Simon Beckett: The Calling of the Grave Sunday, Nov 27 2011 

Simon Beckett’s novels featuring forensics expert Dr. David Hunter display the kind of in-depth research that keeps readers like Auntie M coming back. With his painstaking approach to detail Beckett’s novels have a sense of authenticity that at times is eerie, and which applies to other character’s specialties, as well.

When Beckett was writing for the Daily Telegraph Magazine, one assignment took him on a field trip to the world-famous Anthropological Research Facility in Tennessee known as The Body Farm. That visit inspired not only the character of David Hunter, but this recent offering in the series, The Calling of the Grave. “Nothing stays hidden forever” is the last line of the prologue and an apt theme for this absorbing novel that will end in an entirely different way from the reader’s first expectations.

Almost a decade ago a body was found buried on Dartmoor, presumably the work of the psychotic rapist and multiple murderer Jerome Monk. The bodies of two other victims, twin sisters, were never recovered. Called upon to be a part of the recovery team, Hunter is eager to be included in a search of the area when Monk offers to point to where the bodies are buried. The premise allows us to go back into Hunter’s private life as he recalls the the days of the first search, and brilliantly ties those events to others that have severely affected his life.

On the moors Hunter meets Leonard Wainwright, a Cambridge don turned consultant to the police, renowned as a forensics expert, especially in the area of archeology. Part of the team will be the local pathologist, Dr. Pirie, and also Sophie Keller, a Behavioral Investigative Advisor, who will advise on offender’s characteristics and motivations, and will help to plan the strategy and assessment of Monk. DI Terry Connors is a surprise: his wife and Hunter’s own were friends years ago and the men used to see each other socially.

The moor is beautiful described, in all its dark and wild glory, and provides the perfect setting for the shackled prisoner as he arrives after a decoy has shaken reporters off in a different direction. The real prisoner has a hulking presence, powerful presence, with a ghastly congenital indentation in his forehead, “as though he’d been struck with a hammer and somehow survived.” With his crooked mouth and small, empty eyes, the murderer has a chilling effect on those present.  

The the unthinkable happens: a nightmarish scenario develops and Monk tried to escape. With great difficulty the police manage to subdue and contain him, but not before he has ruined the career Sophie Keller. With Monk safely behind bars, Hunter returns to London and his wife and daughter–until his own nightmare begins.

Eight years later, Hunter is surprised to find Terry Connor on his doorstep. Both of their lives have changed, not for the better, and Hunter is not happy to see Connor. Then the detective tells him his news: Jerome Monk had suffered a heart attack, and on transfer to a civilian hospital, managed to break his restraints, subdue his guards, and escape into the night. When a panicked Sophie Keller contacts Hunter a few days later, begging him to visit her, he acquiesces. But Keller fails to show up at the pub where they were to meet, and Hunter drives out to her house, only to find her beaten into unconsciousness.

What happens next will bring Hunter into the realm of a murderer, as the members of the original search team begin to be hunted down and murdered, and Hunter realizes he only knows half the real story of the events of eight years ago.

This is a gripping and solid read, with the pacing ratcheted up as Hunter and Sophie try to flee from a maniac on the loose. Or is the real threat closer to home?

Another solid offering from Simon Beckett.

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Denise Mina: The End of the Wasp Season Sunday, Nov 20 2011 

Ian Rankin calls fellow Scot Denise Mina: “The most exciting crime writer to have emerged in Britain in years.” Readers of Auntie M will know that she follows Mina’s crime novels, from her stand alones to her Paddy Meehan series. With a law degree in her pocket, Mina also writes short stories, has authored a play, and is a regular contributor to TV and radio.

Mina is back with a new protagonist, as original as any of her others. DS Alex Morrow is pregnant with twins when she catches a murder case that will send shock waves through the wealthy suburb of Glasgow where the victim lived. It will also touch Morrow’s personal life and impact her career as she tries to keep her own ghosts at bay.

