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Wednesday, 14 September 2022

UNDERCOVER: CRIME SHORTS - Book review

 

This slim volume collects together six of author Jane Risdon’s crime short stories plus a brief extract of her first novel concerning Ms Lavinia Birdsong, a former MI5 officer.

‘Sweet Sable – the Red Siren’ is an enjoyable caper set in 1930s Hollywood, and Jane has captured the period and the jargon. Sable is a chanteuse some of the time – when she’s not seducing and then fleecing rich marks. She’s a fascinating character, yet 25 pages do not do her justice. Really, she has the potential to fill a book-length novel or novella. Certainly worth getting to know her – but hold onto your billfold!

‘Apartment 206c’ is also set in the States. China shares an apartment with Louise. While Louise goes out to work, China is a writer, usually draped over her laptop. This begins with a tense situation with noisy neighbors that then turns unpleasant. Before I got to the end, I did wonder if it was a variant on Rosemary’s Baby – but it wasn’t. 

The best in the collection is ‘Murder by Christmas’. Deceased Tiffany Blunt has left an intriguing will. ‘Those who’d hoped to inherit didn’t, and those who had been invited to attend without knowing why were suddenly beneficiaries. It was all a bit odd, really.’ (p45) This certainly had the flavor of a Ruth Rendell suspense tale with a set of dysfunctional and amoral characters. Again, these 21 pages, while satisfying, promised the potential of a longer work. With the right director, the story could be a successful TV one-off.

‘The Watchers’ was a clever story, with several watchers involved. Candice, having recently broken off with her boyfriend Ollie suspects she is being watched. She’s of a nervous disposition which doesn’t help. Or is she being paranoid? There was more than one twist to this tale. Let us just say, it doesn’t end well…

‘The Honey Trap’ concerns an unnamed Second Secretary to the British Embassy. He appears to be propositioned at the Majestic Hotel and is only too willing to retire to the attractive woman’s room. Naturally, telegraphed by the title, he is suspicious about her motives. This is a dark piece, but not too graphic, and the conclusion is open to interpretation. Again, I felt that giving this tale added depth of character would have made it especially chilling; if someone is going to be murdered, perhaps the reader needs to know more about them, to empathize. Still, overall, unnerving.

‘The Look’ is playful and deadly. An unnamed woman responds to a dating website and meets the unnamed man for a drink and a chat and shared enthusiasm over photography. They both have ‘the look’. That’s the playful part. Then, slowly, irrevocably, it gets dark, very dark. Murder will out – and there is a reason for it. Oh, and it paid well – very well. It would be a shame to say more as that would spoil the story. Yes, this too could make a suspenseful longer tale, whether novella or novel. A neat amusing ending which echoes the story’s title. 

Ms Birdsong Investigates Murder in Ampney Parva is an all-too-brief extract from a novel; there are at least two sequels in the works. Lavinia has ‘buried her real self, taking on the mantle of a hardened Madam – trafficker of girls.’ (p91) She is in a particularly disagreeable place, mixing with hard-hearted Eastern Europeans. The sample ends when she finds herself in a compromising situation that does not bode well for her future… Yes, we want to read on!

On the whole, there’s a wide variety of crime and murder offered within 92 pages which the reader feels impelled to keep turning.

 

  

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

SOME DIE HARD - Book review


Stephen Mertz’s debut novel (1979) has been reissued by Wolfpack Publishing. It’s a hardboiled private detective novel in a similar stable to Ross McDonald. Rock Dugan is an ex-stuntman and now a gumshoe.

An incident draws Rock to the door of Susan Court, the daughter of a millionaire who is dying. She has a wastrel brother Tommy who owes a lot of money to the local powerful hood Murray Zucco. There’s the question of the old man’s will. Mr Carlander Court is reinstating Susan in his will and shutting out Tommy. Susan wants Rock to protect her father until the will is changed next day. She is fearful that Tommy will murder his father to get the inheritance and pay off Zucco.

There follows a death – a kind of locked-room mystery right out of John Dickson Carr, only with a difference. I won’t spill the beans – though the blurb tends to, just a little. 

It’s clear that Mertz was learning his craft – for example, there are too many lengthy speeches by characters. But the flavor, the pace and the characters all add to an enjoyable mystery laced with wit.

The next Mertz book I shall read is Say It Was Murder. Looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

FALLING - Book review

 

With a really striking cover and almost four pages of praise from other authors and periodicals, this debut novel Falling by T J Newman cries out to be read. 

On this occasion, the hype is not overplayed.

From the traumatic beginning, it grabs the interest and never lets go. Airline pilot Bill Hoffman has taken on an extra shift, to fly Coastal Airways Airbus A320, Flight 416, from Los Angeles to New York – much to the disappointment of his wife Carrie and son Scott. He was going to miss his son’s big Little League game. 

Bill’s co-pilot is Ben Miro, and his aircrew is Big Daddy, Jo and newbie Kellie.

Shortly after take-off, Bill gets a message on his laptop. The private message and an image – of his wife, son and baby daughter held captive in their home. There’s a suicide vest strapped to Carrie’s chest… 

The captor is succinct. Bill has a choice: he must choose to crash the plane to save his family. 

Bill tells the kidnapper: ‘I’m not going to crash this plane and you’re not going to kill my family.’

A battle of wills begins. 

On the ground, the FBI gets involved – I won’t say how, but it’s necessary to heighten the tension.

And there’s plenty of tension.

The characters are well drawn and sympathetic, the background details seem highly authentic – Newman was a flight attendant with Virgin America for ten years. 

Recommended.

