Thomas Mogford- A Thousand Cuts

When a routine court case takes a sinister turn, defence lawyer Spike Sanguinetti starts asking dangerous questions that nobody seems to want answered. Soon, it’s not just the truth that’s at stake: it is everything and everyone that Spike holds precious. As the Gibraltarian sun beats relentlessly down, crimes of the past and present collide, relationships are tested and long-buried secrets exposed. Who can Spike trust? And where do his own loyalties lie?

There are only a handful of authors that I have followed consistently throughout the course of their writing careers, and particularly following established series. As a reader there is always an equal feeling of excitement and dread when you resume reading a series- excited that there is indeed a new book, but an underlying fear that this one won’t be as good as the ones preceding it. Having reviewed the four previous books featuring charismatic Gibraltar based lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti, it was with an angel and a devil on my shoulder that I started reading A Thousand Cuts…

Opening with a tense incident of military sabotage in 1940’s Gibraltar, I knew instantly that my knowledge of Gibraltar’s chequered history would be pleasantly expanded again. When I originally embarked on this series there were only three things I confidently knew about Gibraltar:

There’s a rock

There are apes.

Spain is a trifle miffed that it’s under British jurisdiction.

What I have consistently loved about this series, is how much Mogford has opened up the turbulent history of this area piece by piece so that every book exposes a different slice of its unique history defined by location and politics. He always accomplishes this in a fluid and non-lecturing style, firmly adhering to the universal truth that past history cannot be denied as absolutely defining and reverberating in our current times. By using an incident set further back in history as the lynch-pin, Mogford is given a great opportunity to people this book with an older array of characters, who find themselves in the cross-hairs of a killer seeking revenge for sins of the past. This he accomplishes with aplomb, weaving together the past and the present, rich with interesting historical detail, and providing an equally fascinating study of the very human instinct of avenging wrongful deeds, however long that takes to achieve. Consequently, one simple act of wartime sabotage leads to murder, false accusations and devastating retribution, and you will find your sympathy for one character in particular toyed with consistently throughout.

As to Spike Sanguinetti himself, the central lead of the series, who is still torn between his two lawyerly hats- corporate and criminal- his story has moved on apace. The normal rescinder applies that joining the series at this later point is not a problem for the reader, as Spike’s former adventures are neatly inserted. This particular story gives Spike the opportunity to don his preferred criminal lawyer guise, and to delve deeper into the circumstances of a perplexing series of murders and to navigate the shadowy world of military intelligence and cover-ups. He is still proving himself a tad ham-fisted in the field of personal relationships, with his partner and police detective, Jessica, on the cusp of maternity leave, and their relationship experiencing a few troubled waters due to this investigation. I liked the way that Mogford homed in on Jessica’s own insecurity at having to give up her career and her determination to keep working until the critical point, and will be interested to see how much motherhood affects her in terms of her staunch loyalty to her career. Also, this book puts Spike sharply at odds with former friends and allies, and with the whiff of illegal practices in his own place of work, Mogford sets these teasers up nicely for the next book. As usual I loved the interactions between Spike and Rufus, his curmudgeonly father, and the way that Rufus is investing emotionally in the care of Spike and Jessica’s adopted son Charlie, which has added another lively dynamic to Spike’s personal life.

So all my initial fears were quickly assuaged, once again fully embracing Mogford’s talent for good storytelling underscored by relevant and interesting historical period detail of this unique location. Thoroughly enjoyed A Thousand Cuts and suitably intrigued as to what the next instalment will reveal in this superlative international crime series. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

Elly Griffiths- The Zig Zag Girl

ellyBrighton 1950. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stevens finds himself thinking of a magic trick that he saw as a boy: the Zig Zag Girl. The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar’s, having served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Gang. Hence, the story pivots back to their wartime activities, when they were based in Scotland working on plans to thwart a possible German invasion through illusion and subterfuge. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, swordswallowers, dancing girls and third rate comics- including another wartime acquaintance of theirs, Tony Mulholland, who dabbles in mesmerism as well. Changing times means that variety is not what it once was, but Max is reluctant to leave this showbiz world to help Edgar investigate, and is only coerced into action when the dead girl turns out to be known to him. Edgar and Max become convinced that the murder is linked to their army service, and when Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick- The Wolf Trap– he knows that they are all in danger…

I always think it’s a brave decision by an established series author such as Griffiths with her hugely popular Ruth Galloway novels, to step outside of the familiar and tackle a standalone (or opener to a possible new series). I had similar fears with Belinda Bauer, on the publication of Rubbernecker, but Griffiths like Bauer has succeeded admirably in my opinion. Having said that, I would partly put my enjoyment of The Zig Zag Girl down to my own fascination with the world of magic, particularly of this period and earlier, so many of the little nods and references to magic resonated very well with me- Hugh D. Nee indeed! However, where I think Griffiths succeeds so well in this book, is the underlying sense of fun that she seems to be having, and that we can participate in, along the way. There are a host of great little comic interludes and one-liners, that add another dimension to what is essentially a more graphic and souped-up classic Golden Age mystery, including the trusty use of tea cup and poison, transported into 1950’s Brighton. The unerring sense of darkness, and the slight seediness and desperation of the world which Max in particular resides in, is set against the lighter comic tone with great effect, reminding me strongly of the brilliant Bryant & May mysteries by Christopher Fowler. Add into the plot the pivoting timeline, charting the beginnings of the less confident Edgar’s and uber confident Max’s friendship, with their undercover and top secret wartime mission, and The Zig Zag Girl, draws us into its own little illusionist’s trick where nothing is quite as it appears…

