Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

If you are looking for a dark, discomforting psychological thriller to be disturbed by during this long cold winter, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn could be for you.

Everyone has a moment where life goes off the rails.

Camille Preaker escaped Wind Gap, a small town in Missouri, for a career as a journalist in Chicago. Her boss sends her back to Wind Gap, best known for its pig abattoir, to investigate the murder of a young girl. After Camille arrives in town the bodies start piling up.

A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It’s the kind of place that leaves a mark

Camille left Wind Gap for a reason – her family. Camille’s troubled mother comes from old money – she owns the hog farm, the towns primary source of revenue. Of her two sisters, one is dead and she can’t stand her precocious younger stepsister. Camille is a little complicated herself – she’s an addict (sex and alcohol) and she self-harms. She keeps her body covered to hide the words she has carved onto it over the years.

I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me.

Suspense, plot twists, gore, dysfunction and the dark side of the female psyche…read it if you dare.

Book review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who is Vera Kelly? set across dual timelines (1957 and 1966) and two countries (Maryland, USA and Buenos Aires, Argentina) is coming of age meets coming out meets espionage with a side of literary historical fiction.

Vera Kelly is a troubled teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Her mother lands her in a juvenile detention centre after she steals a car. When released she moves to Greenwich Village in New York City and works night shift at a radio station and tentatively explore the queer scene.

On a Tuesday I came home from school to an empty house, watched the evening news, and then took Equanil caplets lifted from my mother. Nothing happened, so after an hour I took three more, and then maybe after that, I can’t remember.

Vera Kelly is a young CIA agent with a flair for electronics on her first big mission to Buenos Aries during the Cold War in the lead up to a coup. Revolución Argentina would establish Juan Carlos Ongania as defacto president. Vera rents an apartment and pretends to be a Canadian student befriending a group of local students suspected of being KGB agents.

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

Vera bugs the students bicycles and with the help of a local contact, the Argentina Vice President’s office, tracking the students movements during the day and transcribing conversations from the officials office at night. When the coup seems imminent Vera decides to action her escape plan but the borders are closed faster than she can escape. Upon returning to her apartment she finds she’s been betrayed by her local contact and has to go into hiding until she can find another way out.

Oh my God, you should have seen us in ’55, ’56, ’62,’ he said, sighing. ‘Every year, another old man shouting from a grandstand with all his medals on. “I’ve come to replace your previous old man.” Some people would go to jail, everyone else would get used to it, and then it would start all over

There’s a long set up in this novel, but the character of Vera carries it off with her whip smart intellect, dry humour and keen observations of the times. I really enjoyed the insights into the New York queer scene in the early 60’s when being queer was illegal, and the history of Argentina. There is a correlation between being gay when it’s illegal and a spy running through the novel – the coded language and pretending to be someone you are not.

Vera is a relatable character and if you like women driven, realistic spy stories with a strong plot – this book could be for you. Even better, there are two more Vera Kelly novels to devour – Vera Kelly is not a Mystery (2020) and Vera Kelly Lost and Found (2022)

I woke with an ache in my chest and heard the subsiding whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. I read the spines of the paperbacks on the night table: Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith. Novels about liars. I needed to call Gerry.

Book review: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

There’s something about Richard Osman’s novels that make me think of the famous five in retirement after one of them has popped off their perch. I reviewed his first novel The Thursday Murder Club a few weeks ago and went back for some more laughs.

Some people in life, Sue, are weather forecasters, whereas other people are the weather itself.

Kent based senior citizens are back in the second book in Osman’s comic crime series. Led by ex-secret service woman Elizabeth Best and former nurse Joyce, retired psychiatrist Ibrahim, and former unionist Ron, collude with police detective Donna, her boss Chris and tattooed handyman Bogdan, who has a way with the ladies, to wrangle a local teenage thug who assaults Ibrahim, a lady drug dealer and an underworld middle man from whom Elizabeth’s ex-husband stole diamonds, and gets murdered for his trouble.

That twinkle in his eye was undimmed. The twinkle that gave an entirely undeserved suggestion of wisdom and charm. The twinkle that could make you walk down the aisle with a man almost ten years your junior and regret it within months. The twinkle you soon realize is actually the beam of a lighthouse, warning you off the rocks.

The main two characters, Elizabeth and Joyce, are fearless – and it pays off as most people simply think they are two harmless old ladies – and they never get harmed. Elizabeth is smart, canny and fearless whilst Joyce is optimistic and kind hearted – knitting friendship bracelets in her spare time.

