A Checkered Past Review: Less Twee Than You’d Expect

A CHECKERED PAST front cover

Styled to mirror the writing of classic Golden Age authors, I was intrigued to check out A Checkered Past. Book four of the Emmeline Kirby, which I recently discovered after encountering the author on Facebook, is a scintillating tale of theft, murder and general mayhem.

Protagonist Emmeline Kirby is back in London determined to make a success of her new job as editorial director of investigative features at The Clarion. Three months have passed since the events of the previous book, in which she took a trip to Torquay, which led to devastating revelations that surfaced about her fiancé Gregory Longdon. A dashing jewel thief, he is determined win back her affections with the help of Emmeline’s best friend and Grandmother.

Meanwhile, as Gregory battles to prove his worth, Emmeline stubbornly pursues a story about looted Nazi art and an IRA collaborator. When a stolen Constable painting belonging to her best friend Maggie’s family turns up in the collection of Max Sanborn, the chairman of the company that owns The Clarion, her personal crusade brings danger close to home.

Battling these conflicts, Emmeline colludes with Gregory to uncover the truth from a knotted tangle of lies, deceits and shadowy dealings. With strong characterization of all of the central characters, and a number of the minor ones, writer Daniella Bernett has enhanced a series which, although I’ve not encountered it myself before, has the potential to gain a strong following in the future.

There’s a particularly good balance in the novel between Emmeline’s personal life and her investigation of the case. The two are entwined from the beginning, and yet the author does not allow this to overwhelm or become too soap opera-y, which is always a good sign. I’m not a fan of crime fiction that ventures too far into the detective’s personal life without a reasonable motive, and whilst there was the potential here for Bernett to go too far and make this more of a romance, she manages to just keep it the right side of syrupy.

My only issue with the book is some of the writing style. For example, the opening does not draw the reader in the way it should, with  many of the sentences starting with the same words, and paragraphs, which are traditionally used to break up passages, used haphazardly- a phenomenon which continues throughout the book. As a result, the novel does not flow as well as it should, and it does take a while to really get engaged with the story, but despite this there’s a lot to like in this Golden Age style novel.

In all, I’d say this is a pretty good novel that has not been stunningly crafted, but has the potential to go far. Whilst I personally won’t be going out of my way to read the rest of the series, there is something intriguing about Bernett’s protagonist that keeps bringing me back to thinking of other strong, female detectives modeled on the Golden Age style. And that can only be a good thing.

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Vicki Goldie Interview: “I would say that without reading it would be impossible to be a writer”

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Golden Age crime fiction fan and author Vicki Goldie talks to me about how this seminal era shaped her work!

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

I grew up reading Agatha Christie, she was my mother’s favourite and then I progressed to the other golden age authors especially Dorothy L Sayers. I then came across a local Dorset writer Gladys Mitchel in the 1980s. They all influenced me and made me a little obsessed with Art Deco and that period in time. Just as I was thinking about trying some more writing I met Peter James. He was very generous with his advice and he has greatly influenced my style and form of my books.

How has your time working for libraries influenced your writing?

My job was to organise author events and promote libraries to the reading public. So over nearly twenty years I met an awful lot of authors and quizzed them on writing. We also ran writing workshops and that was fantastic help. Of course, I also read a huge number of books! Libraries are invaluable for research and also save a considerable amount of money though borrowing their books for free.

Please tell me about Blind Witness. What defines your writing style?

Blind Witness is book one of a series of books featuring Alasdair Charters and his wife Melissa. Alasdair is a blind World War 1 veteran. I have been married to a blind physiotherapist for over 40 years and I wanted to examine the prejudices that surrounded disability then, and found they still persist today. His wife is an aristocrat but is also a socialist, and I have some fun with that. The story line is pure golden age, a country house weekend party where a murder occurs. Rather than gritty crime it is more fun, although as Alasdair has PTSD, which of course was not understood then, but can be very serious.

I am part of a writers’ circle in the New Forest and they have been very helpful in helping me define my style and remove bad habits.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I am beginning each book with a flash back to the war. This was a great suggestion from the excellent Kate Rhodes who came down a few years ago and did an event and a workshop at Westbourne Library.

