Book Review: A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson

A Capital Crime

By Laura Wilson

Quercus 2010

A Capital Crime is a great piece of storytelling. I am glad of my policy of knowing nothing about the content of books before I read them, as had I known that this novel is based on a famous real-life crime, I might not have embarked on it. And I would have missed out.

It is 1950, six years since the traumatic events in DI Stratton’s life that happened at the end of An Empty Death. Stratton and his trusty sergeant Ballard are contacted by the Welsh police because a man has confessed to them that he’s murdered his wife at their previous house, in London. Upon investigation, it turns out that not only has this 19-year-old, pregnant woman disappeared, but so has her 14-month-old baby. Soon, the worst is discovered, and Stratton has to relive personal traumas while managing this case. A man is sent for trial, and the case seems cut and dried.

The main strength of this novel is the author’s sheer storytelling ability. Having established the crime plot, she turns away from that and to the character of Diana Calthrop, from the first novel in this series (Stratton’s War). Diana is soon to be divorced from her weak husband, and intends to make a new life for herself in London. This she does, very capably, soon landing a job at a film studio as assistant to a director. While she is there, she meets Monica, Stratton’s daughter, who is a make-up artist and who is also a major character in this novel. Monica, like her father, is very conscious of the class divide between her and Diana, but again like her father, is attracted to her. Diana, however, with her unerring instinct for disaster, embarks on a course that will bring her into a very different life to the one with which she’s familiar. There is a contemporary resonance to the knife-edge on which Diana lives, and her story is told with real passion and depth.

A few years pass. Stratton and his colleagues hear of one or two disappearances of prostitutes, but cannot make any headway in finding them. Suddenly, a terrible discovery is made, and the policemen are presented with the worst, most upsetting case they’ve ever seen in their careers – careers that have seen plenty of horrors while serving in London during the recently ended Second World War.

Stratton is an attractive, introspective character, conscious of his weaknesses and uncomfortably aware of his inability to communicate fully with Monica and his belligerent son Pete, now doing his National Service. He’s hampered by the conventions of the day, yet sensitive in a way that many of his contemporaries are not. A chance meeting with Diana at the Festival of Britain sends him into a confused state, yet this experience is nothing compared with the circumstances when they next meet.

The middle section of this novel was a compulsive page-turner for me, reading about Diana’s life and about the people she knew while working for the secret service in the War. I was intrigued by Monica and the setting of the film studio. The last part of the book focuses more on the awful crime case, from the point of view of the police investigation. I found this less interesting than the interpersonal stories of the Strattons and their family and friends, together with Diana’s circle. Perhaps that is because I find the true-life case on which this novel is based both repellent and tedious.

Laura Wilson has written an excellent novel in A Capital Crime. Her invented characters, whether central or tangential, are completely realistic and of their time yet with a subtle overtone of present-day perspective. Her observations of the social mores of the day are acute, and her cast-list (with the exception of the criminal) sympathetic yet unsentimental. Her settings are beautifully detailed and convincing throughout. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and so much hope that it will not be too long before the next episode in the life of DI Ted Stratton.

I am very grateful to the publisher, Quercus, for my copy of this book.

About the book at the author’s website – including a free download of chapter 1.

My reviews of the first two in the series: Stratton’s War and An Empty Death.

Read other reviews of A Capital Crime at: The Guardian, The Independent, Financial Times, Book Geeks, and Tales of a Shirley Scribe.

Spring 2011 books from Pan Macmillan

I received the Spring books catalogue from Pan Macmillan the other day, and as well as one or two upcoming titles that have previously featured on this blog, there are one or two more new books due that I am looking forward to.

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves (February) is the new Vera Stanhope novel, following on (after a gap) from The Crow Trap, Telling Tales and Hidden Depths. Here, Vera discovers a body in the sauna at her local gym (what can she be doing there? I haven’t read Hidden Depths yet so maybe that is why it seems an odd place for Vera to be). The ensuing investigation sounds suitably challenging and intriguing.

Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway (May) is a standalone crime novel from the author of the Inspector Devlin series (Borderlands, Gallows Lane, Bleed a River Deep and The Rising). In Little Girl Lost, a small girl is found wandering at the edge of an ancient woodland. She’s traumatised and does not speak, trusting only the person who rescued her, DS Lucy Vaughn. Lucy is rapidly involved in another case, and has some very interesting-sounding family problems. Definitely one to watch out for.

The Redeemed by M. R. Hall (April) is the third Jenny Cooper novel after The Coroner and The Disappeared. A psychiatric nurse is found dead, suspected of committing suicide. Of course, Jenny Cooper is going to find out that all is not what it seems. We are also promised some revelations about the mysterious trauma in her past – “her whole life has been governed by deception”.

The Facility by Simon Lelic (January), author of the stunning debut novel Rupture (1000 Cuts), is about a government facility hidden deep in the countryside, and two people, a journalist and an anxious wife, who try to uncover its secrets.

There are several other novels in this catalogue that I might read, but these four are on my “definite” list. Unfortunately there is no Hakan Nesser due in the Spring, but I hope one might be forthcoming later next year. All the books featured here are said to be available in e-format as well as in printed versions.

Book Review: Kind of Blue by Miles Corwin

Kind of Blue

By Miles Corwin

Oceanview, 2010.

Ash Levine quit the LAPD in a mixture of guilt and anger when a witness to a crime he was investigating was shot and killed. He’s very much at loose ends, though, stifled by his family and not enjoying the prospect of law school. He therefore jumps at the chance offered to him by his old mentor, Lieutenant Duffy, to return to the squad to investigate the shooting of a retired cop, Pete Revitch. Levine is full of energy and soon finds some leads which he pursues with vigour, while at the same time suffering some slings and arrows from old colleagues and superiors who are less than pleased that he’s back on the force.

Told in the first person, Kind of Blue (from the Miles Davis track) is a detailed yet fast-paced and absorbing police procedural with plenty of clues and leads to keep the reader on her toes. The author has previously written two non-fiction books about the LAPD, one as a result of shadowing two detectives for some months, and this deep and detailed knowledge is evident in every paragraph of this novel. The author does not fall into the trap of providing too much information, though. Levine is a man with a mission, and single-mindedly pursues the righteous way of investigation, not diverted by the politics of modern policing. At the same time, he has a somewhat troubled personal life: he’s divorced, a veteran of the Israeli army, and suffers nightmares as a result of his military experiences. None of this is dwelt on too much, so does not become a cliché; mainly the reader is caught up in the investigation of Revitch’s death as Levine pursues the few leads he has, re-interviewing witnesses and relatives, until he stumbles across the possibility that the dead man may have been on the take.

Even when the case appears to be solved, there are three or four more twists in the story, twists that address issues of police corruption, gang warfare in LA, and the extremes of rich and poor who live in this city of dreams. I very much enjoyed the book. Levine has plenty of problems and neuroses to cope with, and I think that some of these will settle down a bit so that future novels (of which I hope there will be some) will become more measured as a result. The ending of the book (or rather, the several endings) are to me less convincing than the main story, perhaps because Levine seems to be able to do anything (shoot people, be shot, etc) and be instantly back on the case, which does not seem to me all that likely. Even so, one wants very much for him to solve the current case as well as the old one which is haunting him.

It is likely that this book will be compared to the early work of Michael Connelly, as Levine could develop into a next-generation Harry Bosch. I think the comparison stands up well. Miles Corwin still has some way to go to develop the deceptively easy and mournful, elegiac style that characterises Connelly’s cleverly plotted novels, but on this evidence, he could certainly get there. I very much enjoyed my first encounter with Ash Levine’s life and his LAPD, and hope it will not be the last.

I thank the publisher, Oceanview, for so kindly sending me a copy of this novel.

About the book at the publisher website (including endorsement from Michael Connelly himself).

An interview with the author about this book (PDF).

Author’s website.

Other reviews of this novel are at: Mystery Maven, The Mystery Gazette, Bookloons Reviews , Fresh Fiction and Suite 101.

