BOOKS TO DIE FOR edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke

Books to Die For is a non-fiction catalogue of short essays, all written by mystery and thriller authors, recommending a crime novel that they feel deserves celebrating. There are well over a hundred of these, arranged in chronological order starting at 1841 and ending at 2008.

I really enjoyed reading through these. As well as hearing about an author’s favourite novel (or even one they feel is undeservedly overlooked), it also gives a fascinating insight into the authors themselves. There are some obvious choices, but there’s also several obscure novels listed, which added to the interest and highlights the sheer complexity and breadth of the crime genre. It’s also nice to spot the way certain titles or authors have influenced future generations of writers. As with any kind of book like this, I came away with a vastly depleted bank balance as every few pages I found myself scanning through my favourite booksellers and ordering titles that particularly stood out. The enthusiasm and insight given by the entries really comes across in the reading. Even if you’re knowledgeable about the genre, you’ll enjoy hearing the recommendations. This one comes highly recommended. The editors have done a great job in collecting together a wide scope of titles from a very diverse array of crime authors.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT : THE GREATEST DETECTIVE IN THE WORLD by Mark Aldridge

Such is the size of my teetering pile of ‘to-be-read’ books that rarely nowadays do I approach the end of a book with a feeling of regret. And yet that’s exactly what I did as I neared the end of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. It’s a hefty tome anyway – over 480 pages in the hardcover version – and yet I yearned to spend more time within its pages. Published to celebrate the centenary year that Hercule Poirot first made his appearance (in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles) it details the extraordinary presence of Belgium’s most brilliant detective across the various media platforms – from novels and short stories, plays, radio and television, even computer games and graphic novels and the continuation novels penned by Sophie Hannah.

Professor Mark Aldridge is a Christie expert and has written previously on the subject, but this is an assured book. It takes a chronological approach to Poirot’s appearances, and is jam-packed with fascinating trivia and never-before-published correspondence. Each of the entries is illustrated with wonderful cover art or delightful photographs to add that bit extra. The level of research is outstanding. Aldridge provides for each section a spoiler-free synopsis (something that’s easier said than done) and yet is still enthusiastic and detailed enough to make it engrossing. There are snippets from various reviews of the time so we get to see how each novel was critically received, and it’s interesting to follow Christie’s evolution as a fledgling writer into one of the world’s bestselling authors. Through snippets of letters to her agent, her character and private thoughts – including her tenacity in dealing with her publisher, and her strong views on her own creations – are revealed, which feels like it gives us a real insight into her life. As someone who read the entire Agatha Christie output many years ago, it certainly made me what to revisit her work.

This really is a delight for the Agatha Christie fan. I cannot find anything at all to detract from it. In fact, such is its quality, that a follow-up – featuring Miss Marple and Tommy & Tuppence and the stand-alone novels – is crying out to be written. Here’s hoping that this Poirot book sells in large quantities. If quality is any measure, it certainly deserves to be a best-seller. As this is easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in quite a while, whether you’re an Agatha Christie fan or just a casual crime reader, this title comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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FAMILY MATTERS by Anthony Rolls

For several years the British Library have been publishing their Crime Classics series, containing titles from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction and beyond. Some of them are quite well-known, others more obscure.

This particular novel, Family Matters, originally published in 1933, is rather unconventional in comparison to some of the others, in that it’s an inverted mystery – we know from the start who will die, and which other characters would like him dead, but what we only find out at the end is which suspect was actually guilty. What this structure loses in its intrigue it by far makes up in its characterisation (a common criticism levelled at ‘whodunnits’, as revealing too much is a giveaway of the solution). The characters, it has to be said, are pretty unpleasant, and I felt I cared little for any of them. The first quarter of the novel is a bit of a slog, and had this been my first Crime Classic I might have abandoned the book, but I’ve read enough of the series to trust in the titles selected, and so I persisted. I’m glad I did. Whilst this isn’t going to convert anyone to an avid follower of the series, it’s different enough to hold a charm. Not recommended to the casual crime fan – especially one more used to the fast pace of a contemporary crime novel – but for those of us who don’t mind a rather more ponderous and languid read, it’s an entertaining enough way to pass the time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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THE UNDULATING

Just a quick update to let you know that I have written a new short story, my first in a few years. It is called The Undulating, and is 6400 words. It’s one I particularly enjoyed writing – especially as it kept me occupied during lockdown towards the end of 2020 – and (to me at least) it feels like a special story, coming so long into a period when I genuinely never thought I’d write again. It will be published in Black Static magazine in a month or two. This marks my fourth appearance in this great publication. More information as I get it.

