The Couple at the Table by Sophie Hannah

Originally published in 2022

Jane and William are enjoying their honeymoon at an exclusive couples-only resort…

…until Jane receives a chilling note warning her to “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” At dinner that night, five other couples are present, and none of their tables is any nearer or farther away than any of the others. It’s almost as if someone has set the scene in order to make the warning note meaningless—but why would anyone do that?

Jane has no idea.

But someone in this dining room will be dead before breakfast, and all the evidence will suggest that no one there that night could have possibly committed the crime.

Shortly before her murder, newlywed Jane received an anonymous note warning her to be wary of the couple seated at ‘the table nearest to yours’. This note caused her to become highly agitated and suspicious of each of the other guests staying at the upscale Tevendon Estate Resort, a set of holiday cottages on her father’s estate. A big part of the reason for this is the wording of the note; Jane’s table had been moved to be the center of a circle, each other table equally distant from their own.

The Couple at the Table initially caught my attention because of the puzzle related to this anonymous note. I find ambiguities in language, whether deliberate or accidental, to be interesting and the example Sophie Hannah crafts for this story is quite intriguing. Is the wording of a note of warning deliberately unhelpful, intended to agitate its reader, or has someone reacted to nullify its meaning?

The novel begins some months after Jane’s murder – a brutal stabbing committed in their holiday cottage later that day. The problem for the police is that almost all of the suspects were dining together at the time of the murder and give each other alibis. Meanwhile the one suspect who has no alibi, her new husband William, has one piece of forensic evidence that seems to prove his innocence. The investigation seems hopelessly stalled until one suspect, William’s ex-wife, decides to try to provoke a reaction on the part of the killer.

The novel proceeds to weave backwards and forwards in time, mixing first person narration from Lucy, William’s ex-wife, with third person accounts of the past. I found this mix of styles and points in time to be ultimately quite frustrating. While executed well enough on a technical level to avoid being overly confusing, I felt it did not contribute much to the experience of the novel overall. The only reason I could think to employ it was to try to make us empathize more with Lucy’s situation or to place more credibility in her narrative, yet I did not think that either was necessary. I would have found it more interesting to either play with multiple perspectives and let us hear different characters’ voices or to stick to the third person throughout.

Of all the characters in the story, Lucy comes across as the most complex, in part because of her backstory which naturally engenders some sympathy. I was interested to see precisely how her split from William had come about and to better understand some of the choices she had made both at the resort and in the months that followed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Lucy has somewhat complicated feelings about the murder as demonstrated by the letter to the murderer that opens the novel. As a suspect herself, she wants a line drawn under the killing to enable her to move forward with her life yet she is also grateful to a killer who may have taken vengeance for her. The challenge she has in navigating those feelings was the most interesting and successful aspect of the novel for me.

In contrast, we barely get to know many of the other people staying at Tevendon beyond the victim. Courtesy of the flashbacks, we do get to know Jane a little but mostly from the hours leading up to her death where she is agitated and showing signs of paranoia. I never felt that I understood what she had seen in William, nor did I really understand her choices more generally as a character, leaving me feeling somewhat flat with regards her in ways I never felt with Linnet Ridgeway in Death on the Nile.

Most of the other guests are unmemorable, both in terms of their backstories or their involvement in the action of this story. Given that they are absent from the present day material until close to the end of the novel, I found it hard to have any strong feelings or thoughts about any of them. This was not only a challenge in terms of considering those characters as suspects, it was disappointing from the perspective of justifying some of the revelations made towards the end of the book. Given where this story will ultimately head, I think the reader needs to have a strong sense of what motivates some of these characters to really buy into the explanation we will be given.

Which brings me to the book’s solution…

All the way through the book I had a concern that we were headed for a twist ending I had seen done before. Happily the author doesn’t go there but unfortunately I did not find the actual explanation that is delivered to be a satisfying one. That partly reflects that the killer’s identity, while not the one I feared, is not a surprise either. But it also reflects that to get there we must accept a clue that I just don’t think works as described and a pretty flimsy motivation for murder.

On the latter, I’d say that is not necessarily a surprise as few in the cast of suspects have anything approaching a solid reason to want Lucy dead. This is not the case of a novelist ignoring some great suspect in favor of a weak ‘surprise’ one but rather never putting in enough detail to completely sell the idea they have as being enough to get that character to that point.

