Eamonn Griffin- East of England

Dan Matlock is out of jail. He’s got a choice. Stay or leave. Go back to where it all went wrong, or just get out of the county. Disappear. Start again as someone else. But it’s not as simple as that.  There’s the matter of the man he killed. It wasn’t murder, but even so. You tell that to the family. Especially when that family is the Mintons, who own half of what’s profitable and two-thirds of what’s crooked between the Wolds and the coast. Who could have got to Matlock as easy as you like in prison, but who haven’t touched him. Not yet. Like Matlock found out in prison, there’s no getting away from yourself. So what’s the point in not facing up to other people? It’s time to go home…

Alerted to the presence of this book via social media, the synopsis instantly grabbed me, and with the plus point of being set in a part of the UK that I am not aware of having read about before, this looked to be a sure-fire winner. I was not wrong, and I was completely delighted by this gritty tale of rural noir…

Set in and around the open flatlands of Lincolnshire, East of England, is a sparely written, but no less compelling account of one man’s thirst for revenge and atonement after a lengthy prison spell for manslaughter. I found that the sparsity of the prose mirrored the anodyne nature of the landscape perfectly, and to a certain degree the smallness and petty criminalities of the people’s lives that Griffin so effectively describes here. This is a small, claustrophobic world, that has moved on little since Matlock’s incarceration, and as he revisits traces of his past there is an overwhelming feeling of how slowly time has passed both inside and outside the prison walls, and how easily Matlock can track down those who have wronged him.

Speaking of which,  I loved the way that in describing individual’s physical qualities, Griffin pares them back with a sharp simplicity often highlighting their less attractive features with a rapier wit. Everyone has a certain unattractiveness about them in either appearance or demeanour, but cleverly Griffin manipulates these to keep us fascinated by this collection of nutters, criminals and general oddballs. Matlock himself is a wonderfully mercurial figure, subject to sudden and lethal outbursts of violence and ill-humour, but also demonstrating a more empathetic and charitable side to his character sharply at odds with his bad-boy demeanour. I thought he was an incredibly appealing and unpredictable character, hell-bent on revenge, but quick-thinking and resourceful at every stage, but I was aware of an emotional distance between us and him that I found intriguing. This put me very much in mind of the work of say Ted Lewis (Get Carter) and as Matlock traverses this grim and unrelenting landscape I was sharply reminded of the immortal opening to that seminal film.

I thought this was an accomplished and very enjoyable debut- gritty, tense, violent yet punctuated with moments of pathos and wit at odds with the depressing landscape, and the cast of really quite unlikeable characters. I am keen to see what Griffin produces next, as I would highly recommend this one.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley from Unbound Digital)

Helen Giltrow- The Distance

GILTROW

They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up. So why can’t she say no?

Can I just start by saying how I would love to fling my arms around Helen Giltrow and give her a jolly good hug. And here’s why. Over the course of the last couple of months, I have started and failed to finish at least half a dozen thrillers, soon becoming bored with the all too familiar set-ups, and predictable plots. What Giltrow has done is to construct an intelligent and thought provoking thriller that not only provided a slow-burning build up of tension, but was chockful of credible characters, and a tightly plotted narrative that never once made my attention falter. I was in this one all the way…

Starting with the intriguing premise of breaking someone into an experimental prison complex called The Program, to perform a hit, I was instantly intrigued by the depiction of this location. The Program works as an almost self-sufficient prison community, constructed around a run down neighbourhood of houses with its own places of business and rules, but is a nightmarish place to be incarcerated if you are not aligned with the head honchos. Hence, the idea of a professional hitman, Johanssen  needing to be placed within this complex to track down someone who may or may not be there, instantly provokes a taut tension to the story. With his actions overseen by the mysterious intelligence operative Charlotte Alten aka Karla, who has spent years selling secrets to shady criminals. Giltrow neatly builds up Karla’s reservations and fears for her former client Johanssen’s safety as he becomes a brutalised inmate of this violent jail- an excellent cast of baddies are at work here- seeking to avoid detection by those he has tangled with in the past. The depiction of his experience are violent and uncompromising, but this adds to inherent tension of the plot, as Johanssen seeks the elusive Cate, but why is she so hard to find and who wants her dead?

Alongside this taut and utterly riveting storyline, Giltrow ramps up the narrative structure with an exploration of Karla’s chequered career in the realm of secret intelligence, and weighting both plots perfectly, Giltrow retains an assured grasp throughout. Attention must be paid I found as this book in no way resembles the usual linear, and frankly quite boring, liturgy of espionage thrillers that currently populate crime and thriller sections throughout the land. Indeed, to my mind, the style of Giltrow’s writing can be viewed as a contemporary version of Helen MacInnes, which is no mean feat. Likewise, the characterisation of Karla herself, and Johanssen, are absolutely paramount to the engagement of the reader. Both are incredibly well-drawn with the necessary balance of steely-eyed determination, masking their dark secrets and ulterior motives, but with those wonderful moments of clarity that draw us closer to their true characters, despite their criminal tendancies. These are not your standard cardboard-cutout characters, and you will find your perception of both changing chapter by chapter, and I guarantee that Cate will also have you on tenterhooks throughout, as her life outside and inside The Program come under closer scrutiny. That’s all I’m saying…

As you can probably tell, I was really quite keen on this, and despite how long it has taken me to get round to reading the book, it was more than worth the wait and delivered in spades. Can’t wait to see what Giltrow produces next. Highly recommended.

Helen Giltrow was born and brought up in Cheltenham and read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She has worked extensively in publishing, including ten years as a commissioning editor for Oxford University Press. She went freelance as an editor in 2001 and has since worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction and education titles. THE DISTANCE is her first novel. Helen’s writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ Competition. Follow on Twitter @HelenGiltrow