A Whiff of Cyanide Review: Another Exceptional Modern Golden Age Mystery

a whiff of cyanide

The follow up to Miss Christie Regrets (read my review HERE) and the third in the Hampstead Murders series, A Whiff of Cyanide is another great spin on a traditional whodunit, with enough modern touches to really bring the Golden Age into the twenty first century.

Opening with a dinner party in true Golden Age style, the novel moves on to a writer’s convention, the inspiration for which, I am convinced, must have been taken from author Guy Fraser- Sampson’s personal experience. The vivid, scathing portrayal of the characters and the quick witted dialogue must have a holding in real life, I am sure, and there is something in the smugness of many of the main suspects that is definitely drawn from a previous encounter.

The victim is the unlikeable Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association, which is hosting the convention. With her leadership in dispute, her former friends in revolt and her career on the wane, the character has a troubled time until her eventual death, shortly after she revealed that she carries a bottle of cyanide with her as a sort of deranged prop.

Her murder forms the core backdrop to this fascinating novel, along with a number of interesting and well-integrated sub-plots revolving around the complicated lives of the investigative team that Fraser- Sampson expertly entwines with the main story. Fleshed out, the investigative team are a real success here, and this is one of the main things I like about these novels; the author knows exactly when to take example from Golden Age Crime Fiction, and when to insert more modern touches. In this case, the private detective, sidekick (usually of military extraction) and tame policeman trio which usually forms the protagonists for a traditional novel of this style is overhauled in favour of the more realistic team of experts from various fields, allowing scope for genuine discussion on the case and making the novel feel much more believable (in any day and age I find it tough to imagine former soldiers so at a loss for something to do with their time that they have to follow arrogant, eccentric detectives around and do their dirty work for them).

For anyone seeking an updated Golden Age series, the Hampstead Murders is, to my mind, the best out there. Fraser- Sampson weaves a thrilling and complicated narrative with enough to twists and turns to make the Queen of Crime herself proud. The only criticism I have is that, unlike the first two novels, A Whiff of Cyanide is, at times, a little heavy handed with the symbolism. One of the suspects is a character who has changed her name, by Deed Poll, to Miss Marple. Although Fraser- Sampson wins points for the fact that, as the character is portrayed as an actor who previously played Miss Marple of TV, I did have a bit of a laugh trying to work out if this had any real life significance, and if so who it would be based upon, this seems a little like overkill to me and made the novel feel a little obvious.

However, looking beyond this, the novel is, overall, a triumph for modern detective fiction and I feel certain that A Whiff of Cyanide, alongside the two preceding novels in this masterful series, will end up as a classic novel in a few year’s time.

Need You Dead Review: Roy Grace is Back and Ready to Go

Need You Dead. HB. High Res Jacket

Following on from the fascinating interview author Peter James gave me recently (check it out HERE) I review his latest novel featuring his Brighton based detective Roy Grace, Need You Dead.

The thirteenth Roy Grace novel is as steely and intriguing as the others, with dizzying twists throughout the narrative that will keep even the most jaded reader hooked right to the end.

Grace, still reeling from the recent revelations about his missing, now late wife Sandy and the arrival of the son he never knew they had, is drawn into a seemingly open and shut murder case. The victim had an abusive husband with a history of escalating violence who runs when confronted by the police.

However, discoveries about the victim and her colourful private life come to light that threaten Grace’s team’s certainty. With twists and turns in every chapter, James does his utmost to keep the reader hooked right to the end, an even a seasoned whodunit reader won’t guess the explosive twist implemented right at the very end of the novel.

The ultimate thriller, this novel is well researched and features a number of memorable characters. It is characterisation that really scores James points in Need You Dead; from Grace’s team of coppers through to the myriad of shady suspects, everyone has a great internal monologue and a sense of purpose. The dialogue is equally strong, although sometimes the police meetings can become plodding, with everyone determined to say their piece. Whilst I appreciate James’ need for accuracy, there is sometimes something to be said for artistic license, and if ever there was an occasion to cut some dialogue, it’s here.

Overall this is a great novel that benefits from strong characterisation, an intriguing and virtually unguessable plot and more twists than a fairground ride. With plotting like this it is easy to see how James has managed to sell over 18 million Roy Grace novels around the world.

Blue Gold Review: An Innovative Dystopian Thriller That Shows Great Promise

blue gold

Recently dystopian thrillers have become my go-to as Trump wages war on everyone’s rights and between them he, Putin and Kim Jong Un all conspire to create a frightening and at times utterly abhorrent world for us all, so I was gleeful at the prospect of the intriguing and tantalising Blue Gold, the debut novel of Banker David Barker.

Set in a dystopian future reminiscent of P.D James’ The Children of Men, Blue Gold depicts a time when, instead of infertility, it is water that is the issue, and this vital resource is the centre of great unrest.

A fascinating concept let down by slightly overly complicated dialogue, this is a riveting thriller with some pretty interesting characters and a plot that is both well thought out and not completely unbelievable. The info dumping in the dialogue and wider narrative could do with fine-tuning but beyond that there are really great chapters and at times the reader is able to race through the novel at breath taking speed.

Overall, I did have some misgivings about Blue Gold, but there are more positives than negatives and, in a literature market saturated with fluffy, feel good books designed to make you happy, it’s nice to read a thriller that can make you think.

The Scarlet Coven Review: A New Take on A Classic Style

The scarlet coven

Recently I bemoaned the lack of hardboiled detective fiction in the media, and it seems as though someone has answered my whiney prayers by bringing me The Scarlet Coven, a creative approach to this underrated genre which, although not entirely the same, draws on many classic tropes to create a real page turner that I found very hard to put down.

