THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS by Elly Griffiths

Bestselling novelist Elly Griffiths has been writing mystery stories since 2009’s The Crossing Places, which launched series investigator Dr Ruth Galloway. Her 1950s Brighton-set series featuring Mephisto and Stephens began with The Zig Zag Girl, published in 2014.

The Stranger Diaries was the first novel featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, a rather interesting central character quite unlike the stereotypical police detective of ‘regular’ mystery novels. She lives with her parents in Shoreham, on the south coast.

The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka’s account of Peggy Smith’s death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her…
And that Peggy Smith had been a ‘murder consultant’ who plotted deaths for authors, and knew more about murder than anyone has any right to…
And when clearing out Peggy’s flat ends in Natalka being held at gunpoint by a masked figure…

There’s something incredibly enjoyable about ‘cosy crime’, whether it’s the intricate plotting of an Agatha Christie, the comforting historical charm of a Josephine Tey, or even the more-modern, but psychologically nuanced, PD James, these novels are reassuringly safe. Often they’re criticised as being one-dimensional, populated by poorly-sketched characters, whose murders are so anaemic as to trivialise such a heinous crime as homicide by making them totally devoid of reality, but over the years the cosy crime novel has endured.

The Postscript Murders is a thoroughly enjoyable romp with a blistering pace and a few surprises along the way. The characters are well-drawn and rounded, with plenty of variety to ensure it doesn’t get confusing. Whilst it’s fair to say the plot is ludicrous and implausible, it’s delivered with enough panache it seems churlish to complain too much. I particularly enjoyed the section set in Aberdeen, at a hotel during a literary crime festival, and there is an affectionate undercurrent of playfulness about the whole proceedings, despite it involving a murder. As someone who has attended similar events, I recognised certain observations that brought a smile to my lips. The genre of crime writing is an incredibly broad church (no pun intended), but if you prefer something gentle and fun as opposed to gritty and thrilling, I think you’ll probably enjoy The Postscript Murders. Nothing ground-breaking, nothing too edgy, but nevertheless a good way to spend a few hours.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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DARK TALES by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest writers of weird fiction of all time. Her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are landmark titles in the classic catalogue of acclaimed supernatural fiction. Her short story The Lottery has been widely anthologised since it was first published in 1948.

Dark Tales contains a collection of 17 short stories, most of them inspiring a disquieting sense of unease. Jackson captures a wonderful aura of Americana, with a welcome lack of pretentiousness. The writing is timeless, straightforward and deceptively ordinary, concealing a macabre and sometimes startling turn of phrase. Many of the stories have a vaguely surreal, yet coherent, feel, invoking the detached subtle qualities of a dream. There’s a great deal going on beneath the prose; hinting at things unspoken, a suggestion of things beyond what seems outwardly apparent. Like Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson also possessed a particular talent for documenting the little cruelties that go on in relationships, familial tensions and petty behavioural quirks, which lend the stories a dark emotional undercurrent.

As with any anthology or short story collection, not every story worked for me, but the ones that did, by far make up for the ones that didn’t. Shirley Jackson is rightly called a master of the dark tale, and Dark Tales does exactly what its title suggests, in showcasing her superb literary talent. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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ENGINES BENEATH US by Malcolm Devlin

Rob lives with his parents on The Crescent, a row of houses built to accommodate the employees of The Works and their families. Beneath the city, machines rumble and gears grind, a mysterious and persistent counterpoint to the lives of the residents. When Lee Wrexler and his father move into The Crescent, the dynamic of the street kids changes. Lee brings something from the outside, something that dares question the way of life that the families of The Crescent have taken generations to learn to accept.

