Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

My Name is Jensen by Heidi Amsinck

This was a great opener in a new Scandi noir series, that left me looking forward to getting to know these characters a lot better. Jensen is a journalist living in Copenhagen after spending several years in London as the British correspondent for a Danish newspaper. She still hasn’t quite found her feet in the city, and knows that she’s very lucky to still have a job considering the cuts at work. Her editor Margrethe has faith in her ability to sniff out a story and one morning, while cycling to work.Jensen stumbles across the body of a young man with a large placard saying guilty on his chest. His eyes are covered with new fallen snow and it’s clear that he has several stab wounds to the abdomen. He’s also homeless, Jensen calls her ex-lover Detective Henrik Jungerson to report the murder, even though she’s been trying to avoid him since her return. Jensen doesn’t want to exploit such a sad death for newspaper headlines. Nor will she sensationalise it, However as more bodies are found it’s clear a serial killer is on the loose. Why would someone choose the homeless as their victims? Jensen has to investigate further.

I really enjoyed Jensen’s character. She’s rather mysterious and I think the author was clever to drop clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.

“clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.

The fact that Jensen focuses on finding out about the killer’s victim rather than the killer suggests a lot of empathy and a keen sense of social justice underneath the spikiness. She leaves Henrik to look for the killer and he’s soon connecting it to a previous suspicious death. They are a good team in this way, each with their own methods, but sharing information along the way. I think the book touches on a lot of current problems in our society, particularly how the world’s economic structure is creating horrendous poverty. Issues such as mental health, drug abuse and of course, homelessness are featured in the book and I thought the author wrote about this with understanding borne out of real life experience and conviction. The story was fast paced and very compulsive reading. There are twists and turns along the way in the investigation and moments where Jensen feels inundated with information, but none of it is making any sense. The tension builds towards the conclusion and these are the really addictive parts that I found myself reading in the car, the hospital waiting room and till 2am while on holiday! This was a fantastic opener to, what is now, a much anticipated series and I have to mention that gorgeous cover. It’s so beautiful I want to put in a frame and hang it on the wall.

Published by Muswell Press 31st August 2021.

Heidi Amsinck, a writer and journalist born in Copenhagen, spent many years covering Britain for the Danish press, including a spell as London Correspondent for the broadsheet daily Jyllands-Posten. She has written numerous short stories for radio, including the three-story sets Danish Noir, Copenhagen Confidential and Copenhagen Curios, all produced by Sweet Talk for BBC Radio 4. A graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, Heidi lives in London. She was previously shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize. Last Train to Helsingør is her first published collection of stories. Her crime novel My Name is Jensen, set in Copenhagen, will be published in August 2021

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman.

Something very strange happened while I was reading Paul Sussman’s book. I was up at night feeling unwell and made it half way without even taking a break. I had never read any of his books so as far as I knew this could have been a debut novel or one of hundreds. I launch straight into books without reading introductions, forewords or acknowledgements because I don’t like to be swayed by them. I don’t want someone else to tell me how to read a book, or in what context; I like to make up my own mind and read them later. I must admit on this occasion I was drawn in by the cover, but beyond that and the back cover blurb I knew nothing.


I realised half way through that I was reading with a smile on my face, despite feeling physically grotty! It made me smile because of the dark subject matter, the humour and sheer ingenuity of Raphael. I put it to one side and thought ‘I really wish my husband Jez had been around so I could read this to him’. He died 7 years before I found this novel and prior to his death he couldn’t read himself. He couldn’t hold a book and couldn’t see to read for himself. He could get listening books but there were certain, funny, books that we liked to share so we could fall about laughing together. They would usually be ingenious, darkly comic and just a little bit bad – rather like this. This was definitely one of those books. I then turned to the foreword and noticed it was written by Paul Sussman’s wife Alicky. I was so sad to read that she had been through the same loss I had, but amazed by the parallel. I contacted her and she was lovely, sharing about her loss and listening to mine.

The character of Raphael Phoenix is irresistible. A cantankerous old pensioner, living alone in a castle, he decides that 100 years of living is enough. He has a plan and he also has a pill. He has had the pill his whole life since his birthday party with his childhood friend Emily. Emily’s father is a chemist and in his poison cupboard, among the ribbed glass bottles, is an innocuous white pill with a simple nick in one side. It has very particular ingredients that ensure an almost instant and painless death and it is the only thing he wants for his birthday so the pair replace the pill with mint of the very same size, with a nick from the edge to match. Raphael keeps the pill with him through his incredible life either in his pocket, in a gold ring or in more difficult circumstances, sellotaped under his armpit. He trusts his pill and knows that it will deliver the death he wants as he sits in his observatory, with an expensive glass of red wine (over £30 a bottle) watching the millennium fireworks. However, before then he has a story to tell us, several stories in fact, which take us through some of the most important periods of the 20th Century and he has a very peculiar way of splitting these stories into sections. Raphael has had some very singular life experiences, and has a talent for getting into scrapes and challenges. Even more surprising are his ways of getting out of them.