My Euro Crime and Petrona reviews for October

My three reviews for Euro Crime during October were of very different books: the latest exciting journalism-crime case for Swedish reporter Annika Bengstrom; a detailed and (seemingly) realistic Scottish police procedural with a senior female protagonist; and a Jack Reacher adventure thriller set in Nebraska. From my reviews:

Red Wolf by Liza Marklund: I found the novel a completely absorbing read and continue to regard this series as second to none in contemporary crime writing. Annika is both a serious-minded, determined protagonist, and a brave heroine for our strange, mixed-up times. *****

Shadowplay by Karen Campbell: Of all the UK police series being written today, I think Karen Campbell’s has rapidly become my favourite, mainly for its authenticity and for the character of Anna, a convincingly portrayed woman who is ambitious yet not prepared to sacrifice any of her own personal principles in order to smooth her path. For this reason, she’s probably admired by her colleagues more than she realises. I think this series is so far impressively varied (each of the three books has had a very different focus) and well written. I am looking forward to more. ***

Worth Dying For by Lee Child: As usual, my verdict on this novel is that if you like Jack Reacher stories, you’ll like this one. It contains all the ingredients that make this series such a success: tough hero adhering to his own moral code and standing up for the “true” American values that transcend officialdom; some exciting set-pieces; easy to read – the prose is not as simplistic as is found in some other bestselling novels but is pretty easygoing; a plot that provides a bit of mystery and suspense without taxing the brain too much; and plenty of wish-fulfillment concerning ethics and values that we’d all like for our society but which are unlikely ever to happen. Don’t go looking for holes in the plot as there are very many of them indeed. *

At Petrona I posted 14 reviews, with a pretty good global spread. Some of these books I enjoyed more than others, but there were at least some things to like in all of them, and a lot of things to like in some of them! I’ve given them one, two or three stars here, to indicate my own relative favourites among this particular batch.

Never Look Away by Linwood Barclay (USA, Canadian author)**
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (England)***
The Guards by Ken Bruen (Ireland)***
Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave (New Zealand)*
The Reversal by Michael Connelly (USA)***
Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher (Australia)***
Black Ice by Leah Giarratano (Australia)*
The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne (Australia)***
Gone by Mo Hayder (England)***
Sister by Rosamund Lupton (England)***
Audition by Ryu Murakami (Japan)*
Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn (South Africa)**
Experimental Heart by Jennifer L Rohn (England)**
Silence by Jan Costin Wagner (Finland, German author)***

Although I very much liked many of these titles, my book of the month has to be Red Wolf by Liza Marklund, translator Neil Smith. Don’t let this put anyone off from trying some of the others, though, as there are some very good novels in October’s selections.

My reviews so far this year.
My Euro Crime review archive.
Archive of all my book reviews.

Book Review: Our Lady of Pain by Elena Forbes

Our-lady-of-pain-mmp Our Lady of Pain

Elena Forbes

Quercus 2008 (review is of the UK paperback edition, 2009)

The second book about DI Mark Tartaglia is a jolly good read which I enjoyed far more than his debut outing in Die With Me. I had put off reading Our Lady of Pain for a while owing to its title, cover and "teaser" words, which I find less than inviting – as well as a slight ambivalence about the first novel (see my review). As it turns out, Our Lady of Pain is a classic police procedural with nothing to do with the picture (or teaser words). It isn't among the best crime novels I have read this year, but it is a good read, nonetheless.

Tartaglia is the grandson of Italian immigrants who settled in Edinburgh. He and his sister, the matchmaking Nicoletta, both live in London: she is a lecturer in Italian at London University; he is in charge of one of the murder squads based in Barnes, south-west London. He is single, rides a motorbike and is portrayed as very handsome and eligible. He’s called out to investigate the case of a woman who had been murdered while out running in Holland Park, and the bulk of the ensuing novel describes how he and his team carry out their work of interviewing witnesses, searching apartments and so on, to try to find the perpetrator – no easy task.

Rachel Tenison, the victim, was a loner, so it takes Tartaglia and his loyal sergeant Sam (short for Samantha) Donovan some time to find out much about her associates and her life.  At the start of their investigation, rather too much of the plot involves Tartaglia or Donovan having to re-interview witnesses who don’t seem to be entirely truthful, in order to get them to admit further details that they consider irrelevant to the investigation. I don’t find this a very satisfactory way of moving a plot along, but it is certainly better than the other genre standby of finding more bodies.