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RIPLEY UNDER GROUND by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote five novels featuring the murderous anti-hero Tom Ripley, starting with The Talented Mr Ripley in 1955. Ripley Under Ground is the sequel, published in 1970. It picks up with him living in a small town just outside Paris, married to Heloise, a well-to-do French woman. It’s been six years since the events of the first novel, and Ripley has lost none of his capacity for deceit. He’s heavily involved in art forgery and thinks nothing of masquerading as the deceased artist in order to continue the pretence (and avoid the fraud being revealed). Things take a turn for the unexpected, and Ripley has to take drastic measures to conceal his role in the crime.

I really enjoyed this novel. Highsmith is a master at psychological suspense, and does a great job of involving us in the central character’s cold-blooded sense of self-preservation. It’s remarkable really how she gets us rooting for such an obvious bad-guy. But there’s something innately likeable about Tom Ripley. He’s quite the charmer. This novel feels quite a bit more relaxed and is written with more confidence than The Talented Mr Ripley, although in fairness it was written further into Highsmith’s career, when her craft was clearly honed to perfection. The plot itself is faintly ludicrous, but she manages to pull off the more unlikely aspects of it by grounding the twists, giving them an aura of inevitability. It flits between France, London and Salzburg, the latter being the location for a particularly gruesome scene involving murder and its aftermath. Overall this is a great read, with a fascinating central character and enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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SNOW by John Banville

John Banville is a critically acclaimed author. His literary novels have won the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Under the pen name Benjamin Black, Banville has written crime fiction, stating that he sees his Black work as a craft, whereas as Banville he is an artist. With his latest novel Snow, the distinction between the two personas has become blurred.

The Benjamin Black novels largely concern Quirke, a pathologist investigating crimes in 1950s Dublin. Snow is the first crime novel written by Banville, also set in 50s Ireland, with a very brief reference to Quirke. The premise initially sounds like a story from the golden age of crime writing, as a priest is found murdered in a remote manor house in the Irish countryside during a snow storm. Very few of the suspects – the retired Colonel and his younger second-wife, his two children, and an assortment of staff – seem particularly upset by Father Tom’s sudden demise. Enter Inspector Strafford, Protestant police officer, whose presence and desire to uphold justice push back against the wish of the authorities to hush up the whole thing. However the gruesome details of the crime, and a dark undercurrent of motive, make this as far from a cosy-mystery as you could hope to find.

The character of St John Strafford is a fascinating one. He has an air of melancholy surrounding him, and he is dogged by the feeling that he might be in the wrong profession. I really hope we see more of him in further books. The writing is, as you’d expect from John Banville, beautiful and lyrical. It perfectly evokes the attitudes and societal viewpoints of post-war Ireland, and this is the novel’s greatest achievement, for whilst it undoubtedly is a crime story, Banville seems less interested in the plot than he is in depicting a realistic impression of an isolated community populated by three-dimensional characters (something that many of the golden-age crime novels are often criticised for). But that’s not to say that the mystery of Father Tom’s death is not a satisfying one to puzzle over. The writing is atmospheric and unhurried, and the novel is well-paced. Its denouement feels inevitable, yet there are surprises before the end. The clues are all there. Banville plays fair with the audience, and there are a couple of nice twists on the journey. I love literary historical crime, and this is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when the shackles of genre are forgotten for a while and powerful storytelling is allowed to flourish. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell

The Searching Dead is published by Flame Tree Press (following its original publication several years ago in a limited edition by PS Publishing) and is the first part of Ramsey Campbell’s Daoloth trilogy, to be followed by Born to the Dark and The Way of the Worm. Set in Liverpool in 1952 it follows the story of schoolboy Dominic Sheldrake and his friends Jim and Bobby. Dominic, the narrator, lives with his parents and attends a local all-boys Catholic school. When his class goes on a school trip to France to visit some war sites, Christian Noble, one of the teachers, starts to display some sinister behaviour, drawing the three friends into a terrifying encounter with forces beyond the grave.

I’ve been a fan of Ramsey Campbell since I first came across his short stories in the 80s, which further lead me to his novels. His writing career began many years ago, initially emulating the Lovecraftian mythos stories, but he quickly moved on to finding his own distinct voice and occupying his own place in the list of genre greats. Campbell has a wonderful ability to render even the most mundane object unsettling, and possesses a superb skill in creating funny situations that often quickly give way to disturbing ones, with a deft turn of phrase. It feels like much of the childhood scenes in The Searching Dead might be drawn from Campbell’s own life, and that autobiographical aspect (Dominic has a desire to become a writer) befits the novel. There are several scenes which are so brilliantly written as to evoke a real sense of dread and disquiet, and he manages to balance the coming-of-age story perfectly against the main strand of the narrative, which is the cosmic horror suggested at by the antagonist Noble. The more overtly horror aspects of the book are subtly done, with numerous instances of Campbell’s skill in creating scenes worthy of nightmare. Most horror novels would be proud of having just one of these scenes, but The Searching Dead achieves this over and over, accumulating the dread until the overall affect is immensely disturbing. Despite this just being the opening book of the trilogy, there’s a sense of one chapter closing and another opening as the narrator hints at the horrors to come. I really liked the character of Dominic and I’m interested in hearing what happens to him as he grows older. No doubt the darkness that he’s escaped from is only a temporary respite. I suspect Christian Noble and his dark church is not done with him yet. This is a superb slice of cosmic horror, one that works on many levels, and is a worthy read. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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LONDON GOTHIC by Nicholas Royle