I had no idea what to expect and so I was surprised and charmed by this magical piece of work. It manages to be both, earthy and funny, but also incredibly poignant. The only two things he can depend on through his life are the pill and his friend Emily. Emily isn’t always by his side, but just manages to be there at the right times and seems to set his various destinies in motion. Raphael works backwards with his tales until the reader is desperate to know how all of these incredible twists and turns are set in motion and also whether his trusty pill will work so he gets the end he has been working so hard towards. I would read this if you enjoy dark humour and tall tales and like your narrators to be, ever so slightly, morally ambiguous. It is darkly enchanting and I fell in love with it.

Published by Doubleday 22nd March 2014.

Posted in Random Things Tours

I’ve Got Something To Tell You by Susan Lewis.

With her usual focus on families and relationships, this prolific author has turned her hand to crime fiction for new novel I Have Something To Tell You and she’s created a very competent murder mystery. Jay and her husband Tom work in the law; Jay is the senior solicitor in her father’s old law firm and Tom is a barrister in chambers across town. They live in Clifton, and have two teenage children who are very excited to be taking a gap year in their education and going travelling. When a new case comes to Jay, everything in her perfect world starts to shift. Edward Blake, local architect and property developer, has been arrested for the murder of his wife Vanessa. The details are perfect tabloid fodder, young beautiful wife is found strapped to her bed with stirrup straps, naked and it looks like she’s been strangled. Jay knows this is going to be an interesting case and immediately leaves for the police station, where she meet DI Ken Bright and his right hand woman DS Hamble. He’s quite clear that it does not look good for her client. Last night he had arrived home, realised his wife was not there but didn’t find that odd. Possibly because their house splits at the top of the stairs – to the right is a master bedroom suite where Edward Blake retires and to the left the guest bedrooms. It is only the next morning when Blake starts to become concerned for his wife’s welfare and when checking the guest bedrooms, just in case she came in late and didn’t want to disturb him, he finds his wife’s body. He now finds himself the prime suspect and he’s relying on Jay to keep him out of jail. Who has killed Vanessa and can Jay succeed in helping her client?

I enjoyed the double storyline, as time was split equally between the case and Jay’s personal life which hits rock bottom as she works with her client. With their children’s imminent departure on their travels, Jay and husband Tom have been looking forward to some quality time together. Both work long hours and this is their chance to slow down, maybe take some time off here and there, and start to enjoy their time together again. Daughter Liv has been struggling in an ‘on again – off again’ relationship with the son of one of their friends and Jay is there as a listening ear. However, it’s Tom who lobs an absolute bombshell into their lives and we get to see how Jay copes under the double pressure of a tough murder case, and trouble at home. At home Jay finds it difficult to sleep and to keep her head. At least work, tough as it is, gives her some respite from troubles at home. She finds an unlikely listener in her client, no matter what state his case is in, Blake notices if Jay is off colour or has things on her mind. He enquires whether she is ok and Jay admits to feeling emotional and being concerned for her marriage. However, this is only a moment of weakness, I was fascinated by the way Jay is usually able to put her game face on and lose herself in the case, undertaking investigations with her trusty P.I. Joe, and becoming embroiled in all the twists and turns.

I thought I’d identified the murderer at the halfway point, but I got it wrong which was a great surprise. Blake and Vanessa’s lives were complicated by another death in the family, and grief had eaten away at their lives and relationship. Vanessa is very troubled and vulnerable from that point on. I found myself a little uneasy with Blake and his position as ‘victim’ in their marital problems. Motives range from sexual jealousy to wrangling over money and potential inheritance. We meet a whole host of characters during the investigation, some of them real horrors that it must have been great fun to write. Vanessa’s stepmother sticks in my mind, because she’s a manipulative and vindictive old woman. She’s sitting on a fortune thanks to the ruined, Gothic, pile she insists on living in even though she can barely afford to heat it. This should be inherited by Vanessa, but could other members of the family have resented that? Especially since Blake and Vanessa already own three incredible properties where they live.

The author pitched her characters perfectly, whether it’s the professional, middle-classes or those who’ve had their money a bit longer. These characters all have beautiful, elegant, homes that sport giant kitchens/ family rooms where they can cook, dine and watch TV together. Blake’s a property developer so his own home is spectacular and very seductive. It’s real Country Homes and Interiors perfection, with it’s well placed riding boots in the hallway and bifold doors in the rear extension with incredible views of the Cotswolds. I wanted to live there. I’d have even taken the guest bedroom where the body was found! Each character had something that made the reader suspicious of them, and I looked forward to each new revelation in the case. I liked Jay’s relationship with her investigator Joe, ex police officer and friend of her father’s, he is a solid presence in her life when everything else is shifting. The author brings in themes of empty nest syndrome, infidelity, betrayal, and the impact of trauma. I thought her portrayal of long-term relationships was probably very realistic. She showed how we change as we get older, but also how life events change people and their priorities, creating the potential to derail even the strongest of marriages. The ending was unexpected, leaving one final twist for last which is always satisfying and not tying up every loose end neatly in a bow. This was an enjoyable read and a successful foray into crime fiction and domestic noir.

Published 16th Sept by Harper Collins.

