Posted in Netgalley

Nighthawking by Russ Thomas

Sheffield’s beautiful Botanical Gardens – an oasis of peace in a world filled with sorrow, confusion and pain. And then, one morning, a body is found in the Gardens. A young woman, dead from a stab wound, buried in a quiet corner. Police quickly determine that the body’s been there for months. It would have gone undiscovered for years – but someone just sneaked into the Gardens and dug it up.

Who is the victim? Who killed her and hid her body? Who dug her up? And who left a macabre marker on the body?

In his quest to find her murderer, DS Adam Tyler will find himself drawn into the secretive world of nighthawkers: treasure-hunters who operate under cover of darkness, seeking the lost and valuable . . . and willing to kill to keep what they find.

I live not too far from Sheffield and it’s a great city. As a family we’ve often popped on the train for a theatre matinee at The Crucible or The Lyceum. It’s my main gig venue too and in my younger days the City Hall and The Leadmill were regular haunts. I like the buzz of the city, the friendliness of the people and the chance to grab a bit of culture so close to home. So, when I was offered a proof of Russ Thomas’s new novel Nighthawking I jumped at the chance to read crime fiction based in the city. I hadn’t read his first Adam Tyler novel, so wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved being shown this darker, criminal, underbelly of one of my favourite cities. There was a familiarity to the term ‘nighthawking’ too, because I’d recently read Elly Griffith’s latest Ruth Galloway novel The Nighthawks. The term refers to the practice of stealing archaeological artefacts, usually found by metal detector, under the cover of night. As someone who lives in a very rural area, I must admit I was a little creeped out by the concept of groups of men stumbling about in muddy fields in the dark. The archaeological aspect is at the centre of DS Tyler’s latest murder case. As the lead of the CCRU team, he selects cold cases for investigation. However, this case is reopened because the body of a young Chinese student is found buried within the Botanical Gardens. Curiously, she is found with two Roman coins over her eyes. Once she is identified as missing Sheffield University student Li Qiang – known as Chi- DS Taylor is tasked with finding her killer by reviewing the original missing person’s case closed months ago, just two weeks after her disappearance. At his side is DC Mina Rabbanni, a one woman powerhouse of intuition and initiative, but not above taking risks when it might lead to the truth.

In the background are a fascinating mix of possible suspects, from Chi’s own family, to other workers at the gardens, to university contacts and whoever had access to the very rare Roman coins found with her body. Interestingly, one man is both a volunteer at the gardens, but is also part of an amateur metal detecting group. The group’s leader encourages the detectorists in good practice, but a small group have been out detecting late at night and have stumbled on the find of a lifetime. A cache of gold Roman coins, potentially worth six figures if they could sell them on. However, usual practice is for the find to be declared, then the landowner would be due a share of any profits. The men decide to sell, but where would they find someone with the right contacts, knowledge of the black market, and who they could trust? The men split the coins for safekeeping, until they can find a way forward, so how did two of them end up buried with Chi. The team’s digging into Chi’s life uncovers some interesting potential leads. Her sister Juju lives in the city, with a new baby and her fiancé Rob. Ju is grief stricken by her death when they visit to inform her, but her fiancé had been in a relationship with Chi too, suggesting some animosity or tension between the sisters. I was keeping my eye on the fiancé too, because he seemed to pop up far too often and wasn’t always giving the full story. Chi had a complicated love life, including several sexual relationships, but no permanent partner. Also far from the model student, she seemed to be struggling at the university in her study of orchids, but yet religiously volunteered with the Botanic Gardens, suggesting a keen interest. Add to this a father who’s a Chinese diplomat and the pressures start to build.

