Three Psychological Thrillers – Emma Flint, Ali Land and CL Taylor

Psychological thrillers are hugely popular at the moment although regular readers of my reviews will spot that they don’t feature often on Crimepieces. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s just that they tend to get pushed to one side by all my other reading commitments. However, an event at Waterstones in Liverpool and an early proof of CL Taylor’s next book gave me the opportunity to indulge in this genre.

Little Deaths is Emma Flint’s debut and has recently been long listed for the Bailey’s Prize. It’s the story of Ruth Malone who comes under suspicion of killing her two children by authorities who disapprove of her lifestyle choices. Based on the true life story of Alice Crimmins who was imprisoned for a similar crime, Flint looks at collusion between newspapers and police, the attitude towards women who don’t fit into ideals of motherhood and how an injustice can result in a woman’s imprisonment. The book is beautifully written and perfectly balances the story of the crime and wider social issues.

Motherhood is also a feature of Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land. However, the mother is a serial killer whose daughter, Annie, shops to the police. Annie is fostered and becomes Milly, staying with her counsellor as she awaits her mother’s trial. The book is an exploration of how childhood abuse leaves its mark on a person and, as Milly’s court appearance approaches, the tension ramps up as the full extent of this damage is revealed. Good Me Bad Me is a compelling story that I read in almost one sitting. It was literally unputdownable.

The Escape is CL Taylor’s fourth book but my first read by this author. It’s a great example of how tension can be gradually ratched up to make an enthralling denouement. A stranger who asks Jo Blackmore for a lift in her car reveals she knows Jo’s husband, Max, and has a glove belonging to their daughter, Elise. What follows is a nightmarish scenario where Jo’s assessment of the danger she is in is ignored and she comes under suspicion of kidnaping her own daughter. Like with all the best thrillers, you’re rooting for the protagonist and desperate to know how the plot ends.

Three great examples of how alive and diverse the genre is and a refreshing change from my usual crime reads.

Review: Fiona Barton – The Widow

518GwIpuzML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Widow is a book everyone’s been talking about this year. It seems to have divided some readers but I found it to be an engrossing read with a slightly old-fashioned feel which I liked. I met its author, Fiona Barton, at a recent event and she spoke eloquently about how she came to publish this, her debut novel. The plot has a deceptively simple premise: a woman whose dead husband is believed to be a child murderer is now able to speak out to the press about the accusations levelled against him. How much does she know and does she believe in his guilt?

The book has a split narrative. Jean is the wife of Glen a delivery driver who police believe is responsible for the kidnapping of two year-old Bella. Now that he is dead, she is persuaded to tell her side of the story to a newspaper. Reporter Kate Waters is adept at getting her interviewees to reveal more than they expected but Jean is a complex character who has buried the truth deep down within her. The reader is also introduced to detective Bob Sparkes who has led the investigation into Bella’s disappearance. His inability to find her, dead or alive, has meant him being sidelined in his job and pilloried by the press.

The Widow is one of those rare books where I enjoyed each narrative voice equally. I think this was largely because of the strength of characterisation of Kate, the intrepid reporter. Fiona Barton has worked as a journalist on national newspapers and clearly has a in-depth knowledge of the industry. Kate is portrayed as both determined and compassionate with a sceptical view of Jean’s story. Jean is a woman from a different generation. She has come depend on Glenn completely and believes his excuses. Or so it seems. For Jean also has hidden depths to her.

It was a certainly a page-turning read. There’s something compulsive about Jean’s blindness to Glenn’s activities and we, as readers, are desperate to know what happened to Bella. It’s a horrible subject matter but Barton doesn’t go into unnecessary detail. A book that, for me, lived up to the hype.


Review: S J Bolton – Dead Scared

dead scared_500x760SJ Bolton is an author that I’ve been meaning to try for a while. Her books are both popular sellers but also garner decent reviews which is a difficult balance to achieve. This week I read Dead Scared almost in one sitting which is an achievement for a crime novel these days. However the tension  and narrative style made this book almost impossible to put down.

When a Cambridge student sets herself alight, police are convinced that there is someone behind the abnormally high suicides that have taken place at the university. DC Lacey Flint is sent to Cambridge posing a depression-prone student in an attempt to discover if there are darker forces encouraging students to take their own lives. However, DI Mark Joesbury is concerned for her welfare, particularly as Lacey has been sent in without having been given all the facts about the girls’ deaths. The only person at the University who is aware of Lacey’s true identity is psychiatrist Evi Oliver. However, Evi is suffering from her own emotional problems and is convinced that someone is watching her. When Lacey starts to experience the same nightmares as the other dead girls, it is clear that her own sanity and life are in danger.