Posted in Netgalley

This Dying Day by Vaseem Khan

After winning a Twitter competition for a proof copy, I read some of the Inspector Chopra series of books by this author last year and really enjoyed them. This is the second book in a different series by Khan, featuring female police officer, Persis Wadia. Set in post-partition Bombay we get a real sense of the time period and political atmosphere in the background of the novel. I really enjoyed Persis as a character straight away. Her relationship with her family was well written and they were warm and inviting. They felt real, as if I could just walk into a house tomorrow and find them there, eating a meal. I found her relationships with colleagues just as interesting as her family, especially since Persis isn’t always polite or good at small talk. I loved her straight to the point attitude though and think it created a gently humorous exchange here and there.

It must have been very difficult to pitch her character properly, because she’s a police officer at a time and place that’s not the norm. She could have felt too modern for the time period, or too submissive as a woman to feel like a real police officer. I think the author gets this just right, and without her character overshadowing the plot of the mystery she’s investigating. There’s also the attention she receives from the media. As Bombay’s first female police officer she’s something of a trailblazer anyway, but on top of that there’s her notoriety from the last case she investigated (in the novel Midnight at Malabar House). This case dragged her into the spotlight a little, but she’s very unimpressed with fame and media types, plus her personality doesn’t always come across well at first meeting. I found her awkwardness very touching, especially when it extends to her personal life. She seems to have feelings for one colleague, an English forensic scientist called Archie. Of course, if her feelings were reciprocated, there would be the problem of being a mixed race couple. It’s very early in the 1950’s and the country has just gone through the horrors of partition after the British rule ended. Her family think she should steer clear of the controversy that would accompany a relationship with an English colleague, especially since she’s such a high profile police officer.

Her investigation is at the Royal British Asiatic Society where both a manuscript and an employee have gone missing. John Healy is a man traumatised by his experiences as a prisoner of war during WW2. He appears to have left some sort of trail, created in the form of clues and riddles leading to location of his manuscript, but are they genuine and is John even in his right mind? There are also political implications to the case, piling the pressure on Persis to solve the treasure hunt quickly. In the background there’s another case, investigating the murder of a white woman. George Fernandes has been given lead detective on the second case, but Persis is finding it hard to work with him, due to unresolved feelings of betrayal in their last case.

Thanks to Khan’s detailed description of the city I felt fully immersed in the sounds, sights and smells of India in the mid-20th Century. This is an India that’s just learning to stand on its own two feet after years of British rule followed by WW2. Khan evokes a colourful and vibrant, India where the mix of religions and cultural rituals bring the city to life. Persis is an anomaly, the only woman in a man’s world but she is intelligent, focused and up to the job. She does have flaws though, she’s feisty and prickly with others at times and not very good at being a team player. She is a loner, at work and at home. We find out towards the end of the novel that this isolation is something she, and her colleague George, have in common. Of course Persis is in a constant battle with male members of the team, belittling or appropriating her achievements but she handles this well and her results speak for themselves. Just in case any TV executives or producers are reading, this has ‘Sunday night TV drama’ written all over it. I would definitely be tuning in.

Meet The Author.

Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay. His first book, The UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA, was a Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Debut, now translated into 15 languages. The second in the series THE PERPLEXING THEFT OF THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN won the 2017 Shamus Award for Best Original Private Investigator Paperback. The first novel in his new historical crime series, MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE, features India’s first female police detective, and is currently longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger. The second, THE DYING DAY, is out in July 2021 and follows the theft of a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. 

Vaseem’s aim with his books is to take readers on a journey to the heart of India, showcasing both the colour and darker aspects of this incredible country. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India as a management consultant. When he’s not writing, he works at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. 

For more information about the world of his books please visit vaseemkhan.com where you can also keep abreast of Vaseem’s latest goings-on, competitions, events, and extracts from upcoming books via his newsletter.

Website: http://vaseemkhan.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VaseemKhanOfficial/

Posted in Publisher Proof

Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke.

VIGILANTE

True crime podcaster Elle Castillo has long been obsessed with The Countdown Killer.

VICTIMS

Twenty years ago, he went on a killing spree. Each new victim was a year younger than the last.

VENGEANCE

Now, he’s back.

Elle must stop the deadly countdown before the killer can claim his next victim.

Girl 11 is the perfect read for fans of True Crime, whether they’re addicted to Netflix series or listen to podcasts. True crime podcasts have played a part in two other books I’ve read in the past six months, so their popularity has come to the attention of authors wanting to keep their crime fiction as up to the minute as possible. Here, Elle is a podcaster turned sleuth and she is determined she has what it takes to catch the Countdown Killer. We’ve all sat and watched documentaries – I admit an addiction to Forensics: The Real CSI – and considered the evidence, only to find ourselves screaming at the the detectives on screen to go back and look at x or y that didn’t make sense or a witness who seemed a little too interested in the details of the crime. I imagine what it must be like to psychologically profile a suspect, or to come up against them in interview.

Elle takes armchair detecting one step further by carrying out her own investigation into crimes, often involving children. The structure of the book is clever, as a transcript of her podcast is placed between each chapter. This divides the book quite neatly into the detail of Elle’s past research into the crime, and the present day action that drives the story forward. This latest podcast on The Countdown Killer details crimes from twenty-four years ago. The killer abducted and murdered young women according to their age, starting at twenty, but then threatening to count down from there, reducing each victim’s age by one year each time. Then the killer stopped abruptly, leaving most crime enthusiasts thinking he was dead, but Elle isn’t so sure, especially when another child goes missing. When asked by the police to consult on the new case she considers whether it might be the same killer, but her colleagues start to question her judgement. Is she too fixated on the Countdown Killer? Also, is it wrong that every time I read that name I imagined a killer rampaging through the C4 Countdown studio?