Sarah Erroll had taken exceptional care of her ailing mother until the woman’s recent death, providing round-the-clock care in the home Joy Erroll loved. When Sarah is found brutally murdered at the bottom of the stairs of that home, it appears to be a vicious but random attack. Then Morrow listens to the recording made when Sarah tried to call 999 and hears her tell one of her murderers: “I know you.” The case is further complicated when stacks of cash are found hidden under the kitchen table, totaling close to $700,ooo Euros. What was the source of Erroll’s money? Who knew about it?

In a seemingly unrelated event in Kent, millionaire banker Lars Anderson hangs himself from the oak tree standing on the sacred lawn of his mansion. Under investigation for fraudulent business practices that have left his clients destitute, his death is seen by many as a penance for his lifetime self-serving attitude, a just decision in a world damaged by ever-widening recession. Although left in financial straits, his deeply damaged family mostly feel  a sense of release at his death. But just how damaged are they?

Stonewalled by DCI Bannerman, a man who’s learned how to turn rudeness into an art form, it will be up to Morrow to sort out the tangled web that connects both deaths. Travel to London follows as Morrow begins to unravel the threads that will lead to a shattering resolution.

This is a complex and multilayered novel, full of plot turns, with Mina illustrating a deft rendering of the complicated emotions of the people in the book’s world. This talent makes her characters eminently human, and her novels are ones easily gobbled up as the pages turn.

 

 

Two for Sorrow: Nicola Upson’s third winner Sunday, Nov 13 2011 

Auntie M has been encouraging readers to investigate Nicola Upson. With her background in theater and as a crime fiction critic, it is easy to see how Upson’s research into the life of Elizabeth Mackintosh led to this very original series. Upson is also the author of two non-fiction books, and studied English at Cambridge.

Upson became interested in writers working between the two World Wars, which led her to Mackintosh, who wrote plays and mainly historical fiction under the pen name of Gordon Daviot. When she turned her hand to some of the most original crime novels of 1930’s-1950’s, Mackintosh wrote under the name Josephine Tey.

It is Upson’s own original device in this series to star Tey as the protagonist in her mystery novels, and it is highly effective. Following the authorship of Tey’s real novels and life events, Upson brings to life the era and settings that Mackintosh inhabited, weaving in aspects of her life with that of Tey and her friends in the theater.

In her third Tey novel, Two for Sorrow, Upson has Tey in London doing research for a possible novel based on the last double female hanging at Holloway Prison in Britain. The book follows two stories: Tey’s research into the life of the two women convicted of murdering newborn infants taken from their mothers for adoption; and the murder of a young seamstress who has been found murdered under horrific circumstances in the design studio of the Motley sisters, Tey’s friends.

Tey is staying at the Cowdray Club, a club for nurses and professional women where Mackintosh was a member from 1925 until her death in 1952. The club is the planned setting for a lavish charity gala with surperstars headlining the fundraiser, and the Motley sisters are designing many of the dresses for the prominent women attending. Inspector Archie Penrose and his team investigate the young woman’s death, which at first appears to be laid at the door of her abusive father. Penrose is not convinced this is the case, and he enlists Tey’s help in finding the real murderer, even as she continues her own novel’s research, which includes a visit to Holloway.

The lives of several women living at the Cowdray Club are brought under Archie’s spotlight, and Tey finds herself at times uncomfortable with Archie’s investigation. Then as he becomes convinced he is on the trail of the murderer, a second young woman suffers a terrible accident and the race is on to unearth a sadistic killer.

Upson’s settings are vividly described and recall the era perfectly. She also mines the reserve of the time and the simmering emotions that lie just beneath the surface of most personal relationships. Her research is exhaustive and we are the happy recipients as she expertly overlaps the real with the fictional.

The two main story lines overlap in several places that heighten the tension. The entire novel is bolstered by an intriguing subplot featuring Tey’s private life. Auntie M had to do a little research of her own to find that this, too, was based on what can be gleaned from Mackintosh’s very private life.

P. D. James has remarked that Upson  “. . .  is to be congratulated” and Auntie M agrees. Don’t miss this third strong outing in a consistently entertaining and well-written series.

