Dancers in the Wind Review: Bold, Bloody and Brilliant

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Anne Coates’ intriguing novel centres around the investigations of journalist Hannah Weybridge, whose article on the red light district in Kings Cross spirals wildly out of control when a source is left battered on her doorstep and evidence points towards a conspiracy and police corruption.

The novel has all the elements of a classic thriller, with the twin twists that the protagonist is both a woman and a journalist. As a single mother Hannah is able to empathise with the victims and her outrage and vulnerability throughout the book allow readers to see both sides of her, presenting an interesting character readers are actually invested in as opposed to some of the one dimensional thugs set up by more conservative thrillers.

Dialogue is where the novel is let down- there just isn’t enough punch to keep up with the heart stopping plot and the gritty characters. Characterisation across the board is strong, and there are some real nasty pieces of work to watch out for, as well as some great secondary characters. The change in perspective across the chapters makes for a multidimensional read with intriguing layers of danger as the reader frantically tries to weed out the reliable from the villainous.

Fundamentally a strong thriller with great characters and an innovative narrative that presents moral challenges to the reader, this is a great read for anyone looking for an unconventional thriller that packs a punch. A combination of police procedural, private investigative thriller and dark gritty crime drama, Dancers in the Wind has something to keep everyone enthralled.

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Elka Ray Interview: “Novels are like giant jigsaw puzzles”

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Elka Ray, a crime author who also writes children’s books and short stories, discusses these three varied mediums and the benefits of each. 

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?

I’m fascinated by what motivates people, especially when their actions seem illogical. Crime stories revolve around the motive. It’s not enough to discover who did it. I want to know why they did it. In every story I’m exploring the emotions that drive people towards crimes and moral failures.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

I studied Journalism and spent years doing media and communications work. Many of my stories are set in places I’ve visited for work.

Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?

My first novel, Hanoi Jane, is a light romantic mystery about a young American reporter who becomes obsessed with digging up dirt on her ex-fiancé’s seemingly perfect new girlfriend. Jane starts out tragically stuck in the past but ends up on a life-changing adventure in Vietnam. I think the story resonates with readers because anyone who’s ever felt heartbroken, humiliated or a bit lost can relate to Jane. And who hasn’t, at some point in their life?

As the title suggests, my next book, What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia, is much darker. Set in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, these ten short stories follow people committing nasty deeds motivated by jealousy, greed, fear and revenge. The stories range from macabre to blackly humorous. The book’s getting great reviews from readers who enjoy crime stories and traveling- my twin passions!

My latest book, Saigon Dark, just came out in mid-November 2016 and tells the story of a young divorced mother, Lily Vo, who steals an abused child after the sudden death of her own daughter. While taking a child is obviously wrong, rescuing one might be justifiable. But this decision, which Lily has to cover up, comes back to haunt her. So far the book’s doing well and I think that’s because – flawed as she is – readers can identify with Lily and her predicament. There are some heartbreaking moments but overall the book’s not depressing. Lily’s a strong woman who prevails, although at a cost.

Tell me about writing books for children. How do you amend the writing style to suit your audience?

I write and illustrate very simple kids’ books about the culture and landscape of Vietnam (www.stickyriceworld.com), where I live with my husband and children. The big challenge with picture books is conveying your message in 500 words or less. I think all writing – whether you’re aiming at toddlers or adults – should be as clear as possible.

How do you adapt your writing style when composing short stories? Do you find the word limit restrictive or freeing?

Novels are like giant jigsaw puzzles. Where should the bits go? Deciding where to place scenes or drop vital clues can be confusing. With a novel, it’s sometimes hard to remember what you’ve revealed. Did I already tell the readers that? Will they remember from way back in Chapter 2? There’s a fine line between leaving readers confused and being repetitive.

Short stories are fun to write. I enjoy that tight focus and the relatively quick reveal. Now and then we all deserve some instant gratification.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

I’ve never had writer’s block. If anything, I have too many story ideas and feel frustrated that I don’t have time to pursue everything.

I live near the ocean and spend an hour or so every day playing in the waves or swimming. Most new story ideas, characters’ voices and plot twists come to me in the ocean.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

An American writer named Scott Smith published a book called A Simple Plan in 2006. It’s one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. Since then, he’s published one other novel, The Ruins, which I’ve been unable to find! (I live overseas and it’s not on Kindle.)

While I wouldn’t have the confidence to collaborate, I’d love to track Scott Smith down, get a writing lesson and beg him to write more thrillers.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’m illustrating a kids’ story about a magical book that’s aimed at an international audience. It’s a new style for me and I’m both enjoying the process – and nerve-wracked.

A couple new suspense novel ideas are also rattling around in my head. Scenes sometimes come to me in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep. I tell my husband my latest plot twists in the morning and he always says: “No wonder you can’t sleep! I’m scared to even sleep next to you!”