This is quite simply brilliant, easily one of the best novellas I have read in many years. The characters are well-drawn and compelling, the childhood scenario familiar and engaging. But it’s only when the weird aspect of the narrative is introduced that the sense of wrongness begins to infiltrate the plot, creating a haunting and memorable story. The subtle ambiguity and carefully disciplined level of exposition are pitch-perfect, and Devlin does a wonderful job of balancing the strange proceedings with the mesmerising sense of nostalgia. In fact, I’d welcome reading something of novel length set in this universe, such is the richness of the setup. I’d class this novella as essential reading for lovers of weird fiction and so it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE by Raymond Carver

A collection of short stories from one of America’s best short fiction writers. The prose is stripped down and spare, often snapshots of ordinary lives, but throbbing with regret and sorrow. Carver’s style feels very straightforward from the outside, but the detail and dialogue tell the real story – often only after contemplating the meaning upon finishing it – focusing on quietly desperation of the usually working-class (blue-collar) middle-aged men and women, living their lives in an ordinary, recognisable world.
The dialogue is probably the best I’ve ever read. It’s exactly how people talk, lending the characters a real sense of literary honesty. Whilst not every one worked for me, the ones that did – Tell the Women We’re Going, After the Denim, So Much Water So Close to Home, The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off – are alone worth the price of the book.
These slices of life won’t appeal to everyone, but they did to this reader, and the economy of words and regretful themes, means this is a collection I can recommend highly.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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SURVIVOR SONG by Paul Tremblay

Over the past few years Paul G Tremblay has steadily built an impressive reputation as a writer of dark fiction, with such acclaimed novels as A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World. I’ve long been a fan of his short fiction but until now his longer work has evaded me. So I thought it was about time I rectified that.

Survivor Song, his latest publication, tells the story of pregnant Natalie, and her struggle to stay safe in the wake of an extremely virulent outbreak of a rabies-like virus that has decimated Massachusetts (and maybe beyond). She makes contact with her old friend, Dr Ramola ‘Rams’ Sherman, a paediatrician at a local hospital, and together they embark on an anxious journey to save Natalie and protect the life of her unborn child.

The story is eerily prescient – in terms of the societal impact during a pandemic – and at times makes for uncomfortable reading, due to the all-too familiar nature of the proceedings – things like road-blocks, self isolation, supermarket stockpiling, societal panic, etc. The novel takes place over just a few hours, and is fast-paced and well-written, with a beautifully controlled prose. What I most liked about the story was that Tremblay largely ignores the wider impact of the pandemic, and instead focuses on the characters and its direct effect on them, which in turn offers us glimpses of the wider world as a secondary strand. It’s a technique that works well, never letting us forget that these are not merely puppets who have devastation thrown at them in an effort to see how they cope, but instead are very real characters who behave in a believable manner.

There’s a stark inevitability to the plot, and Tremblay should be applauded for his integrity on delivering on the developments that he sets up as the story progresses. The characters of the two central women are nicely balanced and varied, and while I didn’t particularly care for the two teenagers that they come across, the story still felt natural and uncontrived.

The author makes a clear effort to distance the plot from that of a ‘zombie’ novel – even going so far as to have one of the characters dismiss the word outright – but this book works equally as well as a zombie novel as it does any kind of genre thriller involving engaging characters and an over-reaching threat. The science feels authentic, and is subtle enough to be believable, especially with the comparisons against life in COVID-19 2020 adding an extra level of verisimilitude. I’ll definitely be keen to check out more of Tremblay’s novels. I really had a great time reading Survivor Song and I have no hesitation in recommending it widely.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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AFTER SUNDOWN edited by Mark Morris

I’ve long been a fan of horror fiction, especially of the novella and short story and length, which seems ideally suited to the genre. As a child I gravitated from the popular Three Investigators mysteries in my local library – created by American author Robert Arthur and featuring the real-life film director Alfred Hitchcock as a character – through name association towards the ubiquitous Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, also edited by Robert Arthur. These books, most of which possessed brilliantly evocative titles, were crammed with an array of talented writers, including a great deal of short stories written by crime authors but also quite a few classics of the macabre – HP Lovecraft, Patricia Highsmith, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Joan Aiken, MR James, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, etc, etc.

I’m nearly 50 years old now, and it’s fair to say that more recently my impression of the horror genre has become somewhat jaded. I’ve found myself reading far more crime than horror in the last few years. Of why I’m not really sure. Perhaps I’d become desensitised, or took for granted just what the genre has to offer. So nowadays I’m always slightly wary about picking up a new horror anthology. Disappointment is just so…well, disappointing.

