Mari Hannah- The Silent Room

hannahA security van sets off for Durham prison, a disgraced Special Branch officer in the back. It never arrives. On route it is hijacked by armed men, the prisoner sprung. Suspended from duty on suspicion of aiding and abetting the audacious escape of his former boss, Detective Sergeant Matthew Ryan is locked out of the investigation. With a manhunt underway, Ryan is warned to stay away. Keen to preserve his career and prove his innocence, he backs off. But when the official investigation falls apart, under surveillance and with his life in danger, he goes dark, enlisting others in his quest to discover the truth. When the trail leads to the suspicious death of a Norwegian national, Ryan uncovers an international conspiracy that has claimed the lives of many…

There can be no greater source of trepidation for both author and reader alike, when they embark on a standalone novel, away from the comfort of an established and much loved series. Having built up a loyal following with her five book series featuring DCI Kate Daniels, Hannah has branched out and brings us The Silent Room, with a change of both cast and tempo. Rest assured, you will not be disappointed…

With its tense and action packed opening detailing the hold up of a prison van, and the liberation of its occupant, disgraced Special Branch officer, Jack Fenwick, Hannah quickly embroils us in a tale of deception and conspiracy that will make your teeth rattle. Eager to prove his erstwhile boss innocent, DS Matthew Ryan is tainted by his association with Fenwick, and sets about to find out the truth about Fenwick’s activities. Inevitably this puts Ryan in the spotlight of Internal Affairs, and the particular attention of Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil who is tasked not only to retrieve Fenwick, but to discover how deeply Ryan was involved in his ex-boss’ activities. With the help of retired Special Branch operative Grace Ellis and her shady right hand man Frank Newman, Ryan begins to uncover a far-reaching conspiracy that stretches beyond the UK, putting himself, and those closest to him, in danger.

Once again the strength and consistency of Hannah’s characterisation is clearly in evidence here, away from the security of her existing series. Each character is so perfectly defined and delineated that quite soon into the book you have the feeling that you have been familiar with them for some time, and each has an integral importance to the plot. Although the book contains at least two incredibly strong female characters, it was gratifying to see Hannah’s slight shift of focus onto having a more predominant male protagonist in the shape of Ryan, and the authenticity of his characterisation. Not only does his character consolidate the events that happen around him, but I particularly enjoyed the way that Hannah uses his interaction with other characters to reveal other aspects of his personality, for example the tenderness of his relationship with his sister, his sparring with O’Neil, and the distinctly maternal nature of his relationship with the formidable Grace Ellis. Likewise, we get the other side of the coin, with his fierce male loyalty to Fenwick, and his initial distrust of, and then grudging respect for, the mysterious Newman. Each character works exceptionally well in tandem with each other, and Hannah has also cleverly sowed the seeds for a potential reprisal of them in any future additions to this first outing.

Another stand out feature of the book is pace and control of the plotting, which quickly ensures that the reader is completely sucked in to the action, and the ramifications of the initial scene. The narrative is tight and the story segues between the North Est of England and further afield to Scandinavia there is no contrivance in evidence, and the arc of the plot feels entirely natural. There are some real moments of heart in mouth tension, and along with Hannah’s masking of some characters’ true intentions, the book throws up elements of surprise to unsettle the reader, that keep those pages a-turning. Her attention to location (so evident in the Kate Daniels series) is once again spot on, and as an ex-resident of the North East, it was particularly enjoyable to take a virtual tour back to some of my old haunts, with a real clarity of recognition, and the re-location of the action to Norway was equally enjoyable.

It’s more than gratifying to see another female author so assuredly stamp their mark on this particular area of the conspiracy thriller, so often the preserve of male writers, and The Silent Room will appeal to both genders equally. The control of characterisation and plotting ensures a more than satisfying read, and I for one, would be more than happy to meet these protagonists again. As much as I hate the liberal use of the word ‘unputdownable’, that is exactly what this is. Unputdownable.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

Ruth Ware- In A Dark Dark Wood

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If the murderous goings on at a stag do in Peter James` Dead Simple chilled you to the bone, Ruth Ware sets out to even the score in In A Dark Dark Wood,  with a hen weekend that is full of  deliciously disturbing surprises. With my normal, cynical air, I feared that my general apathy with British psychological thrillers would continue as I embarked on this one. Idly sitting down to read a few pages to test the water, I was hooked. Completely. And breaking only for some quick refreshment, I read this in pretty much one sitting…

Crime writer Leonora (Nora) Shaw leads a fairly solitary existence in London, mostly happy to keep herself to herself, with sporadic entertainment provided by her larger than life best friend Nina. Out of the blue, she and Nina receive an invitation to a hen weekend in the wilds of Northumbria, from a mystery woman called Flo, purporting to be a close friend of the bride, Clare Cavendish What is strange for Nora is that she and Claire broke all contact ten years ago, for reasons as yet unrevealed, so why the invite? Egged on by Nina, Nora accepts the invitation and quelle surprise, this is where the trouble really begins…

As far as any expansion on the plot goes, I am keeping it zipped, as it is tricky to avoid spoilers, and spoil your participation as a reader, trying to untangle and second-guess the nature of the relationships at play. With the plot shifting between the events of the weekend itself , and the aftermath with Nora finding herself at the centre of a police investigation, the pacing of this book is exemplary. With the Christie-esque air of a pseudo country-house mystery, there is palpable feel of tension and claustrophobia pervading the whole book. With our six relative strangers, trapped in some horrible contemporary glass monstrosity in the woods in the beginning of winter, the location works beautifully to ratchet up the feeling of peril. The house becomes almost another character in the book, made even more sinister by the encroaching tendrils of the dark, dark woods. Likewise, the tension that Nora and Nina feel in this setting, amplifies the feeling of dread that both experience over the course of the weekend, and to be honest I would have turned tail fairly sharpish.  Woods + goldfish bowl of a house + remote location = whole heap of trouble…

Another real strength of the book is the characterisation, and the balance of Nora’s reticent and introverted nature, making her a highly empathetic character, is superbly counterbalanced by the boisterous, loud and kick ass attitude of Nina. Hence, the juxtaposition of two such contrary characters works very well, particularly when they find themselves even more closely aligned in their mockery and suspicion of their fellow ‘hen’ guests- Clare, the icy bride-to-be, Flo, the mental chief bridesmaid, Tom, camp best friend, and Melanie, the over emotional new mum. It’s a real melting pot of weirdness, and as events from the past come to light, be prepared for some very odd and irrational behaviour indeed. Oh. And a murder…

On the whole, I enjoyed this debut very much. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, but to be honest, with the strength of how it had built up to this point, it wasn’t really a major problem. Heaps more enjoyable than Girl On A Train (or any other book at the moment with girl in the title), and in true reviewer style, I’ve little hesitation in announcing this a total page-turner. Oh, and take a peep underneath the dust jacket. A thing of beauty lurks beneath…

(With thanks to Random House for the ARC)