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?

I’m always hoping for new books by Donna Tartt, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Belinda Bauer.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m very pleased to have discovered your blog and will soon be reading my way through books by your chosen Ten Top Women Crime Writers.

Many thanks to Elka for speaking with me- it’s great to hear about your work and its lovely to hear you’re a fan of the blog. You can read more about Elka’s work HERE.

The Top Five Miss Phryne Fisher Novels to Get You in a Flap

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A couple of months ago I got hooked on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian TV series I was recommended to watch by Netflix. As many of the recommendations tend to be lame (because I watched Top of the Lake apparently I should watch Step Brothers, although perhaps the best one was when it suggested I watch QI because I had previously seen Gone Girl), I was tempted to dismiss it, but after seeing the trailer on YouTube I bit the bullet and put the first episode on. I was quickly enthralled by the tales of this flapper  detective, and binge watched the entire first series in just a week. Not long after, whilst browsing in the Oxfam shop, I discovered one of the books and decided it must be fate.

As was the case with the TV show, my love affair with the novels was fast and ferocious, and I quickly began seeking out the books wherever I could. Kerry Greenwood is a prolific writer across a number of genres, but she is most noted, with good reason, for the imaginative, well crafted and witty Miss Fisher novels.

Set in 1920s Australia and written recently (the first was released in 1989 and the latest was published in 2013), the books are a cross between Agatha Christie and Jill Patton Walsh, showcasing a flair for characterisation and an innovative narrative style incorporating strong, intricate plots and sleek, stylish dialogue. They are easily compared to traditional Golden Age fiction (and indeed, Dorothy L Sayers even gets a mention) but there is a definite modern flare to the writing, with a semi-nostalgic view of life all those years ago that is both endearing and charming.

So, as my treat, allow me to outline my pick of the five best novels in this fascinating series so that you can get as addicted to Miss Fisher and her adventures as I am.

  1. A Question of Death: Personally, I am a big believer that short story collections are always a good place to start, and this is one of the best. Featuring a selection of the most devilish short stories about this glamorous sleuth, the stories retain the suspense and mystery of the novels whilst their brevity allows for even better characterisation; those who believe the opposite should be the case are mistaken, as this well crafted series boasts some of the best characters in the series. The reduced time in which characters are portrayed allows Greenwood to utilise all her skills to create meaningful encounters, exacting descriptions and minute but vital details. Also the pretty illustrations and innovative cocktail recipes make this a great investment for a real die hard fan.
  1. Ruddy Gore: Perfectly encapsulating the very best of the lady detective, Ruddy Gore sees Miss Fisher investigating the strange demise of an actor who dies onstage during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore’. Introducing the protagonist’s sole long term lover, who reappears in other novels, the exotic and dashing Lin Chung, this is an exhilarating tale that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
  1. Dead Man’s Chest: An exciting novel with enough twists and turns to worry the presenters of Top Gear, this later outing for Miss Fisher and friends shows them decamping to Queenscliff for a holiday, only to find their household staff have done a bunk. As things get criminal the holiday is cut short, with a fascinating mystery making for an enticing novel that keeps you guessing right till the end.dead-mans-chest
  1. Death By Water: Set aboard a luxury cruise liner, this is a thrilling and intriguing tale, as Miss Fisher is hired to investigate a series of jewel thefts. Seamlessly ingratiating herself among the upper classes, Phryne baits the thief whilst simultaneously delving into the fascinating lives of the passengers, who are also the suspects.
  1. Cocaine Blues: The first book in a series is always a good place to start, and Cocaine Blues, also known as Miss Phyne Fisher Investigates, is a great opener. We are introduced to the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, a lady detective who relocates from England at the behest of wealthy aristocrats concerned for the safety of their daughter, who always falls ill when in the presence of her horrible husband. With all the traditional tropes of a Golden Age detective story but with a modern flare, this is the ideal way to get you hooked on these fantastically plotted novels.

The Man with the Golden Mind Review: Sleek, Stylish and Snappy

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Much like the front cover, The Man with the Golden Mind offers a simple yet strong narrative, with a stylish slant to the dialogue and a dry humour that makes it a hard-hitting thriller not to be missed.

Bringing to life the rich culture and stunning natural beauty of its Cambodian setting, the novel has an atmospheric chill that draws the reader in. Incorporating characters from around the world, including German Detective Maier, last seen in his debut The Cambodian Book of the Dead, his second outing is begins with a quest to uncover the truth behind the death of an East German cultural attaché who was killed near a fabled CIA airbase in central Laos in 1976. Following the kidnapping of his client Maier is forced on a quest across the country as he unearths long buried secrets that could cost him his life and those of his associates.