One of the unusual aspects of the case is the discovery of part of a poem by Swinburne on the body (hence the book’s title). This clue leads Tartaglia to a year-old, closed  investigation of the death of a woman who was a professor of English literature (including the works of Swinburne) at the university. Tartaglia and Donovan are convinced that the two cases must be related, but how? Their quest is complicated by the reluctance of the investigating officer, Simon Turner, to re-open the old case as it might make him and his recently deceased boss look bad if they failed to unearth any crucial information at the time. Turner reluctantly joins Tartaglia’s team for the purposes of combining the investigations; it is he who finds a crucial suspect, and Donovan who makes the link between the two cases.

Once the second case is uncovered, the pace of this novel picks up considerably. The author weaves in the social lives of the detectives and other police staff into her narrative, as well as a possible romantic diversion between Tartaglia and one of the witnesses to the Rachel Tenison case. There are a couple of twists to the tale, one of which I anticipated and the other I didn’t, but unfortunately the author did not resist repeating her “woman in peril” ending from the first book. The gradual realisation by a female character that she is on her own with a possible murderer is a cliché which renders the ending a bit flat and perfunctory. Another slightly disappointing aspect is that I did not feel that a great sense of location was conveyed, other than the occasional description of a traditional pub or a snowy park which could have been anywhere.

I don’t mean to quibble: this novel is a jolly good, solid police procedural with two characters, Tartaglia and Donovan, who are interesting and individual, if in need of development. I like the juxtaposition of the work and personal lives of the police, and will certainly read the next in this series. 

My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book.

Read other reviews at: Curled up with a Good Book (very positive but gives away more of the plot than I do here); Curled up with a Good Book again (not so positive); Reviewing the Evidence (Sharon Wheeler), an excellent brief review which sums up perfectly in all ways my opinion of the book!; and Mysterious Reviews (positive).

Interview with the author upon publication of her first novel, Die With Me.

Profile of Simon Beckett in The Bookseller

Beckett The author Simon Beckett is subject of a one-page profile in the current (29 October) issue of The Bookseller (p. 24). Beckett is author of a series of novels about Dr David Hunter, a forensic anthropologist (a fairly popular profession in crime fiction these days). Having read and enjoyed the previous three in this series, I'm glad to read that there will be a new David Hunter novel in February 2011, The Calling of the Grave (Bantam Press in the UK and Random House in Australia).

As pointed out in the profile, one distinguishing feature of the David Hunter novels is that they are all in different settings, and setting is an important component of each plot. The first, The Chemistry of Death, was set in the Norfolk fens; the sequel Written in Bone took place on a remote Scottish island; and the third, Whispers of the Dead, around the Tennessee, USA "body farm". It was this last location, apparently, that gave Beckett the idea for the Hunter series. He had written three earlier novels but failed to get a publishing deal. (The novels were eventually published by Allison and Busby.) He became a freelance journalist, during which time he went to Tennessee to shadow a group of police officers as they learned about the decomposition of human remains. From this experience, David Hunter was born. 

The new novel, The Calling of the Grave, starts eight years in the past when Hunter is part of a team investigating a body buried on Dartmoor. The main part of the novel is about the escape of the person who was responsible…. "absolutely nothing is as it seems, and Beckett skilfully engineers plot twist after plot twist interwoven with the meticulously researched forensic science." The author says that he likes to tackle new ground in each novel to provide not only "elements that people come back to, but you want a sense of development in each one." Part of this process are the gradual revelations about Hunter's past as the series progresses. 

It's quite well known that Beckett's books sell better in Germany and Scandinavia than they do in the UK, which is a pity as he certainly knocks the socks off Patricia Cornwell (who covers similar themes) and the like. He says that the series is harder to write as it goes on, which he says objectively is a good thing. "I don't want to freewheel – I think the more you put in , the more the reader can get out of it. ….If I were finding it easy then it might not be altogether a good thing…. for the books, anyway."

 Reviews of Simon Beckett's previous three novels at Euro Crime.

Author website (in English and German)

The Guardian and The Times on Simon Beckett, the "unknown crime writer". 

Archive of articles by Simon Beckett at The Guardian website.