contemplate her life without Scarlett, and she certainly cannot forgive Nate, the man she blames for her best friend’s death. But Nate keeps popping up when she least expects him to, catapulting Evie’s life in directions she’d never let herself imagine possible. Ways, perhaps, even those closest to her had long since given up on.

If you could go back, knowing everything that happens after, everything that happens because of that one moment in time, would you change the course of history or would you do it all again?

I adored this book. It flows really well and the writing is engaging, drawing you in to the story of two young women, Scarlett and Evie. Scarlett’s voice is a first person narrative and that suits her situation really well. Scarlett and Evie are best friends, sharing a flat and supporting each other. Scarlett is pursuing her dream of being a clothes designer; Evie is a musician but is going through a tough time. She’s not handling it well and nothing Scarlett says or does helps her and the pair are squabbling more than they ever have before.

Then something happens that changes everything. That one moment in time that alters both Scarlett and Evie’s futures. Becky Hunter’s novel considers the nature of love and friendship and asks us all to think about what we might do in such circumstances.

Becky Hunters characters are very well drawn and it is easy to imagine these young women with everything in front of them loving life and enjoying the closeness of their friendship. When it all starts to fall apart, the most profound impact is on Evie who is left feeling alone, wondering if she has been betrayed and feeling she has nothing to look forward to.

Two people come into Evie’s life to change that. One is Nate, whose involvement in an accident brings him face to face with Evie in the worst possible circumstances. The other is Astrid, a young neighbour of Evie’s who is learning to play the violin.

This is the cast list for Becky Hunter’s beautifully wrought novel that has a strong emotional core. We follow Evie’s emotional journey through anger, grief, negativity and profound sadness, all the while questioning herself.

What if she had said something different to Scarlett? What if she had listened to her instead of wallowing in self-pity? As the women review their friendship, looking back across the years you get a real sense of who they are and how they laugh and love. It’s a great way to understand characters and soon you feel as if you do know these women. As a result you laugh and cry with them as their story unfolds.

I loved how much fun and laughter there is in a novel that could so easily have become cloying and overly sentimental. But Becky Hunter never falls into that trap and there’s a good mixture of pleasure and pain as these stories develop.

As a result there’s a huge amount of enjoyment in this book and a lot of hope combined with some genuinely uplifting moments that made my heart sing for these characters. This is a book that got to me, that touched my heart as I laughed and cried along the way.

Verdict: Funny, engaging and a well-wrought portrait of friendship, grief and also hope, Becky Hunter’s One Moment is a poignant, life -affirming read that brings joy.                                  Waterstones                                     Hive Stores

Becky Hunter lived and worked in London for several years before moving to Mozambique to volunteer with horses and try her hand at writing. A few years, a few destinations, and a few jobs later she had the idea that would become One Moment. Alongside writing, she now works as a freelance editor and publicist, splitting her time between Bristol and London, and constantly trying to plan the next adventure. 
Photo (c) Serena Bolton

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone @doug_johnstone @OrendaBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 March 2023 from Orenda Books
PP: 300
ISBN-13: 978-1914585449

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review

When three people suffer strokes after seeing dazzling lights over Edinburgh, then awake completely recovered, they’re convinced their ordeal is connected to the alien creature discovered on a nearby beach… an adrenaline-soaked, deeply humane, life-affirming first-contact novel from one of Scotland’s most revered authors…

Lennox is a troubled teenager with no family. Ava is eight months pregnant and fleeing her abusive husband. Heather is a grieving mother and cancer sufferer. They don’t know each other, but when a meteor streaks over Edinburgh, all three suffer instant, catastrophic strokes…
…only to wake up the following day in hospital, miraculously recovered.

When news reaches them of an octopus-like creature washed up on the shore near where the meteor came to earth, Lennox senses that some extra-terrestrial force is at play. With the help of Ava, Heather and a journalist, Ewan, he rescues the creature they call ‘Sandy’ and goes on the run.

But they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the alien … close behind are Ava’s husband, the police and a government unit who wants to capture the creature, at all costs. And Sandy’s arrival may have implications beyond anything anyone could imagine…

It’s now got to the point where I will read anything Doug Johnstone writes, such is his grasp of writing characters and relationships. The Space Between Us is a brilliant example of his art. Part Close Encounters, part Local Hero, this is a novel that begins in North Berwick and ends in Ullapool with a galaxy far, far, away in between.

The Space Between Us works on so many levels. It is full of humanity. I suppose technically it is sci-fi, but it is also so much more. Doug excels in looking at the human race in relation to the rest of the universe, giving a real sense of perspective as to who we are and how our actions impact on each other, as well as making us think about how we treat each other.

A group of people suffer a mysterious striking down. Some die, but a few, Lennox, Heather and Ava, miraculously recover. And when they do, they find themselves coming together to try and understand what has happened to them. It all centres around a cephalopod they find washed up on a beach and whom they call Sandy.

They find they have a curious connection to this creature and a strong will to ensure that Sandy survives. That’s nowhere near as easy as it should be because Sandy seems in poor shape and this small group of people are not the only ones interested in the creature; though the others seem less concerned with Sandy’s welfare and more with capturing it for their own nefarious purposes.

Ewan is a journalist. He senses a big story behind this occurrence and is baffled by why these three should be stonewalling his questions. But the more he learns, the more he feels a connection to this small group and to Sandy.

Doug Johnstone draws a profound and quiet connection between each character and Sandy and especially between Lennox and Sandy whose contact is very special. It is his ability to speak to big themes such as our place in the universe that makes this first contact novel so special. He does so by examining the relationships between each of these well drawn characters; showing us that they all have much more in common than they do differences. That’s at the core of this special book.

What binds these people is more than a remarkable recovery. Each is struggling with their own problems and all are suffering from a lack of real caring, human contact. These are scars that run deep and finding each other is only the start of their journey towards healing.

Our cephalopod, Sandy, is no different. They have found themselves homeless – forced from their home and looking for a safe place to live without fear. They are refugees and first we need to understand them, learn how to communicate with them and finally, find a way to live side by side with them in harmony.