Because I’m not used to Bolton’s writing it was difficult at the start to work out if I was reading psychological thriller with a supernatural element. This wouldn’t have bothered me, but as the novel progressed it became clear that the women involved were being manipulated by forces that although malevolent were almost certainly from flesh and blood adversaries. This is the most compelling aspect of the book. We feel the disorientation of the two professional women – Evi and Lacey – as they try and make sense of the suicides while feeling under attack themselves. Lacey has appeared in a previous book by Bolton and although there are references to this throughout Dead Scared it made me want to read Now You See Me.

The relationship between Lacey and Mark Joesbury is intriguing. Much is made of the ‘impossibility’ of any relationship developing but in this book at least, it’s not clear why. However the sense of attraction comes across clearly. All the characters are well developed and I particularly liked the portrayal of the burned girl lying in the hospital bed. It is rare in crime fiction that you get such a poignant portrayal of a victim and I thought it admirable that Bolton managed to get over the extent of the girl’s injuries without it seeming gratuitous.

The ending really was ‘unputtdownable’ and I guess my only complaint would be that I was left slightly stunned at the end. This is almost certainly a good thing.

Thanks to the publisher Transworld for the copy of my book. Other reviews can be found at Petrona and Notes of Life both of whom also comment on the compelling nature of the ending.

Review: Louise Welsh – The Girl on the Stairs

Louise Welsh is an author who other crime fiction readers have been urging me to try for a while. An excellent post by Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist got me thinking about life as an expat and how the tension that often arises from living in an unfamiliar country can work well in a crime novel. Chris Pavone’s recent book The Expats depicted expat life very well although I wasn’t as convinced by the plot. However, The Girl on the Stairs, the latest book by Louise Welsh combined a tense thriller storyline with realistic depictions of the loneliness and disorientation felt by someone new to a country.

Jane has relocated to Berlin from London to join Petra, her German partner. She misses her former flat but as she is in her last months of pregnancy, she realises her old lifestyle can no longer be sustained. She met her partner at a restaurant where city banker Petra was having a dinner with colleagues and Jane was working as a waitress. You get a sense of the imbalance of their relationship from the early days; Jane who was drifting through life and enjoying her small London flat and ambitious Petra was has taken in Berlin a sleek apartment in an old building. Jane becomes obsessed with Anna, a teenage girl who lives in the same apartment block. She believes that the girl is being abused by her father, Doktor Alban Mann. She also becomes obsessed by a derelict building that can be viewed from the back of the apartment and the strange lights that appear in the tenement at night.

Despite the thriller element, this was a book of surprising depth and subtlety. We come to see Jane as an unreliable narrator and we are never sure if her perceptions have been skewed by her disorientation at her new setting, her advanced stage of pregnancy which heightens her senses and makes her fearful about the people around her, or by a genuine fear of the situation in the building. Welsh is very good at subtlety giving details about the dynamics of a relationship and characters seen even fleetingly are brought to life on the page.

Berlin, seen through the eyes of Jane, comes across as provincial city that could be found anywhere in Europe. The effects of the Second World War are still present though and are woven into the narrative with a light touch to increase the sense of menace. As readers, in a few places we are led to believe that we are one step in front of Jane, although again our perceptions are skewed by the impression of malevolence bubbling under the surface.  The denouement when it comes is slightly over the top and it is only here I think we have to suspend disbelief a little. The book was an excellent read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with an unusual setting.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher. Other reviews can be found at Notes of Life, Eurocrime and The Little Reader Library.

Review: Tom Grieves – Sleepwalkers

Sometimes it’s useful to be reminded why I started reading crime fiction in the first place. Over the years, as I’ve read more books and discovered new writers and sub-genres, I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties of crime novels. Characterisation and location play an important role in what I choose to read, as does plot which I’ve noticed has become more and more complex, away from the traditional whodunnits of the classic crime era. However, what I once loved about crime novels when I started reading them as a teenager, was their sheer readability. I used to pick up a book and read it all the way through and look up and a couple of hours had gone by. Now that is no longer possible with the demands of home and work, and also, I thought, because books have increased in length so significantly. However, last week I read three books in a row that had that ‘unputdownable’ factor and one book, in particular, I read straight through (with a couple of tea stops). This was Tom Grieves excellent début novel Sleepwalkers.

Ben is an ordinary family man who keep experiencing violent dreams and has unexplained gaps in his childhood and more recent memories. His wife, Carrie, is supportive and reassuring but he is plagued by the conviction that something is wrong in his psyche. As his paranoia increases he is forced to confront the veracity of his own identity. Toby is a schoolboy also experiencing violent dreams and missing pieces of his memory. His parents repeatedly change his school rather than confront his problems. However in his latest school, his teacher, Anna, decides to take an interest in his case and the complicated lives of Ben and Toby suddenly converge.

The book starts out in traditional thriller mode, with a strong sense of the sinister and the dream and memory elements of Ben and Toby possibly having a supernatural cause. Happily (without giving too much of the plot away) this doesn’t turn out to be the case and the book explores instead the idea of a society within a society where a mixture of Orwellian forces and medical advances make it possible for a smoke and mirrors deception on a grand scale. It’s a very difficult book to review in detail without giving essentials of the plot away. However, I can say that although I’m not up on scientific processes I thought the whole concept fascinating and compelling.