I took the Jericho Writers’ writing course and followed all his advice. It made me analyse the book and it is amazing to find themes in your drafts that you were unaware of when writing. Having found them it is good to develop them. It makes the book richer.

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

I do read a huge amount of crime both modern and old fashioned. I love discovering new authors especially ones that have been out of print for years. All books have something to teach you as a writer. I love reading Santa Montefiore, it is important to vary your genres.

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

Well sadly the fantastic Sophie Hannah is already doing this with Agatha Christie to great success! Jill Paton Walsh is writing Lord Peter Wimsey and they are super too. So not someone dead I think. As for someone living I am not sure I am at that level of expertise yet!

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

I am completing my second book in the series called Blind Pool, it is set in the Somerset Levels and a house party are caught up in the floods and cut off and then murders begin to happen. I am also researching book three, which will be set in the south of France.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to going forward?

Far too many to mention, but I do buy Peter James, Christopher Fowler, Charles Todd and of course Sophie Hannah the day they come out. I am a huge fan of Louise Penny and her new novel is out on 27th November.

Anything you’d like to add?

I would say that without reading it would be impossible to be a writer. And without libraries it would be impossible to read the amount necessary to achieve that goal.

Many thanks for answering my questions Vicki- it’s great to meet another Golden Age fan and a lover of Peter James’ work!

Martin Ungless Interview: “Crime is such a great vehicle for driving forward a story”

Martin Ungless

Crime writer Martin Ungless explains his work and how he has created a unique novel in his book Duck Egg Blues.

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

I like a nice plot, me. Crime is such a great vehicle for driving forward a story and putting characters in tricky situations, it’s got the potential to be page turning and fantastically entertaining, and in my case, so I’m told, laugh-out-loud.

I’ve always written, but had a brief interlude, a decade or so, as an architect. That’s a great education for a writer; disciplined creativity and learning to critique ones own work. It was also in my case an exercise in narrative and on producing something that pleased the public, and these days of course that’s the reader.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing?

Perhaps I’ve already half-answered that, but I do think when I designed buildings that the stories they told were important. At that same time, I was continuing to hone my practical writing skills with articles in the architectural press. I do feel that writing is another outlet for the pleasure of creation, just with a different brief, and requiring a whole other set of skills. I have written a fair few short stories, and as well as refining technique these can also be usefully entered in competitions, even a long-listing can keep a writer going through the long dark self-doubt times, and sometimes you even get to win!

Tell me all about your books. Why do you believe readers and critics enjoy them?

I think readers enjoy genre fiction because we all like more of the same but different. Sometimes for me that difference comes in blending the genres themselves. I write fiction that surprises, always, regardless of whether I am genre-blending or not, and I can pretty well guarantee that you will not have read anything like one of my stories before; though (more of the same but different) my books are full of crime and detection and peril and complications and characters who suffer and win through. It’s not that my stories are so far out there, I just have a vivid imagination. Not a bad trait for a writer, I guess.

What books do you like to read and how do they impact on your own writing?

I’ve got pretty eclectic tastes. Right now I’m working my way through a whole history of C20th classic Crime, reading and rereading, trying to understand what works so well for them. I don’t know if your readers have come across They Shoot Horse Don’t They? I read that quite recently and it’s a cracker, that and the astonishing The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both feel like they were at least half a century before their time. I utterly love the energy of something like Fight Club, and the exceptional dialogue of Elmore Leonard. Outside of Crime, I’m a huge fan of Murakami.

Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)?

I’ve got wide interests hence the multiple-genres, but in particular I’m a fan of technology, and this passion gave rise to PArdew, my robot-butler-detective from Duck Egg Blues, and is also the reason why I’m currently working on a high-tech hacker thriller.

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

I think I mentioned him already, but I do think Elmore Leonard had an utterly extraordinary ear for dialogue. I think it was based on his deep understanding of character, and if they could rub off on me, boy would those be some nice skills to learn. Sadly he has passed away.

What’s next for your writing? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us?

