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.

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

Say Nothing
Brad Parks
Originally Published 2017

There are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

The Birdwatcher
William Shaw
Originally Published 2016
DS Alexandra Cupidi #0
Followed by Salt Lane

Police Sergeant William South lives in a remote part of the Kentish coast and has spent his professional career avoiding getting involved in anything approaching a murder investigation. When his friend and neighbor, a fellow birdwatcher, is found dead however he is not only roped into the efforts, the department ends up using his home as a base of operations.

Soon South realizes that he may not have known his friend quite as well as he had thought and he finds his own past, which he has kept secret, may be connected to the case.

The author, William Shaw, had previously penned one of my favorite crime novels of a few years ago – She’s Leaving Home. One of the things I liked most about that title was the way it managed to evoke a sense of time and place through character attitudes, dialogue and elements of the locations. The Birdwatcher is similarly impressive, conveying a strong sense of what it would be like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in addition to being a brilliant piece of character study and a really gripping murder investigation.

Shaw has structured his book quite magnificently both thematically and in the development of its plot. Each chapter has two strands – a part told in the present day and a part which takes place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This allows Shaw to slowly reveal the events which have made South the man he is at the start of the story and allows us to draw some connections between events in the past and present.

This is a really smart approach and it means that we have several mysteries we can delve into. The most traditional of these is the question of who is responsible for the death of his friend and it is an interesting case in its own right. There are plenty of contradictions in his friend’s life that have to be sorted through and I enjoyed learning how the evidence we are given is stitched together later in the novel to explain what happened.

The second level of mystery is the question of precisely what William did in his past. Here things are arguably more straightforward as we are told pretty directly at the end of the first chapter the secret he is hiding. Still, we may question how that point was reached and I feel we learn a lot about how the adult South was formed in these passages.

The third mystery relates to the adult South’s interpersonal relationship with a character he encounters early in the novel, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She is a new arrival from the city and comes with her own emotional and professional baggage.

At this point I should mention that while The Birdwatcher is intended to be a standalone novel, Shaw is penning a new series in which she will be the main character. While she is a hugely important part of this book, this is not her story. At key junctions in the narrative we always follow South’s story and he remains in the dark about what Cupidi is thinking. She is a striking creation in her own right and I am really looking forward to getting to read Salt Lane next year.

There are of course plenty of other little mysteries scattered throughout the text but the reason I highlight these three main ones is that I appreciate that Shaw really integrates his characters into his narrative. We can enjoy the novel as a straightforward detective procedural but each new development either reveals something about our main characters, causes shifts in their relationships or enhances the broader themes of the work.

The result is one of my favorite books in years from a writer who has fast become a favorite author. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next but, in the meantime, The Birdwatcher is highly recommended.

Update: I selected The Birdwatcher as my Book of the Month for October 2017.