Review 1515: Conviction

Denise Mina’s novels are usually fairly gritty murder mysteries. Conviction, although harrowing in spots, reminded me much more of Catriona McPherson’s cozy thrillers.

When Anna’s husband Hamish dumps her for another woman and takes her children, she realizes there is nothing she can do, because she has been living a secret life. Nine years earlier, a series of horrendous events caused her to run away and assume a new identity. If she were to try to get custody of her girls, she could be found out, and she would be in danger.

While all this is going on, she views a podcast about the death of Leon Parker, who had been her friend years ago. He and his family were killed aboard his yacht. His cook was found guilty of the murders even though she was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Anna becomes determined to find out the truth about Leon, because he was married to Gretchen Teigler, who Anna believes sent killers after her years ago.

This is a fast-paced, well-written chase across Europe to find evidence. Anna is accompanied by Fin Cohen, a rock star and the husband of the woman who ran off with Hamish. Even though there are some tough situations in the novel, it reads more lightly than Mina’s previous work. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1487: Strangers at the Gate

It seems too good to be true when Paddy Lamb returns from a job interview to report that he’s been offered a partnership at a firm in Simmerton. When his wife, Finnie, raises questions about where she is going to work and how far the commute is, he comes back with an offer of a lease on a cottage belonging to the firm’s owner and the promise of a job for her as a deacon at Simmerton Parish Church.

As soon as they arrive, things begin falling apart. Finnie can see that her help isn’t really needed at the parish church. Then, Finnie and Paddy are invited by Tuft Dudgeon, the wife of Paddy’s new boss, for dinner on the night they move in. They have a pleasant evening, and the two are walking home when Finnie realizes she left her bag. Something has been spooking her all day, so when she returns to the house and can’t raise the Dudgeons, she goes back to the kitchen. There she finds Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon in a pool of blood, apparent suicides.

She is about to call the police when Paddy stops her, because in his past he was involved in minor criminal activity. The couple decides to wait and let someone discover the bodies, thinking that will happen shortly. But when Paddy arrives at work, he finds that someone has sent a fax saying they have left on vacation to Brazil. The only problem is that the fax was sent after Finnie saw the bodies. As Finnie and Paddy try to get someone to discover the bodies, the lies begin to pile up.

My first impression of this situation was that it was a silly one for McPherson, who usually writes good modern-day cozy thrillers. It was hard for me to believe that Finnie would agree to lie. She is a deacon, albeit an unconventional one, and she seems to take this seriously although with a light touch. However, if you can buy into the situation, it’s a fairly wild ride to the conclusion.

I really love McPherson’s thrillers, because they combine a creepy plot with a community of likable characters often featuring life in a small Scottish village. This one follows that pattern while providing loads of atmosphere in this isolated, dark village.

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Review 1475: Dark Saturday

When I went looking in the library for something suitable for the end of October, I found one of Nicci French’s dark and disturbing mysteries featuring psychotherapist Frieda Klein. I have read all but the book before this one in this series. I missed the last book but did not feel that it threw me off in reading this one.

The Frieda Klein series began with a dangerous psychopath escaping justice by killing his twin brother. Only Frieda believes he is alive, and she knows this because he has been both harassing and protecting her. So, this ongoing plot is always mixed with one that is solved in each book.

Frieda is hired by a mysterious man named Levin, whose role I don’t quite understand, to look into the case of Hannah Docherty. Fifteen years ago, she was permanently hospitalized after being found guilty of the murders of her entire family.

In Frieda’s initial examination of the case files, she finds some discrepancies that are not explained by the theory of the case. After she goes to visit Hannah in the mental hospital, she begins to entertain the possibility that Hannah did not commit the crime.

During the course of the investigation, she finds an eccentric crime blogger who stole all of the Docherty’s possessions after they were thrown out. Frieda takes these possessions from her and shortly thereafter the woman is killed in a fire that burns down her house. Now, Frieda is sure that Hannah is not the murderer.

Frieda is an enigmatic character whom I find fascinating, and the other characters in the book are convincing. Although some of the books in this series are not really thrillers (some are), they never fail to send a chill down my spine.

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Review 1400: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

Here’s another review for Readers Imbibing Peril!

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Like many others, I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. I didn’t seriously consider reading David Lagercrantz’s continuation to the series until I picked up this novel on impulse. I have skipped one book in the series, but this one didn’t seem difficult to understand even though I hadn’t read the last.

Lisbeth Salander is in prison on charges related to events in the last book. There she has observed an inmate, Faria Kazia, subjected to routine abuse by another inmate, Benito, a gang member, with no intervention by authorities. In fact, although Warden Olsen came in with good intentions, he’s been held in check by Benito’s threats against his daughter.

Faria is in prison for shoving her brother out the window. She has said nothing in her defense, but Lisbeth is inclined to believe the death is related to an honor killing.

Lisbeth is also engaged in research into her own past. She asks the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and her elderly guardian Holger Palmgren to find some information for her. Soon, Palmgren is found dead under suspicious circumstances.

I know that Stieg Larsson wrote outlines of several more Salander novels before his death. What I don’t know is whether Lagercrantz is working from Larsson’s outlines or not. Lagercrantz is no Stieg Larsson, however. I don’t think Larsson was a great writer—he was too inclined to go into extensive detail on political issues—but he was a master of the gripping tale. The bones of one of his complex stories is here, but Lagercrantz fails to construct the fully realized world of Larsson’s novels. Further, he writes choppy subject/verb/object sentences that don’t flow well, and he gives away most of his plot points fairly early on.

So, no more Lisbeth Salander for me, which is a shame.