My high-tech international crime thriller is called Orange612. The opening section was listed for a Debut Dagger by the Crime Writers’ Association this year, so I’m pretty buzzed to be working on that.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I haven’t read Melmoth yet, that looks a cracker and The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, well, you just know that’s something else!

Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you for inviting me to talk about my work, I think it might be almost as fun as writing it.

Thanks you for taking the time to answer my questions, it’s been great to hear your thoughts.

 

Lethal White Review: The Best Of A Not-So-Brilliant Bunch

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The forth instalment of the Cormoran Strike novels is excessively long- but don’t let that put you off, this is actually the best of the lot. Not that that’s saying a great deal.

Picking up directly from where Career of Evil left off, the novel shows Strike and his former assistant turned salaried partner Robin falling into an uneasy rhythm following her marriage. This is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Billy, a highly disturbed young man who comes bearing tales of child murder, before leaving as quickly and loudly as he came.

With Billy now disappeared, and no real motive to investigate his claims, Strike takes the case of the foppish politician Jasper Chiswell, nicknamed ‘Chizzle’, who is being blackmailed. Keen to avoid divulging what he is being blackmailed about, the Minister commissions Strike and his agency, which now includes several employees, to obtain information he can use against his blackmailers, who, incidentally, include Billy’s older brother Jimmy.

While the 2012 Olympics takes London by storm, the case quickly descends into almost comical absurdity, with Strike and Robin pursuing multiple lines of enquiry, many of which revolve around Chiswell and his laughably posh family. One of the problems I find with Rowling’s Strike series is that I am always unsure if she realises that she crossed the invisible line between light-hearted satire and full-on ridiculousness which is present in all crime fiction.

After all, her protagonist does, on several occasions, mention how posh and out-of-touch his client and his family are, even at one point referring to them as teletubbies, but the reader remains baffled throughout by the intensity of their otherness and the fact that none of them seem to realise how incredibly self-incriminating they are being.

In this latest outing as in all the previous, Strike remains a mess of contradictions. Although Rowling goes to great pains to make him out to be a mess of a man who she describes on numerous occasions as ‘classless’, he also shown to be more at home in a swanky pub in Mayfair than among normal people. He is often slovenly and unkempt himself, yet he judges a young woman for having painted eyeliner over a piece of sleep in the corner of her eye.

The character also mentally derides his latest temporary secretary for not remembering that he detests milky tea despite the fact that he himself is completely incapable of thinking of the feelings of others, even crashing his colleague’s wedding and taking out her flowers in the prologue. Rowling either drastically underestimates the intelligence of her readers or she is unaware of how characterisation works, but either way, the result is the same; a protagonist with all of the sincerity of a Tory election promise.

Then, of course, there is the question of length. I don’t know if you’ve been to Waterstones lately to check it out, but this book is HUGE. In hardback it is over 600 pages long, although a good 300 of these are completely unnecessary. Rowling gets so bogged-down in the minutiae of surveillance and the day-to-day running of a detective agency that she lets her narrative run away from her, and spends fruitless chapters describing the perfectly mundane. There are also far too many needless characters, leaving the reader struggling to keep up with who’s who and what’s what.

Named after the colloquial term for a horse that is doomed to die due to a genetic condition, the one thing that Lethal White does have going for it is its foreshadowing. Rowling is able to skilfully direct her readers where she wants them to, and at times it is intriguing to realise where a certain detail came into play previously. Each chapter begins with a line from Rosmersholm, a play by Henrik Ibsen, which focuses on a time of political change and the emergence of a new order, a metaphor for the downfall of the Chiswells, whose gilded life is quickly disintegrating as the case develops.

There is also some great skill shown in Rowling’s depictions of her disgustingly upper class characters, particularly Jasper Chiswell. There is one scene, in which he is chewing with his mouth open, and he spits a piece of potato at Strike, which is so vivid that I physically reacted (the poor chap on the train next to me thought I was mental, but there you have it).

These brilliant, emotive stretches of text are interspersed with a lot of waffle, but there is some narrative excellence. Robin and Strike’s relationship is brilliantly handled, and it is great that their strange passion for each other does not overwhelm the main plot.

