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.

Book review: How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

I wrote this a week ago, but decided publishing a review of a book called How to Kill your Family on Christmas Eve was in poor taste, particularly as my dad reads this blog (for the record the thought has never crossed my mind).

Kelly decided that I was her new best friend, and worse, a trophy cellmate. At breakfast, she will bustle up to me, linking arms and whispering to me as if we are in the middle of a confidential discussion. I’ve heard her talking to the other prisoners, her voice dropping to a stage whisper, as she intimates that I’ve confessed all the details of my crime to her. She wants leverage and respect from the other girls, and if anyone can provider her with it, the Morton murderer can. It is immensely tiresome.

Grace Bernard is writing her memoir from a jail cell in Limehouse prison. She was locked up for a murder she did not commit. Her memoir confesses to murders that she did commit. By age 28 she had killed six members of her own family.

Helene was kind, but she was hardly a great intellect, and had a fairly basic level of insight. Her favourite shows were all on ITV, if that makes it at all clearer.

She was raised by a single mother who died of cancer and exhaustion when Grace was a teenager. Whilst her mother was dying Grace discovered that her father was a business tycoon and owner of a well known fashion label. He had abandoned her mother and wanted nothing to do with Grace. Grace spends her remaining teenage years plotting revenge.

How to Kill Your Family is a story of class, family, betrayal, rejection and retribution. Dark and at times brutal, yet told with a hilarious wry humour.

Kelly asks if I want to talk anything over, tilting her head in what I image she thinks is a sympathetic gesture. She knows my final appeal is due any day now, and her recent forays into group therapy seem to have convinced her that she has a bright future in counselling. I have to stifle the urge to explain that the vest therapy that Harley Street has to offer wouldn’t help me much, so I doubt that Kelly’s offer of trying to contact my inner child will suddenly fix whatever she imagines might be wrong with me. Besides the fact that Kelly is an undeniable moron, I think talking is overrated.

The character of Grace is a little reminiscent of Villanelle from Killing Eve. Grace is smart, sarcastic, cunning, meticulous, judgemental and conniving. Yet despite her psychopathic tendencies and twisted view of the world, you can’t help but like her.

A great read for when you a looking for some light-hearted dark humour.

Happy New Year, may 2022 be kind to you. See you out the other side.

Grand Dames of Crime: Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth wrote 66 books. 32 of them featured Miss Maud Silver, a former governess turned private investigator who liked to quote Tennyson and the Bible, and had a keen eye for understanding human frailties. Wentworth was born Dora Amy Elles in India in 1877 and educated in London.

I told you she had an inconsequent mind. That’s putting it much too mildly. When it comes to anything like evidence, she hasn’t really got a mind at all – she just dives into a sort of lumber-room and brings out odds and ends.

The Case of William Smith

Wentworth married young in 1906 and had a daughter, then whilst she was still in her twenties her husband died and she moved to Surrey and lived there till her own death in 1961. Her first book was published under the pseudonym Patricia Wentworth in 1910, a historical fiction romance novel called A Marriage Under the Terror, a tale of love blossoming in the ashes of betrayal that won the Melrose Prize for best first novel. She wrote fifteen more romance novels and a book of verse for children, but her true talent lay in cosy mysteries.

‘I think it is right that you should know I am here in the capacity of a private enquiry agent.’
If she had announced that she was there in the capacity of a Fairy Godmother or of First Murderer, she could hardly have surprised him more. In fact, the Fairy Godmother would have seemed quite appropriate by comparison.

The Silent Pool

She met her second husband, George Oliver Turnbull, and remarried in 1920, producing another daughter. George became her scribe, writing Wentworth’s stories as she dictated them.

Fancy going out into the world under the impression that you can always have your own way! Would anything be more likely to lead to disaster?

Death at the Deep End

Miss Maud Silver’s first appearance was in 1928 in a whodunit called Grey Mask. In this novel Charles turns to Miss Silver for help after he is jilted at the alter and discovers his fiancé was mixed up in a kidnapping plot with a shadowy figure in a grey mask. Miss Silver went on many adventures in the subsequent 31 novels, working with Scotland Yard, knitting garments for her nieces and nephews, scribbling in her notebooks – a new one for each case.