It’s harder to talk about the clue I struggled with, in part because to describe it well enough for readers to identify it means explaining it, which is obviously not desirable. Instead of being specific, I’ll generalize and say that it is a clue related to a matter of language. I have thought about it a lot since reading this, talking it over with friends who have also read the book, and I just don’t get where the book expects me to be. It’s not exactly devastating to the case, but I found it a little silly not so much in its conception but in the explanation given. That is unfortunate because the rest of the solution relies on elements of coincidence and characters behaving in unusual ways so it doesn’t do much to help with selling the credibility of the ending, at least for me.

Unfortunately while I was intrigued by the initial scenario, I found it hard to overlook my issues with the book’s solution. It’s possible that others may find aspects of the solution more credible than I did or be more satisfied by the reveal of the killer but I struggled to invest in the solution and came away underwhelmed.

What I did appreciate though was the character of Lucy. I felt the author walked a rather challenging path with this character, giving her some interesting, harder edges. She is easy to sympathize with while being quite hard to like. I appreciated the complexities here and was interested to see her try to work through her feelings about the murder. I just wished that the other characters challenged me in that same way.

The Verdict: This book offers a promising scenario but, sadly, I found the solution to be disappointing in terms of some of the character motivations. I was impressed enough with the character of Lucy however to be interested to try some other works by the author if anyone has any suggestions!

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780063257702.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall

Originally published in 2019

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime…

Delighted by a surprise invitation, Miriam Macy sails to a luxurious private island off the coast of Mexico with six other strangers. Surrounded by miles of open water in the gloriously green Sea of Cortez, Miriam is soon shocked to discover that she and the rest of her companions have been brought to the remote island under false pretenses – and all seven strangers harbor a secret.

Danger lurks in the lush forest and in the halls and bedrooms of the lonely mansion. Sporadic cell phone coverage and miles of ocean keep the group trapped in paradise. And strange accidents stir suspicions, as one by one…

They all fall down.

A group of seven people, all apparent strangers, travel together to a remote island off the coast of Mexico. They go anticipating a pleasant time only to discover that they have been gathered under false pretenses. Each of the party has a dark secret known to its organizer and each is intended to die for their crimes.

As you may have guessed from the very brief summary above, They All Fall Down is a novel that reworks Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This is acknowledged both in the use of a quotation from that novel that opens the book and also its dedication to an English professor who ‘didn’t want me to interpret precious English things as something darker and American’.

While I think it is hard to imagine anything darker than Christie’s original novel, I felt that the intention to rework what is one of the most famous suspense novels was an intriguing one. Would Hall adhere strictly to the structure and story beats of the original or would it diverge in any places? Would she use it to explore different themes or ideas?

In most respects Hall opts to stick quite close to Christie’s original novel. She does narrow the cast of characters from ten to seven – a move that makes sense as it means they get more space in the novel. It also enables Hall to replace the nursery rhyme with another object related to the seven deadly sins. While the idea of a series of murders being committed based on a set of sins is not unique, this provides a nice structure as we wonder which of the guests will be linked with which sin and about the nature of the crime they have committed.

The more significant changes are rooted in matters of character. It is here that we can see most clearly Hall’s intention to reimagine the story as a modern American one. This is not just reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the guests, both ethnically and socially, but also their aspirations, troubles and world views. With this in mind, we must then consider how altering the geographic and cultural backdrop to the novel alters it.

In discussing this I want to be mindful of preserving the surprises about the various characters’ backgrounds. For that reason I only intend to describe the narrator, Miriam Macy. This is not because she tells us her whole story from the start – her crime will be one of the last to be confessed – but because we know significantly more about her background from the start of the novel, even if it is an incomplete picture.

Miriam arrives at the island under the belief that she has come to compete on a new reality tv show. This is not only welcome because it suggests an end to some financial problems she is facing, having left her job as a marketing and communications for a luxury goods consignment store, it also allows her to escape her problems at home. We know that she has a strained relationship with her daughter Morgan who is upset about how Miriam handled a situation involved a racist bully in her ballet class. We also know that there has been some sort of incident outside her home that has led to her being questioned by the police and that she is considering pressing charges against someone. Add in her resentment of her ex-husband who occupies her home with his new lover and an addiction to prescription pain and anxiety meds and it is easy to understand why she is keen to make a fresh start.

Throughout the novel we get snippets of emails and text messages sent between Miriam and some of the people in her life back home. This not only helps us to build a picture of her life prior to arriving at the island and of the way she is perceived by those who know her, it reminds us of the characters’ isolation. Internet access is patchy, offering little opportunity for the characters to communicate with those off the island.

