A SHOOTING AT CHATEAU ROCK

A Shooting at Chateau Rock by Martin Walker
Every avid crime fiction reader has glaring gaps in their library, the Chief Inspector Bruno novels of Martin Walker are one of mine – until now. As the Dordogne mysteries reach a baker’s dozen I make my first foray into the crime world of the Périgord region of France and find myself wishing I could be there for real – murderer/criminals on the loose or not! Covid-19 aside the Dordogne tourist board must be thankful for Walker’s novels for their love of place and beautiful descriptions of local life, (this is Walker’s own home). The setting is superb; the sense of community and camaraderie, of small town friendships and interconnectivity, feels very authentic and genuinely warm. The novel has a very easy, almost laid-back style and the way the mystery plays out fits snuggly into that and yet there is depth here and the tension and darkness do ramp up significantly. There’s a wonderful contrast between the beauty of the landscape and nefarious dealings that surface through Bruno’s investigation. This is consummate storytelling, a highly entertaining read.
It all begins with suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Driant, a local farmer. Notaire Brosseil has handled the Driant family business for years but when their father dies Gaston and Claudette find out that he travelled to Perigueux to make a new will only a few days earlier, using the expensive services of a notiare new to the region. He sold the farm to an insurance company below market value and then gave all the money to a five star care home for the elderly – the place he apparently intended to live out his life. When the post man found the body of his friend Dr Gallereau certified a heart attack, Driant senior had an ongoing condition and the doctor had recommended a pace maker so it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. When the Perigueux notaire informed Gaston and Claudette of the new will disinheriting them they became suspicious. Gaston Driant came to see Chief Inspector Bruno Courrèges at the Mairie in St. Denis to discuss his concerns. Even if his father was to go into a retirement home this hardly seemed the kind of place he would choose. As Driant was in his seventies a new will would have to be witnessed and his competence established. There’s no doubt for Bruno some questions need answering: Were all the formalities followed? Why didn’t Driant use notaire Brosseil? And, who was the young woman seen around the widower’s farm just before he died? As Bruno looks into the matter it seems to link to a Russian oligarch already on the national police radar.
Bruno also learns that Chateau Rock will soon be on the market soon which comes as a surprise because he is a good friend of the owner former rock star Rod Macrea and his wife Meghan. Together with their two children they and been part of the community for two decades. The children are now grown up and the couple are getting divorced. The Macraes are planning one last family get together for the summer before moving on. Son, Jamie arrives from London with his new girlfriend Galina. But Galina just happens to be the daughter of the very same oligarch Bruno is already investigating. Now isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?
This is a gentle but also substantial murder mystery, a rough one for Bruno. Nothing is forced, the early signs of darkness are masked by the idyllic setting but nonetheless its brewing away. This is a seductive and engaging read. It’s a satisfying mystery that almost appears to be giving too much away at the beginning as we find out more about farmer Driant death but there is much more going on. Some way in A Shooting at Chateau Rock readers will realise that it hasn’t actually happened yet, the story is building to it, engendering a sense of anticipation. A complex and relevant modern mystery unfolds slowly. Martin Walker was a superb journalist and it turns out he’s a very good crime novelist too. Highly recommended fun.
Quercus hardback, ISBN 9781787477681, May 25th.

THE WAITING ROOMS

The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith.

Normally I would wait for the paperback release but I really thought you might want to know about this title available as an eBook now:


Eventually the Crisis came and nothing ever returned to normal:
‘Twenty years after they were imposed, emergency border controls and trade embargoes will remain in place for the thirteen countries who do not yet meet the international health risk standards…’
In The Waiting Rooms everyone in the post Crisis world lives in fear. The world has become a very dangerous place, antibiotics are rationed and no one over seventy is eligible, a simple injury or infection could spell death. A few mutations, an uncontrollable pandemic and this future could become a reality.
This novel might have been a greater feat of imagination for readers if it weren’t for the real tragedy of Covid-19 and the lock-down which has revealed just how different our world could become in a very short space to time. If ever a book hit the zeitgeist it’s this one. A few months ago I could imagine readers enjoying The Waiting Rooms but seeing it as pure fiction rather than possible reality. Reading The Waiting Rooms is very different experience now, this dystopian world isn’t far fetched at all, it’s scarily plausible! Covid-19 shows how prescient and grounded this novel is.
What happens if antibiotics no longer work? The possibility is very real, it’s a problem that is slowly being addressed recently after years, if not decades, of medical science and governments burying their heads in the sand. Eve Smith has used this urgent debate as a catalyst for a gripping ‘what if?’ scenario that will chill your bones as you read:
“No one touches each other’s hands anymore. Not unless they’re intimate.”
The Crisis, twenty years on. Kate takes a call from one of the nurses, they often refer the difficult ones to her, number fourteen is due to die today, he signed the assisted dying release, his daughter knows that but she’s distraught. She and her husband reason, beg and plead but her father has T4 cancer, it registers nine on the Gleason scale, he will die in any case. James Casey will want his daughter in the peace chamber, he’ll want a calm death. The drug is Whisky flavoured, he passes.
Lily will be seventy soon, she lives in a care home. For her there will be no antibiotics under draconian laws and there’s no sign that will change, even so long after the Crisis. There are protests, of course, some say it’s genocide of the elderly, then there’s Equality Above All, terrorists? Lily walks in the gardens, she sees one of the residents being taken away in an ambulance, they won’t be coming back.
It’s a brave decision to have a child post Crisis; a risky time for the mother and the early years of any child are fraught with dangers. Kate and Mark have Sasha. Kate was adopted, she hasn’t thought much about her birth mother but now that they are burying Pen, the woman who brought her up. Kate has to tell her daughter Sasha as she goes searching for her own mother Mary.
Twenty-seven years before the Crisis, South Africa. Mary manages to nearly get herself killed by a Rhino before scuttling up a Marula tree. An angry Boer starts shouting at her about her recklessness but it’s the beginning of a relationship between the two. Mary is a scientist, more than ever they need people like her in this continent. Diseases long since eradicated in Europe and America are coming back with a vengeance in Africa, it won’t end there:
‘As the TB death toll tops twenty thousand, the prime minister urges people to obey curfews and remain in their homes.’ [during the initial Crisis]
The Waiting Rooms is such a good title, it sounds innocuous, conjures up images of boredom, and is so typical of the human need to hide the real meaning of something terrible, as if that normalises it. The use of language in the novel is very clever. Smith creates two fascinating time lines, pre and post Crisis. The characters and their personal stories are emotional and very relatable. This is a novel set in an extraordinary landscape, dystopian and frightening but it deals with age old issues of grief and loss, even euthanasia and most of all what makes us human. I don’t accept the premise that people want fluff in times of crisis, personally I want real and I want challenging. This novel is dark and may make you uncomfortable but there are some essential truths best not ignored.

Orenda Books, paperback, July. Isbn 9781913193263, available as eBook now.

THE BODY ON THE SIDEWALK & THE RELUCTANT MURDERER

The Body on the Sidewalk and The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey
I’m going to start with something I said in my review of Stark House Press’ 2019 Bernice Carey double header The Man Who Got Away With It and Three Widows* which still seems apt. Reading these two novels I get the same vibe I did with last year’s brace, Carey is a top notch psychological crime writer who holds her own with the best, such as Dorothy B. Hughes:
‘The two novels here illustrate that Bernice Carey was an original writer, her career in crime writing was woefully short and her output limited, but there’s real quality here, fantastic storytelling. These psychological hard-boiled novels plough their own path… Bernice Carey is well deserving of a new audience and to be restored to the pantheon of crime writing history.’

The Body on the Sidewalk (1950) and The Reluctant Murderer (1949) are subversions of the country house mystery that was so popular in the ‘golden age’ era of British crime writing before WWII, epitomised and immortalised by the work of Agatha Christie. There’s even a hint of JB Priestley’s collective guilt:


‘they were all simple fundamentally innocent people meaning no harm only trying to find a way to live comfortably with themselves and with other people so where they all wound up beaten and bruised on that one moment when xxxxx’s feelings, which they all helped to create, went out of control?’


When Carey adds her own twists the tropes and scenarios have a new frisson. In The Body on the Sidewalk the country house becomes a city tenement, in The Reluctant Murderer it’s a family gathering in the mountains. It’s about family, about class and race and social status, as well as mystery.
In the Body on the Sidewalk a cast of suspects is assembled, their actions and attitudes examined; the complex family relationships seethe with tensions and motives for killing the man on the sidewalk surface. It’s fun, specifically urban, working class, it’s an acute analysis of societal norms and physical and emotional boundaries.
The Reluctant Murderer is an altogether different beast. The would be murderer, Vivian, identifies herself as such immediately so the question becomes; who does she want to kill? That’s not at all clear, even after her first tentative failure to commit murder. Soon a new element is introduced to the story, Viv believes someone is also trying to kill her. Even later in the novel when the name of the potential victim is revealed the reader is still not fully aware of what is really going on. Over the weekend tables are turned, misunderstanding proliferate, relationships are exposed, characters laid bare. For a debut this is remarkably accomplished, sharp, complex and emotionally engaging novel. Anyone thinking the psychological novel with the devious twist was invented in the twenty-first century would soon see it’s origins here. The Reluctant Murderer would make a great film even now. A little about the scenario of the books:
The Body on the Sidewalk, 1950.
A body is discovered on some house steps in a city street, a passer-by fetches the police. San Francisco PD sergeant Ferris takes charge. The guy has been shot in the back, the body’s been there hours, how did nobody hear the shot? Ferris rouses the households, matriarch Mamie Grady opens the door, she realises the dead man is Hank Grueber. Ferris assembles the family – Mamie, her three daughters, Maureen, Peggy and Pauline, their step father Frank, and her son, Don and his wife, Lola and their children. As the story progresses there’s also the extended family to consider, Mamie’s ex-husbands, one, Ramon, is still in touch with the children. When a gun is found in a drawer, one round fired, everyone realises the murder is in the family.
Hank had been seeing recently divorced Peggy, they were out last night, got back about one, others in the house were still up at the time. Don worked with Hank, they hated each other. Don and his wife were entertaining Ernie and Nell, a black couple, yesterday evening, something they don’t want the cops to know, they are sure to be suspected. Pauline hates the thought that the scandal might reveal that her brother has black friends, it would harm her career, that bothers her more than the fact that one of them is a killer. The politics of the workplace, social climbing, race and family relationships are all under the microscope. The family question themselves:
“If you should prove to your satisfaction then that it was, say, one of the girls, or your mother, would you expose them to save yourself?” [Ramón asks Don]
This is a social drama in which motives emerge as relationships become strained, its claustrophobic:
“Oh, Don, I don’t like this, having to suspect your own people-almost hoping it’s one of them, to save yourself.” [Lola to Don]