All in all, Lethal White remains by far the best of the Strike novels, although it is, fundamentally, too bloody long and at times completely absurd. Hard-core Rowling fans will love it; anyone else is better off elsewhere.

Desmond Ryan Interview: “My readers like the books because they are reading authentic stories filled with believable characters”

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Former Police Detective Desmond Ryan talks me through how his time in the force has influenced his writing.  

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

Crime fiction lends itself well to the type of writing I have been doing for the past thirty years as a police detective. I used to joke with my colleagues that I would be that guy who sits in the corner of the pub and tells police stories to any poor soul who has the misfortune of sitting down anywhere near me. And then I retired. Sensing that a semi-permanent seat in the pub wouldn’t serve me well (on so many levels), I decided to take some of those stories, give them a bit of a twist, and write crime fiction instead. I love noir and the classic sleuth novels and try to incorporate a bit of that flavour into my work.

How do you draw on your experience as a detective when writing?

A lot of my storylines are loosely based on bits and pieces of events that I’ve been involved in either directly or indirectly. I find that the characterizations of both my protagonists and antagonists are where I really draw upon experience. My characters tend to be a compilation of the people I’ve worked with or had dealings with. This makes writing so much easier, doesn’t it? Especially for crime fiction. I mean, at the end of the day, a crime fiction novel tends to be about someone murdering someone and then getting caught. Not much fun in that. It’s the juicy bits that make it fun, and I think those juicy bits are the characters. 

Please tell me about your books and what you believe draws readers to them.

The six books in the Mike O’Shea Crime Fiction series are police procedurals that follow the life of Detective Mike O’Shea over a number of years on and off the job. My readers like the books because they are reading authentic stories filled with believable characters. The dialogue, the little details, the plot twists and turns- all bang on because I know what I’m talking about. I have lived that life. And, as a writer, I assume that my readers are not only crime fiction fans, but also clever readers who enjoy complex characters, a gripping storyline, and reading well-written material.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

As I mentioned earlier, I expect my readers to be intelligent and informed. I know that they don’t want to be spoken down to or presumed to be incapable of understanding the complexities of a police investigation. I use dialogue to create an authentic experience and direct engagement between the characters and my readers. I use a lot of police jargon, but not for the sake of it. Every piece of it is intentional and establishes the mood of the scene. I also use a lot of profanity because that is what I have heard and said (but don’t tell my mother!) as a real police detective. As a reader, I enjoy novels—regardless of genre—that draw me in completely. As a writer, I believe that it is my obligation to provide that experience for my reader, who has given up however many hours out of their busy day to read my books.

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

I kind of binge-read. I will find an author and read as much as I can from that author and, regardless of the genre, will draw some clever bit out and apply it to my own writing. For example, I recently went through a slight Peter Temple phase. I loved one of his books and did not enjoy another as much, primarily because I didn’t like the protagonist in the second book. Both books held my attention and I would recommend them, but I much preferred the first over the second. What I learned from that as a writer is that it’s okay for your reader to not love your protagonist as long as the story is strong.

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

I have just discovered Simon Brett (I know, what rock have I been living under, right?) and absolutely love his writing style. I seriously doubt that he and I will ever co-author a project, but I’d gladly settle for sitting down with him for a few pints!

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

I am so glad you asked! As well as an outrageously rigorous writing and publishing schedule for the Mike O’Shea Crime Fiction series (Book Two will be out in February 2019, followed by Book Three in June 2019) I have a cosy series on the go. I know. Who writes police procedurals and cosies? And, the main character of the Mary Margaret Mysteries is Mike O’Shea’s mother! There will be some crossovers of characters and dialogue (and room for so many inside jokes referencing the series). I am really looking forward to it and am anxious to see how it all comes together.

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

My bedside table at home often looks like a game of Jenga. Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide, Catherine Hernandez’ Scarborough, Aldofo E. Ramirez’ The Purple Cloud Project…the list goes on and on and on. I’m looking forward to a book by a friend of mine, Christine Newman, a debut author, later this year (I hope!).

Anything you’d like to add?

I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. It is a privilege to be a writer who is read by others. And I hope that you enjoy reading 10-33 Assist PC as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thanks for taking the time, I’ve really enjoyed hearing from you! 