Reviewer Terry Irving, in praising the novel, describes it as “the best of both. A great spy thriller wrapped around a real mystery and a real crime.” It could be argued that the novel is in fact the best of three genres; historical fiction, crime and spy fiction. By incorporating elements of each author Tom Vater highlights his versatility and skill, creating a compelling and exciting narrative that includes just enough fact to be compelling without being dreary.

Quintessentially this exhilarating read incorporates everything from lies and deception through to sex, betrayal and death, offering the reader an exercise in edge of your seat action combined with strong storytelling and believable characterisation.

The Life Assistance Agency Review: Suspense, Spiritualism and Spaniels

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An unusual novel with a fascinating premise, The Life Assistance Agency offers a twist on the traditional private eye tale.

Protagonist Ben Ferguson-Cripps is getting few sales on his book, Mirrors and Lies, which provides a highly skeptical view on the spiritualism that captivated his mother. In an attempt to get his life back on track he joins former colleague Scott Wildblood (this novel merits a reading just from the names alone) a the Life Assistance Agency, an all purpose racket supporting everything from standard detection to swimming lessons and even bonsai trimming. His first case is a missing lecturer. The simple premise quickly escalates, as sinister forces appear to stalk both the missing man and the highly inexperienced agents seeking him, as the case eventually takes an alarmingly personal turn for the cynical Ferguson-Cripps.

Incorporating the real life astronomer and philosopher John Dee, his friend and fellow angel contactor Edward Kelley and the tale of the wife swap they engage in at the behest of their angelic correspondents into the novel offers a great opportunity to explore this bizarre real life story. The use of John’s wife Jane’s fictionalized diaries offers a different perspective that is a great contrast to Ben’s dour, modern voice, which acts as the first person narrative throughout the rest of the book. Jane is portrayed as a smart, educated woman with a healthy skepticism of her both husband’s endeavors and friend. The diary entries are perfectly interspersed with the main plot, which sees the protagonists engage in a slightly farcical chase around Europe after their missing lecturer.

The one unusual occurrence in the novel, stranger even than the apparitions and angels in the plot, is the constant reference to spaniels. The opening chapters are awash with similes and metaphors about them, despite the fact that no dogs of any kind actually feature in the book itself, apart from brief references. Author Thomas Hocknell describes himself as being ‘brought up by Springer spaniels’, which perhaps goes some way to explaining it, but still despite being highly unobservant when thoroughly absorbed in a book as I was in this case, even I couldn’t fail to spot the overuse of this particular, unnecessary trope.

Overall what really impresses me about The Life Assistance Agency is the fact that, despite the strong emphasis on angels, this is fundamentally a detective novel with Ben and Scott’s quest for answers being the primary focus at all times. A compelling and exciting read, this is worth a look for those searching for something a little bit different from which to get their crime fiction fix. Like a cross between Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and a real old-school crime novel, this book is witty, quick and tantalising, and I personally believe that it is just the thing to invigorate a genre which all too often relies on tired, recycled tropes and narrative devices.

John Harvey Murray Interview: “I have always had an enquiring mind”

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Accountant, Blogger and Crime Writer John Harvey Murray talks me through his work and the writers he admires the most.

Tell me about how the books you write. Why do you have such a passion for crime fiction in particular?

I have always had an enquiring mind. Also, crime fiction has to have a structure. The murder. The investigation. The solution. Some other fiction writers can ramble a bit. I think I would, if I did not have that structure to help me. Within that, there is plenty of scope for variety and innovation.

Currently I am working on a story about an accountant who is looking into some financial goings-on and that leads on into investigating a murder. I hope this will be the beginning of a series, Accounting for Murder. This first one should be out by Easter. Money is often the motive for all sorts of crimes and an accountant’s skills are often very similar to a detective’s.

I am trying to make him a fairly ordinary man whom readers will be able to relate to. It is set in Cardiff, a place where I lived for several years. Like me, he is an Englishman who loves Wales and the Welsh. We both love animals too. I chose to make my hero an accountant because I would be writing about something I know and because I think it is time for another amateur detective. There seem to be so many police detectives around.

What was the first crime fiction novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?

Probably an early Dick Francis one. I love horses, although I do not follow racing. I have now read most of his works. I like the combination of mystery and thriller as well as the background detail.

What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?

I worked as an accountant in local government for most of my career. Before you all go to sleep, let me say that although everyone thinks accountancy is boring, most people like talking about money, and it was a good preparation for writing crime fiction.

For years, I did a lot of auditing, investigating wrongdoing as well as sorting out mistakes, which made a change from making them. I also spent most of my later career dealing with insurances. That involved looking into claims against the Council, most of which were dubious. If they had all been genuine, you should have seen someone fall on the pavement every time you looked out of the window.