What a tiny, formidable woman. Exactly the sort of woman you’d want parachuted behind enemy lines with a gun and a cipher machine.

The Man Who Died Twice is a light, joyful, fun and entertaining romp with a group of old friends in their twighlight years dealing with the realities of ageing – death, dementia, personal safety and painful grown up children – whilst they happen to be solving major crimes. I hope I have such adventures when I’m a septuagenarian.

Book review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is set in the early 1960s. Reading it was a journey of cultural immersion – full of wise guys and street talk. It’s noir-ish flavour is a study in how our environment and prejudice can limit us in life, no matter how hard we try – and how frustration at those limitations can boil over.

You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.

When we meet Ray Carney, the civil rights movement is live, but he just wants to get on with his own life and be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman. Ray runs a furniture store in Harlem on 125th Street that he opened using money he found in his dead father’s car.

Carney imagined himself inside because he was looking for evidence of himself. Was there an Argent wingback chair or Heywood-Wakefield armoire in one of them, over by the window, the proof of a sale he’d closed? It was a new game he played, walk­ing around this unforgiving town: Is my stuff in there?

Carney senior, a petty thief and hustler, was a gunned down by police stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Ray is as straight as you can be in a town run on corruption, where the cops have to be paid off and the fear of retribution runs deep. Some of the goods he sells have dubious origins – he’s a reluctant fence who innocently gets caught up in a jewel heist.

Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.

Harlem Shuffle exposes the injustices in the justice system and that the line between legal and illegal is blurred. Whitehead shines a light on the false moralities of capitalism and that the founding of the USA itself, like all colonised counties was done through theft and treachery and that we are all complicit in.

There’s us, there’s water, and then there’s more land, we’re all a part of the same thing. But Park Avenue, with those big old buildings facing one another, full of old white people, there’s none of that feeling, right? It’s a canyon. And the two sides don’t give a shit about you. If they wanted, if they so decided, they could squeeze together and crush you. That’s how little you are

Book review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

There is something quite joyful about mischievous septuagenarians. Comedian and television presenter Richard Osman turned his hand to writing cosy mystery The Thursday Murder Club after a visit to an affluent retirement village.

In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you. So I’m putting today in my pocket and I’m off to bed.

Residents of Coopers Chase retirement village in Kent, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron meet weekly over wine and cake in the Jigsaw Room for their group ’Japanese Opera: A Discussion‘. It’s a front for the Thursday Murder Club and ensures they are not disturbed whilst they work on their cold-case murders. The ringleader, Elizabeth, has her ways…of getting hold of cold case files, and leveraging others for information the police would be envious of. Her conspirators are an ex nurse (Joyce), a retired psychiatrist with excellent attention to detail and logistical skills (Ibrahim), and militant unionist, Ron, or Red Ron as he is known.

Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was much to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is much to do and only so many days left.

When local developer and drug dealer, Tony Curran is found dead, the Thursday Murder Club decide they are going to solve the case. They talk disenfranchised PC Donna de Freitas into secretly working with them, promising her credit to help get her off mundane administrative work and into serious investigations. Soon the bodies start to pile up. There is another murder and a mysterious discovery of human bones that don’t belong in the part of the cemetery where they are found – on top of a coffin.

Donna has always been headstrong, always acted quickly and decisively. Which is a fine quality when you are right, but a liability when you are wrong. It’s great to be the fastest runner, but not when you’re running in the wrong direction.

The sassy characters and gentle humour make The Thursday Murder Club an entertaining and light read. The older I get, the more enjoyment I get out of reading stories with quirky old folk with a zest for life and The Thursday Murder Club hit the spot. The novel is a lovely reminder that the elderly should not be dismissed or ignored – they still have plenty to offer.

After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children.

Book review: Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone

Cherry Hinton is an investigative reporter turned cake shop owner turned private investigator in Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone. There’s b-grade celebrities, reality TV, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter in this bawdy chick lit meets crime fiction, fast paced funny novel set in Essex.

We’d spent the day slumped on the settee, only leaving it to get top-ups of drinks and crisps. I had Twitter running on my phone, Facebook on my iPad. The hot topic of conversation was who was going to get voted off that night and whether Jodrell Banks would manage to claw back her glamorous modelling career in light of having lost two stone with Big Blubbers help.