Set in 1930s New York, The Scarlet Coven is a slick take on hardboiled detective fiction as former detective Simon Finch, who has been looking to give up his time as former policeman and freelance ‘Man about Crime’ is pushed back into detection when he is approached by a stranger who tells him he is in terrible danger and arranges a meeting as a desperate plea for help. When the man is found murdered shortly afterwards, Finch explores the seedy underworld of otherworldly cults, mysterious mob bosses and twisted plots to uncover the truth and save the innocent.

As with many hardboiled detective novels, dialogue is crucial, and David Stuart Davies’s novel is no exception, with witty one-liners creating conversation so good it’s (almost) comparable to Raymond Chandler’s seminal work. The one problem I have is the first person narration, which doesn’t seem to match the droll tone of Finch’s conversation; phrases such as ‘gosh’ and ‘Al had the temerity to giggle’ don’t ring true for a man who otherwise speaks like he’s walked straight out of a speakeasy, offering swift rejoinders and receiving them back with the practiced ease of a proper old school PI.

If you need more of a reason to like this reincarnation a hardboiled novel then look no further than my new favourite synonym: ‘like a naïve trout: well and truly hooked’. The writing is slick, and some of the conversations, particularly any involving Finch and anyone in an official capacity, are memorable for their wit and quick delivery.

Fundamentally this is a really solid representation of hardboiled private detective fiction, and whilst Finch still needs some work he has the makings of a great character and I would definitely like to see more of him.

The Gift Maker Review: A Thought Provoking Human Drama

the gift maker

Hot on the heels of my interview with the author, the fabulous Mark Mayes (check it out HERE) I review his stunning debut novel The Gift Maker. Unlike many of my usual go-tos this is not Crime Fiction or a rip roaring thriller; in fact, it is tough to place this extraordinary novel in any genre at all.

If I had to pick one, I would say this is a human drama. The novel follows a group of people, some of whom are connected and some who are complete strangers, who are given unexpected gifts, which come with a cost that changes their lives forever. Drawn into the life of the titular gift maker himself, the group is pushed to its limits as they explore the nature of relationships and the importance of their own identities.

If you’re a fan of this blog then as you’ll already know, I’m a big fan of strong, idiosyncratic dialogue in novels, as both a part of the narrative in itself and a method of characterisation, and I very much enjoyed the dialogue in The Gift Maker. The expression’ old fruit’ is a particular favourite of mine and seeing it appear here really endeared me to this fascinating and thought-provoking novel.

Characterisation is also vital in a novel such as this, and Mayes is particularly good at creating characters with real depth and versatility, allowing the reader to become interested in their fate whilst remaining detached thanks to his at times almost clinical narrative style, which lends the novel an almost surreal edge.

Whilst I don’t normally enjoy novels which focus too much around the human condition, I found myself strangely hooked by this addictive and riveting novel. From its characters to its tantalising plot, every element is at its best as Mayes crafts an intriguing and rich narrative around this seemingly simple plot, which quickly becomes deeply interesting.

Shocking Circumstances Review: Style Over Substance

shocking circumstances

Opening with a bang, Chris Roy’s Shocking Circumstances lives up to its title; the first chapter is exhilarating and fast paced as we witness the beating of a man for information on missing money. Well executed, this thrilling opener nonetheless leaves the reader confused and wanting more- although they certainly get it as the novel continues to rattle along.

Following the rise, fall and retribution of Clarice “Shocker” Ares, a former boxer and her husband Ace Carter, who are fitted up and busted with a shipment of drugs which sees them on a downward spiral as they undergo humiliation, fear and desperation to get themselves out of prison and exact revenge on the corrupt policeman that destroyed their lives.

Aside from the opening chapter the novel is written in the first person, providing an interesting narrative as the reader navigates the various hectic arenas in which the plot plays out.

Dialogue is great, and the characterization is interesting and well-throughout out, but the plot is often a little one-dimensional and at times unbelievable; whilst Shocking Circumstances could never be described as boring, I find myself wondering if real people would behave as Roy’s characters do in the given situations.

Remembering that this is fiction and everyone is allowed a little artistic license, overall this novel is a hit. Equal parts exciting and riveting, it holds the attention well and offers a lot more punch than many more tame thrillers.

Lost in Static Review: A Thriller in a New Form

lost-in-static

Lost in Static has been in my ‘to review’ pile for a while now, but don’t let my laziness indicate that this is anything short of a riveting and inviting thriller. With all the panache and slick plotting of a Hollywood screenplay, this twist on the traditional colliding lives narrative is fascinating and unique.

A thriller that spans the perspectives of four key characters, with the narrative a first person depiction of the thoughts and feelings of Yasmine, Ruby, Juliette and Callum as they battle ever evolving relationships thanks to a variety of secrets, changes and misunderstandings.

The one issue I take with this novel is the issue of information dumping. Considering the first person narrative it should be easy for author Christina Philippou to effortlessly integrate plot points into the narrative; instead, we are regularly given awkward paragraphs of pure info-dump, with the narrators telling the reader stories which are designed exclusively as a fast way to disseminate key knowledge. Whilst I understand that providing vital background information is key to ensuring the smooth flow of any novel, I am not sure it is done with much skill in this instance.

Despite this, Lost in Static remains an interesting read: with an innovative narrative structure, superb dialogue and some brilliant portrayals of relationships and emotions, this smart and creative thriller is something different, and definitely worth checking out.