I thought the set up of the book was excellent and the first half really grabbed my attention and pulled me into the story. I thought the ritual nature of the original murders and the whole of the cold case, was fascinating and if it was a real podcast I could imagine a lot of people enjoying the content. Yet, having set a brilliant scene and pace, I thought the second half of the book slowed down and didn’t keep me as engaged. I knew what was coming a little too much, and I waited patiently to be disproved or for a huge twist that didn’t come. Having read the Six Stories series of Matt Wesolowski, which also follows a cold case podcast, I felt this wasn’t as inventive as it could have been. I did really enjoy Elle though. She was an interesting and intelligent woman, very good at her job and almost forensic in the detail she brings to her podcasts. I felt there was more than just prurient interest in the crimes she details, she truly wants to solve these cases and get justice for the victims. I enjoyed the interviews she carries out with experts too. I thought her private life could have done with some fleshing out, because I felt I only knew Elle through her work, rather than feeling she was a fully rounded character. This was an interesting debut, and I think the format of the podcasts could work very well as a series going forward and I think there’s much more to come from this author in the future.

Published 26th April 2021 by Pushkin Vertigo.

Meet The Author

Amy Suiter Clarke is the author of GIRL, 11 and is a writer and communications specialist. Originally from a small town in Minnesota, she completed an undergraduate in theater in the Twin Cities. She then moved to London and earned an MFA in Creative Writing with Publishing at Kingston University. She currently works for a university library in Melbourne, Australia.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson.

A woman lies dead in a bombed-out house. A tragic casualty of the Blitz? Or something more sinister? Sixty years later, the detective’s daughter unearths the truth… From the number 1 bestselling author of The Detective’s Daughter.

LONDON, 1940

Several neighbours heard the scream of the woman in the bombed-out house. One told the detective she thought the lady had seen a mouse. Another said it wasn’t his business what went on behind closed doors. None of them imagined that a trusting young woman was being strangled by her lover.

TEWKESBURY, 2020

Beneath the vast stone arches of Tewkesbury Abbey, a man lies bleeding, close to death. He is the creator of a true-crime podcast which now will never air. He was investigating the murder of a 1940s police pathologist – had he come closer to the truth than he realised?

This is the first time I’ve read Lesley Thomson and her Detective’s Daughter series, of which this is the eighth novel. At first it felt a little like coming into the room in the middle of a conversation, but once the second timeline began I’d been drawn into the atmosphere of an interesting story, full of character and historical detail. In the now section of the novel, Stella is settling in Tewkesbury and trying to finally come to terms with the death of her father in a place where she isn’t reminded of him at every turn. It was a tough choice to completely uproot herself, leaving behind her business Clean Slate and a long term relationship with Jack. She has moved with journalist Lucie, who also loved her father, and the women are dealing with their grief in their own ways. Stella has started visiting The Death Cafe, run by pathologist Felicity Branscombe. It’s a space to meet others struggling with grief and they discuss their experiences of death. While on one of her cleaning jobs – at Tewkesbury Abbey – she meets a man called Roddy Marsh and they pass the time of day as he asks her questions about how she keeps a place like this clean. However, she then meets him again at her second visit to the Death Cafe group. Is this a coincidence, or did Roddy want to meet Stella? Straight after the group meeting, Stella returns to the Abbey only to find poor Roddy, dying from a stab wound in his back. He has something important to say to her, but sadly Stella can’t catch his words.

In our past storyline we are taken to the London Blitz and the murder of young mother Maple Greenham. For some reason, my connection to Maple was instant and I really enjoyed her part in the story. We meet her as she is getting ready for a night out and we sense her parent’s trepidation that she’s stepping out with a man who doesn’t pick her up or even walk her home. They’ve never met him at all. After an evening of dancing, her beau produces a key for a friend’s house and they have a tryst. I loved the small details Thomson evokes in these glimpses of the past. Here, Maple has a moment of irritation as she notices a snag in the toe of her silk stocking and mentally tots up how much time she’s had to spend working to afford them. This told me that the man she’s with wouldn’t understand that sort of concern, because he’s from a different class to her. Maple’s scream is dismissed by those who do hear it. No one imagined it was the sound of this young woman being strangled by her lover. DI George Cotton is the investigating officer and finds incontrovertible evidence of her killer’s identity, but finds his case and his career shelved. This is a man too important to the war effort to be hauled up on a murder charge. Put simply, it’s decided his life and the potential lives his work will save, are more important than Maple. The link between cases is a podcast, titled The Distant Dead, featuring murder cases where the real culprits were never caught. The presenter of this true crime series was Roddy Marsh and he was featuring the death of a 1940s police pathologist. Is there someone in the present day who wants these truths to stay buried?