After Sundown, edited by Mark Morris and published by Flame Tree Press, contains 20 original horror stories featuring some of the genre’s brightest contemporary names. Sixteen of these tales were commissioned from established writers, with the remaining four selected from an open submission window. This appears to be a great way of ensuring a decent standard whilst at the same time giving voice to emerging talent. It’s testament to the quality of the stories in that there’s no discernible difference between the pros and the lesser-known authors. Mark Morris has done a great job in putting together a fine selection.

There’s a refreshing lack of pretentiousness about these stories. The authors span several continents so there’s a decent array of themes and styles. Each tale had a very distinct voice, with a superb variety that perfectly illustrates what a broad church the genre covers. I had a blast reading this book. It really has reinvigorated my interest in the horror genre. Hopefully this will be the first in an ongoing annual publication from Flame Tree Press. And in that regard After Sundown is a great way to launch the series. Each tale is well-written, even if not every story was to my personal taste. But that’s the exciting thing about anthologies; there’s always another one coming along if the previous story didn’t quite work for you. My favourite tales were probably the ones written by CJ Tudor, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, Thana Niveau, Stephen Volk, Catriona Ward and Paul Finch, but really there’s not a bad story in there so I have no hesitation in urging everyone to give this a try. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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WE OTHERS : NEW AND SELECTED STORIES by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler. I’ve long been a fan of his writing, most notably his short stories (some of which are quite long). We Others: New and Selected Stories collects together eight new tales, alongside 15 others gathered from his previous 30 years of being published. If you’ve never read Steven Millhauser before, this is a perfect place to start.

Millhauser’s prose is precise and controlled, lacking in melodrama, alive with a wondrous sense of illusion. These stories blend the uncanny with the mundane, all written in Millhauser’s distinct style, which on occasion can seem remote, and yet at the same time make the magic feel all that more awesome. The sensory elements are vivid and evocative. Thematically the stories can sometimes come across as repetitive – almost like a musical refrain – but Millhauser explores them with such conviction that it’s impossible not to allow oneself to be drawn into the anxieties and emotions.

While not every story worked for me – something that’s symptomatic with most short story collections or anthologies – the ones that did work, which was the majority of them, easily elevate this book to such that I would consider it a worthwhile addition to the genre of weird/uncanny short fiction. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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HERE WE ARE by Graham Swift

It is summer, 1959, and Jack Robbins is the charming compare at an ‘end of the pier’ show on Brighton seafront. Also on the bill – and grabbing much of the acclaim – are stage magician Ronnie Deane and his lovely assistant Evie White, performing as Pablo and Eve. We journey back through the three lives of the characters, seeing their humble beginnings as they endure the Second World War and the impact it has on their families. This is a love triangle like no other. Evie’s memories of that fateful summer are painful and filled with some regret, but we reflect on her life and a pivotal event that occurred on the final night of that summer season.

Graham Swift has been on my radar for a year or two. I have copies of Waterland, Out of This World and The Light of Day somewhere around, purchased on a whim. I was aware of the film version of one of his novels – Last Orders – although I’ve never seen it, but the subject matter of Here We Are appealed to me as much as the author’s reputation. I’m pleased to say that my reading of this very short novel (almost a novella) has given me a strong desire to search out his other work.

Swift won the Booker Prize for Last Orders so I was expecting something rather literary and flowery or staid. However the writing style is quite the opposite, it’s beautifully understated and unpretentious. There’s an element of the prose that seems deliberately ambiguous, but in the context of the novel’s themes – magic and memory and misdirection – it works perfectly. The three central characters – Ronnie in particular – are fleshed out enough so you really care for them. The scenes where Ronnie is evacuated out of London to stay with a family in the Oxfordshire countryside are especially good, given the impact this ‘new family’ has in the shaping of his adult life. The depiction of life in the variety industry also has a real ring of authenticity. But it’s a wonderful sleight of hand that the book pulls about a quarter of the way through that really drives the story – as we leap forward to 2009 to see one of the characters as they are now, in their mid 70s. This sense of memory and emotional complexity really does add layers to the story and brings into question our perception of what actually happened. It’s tinged with sadness but also hints at much more beyond. It feels very British. I really wish it were longer – I would have enjoyed spending time with these characters, even if the novel were four times its length – but maybe its brevity is what makes it feel so magical.

