The Deadly Perils of Social Media: Friend Request…

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Today’s book is a psychological thriller that deftly describes the perils of getting back in contact with people from your past.  We received Friend Request by Laura Marshall from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren’t. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Uncensored and unapologetic. Days into their acquaintance, Maria and Louise are quickly on their way to becoming fast friends.

Decades later, when Maria reaches out over social media, Louise’s heart nearly stops. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface–those first days of their budding connection, the awful judgment of the young women who felt at the time like her sole gateway to belonging. The fateful, tragic night that would change all their lives forever.

Her entire adult life, Louise has known if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria’s sudden reemergence threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she’d severed ties with to get away from the past. Trying to piece together exactly what happened that night, she soon discovers there’s much she didn’t know. The only certainty is that Maria Weston disappeared that night, never to be heard from again–until now.

I will be the first to admit to being reluctant to reconnect on social media with acquaintances from the distant past and this book did nothing to dissuade me from clinging to this anti-social stance with a vengeance.  Louise made some poor choices (as they would be described in today’s school disciplinary lingo) as a high school student and carries immense guilt due to the terrible outcome of a vindictive prank in which she was involved.  Years later, with a child, successful career and recent divorce under her belt, Louise is disconcerted to receive a friend request on Facebook from the victim of her high school stunt, a woman Louise – and all who knew the girl at the time – thought to be dead.  The request sends Louise plummeting back into the insecurities and confusion of her high school-aged self as she is forced to confront her past actions while trying to ensure that her son Henry is untouched by this new danger.

This was a book that I enjoyed while I was reading, but in the end, lacked a certain something.  There is certainly suspense throughout as we puzzle out with Louise who it might be who has sent the request and the associated questions – why Louise? Why now? – and a mounting sense of dread as Louise’s old school friends come in for a request as well.  The ending, although unexpected, just lacked that heightened sense of terror that I was hoping for, in which I’m flipping pages and trying to read faster and faster to find out if the worst will happen.  Rather, on discovering whodunnit, I had more of a feeling of “Well, that was unexpected!”  The story also has a bit of a double-header in terms of who did what to whom, so the mystery is extended beyond a single reveal.

The author did a good job of providing multiple red herrings with plenty of characters both from Louise’s past and new acquaintances, with something to hide.  The book flicks back and forth between the present and Louise’s final year of high school, during which the turbulent relationship between Louise, Maria and Louise’s girl-idol, Sophie is played out with tragic results. The actions of the fateful leaving party, during which Maria dies – or does she? – are revealed piecemeal throughout the book, so it is quite a long while before the reader has a good grasp of why Louise might be a target for Maria’s posthumous friend request.

Overall, this was an arresting read for the most part and one that I would recommend if you are a fan of contemporary mysteries that feature a bit of murder and suspense.  Reading this one might be a good reminder to check your privacy settings on your social media accounts too!

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a (Nordic Noir) YA Review: October is the Coldest Month…

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If you like your YA peppy, romantic and with a good dose of teen angst, you are going to be sorely disappointed (and possibly traumatised) by October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson, which we received for review from Scribe Publications.  Certainly one of the grittiest novels categorised as YA that I’ve ever read, the book takes the reader into the dark underbelly of a town in remote Sweden.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.

Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.

In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.

During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.

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Fittingly, given that the setting is a cold, outlying town in Sweden, the atmosphere of this book is bleak from the get-go and held me in an icy sense of fatalism throughout.  Vega is a teen in a predicament.  Her brother Jakob is missing, she knows why (although the reader isn’t privy to this information until partway through the book) and her stark existence seems like it’s about to become considerably more wintry should the police find Jakob before she does.  The narrative style has a distinct sense of detachment throughout, which is typical of noir I suppose, although I don’t read much of it, which actually made it a bit easier for me to keep reading through the bits that made my stomach churn.

The book features sex, violence and general criminal activity, so if any of those things turn you off, I would recommend you place this one back on the shelf and find yourself something more comforting.  Although this is a YA book in that the protagonist is a middle teen, the other characters, bar one – Vega’s love interest – are adults and careworn, to put it mildly, at that.  It very much feels throughout the book that Vega is well and truly out of her depth, trying to protect her brother while the significant adults in her life are involved in everything from black market hustling to murder.

Towards the end, the story feels a bit like a traditional murder mystery in that Vega starts to unravel the truth and various characters admit to playing various parts in the act in which Jakob was caught up.  I quite enjoyed this part of the story because things finally started making sense and the action ramped up in tandem with the pace of the story.