When the crimes of each of the other guests are revealed there is some aspect of them that is intended to surprise. In most cases this is the nature of the crime itself. The exception is that of Desi, a young widow, but even there we get to discover the precise circumstances of what she had done. Miriam’s story unfolds a little differently however as the reader will likely get a growing sense of what she did as we work towards the end of the novel. That thread of the story is by far the most interesting and successful in the novel, allowing for a complexity of character and relationships that I found to be more compelling than the main thriller plot.

By far the most interesting of the other characters to me was Wallace, a man who begins the novel claiming to already know all about Miriam. This creates an interesting dynamic of suspicion and irritation between the two characters that shifts subtly throughout the story in response to the various things that happen. One of the reasons I felt that way is that I found his past to be one of the most surprising of the party, rendering him a more complex character than he initially seemed.

That is not to say that I was uninterested in the other characters. I enjoyed the process of discovering their stories and the reasons each had come to the island. It is just inevitably though several of them feel somewhat flat in comparison with Miriam given the additional space her story is given to be explored and a few of the characters’ fates seemed somewhat rushed. Their deaths are, however, generally quite memorable and imaginative.

This brings me though to the biggest problem I had with the reimagining of the book – the matter of the motivation behind it all. In altering some aspects of the setup to Christie’s original, Hall strips it of its most powerful and perverse thematic element. For all that is gained in bringing in some new and important discussions of issues such as racism and policing, it loses some of its power in relation to the question of justice.

I was also a little disappointed when we learn the truth as to what had been happening on the island and who precisely was responsible for the deaths. While this is at least clued, allowing the reader to detect who the responsible party is, I found their motivations to be less convincing than those of the killer in And Then There Were None and so aspects of the conclusion left me rather unsatisfied.

This is disappointing because I think Miriam’s story becomes increasingly compelling as we near the end and we learn more about what exactly happened that has made Morgan hate her. The issues that are raised by her story are complex and I felt Hall explores them very thoughtfully. Unfortunately the decision to mimic the structure of the source material rather than elevating Miriam’s story ends up being a barrier to its success. It forces the inclusion of lesser secondary stories and plot beats that I felt did little to enhance the telling of her story while it is not different enough to keep the overall work from feeling a little derivative.

Still, They All Fall Down is engaging and, at times, quite exciting. While I think the use of And Then There Were None proved limiting, I would still consider it one of the better examples of a reworking of that novel. If nothing else, it has left me curious to try more of the author’s work – happily I already own a copy of These Toxic Things in my TBR pile so I expect I will return to her soon.

The Verdict: Inspired by Christie but I wished more liberties had been taken with its structure.

A Baker Street Wedding by Michael Robertson

Originally Published 2018
Baker Street Letters #6
Preceded by The Baker Street Jurors

The wedding of Reggie Heath and the celebrated actress Laura Rankin was reported in all the tabloids―which is to say, it was a disaster.

Now, in a remote village on the British coast, locked in by sea cliffs on one side and moors on the other, the newlywed’s plane―piloted by Laura―has landed. Reggie doesn’t understand why Laura has picked this god-forsaken hamlet for their honeymoon. What is she keeping from him? 

The answers are in Laura’s past, but she’s not saying, and Reggie is out of his depth. He must have help―or his worst fears and more will be realized.

Since starting this blog I have tended to look forward and tried new books rather than revisiting old favorites. For this reason you haven’t seen my thoughts on the earlier titles in the Baker Street Letters series and so I feel I ought to offer a little context before sharing my thoughts on this latest entry.

The concept of the series is that a solicitor acquires an inexpensive lease on a building that comes with a catch. Because his office is 221B Baker Street he is required by the building’s owners to process and issue a form response to all of the letters that members of the public send in addressed to Sherlock Holmes. It is an entertaining concept that has spawned five previous stories, many of which are charming and well plotted.

The appeal of these stories for me lies chiefly in the characterization of the two solicitor brothers, stodgy Reggie and his rather free-spirited brother Nigel. They have distinctly different outlooks on life and complement each other well when they do work on solving a case together. The pair share our attention in each of the first four titles in the series but things changed with the previous story, the excellent The Baker Street Jurors, which focused solely on Nigel. While I missed the interactions between the brothers, I felt Nigel worked pretty well solo because he is an inquisitive person who feels a sense of duty to the truth. He had, after all, been responsible for the pair’s involvement in solving cases in several of the previous stories. He is a natural lead sleuth.

Reggie Heath is not.

I think the problem stems from Reggie’s personality. He lacks Nigel’s inquisitive nature and is a safe, conservative sort of person and so never goes looking for trouble. Instead his motivation lies in protecting Laura who he has just married at the start of this novel. This is certainly a credible piece of characterization but it also means that trouble has to come find him.