Martin was arrested and jailed for murdering contestant Kenny Thorpe on Big Blubber weight loss reality TV show but on his deathbed he wrote a letter to Kenny’s sister swearing he didn’t do it. Why would he do that if it wasn’t true? Kenny’s sister wants Cherry to find out.

I knew she didn’t believe me but the way I saw it, I was doing her a favour. Those Chavalicious girls were alright but they were a bit dull. A night down the cage fighting contest was much better option.

The reason Cherry is running her parents cake shop is that her reporting reputation was destroyed and she was dumped by her paper after being exposed (naked) going undercover on another reality TV show, Caravan of Love. This makes her the ideal candidate to investigate other reality TV contestants…

A light, quick, cozy locked room type mystery to disappear into the weird universe of reality TV with an Agatha Christie style ending. I listened to it whilst doing the gardening – the neighbours probably wondered what I was laughing at.

Book review: The Outsider by Stephen King

Stephen King has published 63 novels, but The Outsider, a horror/crime fiction novel is the first one I have read. If you want to frighten yourself, this could be the book for you. One hot night whilst absorbed in the story I had to get up and close and lock all the doors after I started to get spooked. As it turns out I needn’t have bothered because the thing that had frightened me could have gotten in if it wanted to, doors locked or not.

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’

A young boy is abducted and brutally murdered in Flint City. A witness saw the local little league coach, English teacher and father of two girls drive him off in a white van, another saw him emerge from where the body was found covered in blood, a third saw him dump the van and drive away in another car…Detective Ralph Anderson swoops in mid game to arrest Terry Maitland in front of the kids, parents and Terry’s own family — the man had coached Ralph’s son as well and he’s outraged. Soon Anderson has DNA evidence and fingerprints as well — a quick resolution to a sordid tale. Or is it?

There was one rock-hard fact, as unassailable as gravity: a man could not be in two places at the same time.

Terry Maitland has an alibi. He was also caught on video, and his fingerprints found at a conference in another town when the murder was taking place.

Enter stage left, eccentric private investigator Holly Gibney to help Anderson get to the truth. I loved the character of Holly – she’s extraordinary in her ordinariness. She’s on the Autism spectrum, obsessive-compulsive and has sensory processing issues. She’s extremely intelligent and observant but her awkward, self deprecating, uncertainty make her uncomfortable in her own skin and self-conscious around others. Yet she is brave and can be relied on in a crisis.

Themes include justice triumphs over evil, loss of innocence, identity, belief and disbelief. I don’t usually read horror, but it would be fair to say the crime element and the character of Holly were major factors that kept me glued to The Outsider at every chance I got – devouring it hungrily till the end.

Book review: 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

Despite not being sure I was ready for a book set during the pandemic I was soon riveted by Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest psychological thriller 56 Days. Whilst the pandemic is not the focal point of the novel, Howard uses the unique circumstances created by the lockdown in Ireland to help drive suspense in the plot.

People think the decisions you make that change the course of your life are the big ones. Marriage proposals. House moves. Job applications. But she knows it’s the little ones, the tiny moments, that really plot the course. Moments like this.

Clare and Oliver, both new to Dublin, meet it a supermarket queue and start dating. The new lovers navigate their tentative romance deciding what to reveal to other about themselves as each begins to believe the other may be ‘the one’. When the government announces a strict two week lockdown due to the pandemic they make a decision to move in together so they can continue to explore their budding romance. No one knows they are dating.

‘We have these stories we tell ourselves—and other people—about ourselves, based on what happened to us in the past, or what we did, or decisions we made, and then they become our future just by the telling. It’s like a …’
‘Self-fulfilling prophecy? she offers.

Two detectives – DI Karl Connolly and DI Lee Riordan – are called to an exclusive apartment in Dublin to investigate a strong odour. The detectives find a decaying corpse in the shower recess and must determine whether it was an accident or foul play was involved.

Lies are spindly, unwieldy things. Delicate filaments, like bundles of nerves in the body. Easy to twist, hard to control, impossible to keep hold of.

56 Days moves back and forth in time from before the pandemic to the present to gradually reveal the stories of Oliver, Clare, DI Karl Connolly and DI Lee Riordan. The characters of Clare and Oliver are filled with the anxiety and anticipation of new love, including withholding information from one another that could throw a shadow over their budding romance. The detectives inject the good natured banter of work colleagues and humour to the story, along with a few gruesome details.