It’s a lesson that applies to more than extra-terrestrial cephalopods. In understanding what Sandy needs, so we are helped to come to terms with our own need for compassionate connections. We understand that we require close contact in order to feel compassion and enjoy mutually supportive relationships and that showing love and support is a good start to healing ourselves as well as others.

The gap that is the space between us has to close if we are ever to realise the true potential of the human race.

Verdict: This book is terrific and is something of a masterpiece. It is compassionate, full of love and hope and yet provides a tense and adrenalin fuelled chase across Scotland. Johnstone provides a thought–provoking look at how we treat those who are different. In the process we fall in love with Sandy who helps us to realise that some themes are truly universal and the space between us needs to be closed if we are to survive and thrive.

Orenda Books                                  Waterstones                           

Doug Johnstone is the author of fourteen previous novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020) was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and three of his books, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade, and has been an arts journalist for over twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club, and has a PhD in nuclear physics. The Space between Us is Doug’s first foray into science fiction.

The Close by Jane Casey (Maeve Kerrigan #10)  @JaneCaseyAuthor @fictionpubteam @HarperCollinsUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd March 2023 from Harper Collins
PP: 416
ISBN-13: 978-0008404970

My thanks to Harper Collins for an advance copy for review

At first glance, Jellicoe Close seems to be a perfect suburban street – well-kept houses with pristine lawns, neighbours chatting over garden fences, children playing together.

But there are dark secrets behind the neat front doors, hidden dangers that include a ruthless criminal who will stop at nothing.

It’s up to DS Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent to uncover the truth. Posing as a couple, they move into the Close, blurring the lines between professional and personal as never before.

And while Maeve and Josh try to gather the evidence they need, they have no idea of the danger they face – because someone in Jellicoe Close has murder on their mind.

I am a sucker for the kind of police procedural that has central characters in a will they/won’t they situation. Whether it is Ruth and Nelson or Maeve and Josh, I just can’t wait to see how the next case bleeds into the central relationships.

Jane Casey’s writing feels effortless as she draws you into the latest case. Maeve Kerrigan, however, isn’t finding life quite so effortless. In fact she is really struggling. The events of The Cutting Place have left her battered and bruised, mentally more than physically, though that, too.

She’s overseeing the murder of consultant Dr Hassan Dawoud in a hospital car park. Darwoud’s husband would be the obvious suspect, but he has a cast iron alibi. DC Georgia Shaw is finally showing signs of being able to step up to the plate, but Maeve just does not feel up to supervising her to the best of her ability.

Josh can see that Maeve is struggling and so, when he finds himself faced with an angry politician demanding action over the death of a vulnerable adult, he resolves to make the most of it and to take Maeve with him on an undercover job.  

Davy Bidwell was found dead in a derelict house in Acton. Judy Thwaites had been looking after him for a few days and Davy’s family believe that Judy is part of a team exploiting vulnerable adults. They’ve managed to rile up the Mayor and action is now being demanded.

So Josh and Maeve head to West Idleford where Judy Thwaites lives in Jellicoe Close, a quiet street where the neighbours all know each other and socialise together. Posing as a young couple in love, Josh and Maeve purport to be house-sitters for an academic who is conveniently on a lecture tour out of the country. They’ll not only be house sitting, but also looking after Pippin the dog.

It’s the ideal situation for Josh to look after Maeve and the closeness that they have to feign leads to undoubted strong chemistry and a tension between them that shimmers and simmers unbearably under the hot summer sun and in the dark, stifling nights. The atmosphere only serves to highlight how claustrophobic the whole set up is for Maeve, who was already struggling to relax.

The Close is a book that you just soak up. The neighbours in Jellicoe Close form a tight knit community with everyone knowing, or wanting to know, everyone else’s business. It’s not long before Maeve feels threatened by the local letch despite the fact that she and Josh are clearly hanging on each other’s every word.

But, as you might expect, not everyone in Jellicoe Close is what they seem. Behind the net curtains lies more than one unpleasant occurrence and Maeve and Josh find themselves investigating many of their neighbours; at least one has murder on their mind. Meanwhile, you can’t help but be drawn into the complex relationship that is developing between Josh and Maeve.

Verdict: This is a terrific read with favourite characters developing their long running relationships at the same time as investigating really tricky crimes. Beautifully written, fast-paced and incredibly tense in all kinds of ways, this is a proper page turner from Jane Casey.                                  Waterstones                                     Hive Stores

Jane Casey was born and brought up in Dublin. A former editor, she has written eleven crime novels for adults and three for teenagers. Her books have been international bestsellers, critically acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. The Maeve Kerrigan series has been nominated for many awards: in 2015 Jane won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Stranger You Know and Irish Crime Novel of the Year for After the Fire. In 2019, Cruel Acts was chosen as Irish Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. The Killing Kind was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2021, and is being adapted for television. Jane lives in southwest London with her husband, who is a criminal barrister, and their two children. Photo:Annie Armitage

Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent @lizzienugent @penguinrandom @EllieeHud

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 March 2023 from Penguin Sandycove
PP: 384
ISBN-13: 978-1844885961

Sally Diamond cannot understand why what she did was so strange. She was only doing what her father told her to do, to put him out with the rubbish when he died.

Now Sally is the centre of attention, not only from the hungry media and police detectives, but also a sinister voice from a past she cannot remember. As she begins to discover the horrors of her childhood, Sally steps into the world for the first time, making new friends and big decisions, and learning that people don’t always mean what they say.

But who is the man observing Sally from the other side of the world? And why does her neighbour seem to be obsessed with her? Sally’s trust issues are about to be severely challenged . . .

Liz Nugent is one of those authors whose books are always a must read. She is always distinctive, never short of compelling and her characters have a unique voice that you simply won’t see replicated anywhere else. Add to that some deep darkness and the reader is drawn into a world they have not experienced before.

Strange Sally Diamond is an excellent example of all these things. Sally is a woman with a literal mind and an incredible back story and this is the story of what happens when Sally’s father dies and she is left alone.