Now, the Clean Slate staff alongside Stella, Lucie and Jack decide to investigate past and present murder cases. This is not without it’s dangers and leads us to an interesting cast of characters, none of which are exactly what we expect. Stella realises again, that it seems impossible for her to leave her father’s world behind. There’s even a connection to the SIO on Roddy’s murder, a WPC who worked with Stella’s dad. I enjoyed tracing the links between past and present cases and watching how Stella works – no matter that she doesn’t want to fall into her father’s work and habits, she does seem to have a talent for it. I loved the historical detail from the 1940 case too. This was an atmospheric tale, full of the twists and turns a modern reader expects. However, there’s also a feel of a much earlier mystery novel, possibly a 1930s/40s cozy murder mystery. It has elements like the eccentric characters, gatherings in tea rooms and unusual methods of murder. Some aspects are spooky, such as the cathedral or the dark and narrow country lanes. Others, such as the dialogue, are almost comical. There’s also Stanley the dog’s antics too of course. It is an enjoyable read, slightly slow in some parts, but with a great sense of place and characterisation.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Thomson is the author of the Detective’s Daughter series of West London-set mysteries featuring private investigators Stella, a cleaner, and Jack, a tube driver. The first novel, The Detective’s Daughter, became an ebook phenomenon in 2013, staying at number 1 in the digital charts for 3 months. Since then, the series has gone on to sell 800,000 copies worldwide. Lesley is an active member of the UK crimewriting community, and appeared at several crime festivals in 2019, including CrimeFest, Harrogate, Morecambe & Vice and Capital Crime. She lives in Lewes with her partner and her dog

Follow Lesley:

Facebook: @LesleyThomsonNovelist

Twitter: @LesleyjmThomson

Website: lesleythomson.co.uk

Buy links:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3eCVO6O

iBooks: https://apple.co/3y3A8Zf

Kobo: https://bit.ly/3hmq47F

Google Play: https://bit.ly/3uMuAjS

Waterstones: https://bit.ly/3y7IRtC

Bookshop.org: https://bit.ly/3y3O6dN

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Posted in Publisher Proof

The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett.

When I’m looking at the blog tours that are available to me, nothing makes me jump on board quicker than the words ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’. I can’t get enough of this genre, so I was really looking forward to spending the weekend immersed in this debut novel.

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths….

This ‘governess sent to brooding gothic mansion’ story is becoming a genre of its own. Having read modern versions of the tale such as Madam and The Turn of the Key recently, it was good to go back to Victorian England and the roots of this tale that has its origins in Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre. The structure is clever, in that we start in 1849 with a prologue and a narrator that doesn’t introduce themselves. As I read, I started to feel intrigued, but that soon turned into an uneasy feeling that this character was shifty and manipulative. Their narration doesn’t flow, but the scene that follows has impact, even though it is brief. We then jump forward and the author gives us a bit of distance from events – an older Harriet recounting the tale in her old. The parts she relates are pacey and tense, so when I was jerked back to the present, I wanted the next instalment and what came next. All of this creates a novel that is very hard to put down once started and led to a lot of boxes left unpacked in my new house!

The tale Harriet tells moves us to 1871, to Co Durham and the country house Teesbank Hall. Far away from the urban areas and deep into the countryside, it’s remoteness gives us the sense that anything could happen and no one would know – the Victorian equivalent of ‘in space no one can hear you scream’. Added to the sense of isolation and foreboding in the environment we learn that no one has lasted long in the role of governess here. However, we’re not sure that Harriet has many other choices. She’s running from something and that means she may not have been too vigilant about what she’s running towards. She ignores warnings from locals about the house’s macabre history and the isolation, but does feel a little apprehensive as she walks up the drive. What if they aren’t the respectable, ordinary family they have led her to believe they are? Yet, Harriet Caldwell is an assumed name, suggesting that she hasn’t been too free with the truth about her own past.

Her pupil Eleanor, the daughter of the Wainwright family, is incredibly bright, but also obsessed by her own family history. She’s plagued by dark secrets and tragic incidents in their past. Eleanor draws Harriet into their heritage, but is it a heritage she wants any part of, especially when her own secrets are haunting her? Harriet soon finds that Eleanor’s breadth of knowledge is good, perhaps even better than her own, so she doesn’t need a teacher. Her role seems more like that of a guardian or carer, observing Eleanor’s behaviour and being vigilant against the angry, hysterical fits she apparently suffers with.The family would like Harriet to observe and report back to them, and even though she feels like a spy she knows she has no choice, if she wants to stay hidden. The feeling in the house is oppressive, with the parents almost at war with each other and the grief over their tragically murdered son twenty years before still affecting them deeply. In fact, the only welcoming and calm presence seems to be that of their other son Henry.

There are a lot of aspects to the mysteries here, but all of them are hauntings in a way. There are some potentially ghostly goings on, but also the lingering emotions of past events, the fear of something or someone catching up with you and the way secrets, lies and even intense marital discord can leave an impression on a house and it’s inhabitants. As Harriet slowly reveals her reasons for fleeing Norfolk on one hand, she is also uncovering the terrible murder of Samuel Wainwright back in 1849. However, it isn’t just the suppression of these secrets that are highlighted in the novel, its the psychological damage caused when someone can’t be their true self, openly and without judgement. There’s also an element of gaslighting in the denial of certain truths and the frightening ease with which men will declare their wives and other female relatives insane when they become inconvenient or dangerous.