The Reluctant Murderer, 1949.


“It came to me while I was reading Anne’s letter. That murder was the answer.”


Even seventy years on the tangled weave of family relationships in The Reluctant Murderer are electric. Viv has worried and brooded for weeks, never thought about murder before, it just flashed into her head, the only answer to a long vexing problem. Of course, it’s a repulsive idea, but she can’t be squeamish, Anne has poison in her garden, perhaps that’s the answer, it’s a relief for Viv to have made a decision.


‘I have never cared for detective stories, and for a moment I regretted it. If I had read more of them I might now be familiar with different means of doing away with people.’ [nice little in joke]


Anne’s letter said Aunt Maud is staying so she has organised a family get together for the weekend. Her new beau Johnny will be there, Maud might not approve as Anne is only three years divorced, and Culbert can come with Viv. An old family friend, Culbert and Viv reconnected when he came to San Francisco a year ago.
On the way to Anne’s house in the Santa Cruz mountains above Los Gatos Culbert proposes to Viv, she replies; ‘we-ll, if you insist’. They can announce it this weekend.
Aunt Maud has money, she thrived during the crash, Anne and Viv’s parents are dead, Anne husband also died during war, now she has Johnny. Maud has brought her assistant, Miss Pringle, and her chauffeur, Alphonse, with her. Who will be the target? Anne’s feckless boyfriend, the gold digging servants, the rich aunt Viv isn’t close to?


‘Any northern Californian knows that the southern part of the state is populated almost exclusively by screwballs, and I do believe Aunt Maud to be the epitome of southern California crackpotism.’


The novel explores class, the way people pass judgement on each other, how misunderstanding can come from honest intentions, how people jump to conclusions, how family secrets poison relationships, and where guilt exists but it shouldn’t. There’s plenty of sleight of hand and red herrings in The Reluctant Murderer.


Both novels are tightly plotted and tense, but often relieved with moments of humour, Carey expertly draws on the readers sense of anticipation and foreboding. The themes are still potent today. This is classy writing, The Body on the Sidewalk, eminently readable, a fun mystery with plenty of turns and a serious edge of social critique. The Reluctant Murderer is nothing short of a masterpiece.
There’s also a very useful and interesting introduction to both by Curtis Evans.
*That review can be found here: https://nbmagazine.co.uk/the-man-who-got-away-with-it-and-three-widows-by-bernice-carey/.
ISBN 9781944520946, Stark House Press, paperback, 25/5/20

WOMAN OF STATE

Woman of State by Simon Berthon
This is a novel I picked up on a hunch a couple of years ago not being familiar with the author. The setting for Woman of State was right up my alley because it’s a thriller about Ireland, the Troubles and British politics which always intrigue me. I put it aside and it didn’t make the top of my tbr pile until now but if I’d known how enjoyable it would be, how good it is, I’ve have got to Woman of State much sooner. This for me is a perfect beach read, plenty of excitement and a bit of depth – exercise for the grey matter. There are a lot of good thrillers based in and around the Troubles and this one is good enough to hold its own; it’s original and stylish. Woman of State is loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and real world grittiness. The story, although it’s in familiar territory, is unpredictable and layered, complex but very easy to follow. A few chapters in it becomes unputdownable.
July ’91, Belfast girl Maire Anne McCartney has just blitzed her ‘A’ levels and will soon be heading south to Trinity College in Dublin. She makes love to her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy, and in the tender moment that follow he says:
‘The movement needs your help.’
Maire is committed politically but she’s not sure about the bloody struggle. There’s a Brit Special Branch officer, Haliburton, drinks at the Europa, eyes up the girls, before heading back to Castlereagh. Joseph wants Maire to be a honey trap. Bring him to a flat where the IRA can talk to him. Just that, an interrogation and then they’ll let him go, the worse for wear but alive. In her heart Maire can’t believe that but let’s Joseph talk her into it. The clincher is when he tells her that her big brother Martin OK’ed it, he’s a big shot in the IRA. The following Saturday she bumps into Haliburton at the Europa, he invites himself back to her place, the flat Joseph arranged. As she sneaks out four masked men descend on the randy cop. Maire walks home, next day the news is all about a Brit Special Branch officer lured to his death. A couple of days later Maire is arrested, the Brits know she was involved but she won’t give up Joseph. Eventually the Brits let her go, perhaps there’s not enough evidence, perhaps they want to follow her. Martin didn’t know but he doesn’t have time for her regrets and her naivety. He arranged for Maire to go to Dublin immediately, never to see Joseph again.
That was supposed to be the end of it but Joseph and Martin and the IRA come back into Maire life a couple of years later. Her English boyfriend raised their hackles.
What happened in Dublin? Twenty-five years later Anne-Marie Gallagher, respected lawyer is elected MP for the seat of Lambeth West, her acceptance speech draws attention:


‘No human right has been more trampled,’ she resumed, ‘than the right to live our lawful lives unobserved in the privacy of our homes, our meeting places with our friends, with our families.
Under the cloak of fear, of exaggerated threats from terrorists and other convenient enemies, technology – and the lost the control – has created the surveillance state.’


The new PM offers her a junior minister’s job. Of course, Anne-Marie is worried the past might catch up with her but the peace process is well established so maybe she’s safe. She’s not long in office before someone is stirring the pot. The police have received an anonymous tip off about a body buried near the border, apparently sometime in the early nineties.
The past about to come back on Anne-Marie with a vengeance. As the investigation into the body in Northern Ireland focusses on Anne-Marie she is forced to choose sides.
Avoiding the obvious road to travel this novel keeps the reader guessing to the end. It’s a plausible dirty, deadly setting, from Belfast to Dublin to Whitehall.
This is an accomplished debut novel from journalist and history writer Berthon. It was published in paperback as A Secret Worth Killing For. A second spy thriller by Berthon, A Time to Lie, is scheduled to be published in December this year.
HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, hardback, 2017, ISBN 9780008214364

THE SIRIUS CROSSING

The Sirius Crossing by John Creed
This is an intelligent spy thriller set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, with a bit of globe trotting thrown in for good measure. The Sirius Crossing is well writing and hugely entertaining. From the first page I was gripped by the dark mood and cynical edge to the storytelling; it’s hard, brutal and very real world. A story that has a satisfyingly complex plot and real depth of character but also plenty of page turning action.
Jack friend Liam says the living have a duty to the dead, for Valentine it’s a duty to the truth. A quarter of a century after it happened ex-air force lieutenant Harry Longworth gave Valentine a vital piece of the puzzle which helped him assemble the full story. Longworth didn’t know the significance of his information but he knew it what happened was ‘odd’:
Bishopsway Air Support Base, northern England, February, 1974. Longworth is ordered to collect two US servicemen from the clandestine night-time landing of a C-130, then babysit them for a few hours. The Hercules is back in the air as soon as the men are deposited with Longworth. His instructions are to keep the men isolated and hidden until they leave, neither man has any insignia or rank on their uniform. After two hours Longworth drives the men to another plane that has come for them. Without a word the men leave and Longworth’s part is over. Eighty minutes later the two men parachute near Dundalk Bay but the weather conditions are bad and the drop turns into a disaster. The first man is killed before he hits the ground, his partner is badly injured. The second man manages to bury the body of his colleague before heading to the border and into the north.

  1. The MRU tends to fly under the radar, it isn’t subject to the same scrutiny from politicians as MI5/6 as the Cold War comes to an end. Jack Valentine is tired, about ready to retire, but he’ll take one more job with the promise it’s the last. He works for Somerville:
    ‘The tag of old-fashioned to the point of being quaint would describe Somerville if you regarded Torquemada as old-fashioned and Vlad the Impaler as quaint.’
    Fair warning, the MRU is deep and dirty. Somerville’s deputy Curley is believed to be the man who perfected the CTT, (carcinogenic transmission technique). A grain of uranium in a cigar and max. three months later death by cancer – an untraceable assassination. Somerville has an unusual mission for Valentine, retrieve the documents and equipment with a long buried body in the Ravensdale forest just south of the border in the Republic of Ireland. Key instruction – bring back the package with the papers unread. Somerville says it was a failed op in the early 70s, there were two men, one survived lived long enough to give a rough location for the other’s body but then died. It should be one night’s work, just four ancient stone burial chambers to search. Valentine takes the job:
    ‘What I should really have done was reach into my shoulder holster, take out the Glock and empty it into his desiccated, evil old body. I know that now. And some part of me knew it then.’
    Valentine can’t help wondering why he’s being sent, British soldiers operate south of the border all the time, and why now, what is so urgent about this operation?
    Returning to his home in Kintyre Valentine finds his old friend Liam Mellows waiting for him. Theirs is an old friendship that has survived the two men being on different sides of the divide in Ireland. Mellows is in trouble, he’s been set up by Army Intelligence or C3 or MI5, who knows. His IRA colleagues have seen a photo of Mellows in the company of no less than the head of Special Branch border operations, Ronnie Whitcroft. Now old pals Canning and Marks are looking for Liam mellows the traitor. As Valentine and Mellows are discussing the situation a car approaches, in this remote location that can’t be good. Valentine and Mellows just about escape in his boat with shot fizzing around them…
    They sail for Ireland; Liam Mellows has his problems to sort while Jack Valentine has his mission, only there are other parties interested in the body he is searching for. This is a tense, murky thriller, never less than intriguing. The Sirius Crossing is a shady world of betrayal and violence where you can’t trust your own side and the good guys are scarce on the ground. A worthy addition to the canon of Troubles thrillers.
    There are two more Jack Valentine books which I’ve already ordered after reading this novel; The Day of the Dead and Black Cat Black Dog. John Creed is a pen name of Eoin McNamee author of several novels set in Northern Ireland with a basis in historical events and characters. The Vogue, The Resurrection Men, Orchid Blue, Blue is the Night, The Ultras (not a complete list). Eoin also writes for TV and writes children’s books.
    Faber and Faber, paperback, 2003.