This happens after the paparazzi discover where Reggie and Laura’s wedding will be taking place and the pair have to rapidly escape and find somewhere to enjoy their honeymoon. They end up in the Cornish village of Bodfyn where Laura had grown up staying in the home of her former drama teacher. She asks Laura if she will take a small role in a regional theatre production benefitting her old school building which risks being sold.

Reggie soon discovers that one of the reasons Laura decided to return to Bodfyn was that a letter had been received in his chambers requesting he bring her there. I did think it was enormously coincidental that Laura should happen to see the one letter sent to Sherlock Holmes that directly concerned her right before the wedding but I think I could have accepted it had the reason for that letter been better.

Robertson’s plots are typically quite fanciful, featuring some unlikely coincidences and motivations but I think they have previously all possessed a solid internal logic. The villains have been mad, believing themselves to be linked in some way to the Holmes mythos or that Reggie was actually Sherlock Holmes, but their schemes made sense to them. The villain’s reasoning in this story is unconvincing and their plan relies enormously on factors beyond their control. Even if you accept their motivation and goal, it is hard to imagine they would ever conceive of the plan they develop in this story because it leaves so much to chance.

A Baker Street Wedding feels messy, keeping the reader in the dark about Laura’s motivations for wanting to get involved. This seems an odd choice because it gives the reader little sense of what the story will be about or what they are trying to solve until well into the novel.

The other significant problem is that having effectively written Nigel out of the narrative, Reggie is also sidelined for much of the second half of the novel. Instead Robertson focuses on several supporting characters who have appeared in previous installments of the series, one of whom is a rather direct Holmes pastiche. While I appreciate that character in short doses, he lacks the charm or personality of either of the brothers while his identity is kept too well hidden to ever feel like we get to know him.

It’s all a bit of a shame because there are parts of this book that are very enjoyable and will satisfy long-term fans of the series. For one thing it is nice to get some more details about Laura and a sense of where she came from and several other supporting characters get similar treatment. Reggie and Laura both get some fun character moments and I appreciated that their story continues to move forward rather than being kept static between each book.

Though A Baker Street Wedding has its moments, few of them relate to the core mystery plot which I feel falls short of the standard set by previous installments. I still think that this is a very enjoyable series though and I will look forward to another volume. I just hope that when it does we will see a little more Nigel alongside his brother.

Copy provided by the publisher for early review. A Baker Street Wedding is set to be released on December 11.

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

Originally Published 2018
Obama/Biden #1
Followed by Hope Rides Again

Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama team up in this high-stakes thriller that combines a mystery worthy of Watson and Holmes with the laugh-out-loud bromantic chemistry of Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh and Riggs.

Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted: the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.

One of the things I have learned since starting this blog is that humor is entirely subjective. What may strike one reviewer as being restrained may seem like little more than juvenile slapstick comedy to others. Perhaps the only thing more personal than that is politics so no doubt I am on doubly sound ground here…

The premise of the novel is that Joe Biden is struggling to adjust to life after the Vice Presidency. His Secret Service protection ended shortly before the start of this novel and he enviously watches news reports about the celebrity friends Barack Obama is now hanging out with. He is surprised then when one evening the former President shows up in his garden smoking on a cigarette to tell him that his favorite Amtrack conductor is dead having apparently committed suicide on the train tracks.

The reason Obama is sharing this information with him is that a map to Joe’s house was found among his personal possessions leading law enforcement to be concerned that he may be in danger. Joe cannot see the man as a potential assassin but then he struggles to believe that anyone who worked on the trains would commit suicide by lying down in front of one knowing how it would affect the driver.

Hope Never Dies affectionately riffs on Biden’s public persona as an everyman and Obama’s as being somewhat aloof and professorial. Generally speaking it avoids being too political, reflecting on the nature of the men’s political legacies rather than savaging their successors. There’s a bit of stuff about Hillary’s run but it is mostly from the perspective of Joe feeling that had he been the candidate he would have wound up in the White House and beyond a throwaway gag about the Russia investigation the Republican side of things isn’t touched on at all.

For what it’s worth I found Hope Never Dies to be more chucklesome than hilarious. There is nothing new in the way either man is portrayed or anything subversive or out there. I suspect that Republican readers may roll their eyes at moments but they will not find much to object to while Democrats will likely be pleased that it has fun with both men without ridiculing them other than a few jokes about Biden and Obama aging in office.

The best way of judging whether this will work for you is just to start reading an excerpt. The opening two chapters are very short, set up the mystery and basically sum up the book’s approach to each man.