I think the book succeeds beautifully in showing 21st Century readers how powerless women really were in the 19th Century. This thread in the novel reminded me of the Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Another novel where, once used, a woman is consigned to an asylum if she threatens a man’s status or respectability. However, married women like Mrs Wainwright were also stuck, unable to own their own property or have their own money. A husband could have a sympathetic doctor label his wife as insane or hysterical, and sign her away to an asylum without censure. Even the word hysteria has gender implications in that it’s linked to the word for the uterus – hystera – only women can be labelled hysterical. A man is allowed to be angry, upset and even lash out without any judgement or negative connotations relating to his gender. Whereas women are still labelled unstable, unbalanced and insane. This is how the original madwoman ended up in the attic.

I found myself deeply sympathetic towards Eleanor, who is trapped by the house, by the past and by her father. On first meeting her, she seems a little paranoid and distrustful of most of the family. However, as the story develops I started to admire her intelligence and her desire to speak out. I felt she was stifled by her family, and almost imprisoned at the hall, where memories of 1849 still haunt her. This girl will never flourish if she doesn’t get away and I had such hopes for her time in London with her brother Henry. I hoped it would create an escape for her and a chance to meet like-minded, progressive people. There is also a burgeoning friendship developing between Harriet and Eleanor, that’s broken when the trip comes to an end and Eleanor feels Harriet is to blame. It is after this trip, when she is at her most vulnerable, that the past comes back to taunt her and I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the consequences.

This is an absorbing novel, with several mysterious strands to follow and I think readers will be split over the characters and whose story they are most invested in. While I wanted the mystery surrounding Samuel’s murder to come to light, it was the women’s fates that kept me engrossed to the very end. This was an enthralling gothic mystery, with the pace of a modern thriller and strong feminist overtones. It’s a fantastic debut and I can’t wait to see what’s next for this author.

Published Quercus 1st April 2021 Paperback Edition

Helen Scarlett is a writer and English teacher based in the north east of England. Her debut historical novel, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, is a chilling take on nineteenth-century classics such as Jane Eyre seen through modern eyes. It is set in County Durham, close to where Helen lives with her husband and two daughters.

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick.

Today, as part of the Damp Pebbles blog tour, I’m sharing an extract from A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick.

CHAPTER ONE

Life After School

Murder, when I was a naïve sixteen-year-old, was very firmly in my uncle and guardian, DCI Toby Christopher’s domain, not mine. But two years after leaving school, in the summer of 1971, a brutal murder was to change my life. For a second time.

    It is not the amount of blood pooling over the black and white linoleum, nor its copper-tang smell that clings, these many years later, to my mind or occasionally haunts a restless dream. The other smells are also there – but I’ll not dwell on those for the sake of the victim’s dignity. It is the hollow emptiness of the house that I remember. That stilled quietness, as if the place was suspended on pause, holding its breath – waiting. Waiting for the lonely coldness of death to be discovered, for the stunned silence to be disturbed by those who, by necessity, must intrude…

* * *

As a shy schoolgirl, I knew little of the world, my priority being to not make a fool of myself. Insecurities matter when you are an awkward teenager about to be let loose from the sanctimonious boredom of a girls’ school into the unknown of the grown-up world. My careers talk, in that final term of 1969, did little to boost my fragile confidence:

“What do you want to do when you leave school, January?” 

I had sat, staring blankly at the two prim schoolmistresses. No one except those in ‘authority’, or girls who didn’t like me (the feeling was mutual), called me ‘January’. To my family and friends I was Jan. Jan Christopher. I frequently cursed the day I was born because that was why I had been lumbered with such a stupid Christian name. My identical twin and I came several weeks too early, on the last day of January 1953, so we were named for the months we were conceived and born. I got January because I arrived first, my twin got June. I guess it could have been worse: hard to shorten February into a respectable-sounding nickname. 

June had died when we were three years old. I can only remember hearing incessant crying in a darkened room. She – we – had been ill. I don’t know what with, we never talked about it. I survived. She didn’t.

So, there I was, a gawky lass who hid behind her curtain of long, non-descript brown hair, trying my best not to be noticed by the girls who had confidence (the bullies), being asked by two teachers what I wanted to do with my life after I finally escaped the long, tortuous, horrid, lonely, hell years at school. (I’m paraphrasing.) I had no idea. My only ambition was to write. I was always writing, but real authors, I thought, were clever, intellectual people who went to university and got degrees and things. I had three minor exam credits: even obtaining those had been a miracle.

Reading was my other passion. Characters in books were more reliable than so-called friends who sashayed arm-in-arm with you around the playground one day, then stabbed you in the back the next. I preferred to retreat into fictional worlds. Even the ‘baddies’ of fiction were better friends than the spiteful two-faced trash of the ‘frilly-knicker brigade’.

As for that unhelpful careers talk: “I want to write,” I had mumbled to the two teachers.

“But you like reading, don’t you, January? I think a library is the best place for you.”

Which is why I found myself shelving books at the Branch Library in South Chingford, a north London suburb on the edge of Essex, where I was born and raised. And two years after leaving school I was still there, shelving books at the same library. (Although I had soon discovered not to be quite so quick about it.)