The novel is really well plotted, threaded through with a sense of dread and anticipation that something terrible could happen at any moment. Howard takes the reader to the edge of their seat repeatedly, then draws back, and story ends with an unexpected twist. I really enjoyed the audio book narrated by Alana Kerr Collins – the Irish accent adds to the telling of the story.

Book review: Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn

I’ve stayed in Ireland for another book with Anthony J Quinn’s novel Turncoat. Cold, dreary, claustrophobic — good ingredients for a thriller. Turncoat is set in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement that ended most of the violence of the Troubles in Ireland, and was a major step forward in the peace process. Quinn plays with traditional crime fictions forms — the opening is like a shoot ‘em up James Bond adventure that morphs into a mind bending locked room mystery before spinning around again with a noir like twist.

He felt hollow inside, unsure of anything, least of all his own thoughts and feelings, stumbling over his shadow, the ghost of a lonely detective who had somehow escaped his own execution.

Desmond Maguire is a catholic detective in the Northern Ireland police force. When he is framed by either the IRA or the republicans his tenuous grip on control fractures, helped along by his tendency to drink way too much — personal conflict plus in this story. He is the sole survivor of an ambush and seen as a second class citizen by his police peers and a turncoat in his own community.

The guts of the novel has a surreal and almost locked room mystery feel to it. Maguire flees on an involuntary pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Donegal after receiving a postcard that inspires him to go there believing he will find the answer to who framed him. The traditional Lough Derg three day pilgrimage only allows participants one meal of black tea or coffee, dry toast, oat cakes and water, and deprives them of sleep and footwear as they walk around the island in prayer. The longer Maguire is on the island the more paranoid he becomes.

During the worst days of the Troubles, Belfast kept its traitors out of sight, like the homeless drunks who froze to death in back alleyways, or the suicides who thew themselves off bridges into the dank Lagan waters. The bodies of spies and informers were usually transported to the border and left in ditches or covered in bin bags where they no longer posed a risk to anyone, and their deaths might not seem so terrible or pitiable.

The island is analogous to a miserable, claustrophobic locked room. The story plays with reality, showing Maguire’s undoing facilitated by the deprivations of the pilgrimage, excessive consumption of illicit alcohol, the other pilgrims fascination with him, and his anxiety that someone on the island is after him. He can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction — even in his own mind.

Quinn does a great job of bringing to life the confusion and suspicions that must have existed during those times in Ireland. Themes include religion, corruption, mistrust and betrayal – it is not an easy or light read, but the discomfort is compelling and leaves residual long after it ends.

Book review: Borkmann’s Point by Hakan Nesser

Borkmann’s Point is a Nordic noir police procedural set in the early 90s by Swedish author Hakan Nesser. Think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and you’ll get the gist of the style. The book is the second of the Van Veeteren series but can be easily read as a stand alone.

Two recent arrivals to the fishing village of Kaalbringen — an ex-con and a real estate tycoon — are murdered with an axe, and Chief inspector Van Veeteren is asked to cut short his holiday to help out on the murder investigation.

Beate Moerk sat down and put her briefcase on the sofa beside her. She was used to the question. Had expected it, in fact. People evidently had no difficulty in accepting policewomen in uniform, but coping with the fact that wearing a uniform was not a necessary part of the job seemed to be a different matter. How could a woman wear something fashionable and attractive and still carry out her police duties?

The local chief of police, Bausen is counting the days to his retirement and the rest of his team, bar one, are largely hopeless. Beate Moerk has a flair for police work, so when she disappears after a third murder, it’s down to Veeteren to solve the case.

The story is told in a steady, restrained, thoughtful pace and with a wry sense of humour. Reading Borkmann’s Point is like watching a quirky game of chess unfold.

If he’d had the ability to see into the future, if only for a few hours, it is possible that he’d have given lunch a miss without more ado. And set off for Kaalbringen as quickly as possible.

Borkmann’s Point is told through alternating points of view giving readers a deep insight into the main characters. Van Veeteren is a grouchy old cop with a predilection for doing some of his best thinking in the bath with a few bottles of brown ale and a bowl of olives. Beate is a beautiful investigator, ambivalent about her unmarried and childless state. The killer is cool and casual about stalking his victims and believes he is beyond reach and punishment — he’s just an ordinary man.

Nesser won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for Best Crime Novel in 2004 for Borkmann’s Point. After being translated and released in English, the book was also shortlisted for the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.