As important as the comedic elements are to this novel, I think it is easier to assess this book as a piece of mystery fiction.

Shaffer’s novel touches on several different sub-genres of mystery fiction resembling at times the modern cozy with its focus on interpersonal relationships, the adventure novel and even the gentle thriller. It blends these elements to tell an incident-driven story in which Joe is interviewing people and reacting to the things he is observing and the actions of others. There are even a couple of pretty solid action sequences.

It is not, however, a work of fair-play detective fiction. For one thing, there is not much of a focus on identifying suspects, working out alibis or assessing motives. For another, some important information is withheld from the reader until very late in the novel. Neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the novel as the action drives the story very effectively but those hoping for deduction may be a little disappointed.

The case does touch on some themes that do feel very much of the moment including rising levels of opiates use in America amongst groups that would not have traditionally been labelled as at-risk and the expense of medical care and the devastation unexpected bills can have on personal finances. These issues are not addressed from a party political standpoint (after all, the opiates epidemic was discussed by politicians of both parties in the 2016 campaign, particularly in the New Hampshire primary) but rather they serve as background in understanding the events that take place.

I felt that the solution to what had happened was fine and I did enjoy the action sequence that followed the reveal of the killer’s identity. The moment of revelation itself however felt anticlimactic and a little drab given how colorful the story had been up until that point.

What did work for me was the rendering of Joe as a sleuth, using his knowledge of his home state and contacts he had built up over decades working as a Senator to follow-up on leads. He approaches the case with heart, occasionally bordering on schmaltz, and also with a genuine interest in connecting with people. He does not possess many technical abilities beyond a few things he has noticed in episodes of Law and Order but the case does not require much of him other than that knowledge of people. This is a similar model to that found in Peter Lovesey’s Bertie Prince of Wales stories (although Joe is far more self-aware than Bertie) and I think it works well.

His angst about whether Barack still has time for him is perhaps stretched out a little too much throughout the novel but that relationship is interesting, as is the thematic discussion of when it is time to take a step back. That discussion reminded me a little of a book I recently read and reviewed, Murder for Lunch, as Reuben Frost also feels a little lost now that his professional career is over and he is looking for a sense of purpose. I do feel that this is one of the most successful aspects of the novel and it helps make it easy to relate to a former Vice President.

While I may not have laughed quite as much as I hoped, I did find Hope Never Dies to be a fun and entertaining read. It works as a pastiche of the buddy cop relationship and while it does feel a little odd to read fictionalized renderings of living figures, I think Shaffer captures their public personas fairly well. I am not entirely sure that it could work as a long-term series unless further elements were added to the mix but should a sequel appear I would probably check it out.

Murder for Lunch by Haughton Murphy

Originally Published 1986
Reuben Frost #1
Followed by Murder Takes A Partner

No one on Park Avenue can hail a taxi quite like Graham Donovan. He stands outside his apartment building, arm outstretched like a true master of the universe. Today, he rides downtown with the Wall StreetJournal on his lap, his mind preoccupied by rumors that his venerable Wall Street law firm, Chase & Ward, is about to be accused of insider trading. A suspicious letter has surfaced bearing Donovan’s signature, and he’s desperate to protect his reputation. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, for he has hailed his final cab.

When Donovan drops dead during lunch, the firm calls on its greatest mind, seventy-four-year-old Reuben Frost, a brilliant lawyer who was recently forced into retirement. It’s clear Donovan has been poisoned, but by who? Only Frost knows the ins and outs of Wall Street well enough to pinpoint the killer.

Murder for Lunch is the first in a series of mystery novels featuring the character of Reuben Frost, a semi-retired lawyer with a firm on Wall Street. Forced to step down as a senior partner when he hit the firm’s retirement age of 68, Reuben continues to go into the office each day for a few hours though his successor George Bannard has little use for him. Instead he spends his time helping redraw legal documents, talking with clients and trying to find ways to be useful.

Everyone is shocked when Graham Donovan, one of the firm’s senior partners who is himself expected to be a future managing partner, suddenly collapses and dies during a company lunch. Reuben is placed in charge of making the arrangements for the man’s memorial service and of going through Donovan’s confidential papers but soon turns up evidence of murder in the form of a poisoned carafe of water.

If I had not known that the author had himself been a New York city lawyer I could certainly have guessed. The novel brings the politics and tensions found within a law office to life with convincing detail and does a fine job of reflecting the changes taking place within the profession during that time.