Newman tried 41 literary agents before finding one to enthuse over her book. After a bidding war with 14 major studios, Universal Pictures won the film rights to the book. They may need to change the film title, though, since there’s a 2020 film called Falling with Viggo Mortensen starring.

Monday, 5 September 2022

NINE LIVES - Book review


 

Peter Swanson’s Nine Lives (2022) is an intriguing thriller that keeps you turning the pages.

The starting concept is not necessarily new – nine people receive a list consisting of nine names, including their own. That’s all. No explanation. 

Then Frank Hopkins, the fifth on the list is found dead, murdered. The law find the list clasped in Frank’s hand.

Only when a second person with a name on the list dies do the authorities begin to worry. And the FBI gets involved – because special agent Jessica Winslow is also on that list… 

The whole thing is cleverly done. We get to know the characters and soon realise that when the book breaks into parts – indicated by the complete list – the chapter before that will mean the demise of someone else on that list.

Not all the people on the list are pleasant, though none seem to deserve death. Certainly, it must have been hard for the author to kill off a few of the characters since they were so likeable! 

Swanson keeps the suspense going virtually to the end.

Yes, the story is inspired by Agatha Christie’s (renamed) And Then There Were None (1939). Indeed, one character does allude to this book. Other books and authors are mentioned as well. 

An enjoyable ‘whodunit’ with a dark side.

Note: Book titles are not copyright and there are a good number with this title. My comments on a non-fiction book with this title can be found at

http://nik-writealot.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-writers-research-cat-burglar.html

Sunday, 4 September 2022

THE CALL – A novel that never was…

While on a school cruise ship MS Dunera around about 1963, I thought of a story idea: a young student hearing a call… and diving overboard to rescue the caller. He was considered lost at sea… but in fact survived and had many adventures…

From that evolved a series of drawings featuring the young man and a young woman he met – and continued having to rescue! Well, I was only fifteen! And I was clearly influenced by the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (See below for the drawings)

The Dunera was built in 1937 on the Clyde by Barclay Curle. Originally it was a troop ship then later was converted to a floating school by The British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd.


Dunera anchored off St Hellier, Jersey

The ship had dormitory accommodation for the pupils together with classrooms, lecture theatre/cinema, library and deck space for sports. There was also accommodation for teachers and independent travellers. As a floating school it first set sail from Greenock, Scotland on April, 12 1961 and completed fourteen more trips in that year.

While onboard we visited St Helier in Jersey (Channel Islands), Vigo in Spain, and Lisbon in Portugal.

The ship was scrapped in Spain in 1967.

Here are some drawings of adventures that were never written about.

 


 Deck sport on Dunera-1963


The Meeting-1964

This picture was put on the art class wall by the teacher for several weeks; 

he pointed out that all the wristwatches had the same time!



Split-second timing - April 1963


Is this a dagger I see before me? - April 1963


Desperate rescue attempt - May 1963

Precipitous rescue - April 1963

and finally...

Wings of Death - August 1964





Friday, 26 August 2022

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING - Book review


 Delia Owens’ debut novel has sold millions of copies worldwide and has thousands of reviews on Amazon, so there would seem little point to my adding to the comments. And yet, that’s what I do – review books I’ve read. My main reason is to remind myself of the story. I’ve been making lists of books read since the 1960s (with a break of a few years – 1967-1981) but I must admit that now I cannot recall the storylines of many titles; I only started writing reviews in the 1982 – when I received books from publishers to review for the British Science Fiction Association and also my own small press sci-fi/fantasy magazine Auguries. 

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. ‘Crawdad’ is slang for crayfish; they don’t sing as such but make a sound termed a ‘pulse train’ similar perhaps to Morse Code (my Google search tells me). But what’s the meaning of the book title? ‘Go as far as you can – way out yonder… far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.’ (p111)

Part mystery, part coming-of-age, the book begins with a prologue in 1969 when a body is found in the marsh of the North Carolina coast: ‘the marsh and sea separated the village from the rest of the world, the only connection being the single-lane highway that limped into town on cracked cement and potholes’ (p16). ‘Mostly, the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged.’ (p17). Then we jump back in time to 1952 for chapter one: ‘The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.’ (p5) That first line tells you we’ve got something original here. Lyrical, eloquent and steeped in feeling.Yes, there are aspects that require the reader to suspend disbelief; but this is fiction, after all, and if you’re immersed in the story, you benefit.

The young girl Kya has been abandoned by her mother (domestic abuse; don’t tell the ‘trigger-warning dons!) and lives in a marsh shack with her unreliable father and older brother, Jodie. She does not go to school but learns about nature at first-hand. Oh, she tried school for a day, but nobody took kindly to the ‘marsh girl’: ‘Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak.’ (p29)

After Jodie left, Kya went out in the boat with her Pa when the man was lucid. Her Pa introduced her to Jumpin’, an old black man who ran the marine gas station on the wharf. We’re not told she is shy; instead, we get: ‘Kya searched her bare toes but found no words.’ (p64) 

By 1960 she’d grown some, budding into a beguiling beauty. ‘Loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest.’ (p100)

Her loneliness is assuaged by two boys who become men, but her interactions with most people are minimal. After her father goes away, she has learned to live alone and cope with a little help from Jumpin’ and his good wife.

Looming over her fascinating life story are the flashes forward to 1969 and the mysterious death that might be a murder. And the locals suspect that Kya is responsible for the death. 

It would be unfair to reveal more, save to say that the pages demand to be turned.

The many descriptive passages evoke the place and the person of Kya. The reader can almost feel being there. Besides being a murder mystery, it’s also a love story. Uplifting, poignant, and ultimately surprising. This book deserves its fame.