Sally is neuro-divergent and as a consequence she doesn’t know how to carry out the social niceties that make up much of our interactions, nor does she think that they make much sense. But Sally is also intelligent and more than capable of learning. After the death of her father and following the dropping of any charges arising from her unorthodox disposal of his body, Sally learns that her parents have not always been truthful with her. She discovers she was adopted and slowly learns that her father is the one who has chosen, for his own reasons, to keep Sally in the dark about her origins. Living in an isolated part of rural Ireland, Sally has a small circle of neighbours and no real friends but has also been kept away from the truth about who she is and how she came to be there.

Finding out the truth is a lot to come to terms with, and as she reads through the correspondence that details how she joined the Diamonds she is shocked at what she learns.

It is to her credit that she finds a way through everything she learns and begins to live her life properly, even making some friends. But then Sally starts to receive messages and even a gift from a stranger which stirs something in her. Sally’s curiosity has been aroused and she desperately wants to know more about herself and her family.

As the story unfolds, Nugent masterfully weaves together Sally’s traumatic childhood experiences with her present-day investigation into where she came from. The narrative is told through multiple perspectives, including Sally’s own.

Liz Nugent weaves a dark and shocking plot line which reveals more about Sally, her mother and what led to her adoption. Her writing is flawless, pitch perfect and evokes shock, horror and yet great empathy for Sally alongside the hope that she can survive the trauma of all she uncovers.

One of the strengths of Strange Sally Diamond is its complex and well-drawn characters. Sally is a flawed but deeply compelling protagonist, and the supporting cast is equally well-crafted. Nugent does an excellent job of exploring the motivations and psychologies of each character, and as a result, the novel feels rich and multi-layered.

There is more than one dark and vile character in this book and Nugent expands the footprint of this story to cover incidents in New Zealand as she sends us to consider the nature versus nurture argument to allow us to examine whether we are all the product of our upbringing.

Strange Sally Diamond is dark and really disturbing. It pulls you in and never lets go. And yet for all the evil in this book, the goodness that is Sally Diamond shines through. Here Nugent has created a character for whom we have nothing but respect and who we overwhelmingly want to triumph over her adversity.

As the story progresses, Nugent gradually reveals the events that led to Sally’s current state of mind, including traumatic incidents from her childhood and a toxic relationship. Nugent handles these sensitive topics with sensitivity and nuance, never shying away from the uncomfortable truths that lie at the heart of Sally’s story.

Another standout aspect of the book is its vivid and atmospheric setting. Nugent paints a vivid picture of the small Irish town where the story takes place, and her prose is both evocative and haunting.

Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond is a masterful exploration of the human psyche, told with empathy, insight, and a deep understanding of the complexities of trauma and mental illness.

It is a deeply moving and thought-provoking novel that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. A thought-provoking read that will appeal to fans of psychological thrillers and character-driven fiction alike. With its intricate plotting, memorable characters, and tense atmosphere, it is an unmissable ‘must read’. No wonder it has been selected as a BBC Two ‘Between the Covers’ Bookclub pick this season.                                  Waterstones                                     Hive Stores

Before becoming a full-time writer, Liz Nugent worked in film, theatre and television. Her four novels – Unravelling Oliver, Lying in Wait, Skin Deep and Our Little Cruelties have each been Number One bestsellers and she has won four Irish Book Awards, as well as the James Joyce Medal for Literature. She lives in Dublin.

Granite Noir Part Two 23- 26 January 2023 @APARachel @GraniteNoirFest

There was so much I didn’t manage to get to Granite Noir. I’d have loved to make Val McDermid being interviewed by our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. I really wanted to hear Tina Baker discuss Make Me Clean and I’m really sorry to have missed Louise Swanson/Beech talking about her new book, End of Story. But you can only do what you can and I did manage to fit in some truly excellent sessions

Telling the Tales of the Past

First of these was a conversation chaired by Katalina Watt with the incredibly talented Johanna Gustawsson and the equally erudite Vaseem Khan.

The Local in the Limelight author was Donna Ewen who read a harrowing extract from her book, The Long Drop.

Johanna discussed her amazing book, The Bleeding which is set over 3 time periods and features 3 very different women. In 2002 in Quebec Maxine Grant is returning from maternity leave after giving birth to an unplanned baby. She is called to a crime scene just an hour from Montreal where a teacher stands accused of murdering her husband. Maxine, who has recently lost her own husband and is parenting a teenager and a new baby single-handedly, takes on the investigation.

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

And then in 1899, in Paris. Lucienne is a Canadian forced into marriage when very young. 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.

Vaseem was talking about The Lost Man of Bombay, the latest in his excellent Malabar House series set in 1950’s Bombay. The era is an incredibly important and traumatic one in India. Just a few years after the assassination of Gandhi and during the horrors thrown up by partition, this is India in a state of flux. Persis Wadia has newly qualified as India’s first female detective and no-one in authority knows quite what to do with her. So they send her to Malabar House, the place where they send all the misfits, renegades and rejects.

Vaseem explained that he wanted to write about the changing relationship between Indians and the British after partition, now that Indians had their own agency.  So he has Persis solving her crimes in the company of Archie Blackwood, a forensic scientist who has come to India to help the Indians set up their own forensic science laboratory.

Vaseem told us that though many Brits departed India after partition, many thousands still remained and Indians did still need an economic trading relationship with Britain, but that led to the sense of entitlement and the same British attitude to Indians still prevailing. Vaseem has tried to present a balanced narrative though, showing that there were Britons who stayed and tried to help during this period while conveying commentary from the Indian perspective which is not something that there is much of. So his books try to balance history with his world building.

Johanna also talked about the respect needed to be given to historical accuracy and told us that she does a lot of research. In particular she is interested in the treatment of women through these time periods and how women found ways of ‘loosening their corsets’ through these times.

Vaseem was illuminating on some seldom known facts – indeed he has a section at the back of his books that tells readers what in the book is true. So for example, The Henry Classification system of fingerprinting was devised in India. George Everest never went anywhere neat Everest. He strives fir an accurate portrayal of both sides of the story.