Throughout the novel Frost’s approach to running an office, conducting business or dealing with others is contrasted with that of his replacement Bannard. We see that Frost is frustrated with the younger associates’ attitudes towards drafting legal documents and he thinks Bannard is too focused on implementing the sorts of efficiencies and practices found in the business world and feels that Bannard has surrounded himself with the wrong sorts of advisors.

While there are certainly aspects of that relationship that may be thought of as representing a conflict between traditional practices and unnecessary modernization, Haughton’s presentation of both characters is pleasingly nuanced. For instance, Bannard has chosen to design his office to look very traditional and conventional while Frost had a much more modern design aesthetic reflecting his personality. These details help these characters avoid the trap of feeling like generic lawyer types and bring them both to life.

Frost makes for quite an appealing sleuth, if not a brilliant one. His mind is solid and methodical which is reflected in the way he approaches this case and I particularly appreciated the way he draws on the talents of others to help him. For instance, in the course of this investigation he seeks the help of a young associate and also the advice of his wife. Each make valuable contributions to his efforts and enable him to get closer to the truth of what had happened.

I should say at this point that the relationship between Reuben and Cynthia, a retired ballerina who is using her talents for arts philanthropy projects, is quite lovely and it is one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Their relationship seemed credible and I appreciated that it was quietly loving and mutually supportive as you may expect from a long-standing relationship.

I was less impressed with the character of New York detective Luis Bautista who feels like little more than a badge and a general professionalism and competence that subverts Bannard’s expectations. He has little personality beyond that and although he features about as much as Bannard in the novel, I felt I had far less of a sense of who he was at the end. Some of the other supporting characters feel similarly slight, particularly the other senior partners who are presented as types but given they feature far less prominently I found that a little easier to accept.

The plot is solid enough and I did enjoy the way the author incorporates a secondary plot about how confidential notes on a press statement that Donovan had written were leaked to the press, causing a slide on a client’s stock price and for much anxiety within the senior partners about who the source of the leak might be. The problem for me was that the case unfolds at a very slow pace with little progress being made until the end when suddenly it seems a solution comes from nowhere.

That issue is compounded with a resolution that struck me as rather unlikely, both in terms of the criminal’s motivation and also in terms of the actions of Bannard and Frost which seem needlessly risky both to their well-being and to the health of their law firm. I did not believe that Bannard, as his character had been established prior to that point in the story, would have made the choices that he did and that pulled me out of the ending a little.

The other problem that struck me was that the author leaves several suspects’ motives and movements largely unexamined. There are several characters who we are told are under serious consideration to be the murderer and yet they hardly feature in the narrative at all leaving the story feeling somewhat incomplete.

In spite of those problems however I do want to stress that I did enjoy reading this. Reuben Frost is an inherently likeable character, as is his wife Cynthia, and I found the legal office setting to be appealing and convincing. While it may be some time before I am able to get around to it I would be interested to try other titles from this series to see how Reuben developed as a character and to see if they are more tightly plotted.

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer Than You Know
Brad Parks
Originally Published 2018

I really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

Dark River Rising by Roger Johns

Dark River Rising
Roger Johns
Originally Published 2017
Wallace Hartman #1
Followed by River of Secrets

We all have something that creeps us out. My rather conventional thing is snakes of any description. You might think after living in Georgia for a decade and having had several unintentional close encounters of the serpent kind that those irrational fears would have gone away but they remain deep-rooted. That is why the opening image of this book absolutely terrified me. If you share my fear you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Dark River Rising begins with the body of a big-time drug dealer being discovered in a disused warehouse. It is tied upside down, its fingers are crushed and there are recent signs of surgery visible on the corpse’s stomach. The reason for those cuts, and for the sleepless night I will likely endure tonight, is that a living emerald boa snake has been sewn inside the victim while they were still alive. Thankfully this turns out to be a very small part of the case.

While the local Police start to interview witnesses and compile their list of suspects, the case catches the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency who recognize that gross snake-move as a calling card of a major drug kingpin south of the border. One agent is particularly worried that this is a sign that two cartels will begin aggressively competing with each other in Louisiana and he gets in touch with Wallace, the lead investigator on the case, to ask to meet with her and share information.

Wallace and Mason have different objectives and at times gently spar about issues of jurisdiction which I always enjoy – this is one of my favorite tropes of the American crime novel. Wallace is focused on the homicide and wants to be clear that this is her case while Mason would prefer to use federal resources to handle aspects of the investigation. Ultimately the pair get on well though and establish a solid working relationship with some romantic overtones, though those moments are kept in the background for almost all of the novel.