“Old Mrs Norris is in again, I see.” I said as I gave the empty book trolley a shove with my hip to roll it into its parking bay behind the counter. “I wonder what coupons she’ll cut from the paper today?”

Mrs Norris was a regular. She tottered in on the dot of a quarter past six every evening that we were open, a faded pink beret perched atop her grey hair, a red, string shopping bag always containing a small packet of McVitie’s digestive biscuits in her left hand, and an old black, plastic handbag, that was meant to look like leather, dangling from the crook of her right elbow. She looked about ninety, but from her library registration card, was only in her early seventies. She would heave her way through the wood and glass entrance door – a wretched thing on the inside of a small, square, lobby. Even us younger ones had a job to push that monster open and get through without it snapping at our heels as it swung back.

The old dear would smile at us, wave hello, and shuffle off to the carpeted reading area over in the upper left-hand corner of the single storey library. There, she would settle herself on one of the comfortable armchairs, nibble at her biscuits, (Caretaker Bert always moaned, because they left crumbs everywhere), and peruse the newspapers. She always left again at five minutes to eight, just before closing. The only thing different to when she had arrived, the packet of biscuits would be empty and all the supermarket discount food coupons would be neatly cut from the tabloid papers.

We knew that Mrs Norris was pilfering the coupons, but did it matter? She was obviously poor, and came into the library each evening to eat her biscuits in the warm, using our lighting and heating rather than her own. 

Approaching closing time was often a strain, depending on how busy we were. Inevitably, someone rushed in during the last ten minutes, determined to choose the right book to read, and taking ages about it. 

I glanced again at the clock. Was it moving? It didn’t look like it! 

Seven-forty. I heaved a few more returned books on to the trolley and looked up to see Mrs Norris leaving in a flustered hurry. How odd. She never left early. 

“Are you all right?” I called, but I don’t think she heard, because she merely muttered, “Oh dear, oh dear,” as she hauled her way through the equally as obnoxious ‘Out’ door. I noticed that she still had the packet of biscuits in her bag, along with the entire Daily Mirror newspaper, which annoyed me a little as it had an article about one of the ex-Beatles, which I’d wanted to read all day, but hadn’t found the chance.

It was Friday evening, looked like it was about to pour with rain, and I had a twenty-five-minute walk home, or a wait, equally as long, for the bus. But tomorrow was Saturday, my one-in-three weekends off. A whole two days to myself. 

Or so I thought.

A Mirror Murder © Helen Hollick

Helen Hollick.
Posted in Red Dog Press

Country Cat Blues by Alison O’Leary

The word ‘quirky’ can be very overused, but it seems the most apt work for this fun murder-mystery novel where our detectives are Aubrey, a rescue cat, accompanied by Maudie, a ghost who appears to live up the chimney. This is the second in Alison O’Leary’s books about Aubrey, who lives with a young couple who seem to specialise in waifs and strays. The change of scene to a country setting, comes about because Jeremy is exhausted by St Frank’s, the difficult school he teaches at. When the chance of a school swap to a small village comes up, with country cottage, it’s too good to turn down. So, the couple, their foster child Carlos and Aubrey all make the move imagining a more peaceful life. However, village life is not always as peaceful as city dwellers might expect and it’s not long before Aubrey is sleuthing away.

At first I was a little bit sceptical about a story from a cat’s point of view, but it really does work. Aubrey is an intelligent, alert, and brave little fellow with a lot of respect and empathy for people and his fellow cats. He soon makes friends in the village, particularly with Trevor, but he always seems to know where a human needs him. It’s not long before there’s disconcerting news about a cat murderer who has already claimed a couple of victims. I loved how the cats come together to patrol the village and root out any unsavoury characters hanging round after dark. Aubrey is elected to talk the group of cats who reside at the recycling plant – the village cats decide it’s better that way because Aubrey’s new and has no history with them. He soon has them on side and cat watch begins. This isn’t the only dangerous individual around, at the village fete local the school master is attacked with a knife and dies from his injuries. Harold and his wife Lucinda are regarded by most villagers as eccentrics who run an alternative boarding school on the outskirts of the village. However, no one can think of a reason for anyone to do Harold harm. In fact, Carlos has surprised his guardians Jeremy and Molly, by showing a distinct interest in the flora and fauna of the countryside – albeit having more to do with the alluring Teddy, one of Harold’s pupils teaching him. She is one of only two pupils left since the murder and doesn’t relish leaving the rather loose and creative school philosophy she’s used to.

Jeremy becomes further embroiled through a shy, reclusive villager called Morris (another waif and stray) who most people think of as a scruffy, but amiable drunk. When suspicion falls his way, and local kids start to make a nuisance of themselves by throwing things at his house, Jeremy goes round and makes sure he’s okay. Aubrey visits him too, with Maudie in tow, and passes time by the fireside to give him some company. He finds that if he sits and gives people time, they tend to talk to him and all manner of secrets might be revealed. This mystery deepens with a lady who visits Morris, but also strolls up to the gate at Molly and Jeremy’s but never comes in. What is her link to the village and to Morris? Added I found myself wondering who Maudie is and whether she’s linked in any way? Neither did I trust Quentin – a rather loathsome individual given to pastel coloured cashmere sweaters knotted across his shoulders. He is the teacher who swapped his cottage and job with Jeremy, but did he have ulterior motives for doing so? I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure with Aubrey and I think anyone who has or loves cats would love this book. Just one question though – is it wrong that I was more invested in the cat killer than Harold’s murderer?