Johanna is interested in how women’s voices have come through throughout history; how they have found a voice from being consigned to the shadows and how some of that came through finding a voice through spiritualism, a belief in ghosts and in some more aristocratic circles, Satanism. She finds it fascinating that there are paintings now in churches that come from this tradition. She had not intended The Bleeding to go the way it did, but she got side-tracked while undertaking research and found the book ‘A Treaty of Witchery’ from the 1930’s (with recipes!) that really helped to put women’s voices into perspective.

The pair had a fascinating discussion about the role that religion plays in their respective books as well as their different approaches to getting down to writing and what sparks off their ideas.

New Scottish Crime

Our Local in the Limelight author was Kenna Anderson reading from her work, Bobby Was Gone.

A panel with Doug Johnstone, Chris Brookmyre and Denzil Meyrick was always bound to be a sell-out occasion and so it proved. With Denzil on screen and Doug and Chris on the sofas, chair Fiona Stalker was in fits of laughter just like the rest of us as they discussed their respective books.

First up was Chris Brookmyre who revealed that he first had the idea for his book The Cliff House in 2014, but that it was in lockdown that the idea began to take shape. Spurred on by information from Kim Kardashian that she was taking her group of friends to a private island during lockdown, Chris mused to himself that he’d like to go that island and kill them all…! But that sparked the idea of a hen party on a private island and the relationships you make with friends solely because of their proximity. How well do you know them?

Denzil is now on his 10th DCI Daley and DS Brian Scott book.  He has books that are Daley books and books that are Scott Books. The Death of Remembrance is definitely a Brian Scott book.  It goes back to his early career in the Force and, says Denzil, explains why there’s a reluctance in the senior officers to trust Brian. Denzil finds that drip feeding the backstory makes for an interesting and revealing picture of a character.

Doug Johnstone discussed the 4th book in his Skelfs series, Black Hearts. This series is about 3 generations of women in the same family who run a funeral business alongside a private detective agency.

Doug talked about his time as a writer in residence at a funeral directors and the respect that it gave him for that industry. His books deal with different kinds of grief and how we deal with that. He also likes the idea that as PI’s these women don’t really know what they’re doing as that makes for a better story.

Fiona quizzed Denzil about the forthcoming series based on his Daley books and on which Denzil is an Exec Producer. Though he can’t say much about the series due to a non-disclosure agreement, it is known that Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann is set to star as DCI Jim Daley in a TV adaptation with award winning writer/director Anthony Neilson. He did though offer some hope to avid readers that it wouldn’t be too long before we see the series… ‘not years’ was as close as we could get to a time.

The three authors discussed their approaches to writing. Chris Brookmyre sees it as akin to stage magic and misdirection. So you start with the illusion and work out what you are trying to conceal as well as trying to pinpoint what guesses the reader will make. It’s important, he says, not to cheat the reader. The conclusion has to be satisfying; has to be earned.

Doug says he’s now more of a planner than he ever used to be and that’s what writing a trilogy (*now grown to at least 5 books) has taught him. He started this trilogy because he deliberately wanted to expand his writing palette from one story stand-alone novels. He finds that building in story layers is a lot like spinning plates. Doug spends around a month on making notes and jotting down ideas then he makes a list of scenes. With a tendency to overwrite, he says he loves the editing process when he can cut the words right back.

Chris Brookmyre dictates as he walks, but writing with his wife Marissa has made him much more of a planner than he used to be.

Denzil generally knows the beginning middle and end of his books before he starts writing but sometimes the killer changes. He tells us that in his next book even he found the ending unexpected!

On characters, Denzil says that every policeman has worked with a Brian Scott, but that Jim Daley is a more reserved character. Doug likes to use music as part of his storytelling to help express  character’s personality. He cited his character Dorothy, a drummer in her 70’s and he is making her ever more of a committed musician in his next book when Dorothy becomes part of a band.

Chris and Denzil agree that music helps to define character whether through a playlist or as in the case of DCI Daley on TV, through original music.


I love hearing from debut authors and discovering my next reads. Caelin Steed, Kitty Murphy and Rachelle Atalla were chaired by Bryan Burnett. Kitty Murphy’s book, Death in Heels is a book set in a Dublin drag club called Trash.

Cailean Steed was brought up in Aberdeen and now lives in Helensburgh. Her debut novel, Home, is a read-in-one-gulp thriller about a young woman’s desperate attempt to rescue her sister from the cult they both grew up in, and is about memory, belonging, and finding your true home.

Rachelle Atalla is Scottish-Egyptian novelist, short story writer and screenwriter based in Glasgow. Her debut novel, The Pharmacist, is set within a nuclear bunker, where Wolfe is one of the lucky ones. She’s safe and employed as the bunker’s pharmacist, doling out medicine under the watchful eye of their increasingly erratic and paranoid leader.      

They discussed what book festivals mean to authors (a great deal); what it means to meet up with your writing and reading tribe after writing in solitary conditions and how fabulous it is to be in a place where the buzz and excitement around books and authors is so palpable.

They talked about the excitement of finally seeing your words in a book – of finding someone who isn’t your cousin reading your book.

Cailean wanted to write from the age of 4. Rachelle was a community pharmacist and was looking for a creative outlet. It was sheer luck that she chose creative writing and fell in love with it. Kitty loves drag and really wanted to write about that world.

Each author read from and discussed their books and I must say that not only did they all sound fantastic but each author was so supportive of the others work. It was a real delight to meet them all together.

Now that the Festival has ended we can see what the impact has been.  Events across the Granite Noir programme, including the two shows at His Majesty’s, enjoyed an attendance of almost 11,500, which together with an additional 3,000 visits to the Curriculum of Crime exhibition at the Music Hall, brings the total 2023 Granite Noir audience to just under 15,000 making it the most successful Festival so far.

The enthusiastic Aberdeen audience was swelled by visitors from all over Scotland and the UK and as far afield as Switzerland, Germany, France, Poland and the USA making it a truly international event.

I really enjoyed my visit. Put it in your calendar for next year!

Paris Requiem by Chris Lloyd @chrislloydbcn @Orion Books

You have a choice which way you go in this war…’

Paris, September 1940.