Wallace is undoubtedly the lead character however, getting the most to do and a much more detailed back story. In the course of the novel we encounter her family, learn about a tragedy that still affects her years later and meet her mentor and partner who is on an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a medical issue. I found her to be a likeable protagonist and appreciated that Johns balances the darker aspects of her thinking with lighter aspects of her character.

While most of the novel follows the actions of Wallace and Mason, there are occasional interludes presented from the killer’s point of view. At times these directly contradict some evidence or theory that the Police have gathered, helping the reader connect things together, explaining an action they have taken or to eliminate a suspect from consideration.

Given this exposure to the killer’s psychology I toyed with labeling this an inverted mystery but stopped myself based on how little of the novel is in that format. I did find those sections of the novel to be very effective though and I was glad of the chance to get to understand the killer’s actions a little better.

That these sections do not help the reader much in identifying the killer and the reasons for their actions reflects that this is not really a puzzle mystery but rather would be better described as a thriller. Certainly I do not think that a reader could deduce the identity of the killer before it is revealed though I suppose they might be able to work out the motive and what the victim was up to before the detective works it out. I rather enjoyed the approach taken here and found that the little timestamps at the start of each chapter were a nice touch both to give a sense of the passage of time and also to help build some tension as time seems to run out.

I found the case itself to be quite intriguing and will admit to not guessing the murderer’s identity at all. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen and devoured the book in just two sittings. For the most part I was very satisfied, though there are a few story threads that just seem to get forgotten or at least never completely resolved. For the most part though the case makes sense and I enjoyed watching our heroes solve it.

On the downside, there are a few moments where the dialogue didn’t quite ring true to me. I also felt that though the case takes several fascinating twists and turns, the ending seemed a little too low-key after some of the craziness that had preceded it.

Overall, I really did enjoy Dark River Rising. I don’t think it quite did enough to grab my January Book of the Month award but it certainly deserves to be in the conversation. There are some fun ideas here and I felt that were this to be the fist in a series it shows a lot of potential. I did find myself hoping that Johns may follow it up with another adventure for Wallace or Mason. As debuts go, this was very promising and I will look forward to seeing what Roger Johns has in store for us next.

Tricks of the Trade by Euan B Pollock

Tricks of the Trade
Euan B. Pollock
Originally Published 2018
Dakar and Scott #1
Followed by The Price to Pay

Tricks of the Trade begins with an investigation, not to find a killer but to confirm a cause of a death.

Major Robertson died leaving behind a sizeable estate yet his will contained an unusual condition. On his death his estate would be split amongst his family unless he was found to have committed suicide in which case his estate would be given away to charity.

The Major was found dead in his bath following a family party, his wrists slit and with a note stating “I can’t live without him”. The room was locked from inside. And just months earlier the Major’s wife had also committed suicide.

With an inheritance on the line, the family have asked a legal firm to arrange for Sebastian Dakar to investigate whether the initial police verdict of suicide can be challenged. Trainee lawyer Stewart Scott has been assigned by the firm to accompany Dakar as he conducts his investigation.

Dakar is a practising Zen master of international reputation and seems to be an unlikely figure to serve as a sleuth. Initially he appears quite enigmatic, though very amiable, and while his respectful, thoughtful questioning style gave the investigation an interesting and unusual pace I found it a little hard to understand why he would be sought out and willing to serve in this capacity in an investigation.

As it happens there are answers forthcoming and I will say that I think the explanation did adequately account for both his technique and why he has become the person that he is at the point we encounter him. I did wish though that it had come a little earlier in the narrative as I felt a little distracted by the question up until that point. In spite of this I found Dakar to be a fundamentally likeable figure and I felt it was credible that he had the skills to dedue the solution to this case.

Stewart is our point of entry both to the case and also to Dakar. The novel is written in the third person, the narration tending to follow his perspective and echo his voice. While I would have preferred to have a little less of Stewart’s personality in the narration, this allows us to see Dakar from a distance and with a degree of cynicism about his methods which does work quite well to make the sleuth seem almost as mysterious as the case he is endeavoring to solve.

I found Stewart a harder to like than Dakar, though he is certainly a recognizable type. Stewart is introduced as grouchy, profane and having an unrequited attraction for one of his flatmates in the earliest chapters. He becomes livelier once the investigation gets underway however and I enjoyed the sequences where he begins to build his confidence and carries out a little questioning of his own. Though I could not get excited about the idea of a romance between Stewart and Beth, I did appreciate the way that thread of the story is resolved towards the end of the novel and that we see his experiences with Dakar have a positive effect on him.

The case itself is an intriguing one though I would caution those getting excited at the phrase Locked Room up above that the question of how this murder is accomplished is the least interesting thing about the case. Rather our primary focus will be on figuring out what in the evidence will prove that this is a murder rather than a suicide and determining who has a motive.