Meet The Author

I was born in London and spent my teenage years in Hertfordshire where I spent large amounts of time reading novels, watching daytime television and avoiding school. Failing to gain any qualifications in science whatsoever, the dream of being a forensic scientist collided with reality when a careers teacher suggested that I might like to work in a shop. I don’t think she meant Harrods. Later studying law, I decided to teach rather than go into practice and have spent many years teaching mainly criminal law and criminology to young people and adults.

I enjoy reading crime novels, doing crosswords, and drinking wine. Not necessarily in that order.

Buying Links:

Red Dog Shop: https://www.reddogpress.co.uk/product-page/country-cat-blues

Amazon: mybook.to/CountryCat

Publication date: 23 February 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Banking on Murder by J.D.Whitelaw.

Publisher: Red Dog Press (29 Nov. 2020). ISBN: 978-1913331962

Well this book was a great surprise. I absolutely loved it. Three quirky sisters, a detective agency, a troublesome client and the backdrop of Glasgow just to finish it off. What’s not to love? I read it in two days, because it was just so much fun I couldn’t put it down. Now all I need is for someone to turn it into a Sunday evening series starring Kelly McDonald, Laura Fraser and Jessie Buckley and I’ll be content.

Martha is the eldest sister, slightly frumpy and very much a mother figure for her two younger sisters, Helen and Geri. She is dependable and the real business-like sister who keeps the agency ticking over. Helen is more of a mystery, but certainly has brains as the academic of the outfit. It turns out she’s also a very able dancer when she’s had enough to drink. Geri brings youth knowledge to the team as she’s the student of the trio. She may lurch in like she’s had no sleep, but she’s very sharp and knows how to use social media to the agency’s advantage. They’ve been requested at the home of Tracey Coulthard, who lives in a very smart home in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow. They arrive to find a maid, May, who is very worried about her employer who seems to be overwrought. They can hear screams and smashes coming from the bedroom. Mrs Coulthard is in bed crying, naked from the waist up and the fact that people are in her bedroom doesn’t seem to faze her at all. She offers the sisters £20,000 to find out the truth about her husband Gordon and his ‘extracurricular’ activities. This is the Parker sister’s meat and drink, most of their work is detecting whether partners are being unfaithful. However, the level of distress from this particular client is worrying Martha particularly. What might she do if they find out something she doesn’t want to hear? Martha senses a whole lot of trouble packaged alongside that cold hard cash.

The sisters manage to get themselves invited to a party for Gordon Coulthard’s company. Helen throws herself into the fray and Geri starts getting to know Gordon’s right hand man. As usual though, the sister’s don’t investigate quietly. Helen proceeds to get blind drunk and get a little over familiar with guests. In trying to find out more about Gordon, Martha ends up in a brawl with a statuesque blonde called Estelle who seems to be claiming that Gordon is her fiancé. She does indeed have a huge diamond on her finger and Martha is horrified, especially when Estelle starts dragging her round by her hair. As she fends her off, Martha tries to fathom why he would get engaged when he’s still married and be so open about it? This will mean the girls having to break the news to Tracey, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in murder.

I loved how the sisters worked in conflict, but somehow in unison. As Martha feels responsible for Tracey and what’s happened, Helen and Geri point out that they’ve done what they were paid for and can withdraw from what is becoming a media circus. Martha struggles a bit with the physical aspects of the job, leading to some amusingly clumsy moments. When chasing a suspect she falls through the fence they’ve just jumped over and when listening at a skylight she manages to fall straight through! More seriously, she runs up several flights of stairs to Coulthard’s penthouse and ends up in hospital with chest pain. I loved how Martha berates Geri for being ‘friends’ with Gordon’s colleague, but has to take it back when she realises how thoroughly she’s been stalking him on social media. I also enjoyed the introduction of Detective Pope, a stern Glasgow cop whose wheezing can be heard from the next room. Despite the asthma, she’s a tough customer and seems to be the sensible figure, there as a counterpoint to the sister’s madcap romp through this case. Yet, I could see an affinity growing between them, particularly Pope and Martha whose scenes are filled with sarcasm and wit. I’ll be interested to see how this develops.

Despite a few twists and turns, I did solve the case before the end, but I’m not sure it was meant to be a complex puzzle. This was an introduction to the sisters and their dynamic, and I will certainly be looking forward to their next adventure. This was was a wild ride that didn’t let up as the sisters were pulled from one side of Glasgow to the other. There’s no time to breathe, with the wheezing Pope almost collapsing in their wake. There’s just enough of a sprinkle of Christmas in the background too. I think there’s much more to come from Helen, and so much more about the Parker’s lives outside the agency. I thought this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, with incredibly engaging characters and so much promise for the series to come.

Meet The Author

J.D. Whitelaw is an author, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste – with everything in between. He’s also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC. Banking on Murder is the first of three Parker sister novels. They follow his hugely successful HellCorp series. His debut in 2015 was the critically acclaimed Morbid Relations.