Overall, since this was quite a quick read, I found this quite absorbing and easy to fall into.  Noir is certainly not a genre I read often, given that I don’t necessarily love grittiness for the sake of it, but this was a good example of the genre and not overwhelming, given the shortish length of the story.  I would recommend this if you are a YA reader looking for something completely out there, or if you are a fan of edgy crime novels and need a quick fix.

Until next time,

Bruce

Escaping to the Country Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: Abigale Hall….

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It seems to be the week for World War II stories, as we had one yesterday, we’ve got one today and there’ll be another tomorrow – at least no one can say I don’t do my bit for fans of historical fiction!  We received a copy of Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Amid the terror the Blitz in the Second World War, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca have had their share of tragedy, losing their mother to German bombs and their father to suicide. But when they are forced to leave London to work for the mysterious Mr. Brownawell at Abigale Hall, they find the worst is yet to come.

The vicious housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, seems hell-bent on keeping the ghostly secrets of the house away from the sisters and forbids them from entering the surrounding town—and from the rumors that circulate about Abigale Hall. When Eliza uncovers some blood-splattered books, ominous photographs, and portraits of a mysterious woman, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the house, but with Rebecca falling under Mrs. Pollard’s spell, she must act quickly to save her sister, and herself, from certain doom.

Perfect for readers who hunger for the strange, Abigale Hall is an atmospheric debut novel where the threat of death looms just beyond the edge of every page. Lauren A. Forry has created a historical ghost story where the setting is as alive as the characters who inhabit it and a resonant family drama of trust, loyalty, and salvation.

First up, this book felt like a much longer read than its 256 pages.  I felt like I was reading for ever and ever and getting sucked deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters and the mire in which they find themselves.  In terms of bang for your reading buck, Forry has packed an incredible amount of plot into a standard amount of pages.

We first meet Eliza and her younger sister Rebecca while they are in the custody of their Aunt Bess, after the death of their mother in the Blitz and the suicide of their father.  Aunt Bess isn’t the warmest of mother-figures and life for the girls is unpleasant in London, despite the fact that their immediate needs are more or less met.  Eliza enjoys her work at a theatre and is hoping that her beau, Peter, will cement their relationship by popping the question without too much delay.

All this changes when Aunt Bess announces that the girls are to be shipped off to work as housemaids at Abigale Hall, a country house in Wales.  Without so much as a by-your-leave, the girls are manhandled out of their Aunt’s flat and away to the middle of nowhere to be left at the mercy of the unrelenting Mrs Pollard and the nightmarish spectre of Mr Brownawell.  The girls’ tenure at the house is filled with secrets, rumours from the villagers about curses and missing girls, and the marked absence of the Lord of the manor.   Things are not as they appear at Abigale Hall – and they appear pretty grim indeed – and it is clear to Eliza that the longer they stay, the worse the impact will be on Rebecca’s tenuous mental health.

The story is told from the perspective of Eliza and later on, Peter, as he tries to track down Eliza herself as well as another missing girl from their workplace.  The narrative flicks between the paranormal, skin-crawling atmosphere of Abigale Hall and the far  more banal dangers of post-blitz London and its seedy underbelly.  Throughout the story Eliza is never quite sure who she can trust and is torn between securing her own safety and remaining a dutiful and loyal sister.

I must warn the sensitive reader that there is a bit of animal cruelty in the story as well as a collection of incidents that will make you say, “Ick!” mentally, if not aloud.  I quite enjoyed the looming unease of the parts of the story set in the house.  These were neatly balanced by Peter’s sections of the story and this stopped the story becoming too paranormal or too mundane at any given point.  The plot, taken in its entirety, is full of twists, turns and unexpected revelations that spin the reader’s train of thought and switch the trajectory of the characters at every turn.

The ending was remarkably satisfying to me as well…but then I’ve always been one to enjoy the downfall of characters who feel like they should get a swift clip around the ear.

This would be a great choice for a holiday read if you’re looking for something a bit creepy and complicated with a historical setting.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays (and in this case, Thursdays) are for Murder: Date with Death…

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Well, last time I was complaining that Monday had come around too fast.  This time, it’s come so quickly that it’s got to Thursday before I can put up Monday’s post.  Sorry about the delay this week, but the week was busy, then when I sat down to blog I realised the keyboard had decided to retire without telling me, so I had to track down a new, more enthusiastic keyboard that was willing to work with no pay and under the constant threat of tea spillage and here we are, it’s Thursday.