The idea of focusing an investigation on whether a crime has taken place at all is an interesting one though I think it has a clear problem that the author has to resolve. Namely that the outcome is implied by it forming the basis of a novel at all. After all, if this is suicide then the ending is bound to feel a little anticlimactic. Inferring that a murder has taken place is one thing, proving it is a much harder affair and I felt Dakar’s explanation for how he reached his conclusions were quite cunning and logically thought out.

The issue of motive however is the most interesting question of the book. If we assume that it is murder, why disguise it as a suicide when that means you will be disinherited? It’s a clever question and I was surprised when Dakar came to sum up his findings that I had overlooked quite a few subtle clues along the way that were there in plain sight.

In conclusion, though I struggled a little with the characterization of Stewart and the way his personality bled into the narration, I appreciated the carefully constructed plot and clues. When the explanations were given at the end I felt equally satisfied and frustrated with myself for not piecing the solution together – this is always a good feeling when you are done with a mystery!

I am not sure about is whether this book is intended to be a standalone or the first in a series featuring one or other (or perhaps both) characters. The ending certainly seems to be fairly neat for one of the pair and I would imagine that the mechanics of bringing the pair together again might prove difficult. Dakar is an interesting creation though and while I think it might be challenging to credibly use him as a recurring sleuth, his more laid back, congenial style and positive outlook is refreshing and different.

Should he return, I would be intrigued to see where Pollock takes him next.

I received an advance reader copy but purchased a copy of the book prior to review.

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

The Madman’s Room
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1990
Dr Twist #4
Preceded by Death Invites You
Followed by The Tiger’s Head

After trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

The Perfect Murder by Stewart Giles

The Perfect Murder
Stewart Giles
Published 2017
Harriet Taylor #2
Preceded by The Beekeeper
Followed by The Backpacker

Detective Harriet Taylor, a relative newcomer to Cornwall, receives a call about two cats that were found mutilated outside their owners’ homes. Later that same day one of the two owners is discovered dead with words written on the back of her neck.

Harriet’s investigation is still in its early stages when another body shows up, also with words written on it. The methods used are completely different and yet these two totally dissimilar crimes are clearly linked, leading members of Harriet’s team to wonder if a serial killer may be on the loose in the town of Trotterdown…

When I started reading A Perfect Murder I was unaware that it was actually the second book in a series. This is something I normally take care to avoid and I was a significant way into the book before I realized that I was reading a sequel.

While I felt that I missed out on some important character details by skipping over the first book in this series, I did think that Harriet was an appealing lead and for the most part I enjoyed her interactions with some of her colleagues.

In the course of this novel Giles presents us with several killings, each of which is presented as a perfect murder. Initially these murders seem quite dissimilar as entirely different methods are used for each and the words written on the victims’ bodies change with each killing.

Of the killings we witness, the first is easily the most interesting and also the most disturbing as it involves both a brutal act perpetrated on an animal and also a memorable method of dispatch for the poor pet owner. Unfortunately the crimes that follow receive decreasing levels of space and attention to make their impact on the reader. For the early part of the novel I was intrigued and curious as to how these events all fitted together.

At this point I would issue the warning that the book’s blurb gives away far too much about the story and risks spoiling the answer to that very important question. Even if you skip over reading the blurb though it is far too easy to begin to work out what is going on, especially as Giles presents us with a limited pool of significant suspects to consider. This is a shame because some of the ideas here are quite clever, particularly the explanation of how some aspects of the second murder were achieved.

The revelation of the identity of the killer felt similarly disappointing and while I had predicted that identity, I did feel that the character’s motivation was unconvincing. This is particularly the case given the scale of the crimes they have committed by the point of the novel where that reveal takes place.

One other aspect of this book that I found particularly disappointing was the realization of the setting. I was born and raised in Cornwall yet found little familiar here beyond some elements of the Cornish landscape. Given how unusual Cornish names and speech patterns can be, I was struck by how English almost all of the characters felt. It is a small thing and it will probably not bother many readers and yet I found it utterly distracting and it became a barrier for me to believing in the story’s setting.

Overall, I think that there were some aspects of this story that were appealing and that grabbed my interest. The murders are varied and I felt that the idea behind the mystery was clever, even if the novel spoils it in the blurb. Unfortunately once you figure out that aspect of the story it is far too easy to arrive at the murderer’s identity as the novel never takes the time to identify and develop credible alternative suspects making the last third feel a little anticlimactic.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.