Needless to say I am now keen to read anything else by Graham Swift. This is a novel I can recommend without hesitation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s debut novel from 1992 has become something of a modern classic (although, is 28 years really ‘modern’ anymore) and is featured on many readers’ ‘favourite novels’ list. I bought the book about a decade ago and since its publication Tartt has gone on to write two more critically acclaimed novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. So I thought it was about time I gave it a shot.

The Californian narrator of the novel, Richard Papen, arrives at a private college in New England, to study Classics under the tutelage of an eccentric professor, Julien Morrow. The class is a close-knit group, containing only five other students – Henry Winter, fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macauley, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. They are a lofty, arrogant group; difficult to like. But Richard begins to grow close to them as the term progresses. When a shocking secret is revealed, Richard is taken into the others’ confidence. This knowledge comes at a price. The aftermath begins to take its effect on their existences. Slowly, inexorably, the truth begins to blur and facts are revealed, and the lives of the group start to unravel, eventually with murderous consequences.

The Secret History is a loooong book. I think it checks in at nearly 192,000 words, which – for any novel, let alone a first novel – is remarkable. But more than its length, it’s also a very dense novel, in that the prose style is rather classical and old-fashioned, very befitting of the subject. But I have to say, I loved every single one of its pages. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Secret History instantly goes into my favourite novels of all time list.

The narrator is the most likeable character. He’s from a modest upbringing, unlike the others in the group who all come from privileged backgrounds. There’s a great deal of snobbery and entitlement to them, but Tartt is superb at conveying the development of their relationships. In time you get to see the vulnerability of the characters so that by the end you get to, if not quite like them, at least feel you know them well. There’s an almost timeless feel to the prose; it seems like it could be set either in the 1950s just as much as its contemporary setting.

The prologue is up there with some of the best opening paragraphs ever written – it’s closely behind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for me – and even in the first line you know exactly which of the characters is going to do. So I suppose to some extents it’s an inverted mystery. However the story isn’t really the point of the novel. It’s the journey that counts in this one, not the destination (although the murder doesn’t occur at the end of the novel anyway). It is fascinating to see the way the dynamic of the group changes, and the development of the characters’ mental states as the full impact of what they’ve done starts to take hold. From a cinematic perspective The Secret History reminded me of a cross between Dead Poet’s Society and The Talented Mr Ripley. Actually, I could imagine fans of Patricia Highsmith loving this, as the suspense and psychological journey the characters embark on is something prevalent in much of her fiction.

It’s testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she manages to pull off a couple of ludicrous plot points and still make them believable. You accept these as part of the story because you always feel she is 100% in control of the prose. The atmosphere is spot on, the character development is sound, there’s a satisfying pace to the proceedings, and the whole thing has the air of melancholy and tragedy looming over it, a suggestion of the numinous; even a hint of the supernatural. I just know that this is a novel I’ll return to every few years. I absolutely loved it and have no hesitation of recommending it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE BAKER STREETS edited by David Thomas Moore

An anthology of short stories featuring differing takes on the character of Sherlock Holmes, with settings as far back as medieval England to late 60s New York City to the future. This book contains 14 stories from a variety of authors, all of whom bring something different and interesting to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

I must admit to being something of a traditionalist when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, mainly due to the fact that I have a great fondness for the Victorian England setting, equally as much as I do the characters. So I went into this book with fairly low expectations, not based on the authors but instead on my narrow view of whether I would probably accept the idea of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson being anywhere across time and place. I’m pleased to say that, to a large degree, the authors confounded my own narrow-minded expectations.

It was interesting to see how the characters could be interpreted in different ways. Whilst it’s fair to say that not all of the stories worked for me – a feeling not unknown with anthologies containing short stories from different writers – there was much fun to be had with the ones I really did enjoy. It’s testament to the authors that the character of Holmes, despite changes in sex and location and time settings, feels consistent enough with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character as to remain relevant. Recommended, especially to fans of Sherlock Holmes with an open view to the original canon.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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