London Gothic is Nicholas Royle’s fourth collection of short stories, published by Confingo Publishing. It contains 15 stories, covering a period between 2000 – 2020, and includes seven original tales.

I first came across the fiction of Nicholas Royle in 1988, after reading The Dandelion Woman in the debut issue of Fear magazine. He’s a very clever writer, in that he manages to make his stories amusing as well as deeply unsettling, hinting at far more than his words actually say. This process of suggestion sometimes also requires the reader to bring something to the story, adding to the sense of involvement and disorientation. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, with a clever use of repetition, of overlapping strands or converged characters. In a Nicholas Royle story, nothing is as it seems. His misdirection and carefully layered writing deserves attention, because the accumulation of seemingly innocent phrases can suddenly take on new meaning, often in a startling fashion.

Unsurprisingly these stories are set in London, however there’s a contemporary feel to them, pushing back against the gothic aspect of the book’s title. They often deal with subjects like film, art and literature, sometimes mocking characteristics of modern city life, such as gentrification and pretentiousness. There’s an unsettling undercurrent to the stories. Many of the characters are disturbed individuals, often haunted by emotional spectres from their past. As with reading anything by Nicholas Royle I always come away from the book with a list of notes, references to particular aspects of cultural mentions, which sometimes serve as touchstones to the story; obscure coincidences or precisely described details which dovetail into the narrative. Several of the pieces are experimental in form, but always effective. Particular favourite stories from this collection were L NDON, Trompe l’oeil, Standard Gauge, Train, Night, Artefact, Guys, L0ND0N and The Vote. According to the publishers, Royle is also planning on projects devoted to Manchester and Paris. I, for one, can hardly wait. As it’s one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years, this one comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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HE by John Connolly

He is a fictionalised account of the life and and work of Stan Laurel, the creative half of the world-famous comedy duo Laurel & Hardy. It’s written in a very distinctive style, which does take some getting used to. However I think the style is an important aspect of the book, as it reminds us that this isn’t a biography as such, it’s a novel, or if you prefer a reimagining of Laurel’s life. Connolly does a superb job of recreating the entertainment world of the last century, guiding us from the dusty stages of the vaudeville scene, through the tentative step into pictures, eventually reaching an era in which cinema is seemingly replaced by television. The seediness and reality of early 20th century life is revealed. There is no nostalgic rose-tinted glasses here, it depicts the early days as brutally honest as possible, detailing various scandals and affairs and deaths that occurred. There are a great number of chapters, some of which are just a paragraph or two long, so it’s a very fast read. At times the book returns to Laurel’s final days, spent in retirement at his Oceana apartment in Santa Monica, where the memories and ghosts of his past linger. The regrets, the frustrations of his many failed relationships, the drive that propelled him from just an understudy of Chaplin into a comedy great in his own right, they all hover just out of sight.

By the novel’s real power, its beating heart, is in the way it portrays the relationship between Stan Laurel and the man who was the other half of the duo, Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy. There’s a mutual respect between them both, very tender, which edges towards heartbreak as they grow old and the inevitable happens. The regret, in particular, from both men, on the poor decisions they made in life, is incredibly moving and affecting. Certain other characters – Ben Shipman, Laurel’s solicitor, and the various women he had relationships with – are also vividly painted. It’s a remarkable book and one I have no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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FIRST PERSON by Richard Flanagan

When a struggling writer is contacted by notorious conman Siegfried Heidl and offered £10,000 to ghost-write his memoirs in just 6 weeks, it’s too much to turn down. Despite the man’s reputation, despite his odd behaviour and his uncertain character, Kif is drawn under his spell. As the fraudster’s story progresses, the writer has to balance out the pressure from his publisher against the shifting-sands of Heidl in an effort to work.

Firstly, I have to say this book is incredibly well-written. It feels like an important book, and the author has won several writing award. The style is very modern and there’s an autobiographical element to it that gives the novel a sense of authenticity (especially if you know the background to the actual story). And yet I came away with the book feeling cold. It didn’t really work for me. Which is sad because I usually enjoy reading about writers and the literary world. If the novel had been poorly written I’d have little hesitation in urging to avoid it, but in this instance I feel the problem lies with me, not the book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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