Today’s book is the opener of a new cosy mystery series set in the Yorkshire Dales and although it has a punny title, I really enjoyed it.  We received our copy of Date With Death (Book 1 in the Dales Detective Series) by Julia Chapman from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Samson O’Brien has been dismissed from the police force, and returns to his home town of Bruncliffe in the Yorkshire Dales to set up a detective agency while he fights to clear his name. The people of Bruncliffe, however, aren’t that welcoming to a man they perceive as trouble – and he is greeted by his old friend, Delilah Metcalfe, not with an hug but a right hook that sends him sprawling.

Delilah, meanwhile, is besieged by financial concerns and struggling to keep her business, the Dales Detective Agency, afloat – all while trying to control her wayward Weimaraner dog Tolpuddle. Then when Samson gets his first case, investigating the supposed suicide of a local man, things take an unexpected turn, and soon he is discovering a trail of deaths that lead back to the door of Delilah’s agency. With suspicion hanging over someone they both care for, the two feuding neighbours soon realise that they need to work together to solve the mystery of the dating deaths – and working together is easier said than done.

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Plot Summary:

Delilah is in deep debt and struggling to hang on financially until her dating agency business gets off the ground. When Samson O’Brien returns to the Dales in disgrace, Delilah’s only financial option is to let him rent out her ground floor office for his new detective agency…a timely move indeed because it seems someone in their community is picking off members of Delilah’s agency one by one.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of a tricky one because there isn’t anyone in the village (or beyond) who particularly stands out as someone who would happily be serial killing members of a dating agency.  As the story moves along, instead of actual people as suspects our protagonists try to build up a mental picture of who such a person might be.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is quite a refreshing aspect of the book because in your usual murder mystery you at least have a few suspects to work with.  It takes a little while to prove that the deaths are indeed murder, and then the hunt involves some rather tricky and dangerous tactics.  As well as attending the odd speed dating night out.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the amount of dutch courage needed to get through a blind date with a farmer whose personal hygiene habits receive only passing attention

Despite the fact that this is definitely a cosy and there is a lot of time spent on developing the characters, both main and secondary, I thoroughly enjoyed this one and would certainly be interested in following the series.  Delilah is the only girl in a family of manly men and is determined to make her business successful after a recent divorce.  Samson is the black sheep of the village, having left his alcoholic father in dire circumstances (in the opinion of the town) to swan off to London and bag a high paying and dangerous job with the Met.  When Samson returns home, his welcome is not particularly warm and he discovers that many things have changed drastically since he’s been away.  Samson’s return coincides with a little problem at work which he wants to keep hidden from the villagers at all cost.

I quite enjoyed the premise of the murdered folk all being from the same dating agency (although I’m sure this has been done before in some way, shape or form in other cosies) as well as the way in which Delilah and Samson (eventually) go about sorting it out.  It seems rather far-fetched that no one would bother to inform the police about their suspicions, but it works for the story and makes the eventual hunt far more suspenseful, knowing that Delilah and Samson are on their own.

As one who likes my mysteries twisty and my murders happening in quick succession, I did find the long sections developing characters, backstory and village life a little distracting, but I accept that this is obviously one of those series where the relationships between the characters and their relationship with their environment is of utmost importance.  The book also sets a bit of groundwork for other books in the series.  There are definitely some shady characters getting around Bruncliffe that will no doubt play a part in nefarious doings further down the track.

There’s a lot going on here that will satisfy those looking for both an exciting mystery and a story about coming home and reinventing oneself.  I must give a shout-out to the collective folk of the retirement village, of which Samson’s father is part, for lifting the mood whenever they appeared.  I’m glad to see that they will feature heavily in the next book in the series.  I would certainly recommend giving this one a go as your next holiday read, or, if you happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the perfect book to snuggle up under a blanket with on a rainy, lazy weekend…for whenever the humidity decides to bugger off for good.