After three months under Nazi Occupation, not much can shock Detective Eddie Giral. That is, until he finds a murder victim who was supposed to be in prison. Eddie knows, because he put him there. The dead man is not the first or the last criminal being let loose onto the streets. But who is pulling the strings, and why?

This question will take Eddie from jazz clubs to opera halls, from old flames to new friends, from the lights of Paris to the darkest countryside – pursued by a most troubling truth: sometimes to do the right thing, you have to join the wrong side…

I was thrilled and delighted to win a copy of Chris Lloyd’s Paris Requiem in a competition. Though I’ve not had the chance to read it all the way through yet, I have quickly read a few chapters and already know it’s a gripping story I’m going to have to come back to.

So I have asked Chris Lloyd to join me on the blog today to participate in my ‘4×4’ slot and in so doing, to tell us more about the book, its principal characters and the setting for Paris Requiem.

What inspired you to write Paris Requiem?

Paris Requiem is the second in the series that began with The Unwanted Dead. The first book took place in the first ten days of the Nazi Occupation of Paris. The second book, Paris Requiem, is set in the autumn of 1940, three months into the Occupation. The German soldiers occupying the city had initially been told to be on their best behaviour as Hitler saw Paris as the second city of the Reich. By the autumn, however, this façade was beginning to crumble and the first signs of harsh treatment from the Occupiers and of resistance from the French were beginning to show. I wanted to portray the city at this uncertain, insecure time and the way the people of the city coped with it.

I have an overall arc in mind of what happens to Eddie, the main character, a French police detective forced to work under Nazi rule, and the themes I want to write about, but for the specific story, I always find that the research provides a spark that ignites the flame. In this case, I discovered a true story of French prisoners going missing from a prison in Paris. Eddie’s investigation into the case blends fiction with history as he uncovers what’s going on.

The second main strand is also based on real events, and looks at the fate of African soldiers who had fought with the French army. The story, which I only partly knew before researching, was too powerful not to include.

Tell me about 4 key characters in your book and why they are important

Eddie Giral. The books simply wouldn’t exist without Eddie. It’s not just that he’s the main character, but his are the eyes and ears through which we live the story. He’s evolved into the most enjoyably complex character to write. He has a chequered history, suffering shell-shock in the First World War and being taken prisoner, joining the police in Paris rather than returning to his home in the south of France at the end of WWI, spiralling into self-destruction and drugs while moonlighting in Montmartre jazz clubs in the 1920s, abandoning his wife and son in a decision he thought was for their best rather than his, settling into a semblance of a quiet life until the arrival of the Germans in Paris suddenly change all that. They have all gone into making him an unpredictable character who has the power to surprise me when I’m writing about him.

Major Hochstetter. Hochstetter is a major in the Abwehr, German military intelligence, who is brought in to liaise with the French criminal police in their investigations. Menacing andintelligent, he has the power of life and death over Eddie and uses him to further his own aims, giving Eddie help whenever it suits him. Hochstetter’s relationship with Eddie mirrors the fortunes of the Occupation, showing the ebb and flow of power and influence that each has over the other, although with Eddie almost always in the weaker position. The relationship becomes almost one of mutual support as the two of them use the other to protect themselves.

Dominique. Dominique is the mother of a young Senegalese soldier who has been reported taken prisoner but who is missing. Not quite an old flame of Eddie’s, she asks him for help in

finding her son, which he does reluctantly. Dominique is the good in Eddie. She brings out a side to his character that has been suppressed as he reverts to a version of himself that is mad, bad and dangerous to know in order to survive the Occupation. She’s a reminder to him to keep his moral compass intact.

Capeluche. Capeluche is one of the most important characters in the story, but we don’t know who or even what Capeluche is. And I can’t say any more than that, as that would be giving the game away.

Can you pick 4 authors or books you admire ?

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. My mum gave me this book when I was about ten and it’s the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer. I think that the impression that the book must have left on me was the ability to tell a universal story through an individual tale.

The Daughter of Time by Jospehine Tey. This for me is the most sublime historical crime novel. It’s not just an entertaining, intelligent story, it actually contributed to the debate at the time on Richard III and the murder of the princes in the tower, which is historical fiction at its most powerful.

Robert Harris. I am always in awe at his ability to write across so many time periods with such accuracy and authority, every time creating a story that is thoroughly absorbing and authentic.

Douglas Adams. I love the intelligent silliness of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy books. They are also an object lesson in the joy of playing with language. On a possibly more serious note, the Occupation series is set at a very dark time, but people often coped by using dark humour, so these books taught me the value of using moments of humour to break the bleakness but also to convey a strong message in a different way.

Tell me about 4 places you associate with Paris Requiem

Eddie lives on the Left Bank as he feels safe there. It was to a hospital on the Left Bank that he was sent when he was suffering from shell-shock in the First World War, and it was where he finally returned in the 1920s after leaving his wife and son to try and restore some stability to his life. His small apartment in a narrow street in the Fifth Arrondissement is both a safe haven and a place where he feels haunted by the decisions he’s taken. One of the most important pieces of research for me when starting to write the series was to find the place where Eddie lived – that gave me so much of his character.

A lot of the action takes place in the Montparnasse district of Paris, and some of the key scenes are set in Montparnasse cemetery. Here, Eddie is trapped and taunted. A chilling warning is left for him on the monument to Baudelaire, an unsettling and spectral set of sculptures in fitting tribute to the author of The Flowers of Evil and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. The culmination is a scene set at the foot of the monument in the pouring rain.

At one point in the story, Eddie is taken to a warehouse on the Bassin de la Villette. He returns later, in the dead of night to try and discover the secrets the building holds. He finds more than he imagined he would. The Bassin is a curious place to research. Now, it’s gentrified, with boutique shops and bistros and desirable residences for young urbanites. In Eddie’s day, it was a grimy industrial port, bringing canal barges filled with coal and other goods into Paris – although in 1940, there was little being brought in – so one of the challenges of writing about it is exploring the district, trying to picture it in its previous life and ignoring much of what I actually saw about me.