I am a self confessed fan of Griffiths, and what I enjoy most about her writing is her characterisation, and this book does not disappoint. Every character is incredibly well-delineated, no matter how small or large part they play in the plot. I’ve already identified the essential difference between policeman Edgar and showman Max in terms of confidence, but it’s incredibly interesting to see how this chalk-and-cheese combo, and their understated loyalty to each other, join forces to catch a killer. Likewise, the character of Mulholland is joyous- in common parlance he would be a total **** – and I enjoyed the acerbic mocking by Max of Mulholland’s purported mesmerist skills and comic talent. He has none. There is also a wonderfully credible female character with Ruby, harbouring designs on being a world famous female magician in her own right, who enthrals Edgar, but strangely manages to resist the obvious appeal of the suave and cool Max. These characters draw you in completely, and I genuinely cared about the peril each faces as the story unfolds. So in conclusion, I was rather keen on The Zig Zag Girl, with its terrific blend of light and dark mood, the strength of the characters, the use of the shabby seaside locations, and the careful balance of historic period detail. All in all it’s fun, a jolly good murder mystery, with a few unexpected shocks along the way to jolt the reader. Magic…

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC, the dinky playing cards and entertaining fridge magnets!)

Matthew Pritchard- Werewolf

werewolfWerewolf is the second book from Matthew Pritchard and quickly proved itself a bit of a hit with this reader. Set in Germany at the close of World War II, the story focusses on the discovery of two corpses, one of them a former Waffen SS soldier, in the basement of a house requisitioned by British troops. Detective Silas Payne of Scotland Yard has been seconded to Germany to assist with the Allied policy of denazification, and finds himself drawn into the investigation, which quickly spirals into a hunt for a ruthless serial killer.

A very simple analogy for this book would be Foyle’s War with added ‘grrr’, as Payne is quickly revealed as a determined, but curiously passive and empathetic character, who carries the weight of his role in the book with a wonderfully understated air, despite the horrors that await him. I found him a very enjoyable protagonist, with his sure and steady character beautifully juxtaposed with the more testosterone fuelled characters in evidence amongst the British Army protagonists. As the book progresses, Pritchard carefully interweaves the corruption of some soldiers as the Allied troops stake their claim on German properties and possessions, skilfully interwoven with truly heartfelt diversions into the mental state of some others as a result of their combat service and witnessing the death camps. As Payne’s investigation starts to jangle some nerves amongst the less than honest protagonists, Pritchard carefully uses this to bring into the story some fascinating historical detail of the period, and the behaviour- both good and bad- of the Allied forces in the context of denazification on the German citizenry, and the avid hunt for the worst perpetrators of war crimes amongst the German military echelons. This was genuinely eye-opening for me, as so much is written about the turning points, and major confrontations during the theatre of war itself, but I quickly realised how little I knew about the fate of Germany in peacetime, and Pritchard provides a balanced and truthful interpretation of the effects on the ordinary German populace, along with the more familiar hunt for Nazi war criminals. Pritchard also incorporates the story of a young German woman, Ilse, formerly married to a high ranking Nazi, who now finds herself living a life of subterfuge to conceal her former links with the enemy, and the way she uses her manipulative feminine wiles to evade punishment. With the arrival back into her life of her callous brother, with his plans for escape from Germany, all her resourcefulness is called on to save her own skin, but will she succeed? Thrown into the already gripping mix is Payne’s hunt for a serial killer, and Pritchard carefully inserts small vignettes from the killer’s point of view, which consistently beguile the reader as to his true identity, and instilling in us a grudging admiration for how he has remained undetected for so long, despite a few close calls. With the impetus of the book not solely focussed on this storyline, this worked really well, with the sense of danger slowly growing as the other storylines ebbed and flowed around this. I didn’t feel, as I usually do when this structure is employed, a bigger compunction to get from one storyline back to another, as all of them melded seamlessly together, with definite and cohesive points of interest in each.

I enjoyed the path of Payne’s investigation immensely, and the attendant barricades he faces, and with Pritchard’s control of the other multifarious storylines remaining constant throughout, there was no decrease in my overall engagement with the book. I learnt a few things I didn’t know along the way, as well as being shocked and entertained in equal measure. It’s always a delight to discover a new author, and having missed the first book from Matthew Pritchard, Scarecrow, I will be back-tracking to read this as well. Overall Werewolf proved itself an intelligent and well-conceived thriller, and a thoroughly good read.

(With thanks to Salt Publishing for the ARC)