M. W. Craven- The Puppet Show

A serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. He leaves no clues and the police are helpless. When his name is found carved into the charred remains of the third victim, disgraced detective Washington Poe is brought back from suspension and into an investigation he wants no part of.  Reluctantly partnered with the brilliant, but socially awkward, civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, the mismatched pair uncover a trail that only he is meant to see. The elusive killer has a plan and for some reason Poe is part of it. As the body count rises, Poe discovers he has far more invested in the case than he could have possibly imagined. And in a shocking finale that will shatter everything he’s ever believed about himself, Poe will learn that there are things far worse than being burned alive …

So here we go springing (or crawling depending on the ratio of fruit:mince pies consumed) into the New Year with a hugely enjoyable serial killer thriller, The Puppet Show from debut author, M. W. Craven. I could easily break this down into a short list of attractive features, as it ticked many boxes for me from the outset. A dryly witty maverick detective with exceptionally cool name, and hints of darkness in his past. Cute doggy called Edgar Poe (great name). Techno nerd providing inadvertent comedic moments. Fire obsessed serial killer. Pagan stone circles with a backdrop of one of my favourite areas of the country, Cumbria. However, as I’m known for my long, yes possibly too long, reviews I’ll tell you why all this worked so effectively throughout the book, so linger a while longer.

This has to be one of the most intensely character driven thrillers I have read of late, and to be honest, Craven has paved the way for a series of books, that will accommodate them in whatever investigation for some time to come. In common with Stuart MacBride’s Logan Mcrae books for example, I have a feeling that these are characters, Poe himself and Tilly Bradshaw (aforementioned techno nerd)  that you will immediately pick up on again even if you have to wait the usual year for a new book, and that is a great thing to nail this quickly. He’s also allowed himself a bit of wiggle room to flesh out another of the main characters, DI Flynn, as well as a tantalising opportunity to dig deeper into the darkness of Poe’s unsettled past, as well as building further on the fresh and entertaining interplay between these three characters generally. I really enjoyed the fluidity of the dialogue between the characters, and how Poe and Bradshaw gradually change and influence each other in differing ways but with a real feeling of yin and yang as his darkness is deflected by her light. Pretty deep huh? No, joking aside there is a lovely innocence and gentle joshing underpinning the more difficult sides of their characters, and it works superbly. 

As mentioned, Craven has picked a wonderful part of our green and pleasant land as his location, and uses it at every opportunity and extremely effectively to add an air of menace and drama to his dark and twisted tale. Highlighting the desolate and remote nature of the Cumbrian landscape, I felt it both mirrored and heightened the general sense of darkness at play in the killer’s psyche, the unfolding trauma of Poe’s own life, and the fact that Poe lives a solitary life in such a place is wholly in keeping with his own psyche. Using the stone circles that occur in multitudes throughout the region as the perpetrator’s killing sites is a neat touch linking the theme of sacrifice from the past to the present. Too often writers do not manipulate the landscape enough to add depth and colour to their central story, making their stories have the feel that they could just be plonked into any setting, but Craven (alongside authors like Mari Hannah and William Shaw) has definitely mastered the art of landscape in this one. 

And so to the plot itself, and with my familiar refrain of no spoilers here, there are no spoilers here! What plays out is a perfectly paced, twisty murder investigation with some surprising reveals, a really quite empathetic killer and (cue host of angels) a killer whose identity remained remarkably well hidden. So another box firmly ticked, and giving an overall feeling of tremendous satisfaction to this reader. I shall be recommending this at work and beyond on its publication later this month, and a cracking good read to start the year. Highly recommended. 

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(I downloaded this ARC from Netgalley UK via Little Brown Books)

Pre-order your copy of The Puppet Show here

Tom Grieves- A Cry In The Night

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With its Lake District setting and spooky undercurrents of tales of witches from days of yore, I must confess that I did find this book a mixed bag. I was initially hooked with Grieves seemingly refreshing new take on the slightly overused plot-line of child disappearance, on the back of a truly chilling opening chapter charting a cull of witches in the 17th century. The story then reverts to the present day with the murder of a young boy, and the disappearance of his sister from a tight knit but claustrophobic community in the Lakes. A male/female police combo in the shape of DI Sam Taylor and DC Zoe Barnes, are despatched to investigate, and it quickly becomes clear that this case can be linked conclusively to others around the country, but what is the connecting factor, and are there darker, less explainable, forces at work?