Paris is the heart of the story, but Eddie’s investigation – and his fear of events happening in the city – lead him to a forest near Compiègne, over an hour northeast of Paris. This is a rural world that is also suffering from Occupation, shortages and graft, but in a different way from what Eddie’s used to in Paris. Chased by German soldiers and held for questioning by a Wehrmacht officer, Eddie is frustrated in his attempts to find the truth, including the ignominy of Hochstetter having to rescue him from the local Wehrmacht garrison. It is also where he finally makes a shocking discovery.

Can you pinpoint 4 films that convey the atmosphere you are writing about in Paris Requiem?

One of my favourite films, Casablanca has exactly the feel that I want to convey in Paris Requiem. The desperation of people caught up in the war, the levels of distrust and uncertainty, the claustrophobia of being trapped and of not knowing who to turn to, the smoky sleaze of the jazz club – they’re all perfect in the film. And, of course, Humphrey Bogart, who is just sublime as Rick. I have to see if Eddie will ever find his Ilse.

Filmed in France during the Occupation, but banned from being screened, Le Corbeau wasn’t shown until after the liberation. With a hugely oppressive atmosphere, it beautifully and shockingly portrays the distrust people were encouraged by an evil regime to feel towards each other and the depths to which they found themselves sinking through force of circumstance.

Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster, The Train tells the story of a train filled with stolen art treasures that the Nazis are trying to get out of Paris, and the attempts by French railway workers and resistance members to stall the train, while keeping its contents safe. Moody and filled with foreboding, it’s a wonderful story of how ordinary people would commit small but incredibly brave acts to stand up to the Occupier and attempt to thwart their plans.

A more recent film is Persian Lessons, about Gilles a young Jewish man who pretends to be Persian in order to save his own life in a concentration camp. He is set the task of teaching Persian to one of the German officers, who wants to open a restaurant in Persia after the war, so Gilles finds himself having to invent a language. The story focuses on the relationship between the two men, with Gilles having to use all his guile to deceive the officer in order to stay alive, rather like Eddie uses Hochstetter to survive the Occupation.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on the second draft of the next book in the Occupation series. This takes place during the first Christmas of the Occupation and deals with the issue of the black market and the huge inequalities between the haves and have-nots that the Occupation created or exacerbated.

The fourth book in the series is already more or less plotted, so that will be the next step after that. I’d also like to become a lot more organised so that I can write more prolifically and finally get down to writing some ideas for standalone books that keep clamouring for my attention.

My thanks to Chris Lloyd for joining me today and to Orion Books for facilitating this Q&A. Paris Requiem by Chris Lloyd is out now, published by Orion. (Hardback, £18.99)                   Waterstones                      Hive Stores

Straight after graduating in Spanish and French, Chris Lloyd hopped on a bus from Cardiff to Catalonia and stayed there for over twenty years. He has also lived in Grenoble – researching the French Resistance movement – as well as in the Basque Country and Madrid, where he taught English and worked in educational publishing and as a travel writer. He now lives in South Wales and is a translator and novelist. Paris Requiem is his second novel set in Paris, featuring Detective Eddie Giral. The first, The Unwanted Dead, won the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown Award for best historical novel of the year, and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award.

Granite Noir 23- 26 January 2023 @APARachel @GraniteNoirFest

Ah, Aberdeen, it has been far too long! I love the Granite Noir Festival because it is intelligently programmed and offers a huge amount for both adults and children over the course of 4 days.

I’m going to give you a flavour of the Festival and of the sessions I attended, but make no mistake, this is a fantastic festival covering many aspects of crime and publishing.

The festival proper stared on Thursday, but I arrived on the Wednesday to have a chance to have dinner with the lovely Karen Sullivan and author Antti Tuomainen. If you’re ever looking to have a special dinner, I can highly recommend The Silver Darling.

Photo: Antti Tuomainen


On the Thursday, my first session was with author and journalist Francisco Garcia, ably chaired by author and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove. Francisco’s book, We All Go Into the Dark, is an examination of the mythology that has surrounded the infamous Bible John case and interrogates our obsession with ‘solving’ historic crimes.

Francisco Garcia with Stuart Cosgrove

By reading all the books associated with the Bible John case, examining the archives of newspapers at the time and speaking to many of those involved in the case, Garcia pursues the virulent modern myth of a serial killer who was never captured. He has focussed on why this story has captured the imagination and become so mythologised in the way that it did.

Garcia talked about how much of this story has become fictionalised through speculation and the use of novelistic imagination to tell the story of Bible John and how we came to view a serial killer, if indeed he was such, as an anti-hero. How the killing of three women, Patricia Docker, Jemima MacDonald and Helen Puttock spawned a legend that has never quite lost its grip on the popular imagination of Glasgow, or Scotland as a whole.

The killings provoked the country’s largest ever manhunt, and countless words, suspects, books, documentaries, earnest speculation, pub theorising and bouts of urban myth-making. Everyone in Scotland, it seems, had a Bible John story. But how much was fact and how much fiction and guesswork?

The book sets these murders in the context of the changing nature of Glasgow. A city in flux, on the cusp of change. New housing estates were springing up, high rise flats and a new, modern serial killer. This was the time of Charles Manson and the emergence of a new breed, the serial killer.

Garcia talks about a fatally flawed police investigation, about the over-reliance of one – the only- eye witness and how the detective leading the case became consumed by it.

The murders, too, took place as scientific policing was coming into its own, at the cusp of science and DNA testing. But when Police re-opened the case in the early 1990’s to see how forensic science might add something new to the information, they found that evidence storage was poor and any DNA evidence was too badly degraded to help provide answers.

So did the serial killer Bible John really exist? Garcia himself is not sure that he did, but as he says, myth is always going to be stranger than reality.

Coorie in with Scandinavian Crime Friends

This session with Lina Bengtsdotter and Antti Tuomainen was chaired by Dr Noir herself, the inimitable Jacky Collins.

First though we heard a cracking reading from local author in the spotlight, Gillian Duff, reading from her manuscript, Act of Betrayal, giving us a rip roaring, fast-paced reading to start off the proceedings.