MEMORIES

Memories Naim Attallah
Naim Attallah was born in Haifa, then part of the British mandate of Palestine, in 1931, the son of a Barclays bank clerk. After the second world war he came to Britain aged eighteen. Quartet Books was founded in 1972 and was fully taken over by Attallah in 1976. In the years since he has been a backer of The Oldie and The Literary Review and also the owner of the Women’s Press. He has interviewed celebrities, politicians, the wealthy and powerful for many publications over the years and written several books of memoir as well as a book of interviews entitled Women in 1988. Attallah was often seen by the established publishing world as an outsider, as a ‘cowboy’ (the word he uses himself), but I don’t get the impression that really bothered him much. Attallah has been mocked from time to time for his bon vivant lifestyle, the Guardian once described him as a; “legendary adorer of beautiful women”, and there has been some controversy over the ghost writing of his books but again I don’t think that matters much to Attallah. Now ninety and only too aware of his aching bones there’s still a vitality in the man that is admirable. Naim Attallah is a man who always went about things his own way, it’s what made his interviews interesting, he always came at his subject from his own angle and got the people and their stories in a way others wouldn’t have. His world is a world of wealth, of princes and princesses but also politicians, newspaper folk and the great and the good of publishing.
On a personal note, finding Lillian Hellman’s autobiography in a Bristol bookshop was a formative moment in my teenage reading. A three volume memoir; An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Times published by Quartet in 1983-4, (see page 276 for reference). This reading experience is something I shall always be grateful to Quartet, and therefore Naim Attallah, for. Other authors you may know from the Quartet list, (some reprints), include: George Mackay Brown, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, Giorgio Bassini, Ismael Kadare, Boris Vian, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Shusaku Endo, Ian Gilmore, Robert Kee, Jack Kerouac, Annie Ernaux, Per Olav Enquist, Tahar Ben Jalloun, and Thomas Bernhard.
This book is a sort of ‘best of’. Over the years the publisher Naim Attallah has produced fifteen books of memoir, he’s also written a blog for the past ten years, this book is a selection from that output it also includes pieces by people who worked with Attallah over the years. Attallah describes as a ‘potpourri of vignettes’ to amuse and interest readers. Often that’s true, simple short pieces that capture a moment or a thought. Others offer a deeper insight into the man and the publishing world. Why I Publish What I Publish delves into the motivation of a publisher from his desire to bring Middle Eastern literature to bigger audience to the other kind of books he likes personally and wanted to back. My favourite story here is An International Incident in which Attallah describes an encounter with the Observer editor Donald Trelford in 1993. Trelford was looking for insight into Edith Cresson, a woman who had been Mitterrand’s PM for a brief period, with a view to interviewing her. Attallah had interview Cresson in French a few years earlier, he sent the notes to Trelford who immediately saw its explosive potential. The Observer published the piece with an opening reference to continental people having sex while the English have hot water bottles. In the interview among other things Cresson states that:
“One-in-four Englishmen are gay”
A furore followed for publication.
There are heart felt pieces; A Tribute to the Hashemite Princess Who Had No Equal on the death of Dina Abdul-Hamid at the age of 91 in August, 2019. Attallah describes her as an ‘exceptional person with remarkable gifts’. A woman briefly marriage to King Hussein of Jordan and then to Salah To’amari, a spokesman for the PLO, who was captured during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Attallah recalls Dina’s role in negotiating the release of her husband and thousands of prisoners in exchange for six Israeli soldiers. There are pieces on Leni Riefenstahl, Anthony Blond (a man who supported him when he came into publishing), meeting Margot Fonteyn, and Marin Alsop.
The collection is eclectic and idiosyncratic and something of the man is revealed in the writing.
9780704374799 Quartet Books, paperback, 16/4/20