I will be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge under the category of “author using a pseudonym” because Julia Chapman is the pen name of Julia Stagg. You can check out my challenge progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Shake Hands or Die…

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How did it get to be Monday again so fast?  However it happened, Monday means murder and we received Shake Hands or Die by Michael Northey from the publisher via Netgalley for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

“Father John was friendly during the services. He had no problem in greeting people during the Peace, where people wander about mid-service saying hello, peace, waving, some greeting others with a chaste hug, in general recognition of being one big family. He had a nice smile. Only he never stood at the church door after service to shake hands or say goodbye…”

Wacky new vicar Father John aims to modernise St Martha’s church in the delightful city of Hillford. People love his fun gimmicks but cannot understand why he will not ever shake hands at the end of service. Even the charming archdeacon, Babs, cannot get him to change his mind. Until one day, the reason becomes crystal clear.

Ambitious journalist Fred Vestal, on loan from a London tabloid, is trying to shake up the sleepy local paper. He turns up to a service at St Martha’s and sees an uninhibited children’s play. After getting a sniff of a story, he interviews the vicar and writes a vicious article, labelling Father John as a public menace.

When they next meet, Father John refuses to shake hands with Fred. Soon afterwards a body is found in a pile of compost in the churchyard. The little cathedral city of Hillford, where even the police seem off-beat, looks for an answer…

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Plot Summary:

John is a vicar with some madcap methods that seem to be bringing the punters back to the Church. Fred is a journalist with the aim of making a name for himself, no matter how many reputations he destroys in search of the truth. When Fred is found dead outside John’s church, for the police all roads seem to lead to Rome. (Well, C of E).

The Usual Suspects:

For much of the book, there are only two suspects: John the vicar and a gang of thugs who were last seen carrying Fred off on their shoulders, ostensibly in hero worship.  Really though, the police only ever suspect John, given the fact that he has motive and, rather stupidly in our opinion, buggered off immediately after the murder happened.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Starts off farcically, takes a slide through bizarre Shakespearean monologue and finishes without the police doing much at all.

Overall Rating:

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Two poison bottles for the kind of quirky comedy one might find in “Carry on, Vicar”.

 

This turned out to be wholly and utterly the kind of cosy mystery from which I normally steer well clear.

You know the ones.

There’s a veritable tsunami of ones set in America, with themes of knitting, baking or painting and suitably pun-laden titles such as Grand Hoummus-cide and Brushed Off and Hooked on Murder.  In these mysteries, the focus tends more toward the quirkiness of the setting/characters/situation and less toward an actual reasonable murder mystery with a logical and intriguing solution.

So it was with Shake Hands or Die.  Strangely though, the irritating quirkiness didn’t really start to show itself until about a third of the way through, so I was already drawn into the story before I twigged to exactly the kind of quicksand of ridiculum into which I had unwittingly stepped.  The first third of the story introduces John and his wacky, lively methods that have swelled the congregation of his parish church, as well as his idiosyncratic insistence on not shaking hands after the service.  By a third of the way through, the reader is given the necessary back story as to why shaking hands is such a stressor for John, and the story then moves on to introduce soon-to-be-dead Fred, the journalist with an axe to grind.  The second third of the book starts to deal with the relationship between John and Fred, features the murder of the aforementioned soon-to-be-dead Fred and then quickly descends into absolute silliness from which an ensemble cast of absolute loonies takes the stage.

We have the gang of thugs who are actually university educated professionals in disguise who spend their time calling each other canine-inspired names and being smugly sarcastic to those less educated than themselves.  There’s Karen, the fiancee of dead Fred, who gets pages and pages of soliloquy on the spot of her lover’s demise, replete with phrases like, “Oh Fred, my Fred, my darling, my only love, Fred!”

I kid you not.

There’s also a vigilante gang of old people (including the indespensible retired army Major character) who attempt to do some investigating of their own. Then there’s the police – an odd couple who are having an affair, of which much is made, as well as having difficulty agreeing on how to go about investigating the crime, of which little is made.  One of the policeman is also brother to a local councilman and these two speak in the most unlikely contrived way to each other that it had me scratching my head throughout.

The ending and reveal eventually come with a whimper rather than a bang, and by this stage I could not fathom what it was that I had just read.  Either this cosy mystery thing has blown out toward whimsy beyond all proportions, or the editor of this one read the first third, decided, “Yep, that should be fine”, and subsequently didn’t bother casting an eye over the rest.

I’d recommend this is you like murder mysteries that make you feel as if you’ve tripped and stumbled into the twilight zone of contrived English countryside villages.  Otherwise, it’s probably best to move right along.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Mondays are for Murder: The Chalk Pit…

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As promised, here is my second Murderous Monday for February – and it’s a cracker of a read for those of you who enjoy serial police procedurals.  We received a copy of The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths, the ninth book in the Ruth Galloway series, from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When Dr Ruth Galloway discovers they are recent – the boiling not the medieval curiosity she thought – DCI Nelson has a murder enquiry on his hands.