Local author in the Spotlight, Gillian Duff Photo: Karen Sullivan

Lina is the author of the DI Charlie Lager series and her book, For The Lost deals with a missing nine month old child called Beatrice. Lina sets her books in the somewhat claustrophobic town of Gullspång in central Sweden, where Lina Bengtsdotter was brought up. Lina teaches psychology and uses that knowledge to inform her books. The issue of missing children is close to her own experience as she remembers too clearly when a girl went missing and was never found.

Psychology is the strength of Lina Bengtsdotter’s writing. She is all about the psychology and depth of her characters, wanting the reader to understand what motivates them and why they are driven to act as they do.

Her character, Charlie is something of a stereotypical Scandinavian detective. Hard drinking, indiscriminate in the choice of sexual partners this is a detective with hallmarks you recognise well. But Charlie is a woman and a damn fine detective; one who has suffered her fair share of sexism in and out of the force and who has secrets of her own that she has left behind in Gullspang. Lina’s character, Charlie Lager is messy, but then, says Lina, so is she!

Lina. Bengtsdotter and Antti Tuomainen

Antti Tuomainen is Finnish and his most recent writing has turned from the very dark to crimes which weave darkness and humour together to create a unique blend of impactful and compelling Crime Fiction.

Antti doesn’t really think of himself as being in in the usual tradition of Scandinavia Noir. His own influences come from American Noir and from writers such as Ian Rankin in the UK. His most recent trilogy of which we have currently got two books – The Rabbit Factor – soon to be a major movie starring Steve Carrell – and The Moose Factor sprang from an idea he had while. Watching the news and thinking what a crazy place the world is. What if, he thought, there was still someone left who thought logic and reason mattered, what if they were the centre of that persons world. And so Henry Kosinken, insurance mathematician came into being. It is the collusion of Henry’s view of the world with his inheritance of an adventure park that creates a brilliantly dark and comedic scenario where Henry finds out what chaos really means. How he handles it is what creates the tension.

Both authors talked about their writing habits. Lina can on,y write for about two hours a day and then she’s done. Antti writes for much longer, but says it can take him a day to write a page and a year to write a book. He loves to create worlds – a universe in its own bubble which is what the adventure park setting offers.

He knew he said, that The Rabbit Factor wasn’t going to be a stand-alone when he was 15 to 20 pages from the end and knew that his character’s story wasn’t yet finished.

Session chair Jacky Collins Photo: Karen Sullivan


Oh my goodness I have missed this crew so much. This was an unmissable session and each of these fantastic musicians was on terrific form. With some new material, to add to the mix, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville, Doug Johnstone and Luca Veste stormed it. THE audience were up on their feet dancing from the early stages.

The repertoire was a fantastic mix with some tremendous added theatricals. Their rendition of ABBA’s SOS with Val doing a full blown Agnetha Fältskog complete with flowing blonde tresses, the night was certainly one to remember. If you can get along to see them, you really should.

Expectant by Vanda Symon  (Sam Shephard #5) @VandaSymon @OrendaBooks @RandomTTours

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Orenda Books
PP: 320
ISBN-13: 978-1914585579

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review

A killer targeting pregnant women.

A detective expecting her first baby…

The shocking murder of a heavily pregnant woman throws the New Zealand city of Dunedin into a tailspin, and the devastating crime feels uncomfortably close to home for Detective Sam Shephard as she counts down the days to her own maternity leave.

Confined to a desk job in the department, Sam must find the missing link between this brutal crime and a string of cases involving mothers and children in the past. As the pieces start to come together and the realisation dawns that the killer’s actions are escalating, drastic measures must be taken to prevent more tragedy.

For Sam, the case becomes personal, when it becomes increasingly clear that no one is safe and the clock is ticking…

Sheesh! What a prologue! Emotional, impactful and not a little grisly, Vanda Symon delivers a shocking opening to the latest in this so, so welcome Sam Shephard novel, the 5th in this terrific series.

Timi is a tagger and he and his pals have been spraying when they stumble across a dying woman. in a Dunedin alleyway. Though his pals run, Timi stays with her and the courage and the deep compassion he shows only enhances the brutality of this crime. Aleisha Newman was savagely murdered and her unborn child has been ripped from her womb.

Detectives must ascertain the motivation for this callous and truly terrible act as well as searching for the baby and trying to determine whether this killer is likely to strike again. We learn about the reasons babies and small children go missing in New Zealand and it is all very distressing stuff. No wonder the public is up in arms over this case.

Sam Shephard feels this loss all too keenly. Heavily pregnant herself, she’s confined to desk duty which only serves to make her irritable, but of course she feels this murder incredibly personally.

In this incredible series we have watched Sam grow and develop and as a result we have come to know and love her. The best and fiercest of friends; a loving daughter even when she is fighting with her parents; a bolshie employee who always stands her ground, sometimes with a bit too much mouth, she is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve but strives to maintain her independence in every situation.

That’s not ever been easy in the Police, and it’s getting less so in all aspects of her life the closer towards giving birth she gets. Sam is on the cusp of great personal change and she’s finding all a bit overwhelming.

Though she’s been told to stay away from this case, there’s no way Sam can do that. She is devastated by what has happened to Aleisha and she thinks she is in the perfect position to help find the killer. Knowing Sam is deliberately putting herself in the path of a killer is real edge-of-the seat stuff and Vanda Symon ramps up the tension as Sam and her soon to be born baby take on the case.

Now, the thing about Sam is that she is more than a character. She’s family, or at least a very close friend. So you feel everything that happens to her. You boil with her when she perceives injustice, you feel her pain when when she is emotionally upset and you know real fear when she is in harm’s way. So this case, so personal to Sam, is personal to us as well, because we care about her.

Vanda Symon manages to alleviate some of the harshness and brutality of this case by showing us Sam’s warmth and humour and her close relationships with the people she loves. This is a Sam who is learning that being a mother means she’s going to have to change, even if that’s a course she’s finding tricky to navigate. But we know she’s going to make it, because we have been with her every step of the way, watching her grow and become the woman she is today..

It’s being about to be a mother that helps her with this case though and allows her to come to terms with the enormity of what’s to come and the changes she’s going to have to make.