 

 

Two Jewels by Barry Maitland Sunday, Nov 6 2011 

Award-winning novelist Barry Maitland was born in Scotland, but grew up in London. Although he’s lived in Australia since 1984, Maitland takes us to a different London neighborhood in each of his police procedurals featuring Metropolitan police detectives David Brock and Kathy Kolla. Despite their age difference and relationships with other people as the series has advanced, the bond between the more experienced Brock and his acolyte Kolla has deepened, even as the younger woman’s strengths as an investigator have grown.

Auntie M’s readers know she follows this series, and Maitland’s two most recent novels won’t disappoint fans or newcomers. Both offer the ingenious plotting based on a solid framework that Maitland’s architectural background lends, one of his hallmarks. Perhaps credit should also be given to his great-grandparents skills as weavers. Whatever the source of his talent, Maitland’s main plot and subplots all hang together without becoming obtuse or unnecessary, even when characters from the personal lives of Brock and Kolla take the stage and become woven into the plot of the story.

His books also display extensive research into an area of obsession for that novel’s characters, so that readers learn about a subject important to the main personalities. It is to Maitland’s credit that this information forms a vital part of the story and yet keeps the reader intrigued, without lapsing into a travelogue or primer feel that would take away from the novel. Auntie M knows when she opens a new Brock and Kolla novel that her knowledge of a new area will be enriched as she follows the investigative trajectory.

Dark Mirror takes Brock and Kolla into the world of the Pre-Raphaelites, when a student has a seizure at the London Library and dies shortly after. Marion Sommers was a diabetic, but what seems to be a simple tragedy becomes the object of investigation when it is determined that the graduate student, an Ophelia-lookalike, died from arsenic poisoning. Was this a deliberate ingestion by a depressed young scholar, or the work of a devious murderer?                                                   Kathy Kolla has just been promoted to Detective Inspector of Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Unit and holds herself up a role model for the younger members of her team. In her first big case she is determined to find the truth behind the death of the pretty student . With the help of DCI Brock and other members of their team, she begins to unravel the complicated story behind the young woman’s ties to a world where it was once common to use arsenic for a variety of household uses.  Kolla is immediately thwarted in her investigation when she experiences difficulties finding the dead woman’s residence and next of kin.

When Kolla eventually finds Marion’s home and her family, both raise more questions than answers for the detective. Kolla tries to understand Marion and her work, exploring the world of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, Janey Burden Morris, and the lesser-known Pre-Raphaelites who figure in Marion Sommers work. The detective is led to Marion’s faculty tutor, her research assistant, and eventually, to the killer of the young woman whose research threatened someone’s existence to the point of murder.

Just published in the US is Maitland’s newest offering, Chelsea Mansions, named for a residence block near one of the tourist highlights of London, the annual Chelsea Flower Show. Leaving the show, an American tourist is horrifically killed in what at first appears to be a random act of violence. When Brock and Kolla’s team investigate, they realize the killer has skillfully kept his face and his escape from the neighborhood from being captured on CCTV cameras mounted near the accident site. What appears to be a random act begins to feel like the planned, deliberate murder of Boston widow Nancy Haynes.

Before any resolution can occur, a wealthy Russian businessman is murdered in the garden across the street from Nancy’s hotel. Mikhail Moszynski’s lavish home encompasses the rest of the block where Nancy’s hotel is situated. As questions mount and the investigation heats up, Kathy becomes convinced the two killings are connected, just as Brock falls seriously ill and his survival is in question. With her professional life at stake, Kolla travels to Boston to explore Nancy’s background.

Maitland gets Boston just right and his subplots involving other characters showcase the author’s skill at devising a multi-layered story. He manages to coalesce threads concerning biological warfare, MI-5, a scurrilous MP we’ve met in a previous novel, Russian agents, and a Canadian university professor into a highly satisfactory conclusion which answers all the questions that have been raised, and all in a believable manner.

It is to Maitland’s credit that he started writing with the pairing up of a male-female protagonist team before it became fashionable. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Barry Maitland, Auntie M suggests you begin with the delightful series opener, The Marx Sisters, to follow the careers and private lives of the two detectives these eleven novels revolve around. But no matter in which order you read them, Barry Maitland’s novels, in the UK and Aussie idiom, go down a treat.

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