Meanwhile, DS Judy Johnson is investigating the disappearance of a local rough sleeper. The only trace of her is the rumour that she’s gone ‘underground’. This might be a figure of speech, but with the discovery of the bones and the rumours both Ruth and the police have heard of a vast network of old chalk-mining tunnels under King’s Lynn, home to a vast community of rough sleepers, the clues point in only one direction. Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

As the weather gets hotter, tensions rise. A local woman goes missing and the police are under attack. Ruth and Nelson must unravel the dark secrets of The Underground and discover just what gruesome secrets lurk at its heart – before it claims another victim.

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Plot Summary:

Bones are found at the site of an underground development. A homeless woman goes missing (or does she?).  Two homeless men are murdered.  A young mother vanishes without trace, leaving her four young children behind.  Is there a link?  Only time (and thorough investigation) will tell.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of an unusual read in terms of suspects, because for the majority of the book, the police don’t have any.  Well, any suspects with any particular evidence attached to their names.  While this does make it difficult for those wishing to guess ahead to who the murderer might be, it did up the suspense and mystery factor because these things seemed to be happening completely out of the blue.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

While there are murders in the story, the hunt is mostly geared toward finding the links between various happenings…because as I mentioned above, the police don’t really have any suspects.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the heavy sigh of someone being murdered in their sleep

I will admit to loving a good police procedural, and this is a good police procedural.  I had no idea when I requested it that it was number nine in a series and it certainly doesn’t read like a story in which the characters are mired in backstory that is impenetrable to the reader new to the series.  It is obvious that there are many connections between each of the characters, but these are discussed just enough to ensure that you know who’s who and how they are related, but not so much that it drags the focus off the investigation.  Essentially, Ruth is an archaeologist, Nelson is a policeman, they have a past, now let’s get on with it.

The investigation is expertly paced and involves multiple interlinked events culminating in an unexpected and sort of tabloid (but satisfyingly so) ending.  The focus is so much on the various events that happen – discovering the bones, the two separate murders, the missing lady and so forth – that the tension is continually building as the investigation continues and the pieces start to fall into place.

I enjoyed this as a story that I could just fall back into every time I picked it up and I will definitely seek out more from this series in the future.  Have you read any of Ruth Galloway’s previous adventures?

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: The 12.30 from Croydon

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As promised, here is the first of two Murderous Monday posts for February.  Today’s book is going to count toward the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge under category six, a book with a mode of transport in the title.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here. The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Croft is a bit of classic British crime fiction with a twist.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?”

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Plot Summary:

A tale of murder told from the point of view of the murderer, this book is an in-depth study of the carrying out of a “perfect” crime.

The Usual Suspects:

For the second time this year I am bringing you a “not your typical” murder mystery, in the sense that, from the very beginning – or thereabouts – we know who the murderer is.  This is because the book follows the main character as he plans and carries it out. This book is also different in the sense that it carries the reader through two inquests and a full trial before the story is done.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Even though we know who the killer is, it is fascinating to watch through his eyes as the police investigate here and there, seemingly moving closer and then further away from the clues that might give the murderer away.  The second half of the book deals with the murderer’s keen interest in the hunt put on by the police.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the roller-coaster of emotions of a murderer wondering whether or not he will be caught.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting into this one, even if the “mystery” element of the murder-mystery equation was thoroughly absent.  It was fascinating to follow the protagonist’s – Charles Swinburne’s – train of thought as a convenient solution presents itself to his financial and personal difficulties.  Despite being a murderous murderer, Charles is quite a likable and ingenious bloke, with a real knack for malice aforethought, once he gets going.

Some readers may find the story a tad repetitive.  Because we are privy to all Charles’s pre-planning, the information brought out at the inquests and trial is not at all new to us as readers, and by the end I did find it a bit odd that I was sitting through what amounted to a detailed retelling of the story that I had already read.  By that stage I was thoroughly invested in the outcome however, and putting the book down was no longer an option.  The ending is something of an anti-climax, in that it wraps up quite abruptly, but the author has done a fantastic job of tying up every possible loose end.

I would highly recommend this if you are in the mood for a bit of classic historical mystery, from a slightly unexpected angle.

Until next time,

Bruce