 

 

 

Truth and Lies Review: A Nail-Biter From Start To Finish

truth and lies caroline mitchell

Another awesome Blog Tour post for you today! This time I checked out Caroline Mitchell’s latest novel Truth and Lies, in which the hunt for a kidnap victim turns sinister when it links to a decades old case and a manipulate psychopath who is trying to use her knowledge of the burial places of her victims as leverage.

Drawing on the author’s background in the police, the novel focuses on DI Amy Winter, who is still reeling from the loss of her beloved father when she learns a shocking revelation: she is in fact the daughter of renowned serial killer Lillian Grimes. Grimes leverages her position as Amy’s mother and the wife of a serial killer to manipulate her and those around her, and as Amy battles this and fights to uncover the truth behind a high profile kidnapping startling truths are revealed.

Much like Emelie Schepp’s brilliant debut novel Marked for Life, Truth and Lies revolves around Amy’s struggle to keep her past from destroying her present, and in so doing entering into a web of deceit that threatens to upend everything she has worked so hard for. Her relationships with her adoptive family and her friends are tested, and Mitchell’s exceptional characterisation shines through here, as we see many well-honed, multi-dimensional characters and relationships being put to the test by both this latest kidnapping and Lillian Grimes’ shocking revelations.

There are twists throughout the novel, and whilst at first I was annoyed that certain revelations were made too early, I gradually came to realise that the novel is so deviously plotted that it would have been difficult to confine all the twists to the final pages.

Being so hard to put down, this book is one to consume quickly, and as such I would thoroughly recommend Truth and Lies to anyone embarking on a late holiday, or anyone who simply fancies a gripping page-turner. There’s also a great cliff-hanger ending, so I’m definitely looking forward to the next instalment and can’t wait to find out what will befall DI Winter in the future!

Five Classic Children’s’ Authors Who Turned To Crime Fiction

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Having recently reviewed (and loved) Bodies From The Library, a Golden Age anthology featuring a short story by Winnie The Pooh creator A.A. Milne, I realised that there are a surprising number of children’s writers who have moved into writing crime fiction. As such, I decided it was high time I picked out five favourites and shared them with you, in case you didn’t realise or were simply intrigued by the prospect.

The reason for this shift in an author’s genre is simple: both children’s literature and crime fiction share the same formulaic nature, which makes them both eminently suitable for an author keen to stick to a way of writing. It is with great pleasure that I share a selection of authors who have all chosen this path, and explore their enduring popularity.

5. Anthony Horowitz: Perhaps most well known for his young adult fiction, Horowitz has also written a number of Sherlock Holmes novels, including the innovative and intriguing The House of Silk. The author, whose Alex Rider series is a cult favourite among teenagers, has also created a James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, and as such has proved his versatility and skill at creating engaging characters and unique plots.

4. J.K. Rowling: Writing under the now defunct synonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling created her Cormoran Strike a few years following the conclusion of her world-renowned and beloved Harry Potter series. Although not incredibly well received, the Strike novels have now been turned into a TV series and remain popular with fans, with a new book scheduled for release later this year.

3. Sophie Hannah: Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Alongside her gripping thrillers and reimaginings of Agatha Christies famed Belgium sleuth Hercule Poirot, Hannah has also written books for children, including a super cute collection of poems called The Box Room. Her latest novel is another Poirot story, The Mystery Of Three Quarters, which I reviewed HERE.

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2. A.A. Milne: As previously mentioned, the author of the timeless Winnie The Pooh books also wrote crime fiction, which featured in a number of publications. Although his furry creations became a burden to him, as they caused a rift between him and his son, Christopher Robin, and also became what he was predominantly known for despite his being a prolific author, his crime fiction stories remain a real treat.

1. Michael Bond: As well as his renowned Paddington Bear series, this prolific writer also created the innovative detective Monsieur Pamplemousse, who, alongside his dog Pommes Frites, solve a range of baffling puzzles. An undercover food researcher for a culinary guide, Pamplemousse and his faithful pet are a unique detective team that make for great light reading.