NEVER HAVE I EVER

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
Some games are deadly serious and even if you don’t want to play you’re in, of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t change the rules of engagement. This sharp psychological thriller is wickedly enjoyable and I say that as someone who is always a little wary about ‘new’ psychological novels because there’s often not much substance, just a twist too far. Not so Never Have I Ever which has an engaging plot and a clever, disguised reveal that is satisfying. Jackson’s characters come to life on the page and an atmosphere of domestic competitiveness, keeping up with the Jones’s, petty squabbles, cliques, family and genuine friendship soon gives way to something more sinister.
The narrator of this creepy thriller is Amy. She’s living a comfortable life in suburban Florida, (purposely this could be anywhere in America). Amy is a wife, step mum to Maddy, and mother to baby Oliver. She is close to Charlotte, and has a circle of friends – they have their book group. Her world is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of mysterious newcomer Roux. Amy has a dark secret, it’s been buried for years, no one could possibly know about it, so she’s safe. If it did come out her whole existence would be in jeopardy, everything she’s built.
From the moment Roux arrives the equilibrium in Amy’s life disappears. She suddenly appears one night at the neighbourhood book club. There are twenty or so members from the local community but they’ve never had someone from the Airbnb house across the road from Amy’s before, the guests are usually transient. This night as the group settles down to The House of Mirth there’s a knock on the door, Amy answers, it’s Angelica, ‘call me Roux’. She’s just moved into the Airbnb place with her son Luca, she’s here on business and plans on staying a while; what better place to make friends than the book club? As she introduces herself to the group Roux is already playing a game and she quickly manages to get one up on Charlotte and Amy. By the end of the night Roux has a few of the women eating out of her hand, they are playing a version of Never Have I Ever. Everybody has to describe the worst thing they’ve done that day, the winner (‘worst thing’) gets everyone else to down a drink. Charlotte has gone home, Amy doesn’t want to play. The next round is the worst thing you did in the last week, then it’s the last month. Amy knows there’s something going on here, she can’t help feeling this is aimed at her. Roux says Amy should come over for a chat.
When Amy was fifteen she was a loner, then she started hanging out with Tig. One night it went badly wrong, Tig took the blame but that wasn’t right it was Amy’s fault. The thing is no one knew that, it’s gone and in the past. Roux isn’t bluffing though she really knows what happened. The question is what does she want…
Entertaining and involving with a nice little moral dilemma at its heart, actions have consequences and the past always haunts the present.