Throughout my career I have always done a lot of writing: reports, memos, letters. We accountants do use words as well as numbers. For the last few years, I have been self-employed, meeting a lot of people in business, which has taught me a lot.

It was to help grow my business that I started a blog and then wrote a few non-fiction books. I enjoyed that a lot and discovered self-publishing. Some people enjoyed my writing. That made me think writing fiction might be possible.

What books/ authors do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

I am sure everything you read affects your writing in some way. The writers who have influenced me the most include Val McDermid, who explains a lot about the psychology of murder, but I have enjoyed some of her earlier works which were more basic whodunits.

Ruth Rendell, especially in her Reg Wexford stories, makes her hero credible and normal. Not all detectives have to have damaged personalities and dysfunctional relationships. I also love some of Wexford’s passing observations about life and how things have changed.

In addition, Reginald Hill, apart from writing great stories, has a marvellous way with words. He writes most eruditely, but his characters speak in earthy Yorkshire or Cumbrian. There is humour in the way he expresses himself, without detracting from the seriousness of the story. He also evokes the feeling of the places where his stories are set.

Speaking of words, PG Wodehouse could really use them and could create lots of plot strands, which he would bring together brilliantly in the end. A must-read for any writer.

Most recently, I have been enjoying some of the works of Peter James. His knowledge of police procedures and of the location, Brighton, is great. His hero is another normal person, although one with an issue in his private life.

Finally, all crime writers owe a huge debt to Arthur Conan Doyle. Everything can be traced back to him.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Any of the above. However, I would be too in awe of them to collaborate much. Perhaps writers are better on their own anyway. You need to be yourself. Great writing is seldom achieved by committees. Meeting any of them would be a privilege.

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

I hope Accounting for Murder will become a series. I have several ideas for more stories involving the same hero and his family.

I am likely to produce another non-fiction book next year, either about business or something to do with faith. Perhaps Things the Devil Doesn’t Want You to Know or A Sceptical Look at Atheism.

Do you have anything to add?

My faith affects all my writing, and probably most things I do, but I try not to ram it down your throat. It is part of who I am.

If anyone has not got enough of me, there’s more at www.johnharveymurray.co.uk and for my professional life, see www.jhmriskmanagementservices.co.uk

Thanks ever so much John, it has been a real pleasure to talk to you.

The Top Five Wallander Novels to Get You Hooked on Henning Mankell

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Henning Mankell, my hero and the man who wrote the novels that defined my university years, wrote a great many novels in a number of genres. There is the spectacular and atmospheric Italian Shoes, the emotional Chronicler of the Winds and even a series of children’s books. However, it is his series of novels featuring Kurt Wallander, the intelligent but angry protagonist with a dogged determination to find the truth that is the true star of his bibliography. These brilliant books formed the beginnings of the trend for Scandinavian crime fiction. So here’s my top five books guaranteed to get you addicted.

  1. The White Lioness: Drawing on Mankell’s love of Africa and political affiliations, The White Lioness is as a much a critique of politics of the early 1990s as it is a work of crime fiction. This novel is worth reading for its opening sequence alone- there is real depth to the depiction of the grieving family of the Estate Agent murdered after taking a wrong turning, and the dialogue between her family and the world weary Inspector Wallander is absolute perfection, highlighting the difficulty in understanding and fully empathising with another’s grief.
  1. The Dogs of Riga: When two dead Latvians wash up on a beach in Ystad the police from Riga sent a man to Sweden to assist with the investigation. Wallander, who took the case on following an anonymous tip off, works with him to gain an insight into the case, and in so doing learns a great deal about the Soviet Union and the devastation it wreaked on the countries it dominated. When the Latvian Major is killed on return to Riga Wallander is drawn to Latvia, where he finds corruption, deception and deceit.the-dogs-of-riga
  1. Faceless Killers: The very first novel to feature the dogged detective is a great place to start your journey into the murky life of Inspector Kurt Wallander. Inspired by the author’s desire to showcase Swedish racism and the issues around xenophobia that the country faced following relentless political turmoil, Mankell expertly combines social criticism with crime fiction in this gripping novel.
  1. The Man Who Smiled: A later outing for Wallander, this dark novel provides a perfect example of Mankell’s aptitude for creating complicated, conniving characters. The plot is thrilling and enticing, taking the reader on a fascinating journey. Wallander’s own personal trauma is entwined with the crime, providing an eye opening insight into the state of mind of the detective.
  1. The Pyramid: This collection of short stories, set before Faceless Killers, is a great start to your Wallander obsession, although it is also great for diehard plans, as it is packed with references to the later novels. Dark and twisted, the medium leaves less space for the lavish descriptions of Skåne that make the novels so spine-tinglingly chilling, but there is still the same social criticism, strong characterisation and deadpan dialogue that makes the all of Mankell’s writing so compelling.