Obstinacy is an impediment to the free exercise of thought. It paralyses the intelligence. Conclusions based upon preconceived ideas are valueless

Latter End

Along with the Miss Silver Series, Wentworth wrote three more series. Frank Garrett (a two book series) is the official face of the Foreign Office. Benbow Smith (a four book series) is the behind the scenes man, a spymaster with the British Foreign Office, a kind of James Bond. The series focusses on political intrigue and industrial espionage. Ernest Lamb (a three book series) is a Scotland Yard Inspector who investigates the most perplexing crimes, those embroiled in dark family histories.

The best thing that can happen to anyone who is doing wrong is to be found out. If he is not found out he will do more wrong and earn a heavier punishment.

Lonesome Road

Biliography:

Miss Silver series
• Grey Mask, 1928
• The Case Is Closed, 1937
• Lonesome Road, 1939
• Danger Point (USA: In the Balance), 1941
• The Chinese Shawl, 1943
• Miss Silver Intervenes (USA: Miss Silver Deals with Death), 1943
• The Clock Strikes Twelve, 1944
• The Key, 1944
• The Traveller Returns (USA: She Came Back), 1945
• Pilgrim’s Rest (or: Dark Threat), 1946
• Latter End, 1947
• Spotlight (USA: Wicked Uncle), 1947
• The Case of William Smith, 1948
• Eternity Ring, 1948
• The Catherine Wheel, 1949
• Miss Silver Comes to Stay, 1949
• The Brading Collection (or: Mr Brading’s Collection), 1950
• The Ivory Dagger, 1951
• Through the Wall, 1950
• Anna, Where Are You? (or: Death At Deep End), 1951
• The Watersplash, 1951
• Ladies’ Bane, 1952
• Out of the Past, 1953
• The Silent Pool, 1954
• Vanishing Point, 1953
• The Benevent Treasure, 1953
• The Gazebo (or: The Summerhouse), 1955
• The Listening Eye, 1955
• Poison in the Pen, 1955
• The Fingerprint, 1956
• The Alington Inheritance, 1958
• The Girl in the Cellar, 1961
Frank Garrett series
• Dead or Alive, 1936
• Rolling Stone, 1940
Ernest Lamb series
• The Blind Side, 1939
• Who Pays the Piper? (USA: Account Rendered), 1940
• Pursuit of a Parcel, 1942
Benbow Smith
• Fool Errant, 1929
• Danger Calling, 1931
• Walk with Care, 1933
• Down Under, 1937
Standalone
• A Marriage under the Terror, 1910
• A Child’s Rhyme Book, 1910
• A Little More Than Kin (or: More Than Kin), 1911
• The Devil’s Wind, 1912
• The Fire Within, 1913
• Simon Heriot, 1914
• Queen Anne Is Dead, 1915
• Earl or Chieftain?, 1919
• The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, 1923. Serialised, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925
• The Red Lacquer Case, 1924. Serialised, Leicester Mail, 1926
• The Annam Jewel, 1924
• The Black Cabinet, 1925
• The Dower House Mystery, 1925
• The Amazing Chance, 1926. Serialised, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 1927
• Hue and Cry, 1927
• Anne Belinda, 1927
• Will-o’-the-Wisp, 1928
• Beggar’s Choice, 1930
• The Coldstone, 1930
• Kingdom Lost, 1931
• Nothing Venture, 1932. Serialised, Dundee Courier, 1932
• What Became of Anne, 1926. Serialised, Dundee Courier, 1932
• Red Danger (USA: Red Shadow), 1932
• Seven Green Stones (USA: Outrageous Fortune), 1933
• Devil-in-the-Dark (USA: Touch And Go), 1934
• Fear by Night, 1934
• Red Stefan, 1935
• Blindfold, 1935
• Hole and Corner, 1936
• Mr Zero, 1938
• Afraid to Love, 1938. Serialised, Dundee Courier, 1932
• Run!, 1938
• Unlawful Occasions (USA: Weekend with Death), 1941
• Beneath the Hunter’s Moon, 1945
• Silence in Court, 1947
• The Pool of Dreams: Poems, 1953