Verdict: Vanda Symon has produced a dark and tension filled, shocking drama about one of the worst crimes imaginable. She has written an unforgettable heart-breaking story that had me chewing my fingernails with worry. But she has also allowed Sam to develop, to shine in her new persona of mother to be, albeit allowing that smart mouth and sense of humour to stay undiminished. There will be more sparks to come along Sam’s journey, that’s for sure and I’ll be with her every step of the way.

Orenda Books                                  Waterstones            

Vanda Symon lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. As well as being a crime writer, she has a PhD in science communication and is a researcher at the Centre for Pacific Health at the University of Otago. Overkill was shortlisted for the 2019 CWA John Creasey Debut Dagger Award and she is a four-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for her critically acclaimed Sam Shephard series. The fourth in the series, Bound, was shortlisted for a Barry Award. Vanda produces and hosts Write On, a monthly radio show focusing on the world of books at Otago Access Radio. When she isn’t working or writing, Vanda can be found in the garden, or on the business end of a fencing foil.

The Institution by Helen Fields @ @Helen_Fields @AvonBooksUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 March 2023 from Avon Books
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-0008533472

My thanks to Avon Books for an advance copy for review

Dr Connie Woolwine has five days to catch a killer.

On a locked ward in the world’s highest-security prison hospital, a scream shatters the night. The next morning, a nurse’s body is found and her daughter has been taken. A ransom must be paid, and the clock is ticking.

Forensic profiler Dr Connie Woolwine is renowned for her ability to get inside the mind of a murderer. Now, she must go deep undercover among the most deranged and dangerous men on earth and use her unique skills to find the girl – before it’s too late.

But as the walls close in around her, can Connie get the killer before The Institution gets her?

If this book isn’t a smash hit, I’ll claw my own eyes out. I don’t think I have read a genuinely scary book for such a long time. Fans of Helen Fields will already be aware of Dr Connie Woolwine and her now partner in crime, Brodie Baarda whom we met in The Shadow Man.

Connie is American and a psychological profiler. Brodie Baarda was a kidnapping specialist from Met Ops Team but is now an independent contractor working with Connie.

This time the pair has been called in to deal with an horrific crime (curiously the second such crime I have read this year) which can only have taken place inside the Charles Horatio Parry Institute for the Rehabilitation of the Criminally Insane.

This is a high security prison facility that houses some of the country’s most heinous criminals.  These prisoners have been deemed to be psychiatrically unfit to be sent to a normal high security prison and so have been sent to what everyone there refers to as just ‘The Institution’.

A nurse from The Institution has been found murdered and her new born baby is missing. The clock is ticking if the baby is to be found alive but a crypto-currency ransom is being demanded and with the likely perpetrator being inside The Institution, Connie and Baarda go undercover at the behest of the nurse’s family to see if they can unmask the killer and get the baby back unharmed.

I said in my review of The Shadow Man that I hoped we would get to learn more of Connie’s back-story and Helen Fields delivers that here. But, by understanding some of what drives Connie, we find that we are only made more fearful by what she encounters.

She and Baarda go in under cover. Connie is posing as a psychiatric therapist working for the military and her patient is a high security risk prisoner known only as ‘Patient B’ and that’s the role that Baarda is taking on. Only the Governor knows who Connie and Baarda really are. The hope is that by working on both the staff and the inmates by taking a dual approach, Connie and Baarda can work out who perpetrated this terrible crime and find a lead to recover the missing baby.

The nurse who was murdered worked in Heaven Ward with the deadliest offenders and the highest staff to inmate quotient. The staff are not overly fond of their guests/clients/patients/prisoners. A young man called Boy does some of the more menial tasks and he takes to Connie and she to him as he’s the only one there with anything close to a cheery countenance.

From the beginning it is anything but plain sailing. There are some very creepy people in the Institution and that’s just the staff. The building is a horrible cold stone warren that rises bleak into the sky with different towers like some Castle of Doom. The surrounding area is all marshland miles from anywhere and the whole place gives off vibes of Frankenstein looked after by Nurse Ratchett.

Helen Fields makes The Institution a very scary place to be with simmering tensions abounding even before Connie arrives. Then she dials that gauge up until it reaches boiling point. As Connie sets about interviewing the inmates and staff to see how much she can learn by profiling them, it becomes very clear that others are watching her. Not everyone is without their suspicions about what Connie is really doing there.

Baarda too is finding it hard to get traction. To the staff he’s just another killer and they see no reason not to treat him as they do the others, whatever Connie might say. Our pair has landed in a pit of loathsome, demented vipers and pretty much everyone has fangs they are keen to use.

Helen Fields portrays evil characters really well and honestly, I felt the scariness of The Institution just as I understood how incredibly traumatic it must have been for Connie to find herself in some of the situations that she does. This is heart in the mouth time and you can hear the screams when things get to that boiling point I mentioned.

Add in some very rough weather and a break down in communications, a terrified and traumatised Connie and a Baarda who is elsewhere and you’ll be suspecting everyone – and with good reason.

Verdict: Helen Fields has written an absolutely mind-blowing suspense thriller with some great and truly horrible characters, a really twisty and ever changing plotline and a sense that maybe the inmates should be running the asylum. This is a book that evolves at break-neck speed taking the reader on a spine-chilling journey that will leave you trusting no-one and with your nerves shattered.  As ever with Helen Fields, her characters are well defined and fascinating. This is one not to miss, but beware of reading with the lights out….                                  Waterstones                      Hive Stores

An Amazon #1 best-selling author, Helen Fields is a former criminal and family law barrister. The last book in her Scottish set crime series, Perfect Kill, was longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2020, and others have been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, Scottish crime novel of the year. Helen also writes as HS Chandler, and wrote legal thriller Degrees of Guilt. In 2020, Perfect Remains was shortlisted for the Bronze Bat, Dutch debut crime novel of the year. Now translated into 20 languages, and also selling in the USA, Canada & Australasia, Helen’s books have won global recognition. Her historical thriller These Lost & Broken Things came out in May 2020. Her first standalone thriller – The Shadow Man – was published in 2021 and her second, The Last Girl To Die, in 2022. She lives in Hampshire with her husband and three children.

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