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Review 1369: The Craftsman

Thirty years ago, Florence Lovelady’s career took off when she helped capture Larry Glassbrook, a coffin maker who was burying teenagers alive. Something made her continue to visit Larry in prison, though, and now he has died. With her teenage son, Ben, she has returned to the village of Sabden, in Lancashire, for his funeral.

When Florence, or Flossie, as she is known there, goes to visit the Glassbrook house, where she was a lodger years ago, she finds a clay picture of herself. A clay picture is like a voodoo doll, used in dark magic, and was a feature of the earlier murders. This discovery makes Flossie re-evaluate the truths about the earlier murders. Although Larry confessed to the crimes, did he have an accomplice? Did he even commit the murders?

Sabden sits at the bottom of Pendle Hill, a location famous for witches. The novel returns to the past to follow the investigation of the first crimes, during which Flossie encountered a coven of white witches. Then it returns to the present, where Flossie is threatened again.

This is a fast-paced, enthralling book. It wasn’t as creepy as it was probably meant to be, but I enjoyed both police investigations. This is a good, solid thriller with a twist.

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Review 1363: Into the Water

Jules has been estranged from her sister, Nel, since she was thirteen. That’s why, when Nel called her asking for help, she didn’t even bother listening. Now Nel is dead, having fallen from the top of a cliff into the river in the Drowning Pool, the location of several suicides by women as well as witch drownings centuries before.

When Jules travels to Beckford to take charge of her fifteen-year-old niece, Lena, she finds a lot of rumors going around. Louise Whittaker, whose daughter, Katie, died in the same place as Nel a few months ago, thinks Nel was responsible for her daughter’s death because of her research into the Drowning Pool. Is there a connection between the deaths, and did Nel commit suicide? Nickie Sage, the local psychic, thinks the police should be looking at an earlier death, that of Lauren Slatter, who died at the Drowning Pool when her son Sean was six.

I have to say that Hawkins is good at throwing in plot twists and keeping your attention. Although this novel is probably classified as a thriller, it is not so much suspenseful as it is complex. It keeps you guessing.

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Review 1359: Go to My Grave

Cover for Go to My GraveDonna Weaver and her mother have invested everything in The Breakers, a large house on the Galloway coast that they have made available as either a self-catered or fully catered vacation rental. Donna is excitedly awaiting their first guests, an anniversary party of cousins and their spouses, while her mother attends a hospitality convention.

When the guests arrive, however, it becomes clear that they have all been there before. Twenty-five years ago, they attended a 16th birthday party for Sasha, the man whose wife, Kim, has planned this trip.

The reactions of the guests when they recognize the house make it clear that they do not relish memories of this party. Then, shortly after they arrive, things begin appearing in the house that hearken back to that occasion. What is happening in the house? Is one of the guests trying to gaslight the others?

Occasionally, we see flashbacks to 1991, when a 14-year-old local girl named Carmen is invited to the party. When she arrives, she brings along her 12-year-old sister.

This novel is truly riveting, although the answer to what is happening seems a little too contrived. Although McPherson is known for her “cozy” thrillers, this one is probably more accurately described as a modern gothic thriller. The ending to it is a bizarre mixture of cozy and chilling. I didn’t know quite what to think of it, but the best term I can come up with is “morally challenged.” We are presented with an ambiguous conclusion to tone down the ending, but I know very well what I think happened.

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Review 1345: The Invited

cover for The InvitedHelen and Nate bought a piece of acreage in the New Hampshire countryside and are building their dream house, doing most of the work themselves. What they don’t know, though, is that 90 years ago, Hattie Breckenridge was hanged on their land as a witch. Since then, the property is said to be haunted, especially the nearby bog.

Next door, 14-year-old Olive resents the newcomers. Her mother ran off a few months before, and her father, Dustin, has gone off the rails a bit. He keeps renovated rooms in their house but not finishing them, telling her that her mother will love the house when she returns. Olive has been searching the bog for Hattie’s treasure, rumored to be on the neighbor’s land, something her mother had been doing before she left. Olive thinks Helen and Nate will get in the way of her finding it, so she has been stealing things from their trailer and work site, hoping to drive them away.

link to NetgalleyHelen gets interested in the story of Hattie. After she and Nate incorporate an old beam from the tree on which Hattie was hanged into their house, Helen comes to believe that Hattie is trying to tell her something.

Jennifer McMahon is known for her spooky thrillers set in New Hampshire. This one is fairly good, even though some of her others have been scarier. Although you are led to wonder about Helen’s sanity, I didn’t really doubt that there would be a ghost. More is going on in this book than that, however.

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Review 1323: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Cover for The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the novel that made John Le Carré’s name as a master of espionage fiction. His introduction to my edition tells just how much he resented the attention he got for it. Even though it is one of his earlier books, having been published in 1963, it is one I hadn’t read.

At the beginning of the novel, Leamas watches in anger from West Berlin as his last good agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot crossing the border from East Berlin. Leamas is fairly sure, on his return to England shortly thereafter, that his career as an operator is over. Instead, he is offered a dangerous last mission. He is to appear to have been retired to a desk job, to go to pieces and lose his position and continue to go downhill with the hopes that he will be approached from the other side. The objective? To take down Mundt, a ruthless official on the other side of the wall and the man responsible for Karl’s death.

All goes according to plan, and Leamas is approached shortly after he gets out of prison for assaulting a grocer. Only, if you are familiar with Le Carré, you know that things will be much more complicated than they seem to be. And Leamas has one weakness. During his descent, he got involved with a young, naïve girl, Liz, a member of the Communist Party.

Le Carré is a master of suspense and a plotter of labyrinthine plots. In addition, his novels always have more going on in them that just action, such as raising serious issues of morality. This novel is rightfully a famous member of its genre.

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Day 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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