Bloomsbury, paperback, 14/5/20, ISBN: 9781526611604

THE BUTCHER OF CASABLANCA

The Butcher of Casablanca by Abdelilah Hamdouchi.
And now for something a little different, from Morocco have we have Kasbah-noir. Crime fiction infused with the fragrant spices of the Casablanca souks, there’s plenty of local colour and culture in this new and exciting setting for the murder mystery. Hamdouchi was one of the first writers to address an Arabic speaking audience through crime fiction. This translation by Peter Daniel allows readers in the US and the UK to access a different take on the genre that comes from the particular socio-political background in Morocco and the culture of the Arab world. A lot of this novel is about the relationships between characters, and between the past and the present and even comparisons between mundane and more exotic murder, (most crimes practically solve themselves). This is a competent police procedural, the second to feature detective Hanash, after Bled Dry in 2017. I haven’t read Bled Dry but I have read Hamdouchi’s slightly earlier novel The Final Bet (2016) which was intriguing but this novel is more polished, better at achieving what it set out to do.
The Butcher of Casablanca is entertaining, at times very funny but it always has that thread of social critique about it that pulls the reader up, we are laughing at dark things sometimes. Personally I love this insight into a country I know very little about but if you’re a fan of the type of serial killer novel that reeks of blood and revels in the gruesome thus terrifying the reader this is not for you. This is a much more subtle novel, a more intelligent novel, closer to the literary thriller model. In The Butcher of Casablanca the dark is tempered by humour, the social setting and the investigation are not intended to foster a full on thrill fest. The terror is reserved for the characters in the book, the people of the city, the killer on the loose unsettles a society that is not used to such a crime occurring in its midst. The readers involvement is detached from that fear and the attitudes it engenders, focused more on what the novel says about crime, policing, class and society in Morocco. The mystery alone would not sustain this book told this way, the crime has significance in other ways. It’s a measure by which other tragedies are measured, other crimes, societal norms, even the past:
‘Repression in exchange for security: the ideal situation for reducing crime rates.’
‘New era’ policing is very different from the way it was done in the past, less brutal but also less lucrative for the police. In the ‘old era’, when the Interior Ministry were in charge, the experience of a suspect in police hands was bleak, guilty or not you were likely to confess. Guilty or not you might never return from the police station. It was a ‘nadir for human rights’; illegal detentions, torture and extra judicial murder, there were no come backs. Even to speak of this would have wound you up in jail.
Hamdouchi sets the scene with a recap of the country’s past, of Hanash’s past. Now Hanash is chief of detectives, responsible for the investigation of the most serious crimes in the city. While he might appear to be an ordinary policeman he is a product of that earlier time, came up in one system and now lives in the more liberal other, (although there are radical threats to the new democratic way). This dark past is in contrast with the first image of Hanash, when we meet him here he setting out on a normal family holiday. A workaholic hoping he can some how get out of the trip. It’s also a reminder that the real horror in this story is the scarring of the past, a brutal, repressive unaccountable regime and a rigid class structure not the apparition that is the serial killer who stalks the pages. This is crime fiction as social critique as much as it is a ‘who done it?’
‘To Hanash, the waste picker was barely a notch above a beggar. Despite this, he beckoned to the waste picker, who lurched toward him with his head bowed.’’
And,
‘No one from the sector of waste pickers, garbage grubbers and dumpster divers had been promoted to CI yet… Waste pickers and their ilk were foul and dirty.’
It’s just before 6am Hanash’s wife is busy rousing the family, Tarek and Manar moan but it’s not them she worries about. When they are on the road she may relax but if Hanash’s phone rings now they will not be able to get away to Marrakesh to visit their other daughter Atiqa who has just given birth to a son. Hanash is dressed and finally they are off but before they hit the highway his mobile goes. Hanash must return to police HQ they have a found a body, well half of a body, in a dumpster on Rue Juncor, the chief wants his top detective on the job.
The night before: A man hums to himself as puts the body parts into two plastic bags. Calmly he cleans the floor, takes a shower and dresses:
‘He had eliminated the thing that has been ruining his life and now all he had to do was to dispose of it.’
Worried about being seen with the evidence in his hands he sneaks through the alleys, the bags smell, he reaches the dumpsters, throws them in. It’s done, he is ‘intoxicated with his victory’.
Half of Hanash’s career occurred under the old regime, his real name is Mohamed Bineesa, but they call him: ‘Hanash – The Snake’. Working his way up from officer to inspector and the inspector to detective. The most lucrative time in his career was Tangiers dealing with the hashish smugglers and because of that the family now live in a big house in a good suburb of Casablanca. Under a democratic government prisoners have to be treated like VIPs and pecuniary opportunities are less lucrative. Crime has proliferated, criminals are craftier and fearless, the police rely on CIs. Hanash is not yet fully recovered, he was shot five months ago by an officer he had spying on his other men but the man who stole from a crime scene and could see no other way out. Hanash has changed, his weakness led to him giving up women, the constant in his life is the battle with his wife, as work always comes first, is an epic:
‘At times like this, he thought, marriage was a form of punishment for anyone who adopted a career with the police.’
Naeema reminds him:
‘You’ve never been there when it really counted.’
At the crime scene they have recovered the lower half of a young woman from the dumpster, in her twenties, her genitals have been mutilated. No leads, no witnesses and an investigation loaded with old habits that die hard. As more bodies turn up Hanash has no idea how to catch a serial killer. When an unconnected murder occurs it doesn’t take much to get the killers to confess to the dumpster murders but of course the problem has not gone away, things get very nasty.
The novel highlights the plight of the policeman out of his depth, under pressure for results, but wily and sharp. There’s a lot about the family in the novel and more ordinary crime, however, what the serial killer is up to is an interesting revelation.
The Butcher of Casablanca is intriguing and insightful, unless you’ve read Hamdouchi before I doubt you’ll have read a crime novel like this before.
Hoopoe Fiction, AUC Press, 9789774169687, On sale now.

SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN

Seventy Times Seven by John Gordon Sinclair.
I’m a bit late to the party on this one, Seventy Times Seven was published in 2012. I came across this recently researching a piece on the Troubles and crime writing and I’m glad I did. This is a really entertaining and very well written debut thriller, packed with page turning action and a healthy dose of grit. There’s plenty in the twisty plot to keep readers intrigued and there’s a decent laugh or two along the way. There’s also one brutal scene that really shocks and reminds us that actions have consequences, it’s not preachy just true to the real world and more poignant for that. The dialogue has the feel of the locale, whether it’s Newry or Alabama as the story moves across the Atlantic and back. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Those of a certain age will remember Sinclair as a comic actor particularly good at amiable roles, Gregory’s Girl practically made him a household name in 1981. The sleeve notes for this thriller don’t mention Sinclair’s acting, probably because his light hearted performances don’t quite chime with this hard edged thriller, the two seeming incongruous. I admit I was sceptical but now I’m a believer in JG Sinclair the writer.
Newry, 1984. The girl stares out into the street, she suddenly calls her Da over, there’s a young man dragging a coffin up the street oozing liquid, blood? The young man looks over at their window and Joe Fitzpatrick grabs his daughter’s arm and drags her away quickly.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1992, 90° in the shade, inside McHales Bar. Vincent and Cola are loading up on booze, waiting for the target to show, Cola is volatile, Vincent wary of him. Finn O’Hanlon walks in for a beer, one beer, he doesn’t stay anywhere for long. He picks a table by the rear entrance with a clear sight of the bar and the main entrance. Finn knows they will come for him one day. Turns out they sent Cole and Vincent, while Vincent goes for the car Cola decides to act. He rises, heading for Finn, pointing his magnum, he starts blasting…
Newry, a couple of days earlier. Danny McGuire can’t believe it when he gets a call from Lep McFarlane. Danny thought Lep was dead, wanted Lep to be dead, but it turns out he was hiding out in a dark hole in Donegal for the last eight years. Everyone assumed that Lep informed the Brits when Danny’s brother Sean was blown to pieces in an ambush. The IRA will kill him on sight, Danny would too, but Lep wants to meet, he has info on a man who knows what happened to Sean that night. Lep thinks the Commander in Chief of the IRA, EI O’Leary, has given Danny the the job of killing Finn O’Hanlon, hiding out in the US because of the information from the Special Branch break-in. He warns Danny that Finn is the only one who can tell him what happened to Sean but Danny has no idea who Finn O’Hanlon is.
O’Leary just pulled off a coup, breaking into Special Branch and stealing the list of informants and a bonus file on Thevshi, the ghost, the IRAs most wanted. Special branch want to turn the town upsidedown of get the list back but MI5 say they should relax and let things develop, why?
Danny is a killer, when he sees O’Leary a few days later he gets the kill job in the states, a couple of local screw ups already blew it once. Danny’s brief is to find Finn O’Hanlon and kill him, and to do a deal for weapons while he’s there…
There’s plenty going on in this complex but very readable thriller. This is not a deeply reflective novel but there’s enough depth for it to feel realistic and set it above the usual all action thriller. Since writing this novel Sinclair has published Blood Whispers in 2015 and Walk in Silence 2018.
Faber & Faber, 9780571290628, hardback, 2012.

MAXIMUM ROSSI

Maximum Rossi by Paul W Papa.
A Las Vegas Crime Noir
‘She was blessed with an abundance of legs; enough for two girls. It made me think things I had no business thinking.’
To find a modern pastiche of the noir/hardboiled novels of the 40s and 50s this good is quite rare. This is a really decent homage to the age of Chandler and Hammett, and it’s a pleasure to read. Entertaining for the story and the way it plays with tropes and subverts expectations. Max Rossi captures the lone wolf PI spirit perfectly, although he’s a reluctant shamus, his first case is very personal. Max has to prove himself innocent when a made guy gets his throat slit after they have a public fight. This isn’t just about avoiding the wrath of the law, there’s the Chicago mob on his tail too. To be honest Max Rossi isn’t a popular guy anyway, the people who run this town fear his connection to the Boston mob, he keeps getting told to leave. The feel for time and place is great, Papa knows this town and his historical setting is well pitched. Maximum Rossi is fast pace and taut, there’s a nod to the real gangsters of the time, Luciano, Lansky, Seigel (RIP) that add colour the background. The dialogue is snappy, there are plenty of quotable lines, ones that demonstrate the love of the original hardboiled novels and those that reflect a modern twist:
‘The man brought two goons with him. One was just shy of a mountain, the other a molehill.’
Breakfast, Max Rossi is minding his own business when Salvatore Manella spoils the morning. The former New York mobster was sent here to clean up after the syndicate had Bugsy Seigel killed for skimming. Lucky Luciano got his money back, Meyer Lansky got the Sands and the Flamingo. Sal stayed, he wants to know why Max hasn’t left town, out of respect for his father, a fixer for the mob, he’s asking nicely. Max doesn’t have the connections to Boston that New York and Chicago are afraid of. He came from Boston for a wedding and liked Law Vegas well enough to stay, Max likes to gamble:
‘The fat city enamoured me.’
Max has no intention of being scared off. He’s even getting himself a house of out here. Sal leaves the threat hanging there. Later Max gets himself into a poker game with Fingers Abbandanddo and Joe ‘the barber’ Bilotti, (handy with a cut throat). Bilotti is a bore, an oaf, he slaps his dancer girlfriend around until Max jumps to Jeanie’s defence. Bilotti isn’t used to taking a beating, he won’t get over it quickly so Max takes Jeanie to his new place to keep her out of the way for the night. In the morning she’s gone, really gone, no one can find her. That’s when Max gets acquainted with lieutenant Connor McQueenie. Bilotti got his throat slashed last night and Max’s alibi, Bilotti’s girl, is nowhere to be found. As Max looks for Jeanie but he runs into her friend Virginia and a world of troubles…
Max is a tough nut, he needs to be, he’s about to get beaten, battered and shot at. The answers are always just out of grasp, events spooning out of control. I can’t really say how the tropes are subverted because that would definitely be a spoiler but the ‘jump in front of a bullet’ scene is a cracker. There’s plenty of humour in Maximum Rossi, when detective McQueenie says:
“Don’t leave town,”
Max notes that finally someone wanted him to stay. This novel is fun, a clever quick read. A second novel Rossi’s Gamble will be published later in the summer, I’ll be there for that one after this opener to the Rossi series.
9781734405736 HPD Publishing, paperback out now

website: https//paulwpapa.com

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