I enjoyed that Tyler also had a lot going on in his personal life and seemed distracted, much to the concern of DI Jordan, his superior. CCRU is under scrutiny by Chief Constable Stevens – known as the Eel behind his back – and is in the firing line as cutbacks threaten the force. Tyler is still quietly investigating the apparent suicide of his father, and wonders if a local gangster might hold the key. There’s also his own brother’s disappearance weighing heavy on his mind. He’s stuffing up his relationship with Paul, who feels he simply can’t get his attention, even to tell him their relationship is over. Added to this Tyler takes a homeless teenager under his wing and goes out of his way to help him get a roof over his head. Tyler keeps his emotions and worries to himself and isn’t really one to share, but with everything bottled up is his eye on the case as much as it should be? Mina is the stand out character for me, so full of life and enthusiasm for her job, she leaps off the page. With her superior officer often AWOL, she gets her teeth into this case and won’t let go. Her intuition is telling her there’s something wrong with the original missing person’s case. There are barely any notes in the file, normal checks weren’t carried out and many people were not even interviewed. The original investigating officer is on long-term sick leave, but Mina has to ask the question; why was it assumed Chi had run off with a secret boyfriend and with what evidence? It looks like they simply didn’t care, but Mina suspects there may be more to this than a single officer not doing her job.

Somehow, Thomas weaves all these disparate threads and characters together beautifully. Drip feeding the reader information a little at a time and dropping the odd red herring along the way. The pace was perfect, even the minor characters felt interesting and fully rounded ( the new pathologist, Emma, is a real highlight) I would never have guessed what was going on or who was behind the murder, so it was a surprise. I thought Thomas was so clever in keeping those longer narratives bubbling along underneath the surface of the primary case. Tyler’s unexpected meeting with an old gangster – the Ronnie Kray of 1960’s Sheffield – moves the story of his father’s death along a little, ready for the next book. The hints at Mina’s background and it’s possible clash with her work as a police officer is touched upon, but I would be interested to see how that develops. I would also love to see more of her double act with Emma the pathologist. Then there’s the politics of policing, the potential fireworks over Mina’s findings and CCRU’s future going forward. Thomas took me to familiar places but placed them in a completely different light. He showed me the difference between a city as I would see it and as a police officer sees it, and that gap in perception is often what makes personal relationships so difficult. I’m really looking forward to getting to know Tyler better and to enjoying more of such well-paced crime fiction; rich in character, setting and storyline.

Published by Simon and Schuster 29th April 2021.

Meet The Author

RUSS THOMAS was born in Essex, raised in Berkshire and now lives in Sheffield. After a few ‘proper’ jobs (among them: pot-washer, optician’s receptionist, supermarket warehouse operative, call-centre telephonist, and storage salesman) he discovered the joys of bookselling, where he could talk to people about books all day. Firewatching is his debut novel.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman.

When Ethan Ford fails to show up for work on a brilliant summer morning, none of his neighbors would guess that for more than thirteen years, he has been running from his past. His true nature has been locked away, as hidden as his real identity. But sometimes locks spring open, and the devastating truths of Ethan Ford’s history shatter the small-town peace of Monroe, affecting family and friends alike.

As regular readers know, Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors and while Blue Diary isn’t the first of her books I read, it’s definitely one of the best. Ethan and Jorie are one of those golden couples that probably annoy the hell out of everyone around them. They are a beautiful pair, with a lovely son, Collie. Jorie is the girl next door, the girl you’d ring if you needed advice or a shoulder to cry on, and the parent to ring if you need muffins baking for the school’s Christmas fair. Ethan is the neighbour you ring if you need help putting up a shelf, or if you wake up in the night and think someone is prowling in your garden. They are the cornerstone of this community.

Now, the police are at the door. Ethan Ford’s life as an irreproachable family man and heroic volunteer fireman has come to an end—and Jorie Ford’s life is coming apart. Some of the residents of Monroe are rallying behind Ethan. But others, including his wife and son, are wondering what remains true when so much is shown to be false—and how capable we really are of change.

Hoffman writes small towns and the dynamics of the people in them, so well. If Jorie and Ethan were in the Instagram age every photo would have #relationshipgoals in the replies underneath. Jorie’s world falls apart when Ethan is arrested and she is sure it must be a mistake. She knows this man, down to his bones. Surely she would know if he was hiding a dark secret? The novel invites us to ask the question: how well can we really know the person who’s head is on the pillow next to ours at night? Another thing that occurred to me as I was re-reading the novel, was how much the internet has changed our daily lives, into something we use like a daily diary. Originally published in 2001, when many people I knew didn’t have an internet connection in their home, my re-read of the book made me think about cancel culture and how much of people’s lives are now documented for all to see. Now, a long forgotten tasteless joke, inappropriate comment, or photographed drunken escapade, can be found years after the fact and be commented upon and criticised by millions. Applying the standards of today’s society, no matter how important and hard won they may be, to yesterday’s behaviour can be devastating for the individual involved. Even if their own views have now changed for the better, an individual can lose their livelihood, relationships, and potentially their whole life over one incident. It is an incredible power we hold in our hands when joining an internet ‘pile-on’.