Initially, I was quite engaged the plot, and the adept characterisation of the police protagonists, with my enjoyment of Zoe Barnes’ character in particular, carrying on throughout the book. I liked the way that her loyalties to both her boss, Taylor and to her fellow police officers following the maltreatment of a suspect during a heavy handed arrest, were tested throughout. She was a blend of idiosyncrasies, particularly in the latter part of the book, and her professional involvement with a very dodgy female lawyer, who attempts to thwart the investigation and undermine her trust of Taylor. Barnes displays a natural wit and feistiness that engages the reader, and without her involvement in the whole affair, I think I would have struggled more with the book. DI Sam Taylor, however, was a whole different kettle of fish, and irritated me throughout. Supposedly in a state of flux and mourning after the death of his wife, he did seem to spend the majority of the book ruminating about himself, and being altogether moody and bad tempered, bemoaning his failings at being a father to a couple of typically angst ridden and stroppy daughters. However, he effectively tempered this woe-is-me attitude with a series of seedy sexual trysts with a local teenage girl in the Lake District, which although allaying (excuse the pun) his voracious sexual appetite, added nothing to the overall plot apart from a bit of titillation, and the further complication of her being intimately involved with the investigation. I grew increasingly annoyed at his midlife crisis behaviour, and just wished he’d get back to the job instead of being on it! Maybe, he should have just permanently ensconced himself in a room with his teenage conquest and left Zoe to get on with the investigation…

Although I loved the location, and the way that Grieves intertwined the haunting and indefinable beauty of this area into the novel, I did carry in my head visions of The Slaughtered Lamb pub (from An American Werewolf In London) in his depiction of some of the local colour- I will concede this may be my over active imagination at play! There seemed to be a little too much reliance on stereotyping the inhabitants, set against the more savvy and worldly detectives. That being said, there was a certain amount of enjoyment to be had from the weird and shiftily guilty members of the community, and the exposure by Barnes and Taylor of the secrets and lies behind the idyllic setting. The drawing on the historic connections to witchcraft and sorcery in rural communities was neatly done throughout. The plot played out enjoyably enough, and the shadow of witchery that overhung the connecting cases added a certain frisson to the whole affair, lifting the book from a bog-standard police procedural to quite an engaging thriller. I will quantify my misgivings, by saying I thoroughly enjoyed Sleepwalkers, Grieves’ debut, and despite the faults that I personally found with the characterisation of this book,  A Cry In The Night is still worth a look.

(Published by Quercus, I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Paula Daly- Keep Your Friends Close-Review/Extract

Natty and Sean Wainwright are happily married. Rock solid in fact. So when Natty’s oldest friend, Eve Dalladay, appears – just as their daughter collapses on a school trip in France – Natty has no qualms about leaving Eve with Sean to help out at home. Two weeks later and Natty finds Eve has slotted into family life too well. Natty’s husband has fallen in love with Eve. He’s sorry, he tells her, but their marriage is over. With no option but to put a brave face on things for the sake of the children, Natty embarks on building a new life for herself. And then she receives the note. Eve has done this before, more than once, and with fatal consequences…

Having read and favourably reviewed Paula Daly’s first novel. Just What Kind of Mother Are You? last year, it was with a great sense of anticipation that Keep Your Friends Close dropped into my lap. And remained there for the course of one night- and early hours of the morning- as this wonderfully warped tale of familial loyalty, and twisted friendship, kept me reading…and reading…and reading…

I think what Daly achieves with this book is the sense of how ordinary and humdrum domestic life, with its inherent frustrations and tensions, can be so easily undone. Set again, in the beautiful location of the Lake District, the ordinariness of people’s struggle to earn a living, in such a seasonally-dictated to environment, looms large within the book.  Her portrayal of the mind-numbing routines of most people’s families, and the petty insecurities and jealousies that can arise is brilliantly depicted, along with the differing needs and wishes of those in a marriage, that can come to the fore by the insertion of an outsider into the mix. Sean and Natty are a typical couple, both working long hours with two teenage daughters and their lives redolent of the tensions and strains, that their striving for something better, brings to bear on a relationship. Theirs is an ordinary marriage, until the arrival of Natty’s friend Eve, a glamorous, and as it turns out, exceptionally scheming woman, who puts more than a cat among the pigeons with her seduction of the hapless Sean, when Natty has to leave the home temporarily to deal with a family crisis. Okay- so fair enough- Sean’s head could easily be turned a woman who is the polar opposite of his wife- but what Daly achieves so well in this book, is the slow reveal of the determination that Natty has to usurp this woman, and how little they all know about the real Eve….

I think the joy with Daly’s writing is the sudden explosions of surprise that she pops into the plot, be it blunt humour, bad language, unforseen violence and so on. You’re reading along quite happily- or as happily as you can in the tension of this psychological thriller-  and then boom, something looms up in the text that either makes you laugh out loud, or shudder. The book is punctuated by moments like this- hence the ease of  reading this in one sitting- and a fair scattering of surprises as these two women take on the likeness of fighting lionesses in order to remain within, or regain the power, in this family. Yes, there were a couple of twists that I found a little too far-fetched, but I can’t say that they spoilt my enjoyment in any way, as the plot swiftly moved on to new revelations, and an ending that literally made me say- well I wasn’t expecting that!