The book is predicated on the idea that no-one is really who they seem. The writing and narrative style reminded me of the books of Michael Marshall (Smith) and I think this novel would appeal to his fans. Grieves, according to his biography, has worked in television as a script editor and producer and this novel started out as a script for TV that he couldn’t sell. A quick scan through Goodreads and Amazon reviews reveal that many people, as I did, picked up the book and couldn’t put it down which gives an idea of the compelling nature of the story. I hope that  this will be the start of a successful novel writing career for Grieves.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Quercus. The book has also been reviewed at Bookbag and Book Geeks.

Review: Elizabeth Haynes – Into the Darkest Corner

There has been plenty of news coverage in recent years of that most modern of phenomena – stalking. It is a crime that is often (but not always) perpetrated by men against women and occasionally it results in violence and death. It’s not a theme that I’ve particularly noticed in my crime fiction reading. I tend to avoid psychological thrillers and I also find the whole idea of obsession to be very upsetting. However I recently read Elizabeth Haynes’s excellent Into the Darkest Corner which I found to be a thoughtful and gripping thriller.

The book opens with the notes of a court case taking place in May 2005 and the interrogation of a Lee Brightman by the prosecuting counsel. Lee has clearly been stalking a woman called Catherine Bailey, and the questioning implies that Lee is either a policeman or a man in a position of authority. The book then alternates between the events of 2003/4 when Catherine meets and enters a relationship with Lee, and the present day where Cathy is attempting to rebuild her life. She clearly fears for her safety and has developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which causes her to check and re-check her flat every morning and evening. She meets a tenant in the flat upstairs, Stuart, who urges her to see a doctor friend of his and relationship between Stuart and Cathy slowly develops. However, the past and present are about to meet…

The  most successful aspect of this book was how some of the clichés of the psychological thriller genre were slightly skewed. Lee is revealed to be a policeman and therefore we as readers, as well as Catherine/Cathy, are forced to reconsider where places of safety can be found. The parallel narratives work well because although Cathy clearly considers herself to be under threat, she is also attempting a new relationship which is developed alongside the unfolding of the older abusive one. Again, as a reader we scrutinise the gentle Stuart more because of the way Lee duped Cathy.

Haynes is also very good at showing how Catherine changed from an outgoing, sexually active young woman to someone desperate to avoid human contact. Some parts are difficult to read. I found Lee repulsive from the very beginning and although I could see how he would be attractive to a girl like Catherine, I was mentally imploring her to stay well away from him. There is also an interesting take on female friendship which  I found to be entirely realistic and added an extra dimension to the book.

The fractured nature of the writing, moving between different periods perfectly suited this style of book and I’m looking forward to reading more of this author.

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at Petrona, Eurocrime and It’s A Crime.

Review: SJ Watson – Before I Go to Sleep

If August has been designated my ‘catch-up’ month, then this is a book I really should have read before now. Before I Go to Sleep, the début novel by S J Watson won numerous plaudits when it was published last year, including the 2011 CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Perhaps inevitably for a book that was so hyped it also failed to impress some reviewers and a quick glance at the Goodreads site shows a bewildering mix of one to five star reviews. So after being lent a copy by a friend, it was with some trepidation that I opened the book.

The story is fairly well known, but in summary the female protagonist, Christine, wakes up every morning and has to begin her life all over again. She suffers from a condition that means every time she goes to sleep she forgets the last twenty years or so. She is unaware that she has had an accident, that she is married to a man called Ben or has had a son who was killed in Afghanistan. The book is narrated through Christine’s eyes so we as readers see her dislocation every morning when she wakes up and has to rediscover her life afresh.

However Christine discovers that she has been seeing a doctor who has encouraged her to keep a notebook of her daily life. By picking up this notebook every morning, at first because of reminders from Doctor Nash and then through instinct or a gradual recovery of her memory, Christine discovers that  Ben has deliberately been withholding information about her life. As Christine tries to piece her life together, Ben suggests they go away for the week-end….

The greatest strength of this book was its ability to draw you into Christine’s story. It’s a great idea, a plot where the potential victim has to rediscover the menaces in her life every day. I think in relation to Christine’s illness you really do have to suspend your disbelief. I find it difficult to believe that someone who has had that level of care over the past twenty years is suddenly released into her home life without any involvement of the social services and that her husband Ben has found it so easy to repel doctors from contacting Christine.

I found it a page turner up to the point where Christine goes away with her husband and the writer is very good at keeping enough suspense to make you want to continue reading. Perhaps inevitably the denouement was slightly disappointing and again required you to suspend reality. But overall I thought it a good idea, and for a début book well executed.

The book has been reviewed by scores of publications including The Guardian and The Independent. Blogger’s reviews include Eurocrime, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona and Crimesquad.