Jorie only experiences this on a small town scale, but it’s effect is no less devastating. As it becomes known that Ethan has been arrested, to be interviewed on charges of the rape and murder of a young girl, neighbours and friends are shocked, but have to consider their response. Obviously the first question on everyone’s lips is whether Ethan is guilty or not, but beyond that: did Jorie know about this? Is she guilty by association? Is this his only crime? Can they still be friends with Jorie? Jorie has so many questions for Ethan, but other issues are swirling around in her mind. How will they cope financially? Will she lose her support network? Most importantly she wonders how to protect Collie from knowing about the accusations. This doesn’t just affect her and Ethan, this could blight Collie’s whole life too. With all this in mind, as well as needing to hear the truth, Jorie is wondering whether her marriage can survive this? Should it? When Ethan confesses to the crime, her world and her trust in her husband is shattered.

Ethan’s only defence is that he had no intention to rape or kill the young girl. His claim is that during consensual sex, he accidentally choked her and then decided to run, worrying that no one would believe his innocence. I wasn’t sure I did. He packed up and set up a new life for himself in Massachusetts where he met Jorie. Even if we believe his story, the injustice that he could choose to rebuild his life while his victim couldn’t really stayed with me. He had covered his tracks very well, until Collie’s 13 year old friend Kat, sees an e-fit of a suspect on television and rings the hotline to turn Ethan in. On one hand she feels it’s the right thing to do, but is sad about the effect this will have on Collie. I found it very surprising how many townsfolk were still willing to support and help Ethan, even after his confession. Jorie becomes more and more conflicted, then makes a decision to gain more information in an attempt to make peace with what has happened. She asks the victim’s brother if she can visit with him in Maryland. She needs to hear the context of the crime and the impact it had on the family involved.

There, Jorie gets a feel for the town and how this terrible act of violence was felt by all the residents. The victim’s name is Rachael and James takes Jorie up to Rachael’s room which has never been changed since her death. With Jorie the reader takes in the cuddly toys, the posters, and the framed photos of Rachael riding and with friends. This is a little girl’s room and when James talks about trying to scrub the bloodstain from the wall behind the bed, Ethan’s crime really comes home to the reader and to Jorie. The break also gives her some much needed breathing space, away from the pressure of the court case and the well-meaning supporters of Ethan, but also from Ethan himself. When she’s near him the love she has felt for him this past 13 years threatens to overwhelm her and the reality of Ethan’s crime. Here she has time to think clearly about what it is she has to forgive, before deciding whether she can. It isn’t just the crime itself, but the years of lies, as well as committing his life to her and starting a family knowing this was lurking in his past. He chose to have Collie with her, knowing that, if exposed, his crime would alter Collie’s life irreparably and leave him without a father. I found myself seeing a selfishness in these acts, but also in accepting help from the town seeking his acquittal and expecting Jorie to stand by him. Could the same selfishness, the wanting something and simply taking it, signal the real motive for his crime?

This is not a book about Ethan, nor is it a crime novel in the sense that we’re waiting for a murderer to be unmasked. This is more about the aftermath of violent crime for the family of the victim and the perpetrator. I think Hoffman does this very well. Her use of the victim’s diary as our way into her character is clever. We feel, alongside Jorie, for this sensitive girl falling in love for the first time. Her innocence in how she thinks of a relationship with Ethan is heartbreaking since we know the outcome. I loved the way Hoffman aligns her innocence with nature and gives us layers of description using flowers, trees, seasons and food to help us understand these characters and embed them within a place. We root for these people, drawn into a web of lies that is still being spun to protect Ethan. When we finally reach the section where the rape and murder takes place, it has a huge impact and made me cry on first reading, for all the victims of this crime. Ultimately, our ending hinges on Jorie’s ability to forgive and even if does, does forgiving mean we have to forget?

Meet The Author


Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. Her latest novel The Book of Magic will be the fourth in the Practical Magic series abs will be released on 5th October 2021. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com