A novel of moral and emotional complexity, that to my mind crosses the boundaries between crime and mainstream fiction, but ticks all the boxes in terms of suspense and how easily the humdrum ordinariness of domestic life can be uprooted so easily. More importantly though, a compelling psychological thriller that will keep you gripped.

Keep Your Friends Close- Extract

‘Am I over the limit is the first question I ask myself. Am I too drunk to drive?

‘Natty, who was that?’ Eve asks.

‘Felicity’s in hospital. She’s being operated on right now.’

I hear my words spoken from what seems like the other side of the room. I’m shaking. Not just shaking. It’s shock. Where has all the blood gone?

‘They didn’t know,’ I say without emotion. ‘The teachers didn’t know she was even sick.’

‘What’s wrong with her?’ Eve asks. ‘What did the teacher actually say?’

‘They don’t know what’s wrong. She collapsed. They’re not completely sure she’ll make it.’

Eve bursts into action. She doesn’t comfort me, or tell me not to worry, or tell me Felicity will be okay. She grabs the phone, uses the speed dial to call the hotel and tells Sean in a business-like manner that he needs to come home, there’s an emergency.

‘Why did I let her go to France?’ I whisper. ‘She’s only fourteen, too young to travel alone. Why did I let her go? What was I thinking?’ Eve looks at me straight.

‘They’re fixing her, Natty. It doesn’t make any difference that she’s in France. They’re saving her life. We need to get you there as soon as possible. Let me search for flights.’

‘Do you think she’ll die?’

‘Go and pack a bag.’

The shaking is violent now.

Eve repeats slowly: ‘Natty, go and find your passport and pack your bag.’

My guts have become a bucket of eels. I don’t think I can stand, let alone board an aircraft. I stay fixed to the chair. If I just stay here, it will all go away. I put my hands between my thighs and squeeze tight to stop the shaking.

‘Natty! Move!’

‘I can’t,’ I say.

‘You have to.’

I’m shuffling about the bedroom trance-like, picking up bits of underwear, T-shirts, when Sean appears in the doorway. He doesn’t speak. We simply look at one another for an extended moment. Is this it we’re both thinking. Is this the rest of our lives? Do we move from the standard, the typical family of four, petty worries, petty fall-outs? Do we move into that other realm? Do we join the ranks of families who’ve lost a child? My first thought hearing the teacher give me the news about Felicity was to whisper, ‘Not this one. Please, God, not this child. Then immediately I felt utterly wretched, because did I really want him to take my other child instead? I’ve spent the last ten minutes bargaining with God. Even though I’ve not really been a believer since – well, since he deserted me, age nineteen. Please save her, I’m begging again now. Please, I’ll do anything. Take everything away from us, strip us of all that we know, but do not let my child die Sean strides towards me. Puts his arms around my body, and I begin crying silently. There is so much terror inside my chest I cannot form sound. I’m struck by the realization that this is what it must be like to be attacked. Women, girls, say their voices simply leave them. Their bodies scream in fury, but nothing comes, their larynxes paralysed by fear.

‘There’s one seat left,’ Sean says gravely. ‘Manchester to Rennes. It leaves in two hours. I’ll take it, Natty, you stay here. You’re in no state to travel. You can fly out tomorrow morning.’

‘What if we lose her, Sean?’

He shakes his head as though he’s not about to answer that question.

‘We need to decide. One of us needs to get on the road right now if we’re to make it in time.’

‘I’m going.’

‘I’m not sure you can. Look at you,’ he says, and he takes my shaking hands, lifts them for me to see, as if to drive home his point.

‘But if she dies and I’m not with her, then how can I ever . . .’

My words disappear in my throat.

‘You can be there by eleven tomorrow morning at the latest.

Stay here, Natty, let me do this.’

I pull my hands away. ‘No. It has to be me.’

And I feel him relenting. Another moment of quiet deliberation, and he says, ‘Okay.

Okay, let’s get your things together. We need to move quickly.’

He pulls the overnight bag from the top of the wardrobe, unzips it and begins gently laying the small stack of T-shirts, jeans and underwear inside. I watch him, knowing I should be running around, grabbing everything I need, but the thought of Felicity unconscious in the operating theatre without me by her side keeps me rooted to the spot.

Sean lifts his head. ‘Natty?’ he says, a cloud of fear passing over his face. ‘Natty,’ he says gently, ‘which shoes do you want to take with you?’

‘Huh?’

‘Shoes? Which ones?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Hang on,’ and I walk to the wardrobe and stare at the choice, baffled. Then I turn back to Sean. ‘What about Alice?’ I ask him, frowning. ‘If you come to France tomorrow, who will look after Alice? We can’t leave her here alone. Christ, Sean, you know what she’s like, she can’t even open a can of beans. And your mother’s away, and my dad’s housebound and—’

‘It’s all right,’ he says, grabbing my electric toothbrush, ‘Eve has offered to stay…

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(With thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld for the ARC)

ACK BOWMAN