Fiona Leitch – A Cornish Christmas Murder

Fiona Leitch – A Cornish Christmas Murder

Jodie Parker and her catering team – consisting of her 13-year-old daughter Daisy, her mother and her right hand Debbie – have taken over a job at short notice at Bodmin Moor, an old abbey about to be turned into a guest house. Millionaire Isaac is hosting a Christmas party for kids with a Santa and all it needs to have a great event. The food is great and they all have a wonderful day. Yet, when they want to leave in the evening, it turns out that due to heavy snow fall, all roads are blocked. Thus, Jodie and her team, Isaac with his assistant and his son as well as Santa Steve have to stay overnight. Two knocks on the door bring more stranded people: a group of four Japanese women and a mysterious couple. They make the best of the situation, but when a dead body is discovered the next morning, they realise that a murderer must be among them.

I hadn’t noticed that “A Cornish Christmas Murder” is the fourth in Fiona Leitch series about the nosey ex member of the Met Police Jodie Parker. Yet, the cosy crime novel offers enough about her backstory to simply enjoy the case at hand. It is a classic setting with a group of strangers gathering in an isolated place where no mysterious intruder could have entered secretly to commit the deed. Thus, you know soon that one of the lovely bunch must be the culprit, only the questions of how and why remain of which the search for an answer is entertaining to follow.

It was especially that Agatha Christie-esque setting that drew me to the novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Christmas time is a jolly period which makes people especially unaware of the dark sides of the world. Despite the unwanted stay at the mansion, the night guests explore the premises and make the best of it. And the house has to offer some secret passages which open room for speculation about past times – and present times, too. Some late-comers about whom we do not learn too much add suspense to the circle of suspects.

The protagonist is a very likable down-to-earth woman – with quite a clever daughter – whom I liked immediately. The case offers some mysteries which are not too obvious to untangle but find a convincing end. A charming and diverting read perfect for the Christmas season.

Julia Dahl – The Missing Hours

When Claudia wakes up, she cannot remember the past hours. When she looks in the mirror, she hardly can recognise the girl she sees. Obviously, something really bad has happened, her body can tell it, she, however, does not know what it is. She is afraid that somebody at her dorm might see her in that state, luckily it is spring break and most of her fellow students at NYU are gone, just one boy seems to be there. When Trevor sees her, he knows that the girl needs help, yet, the girl is Claudia Castro, super rich and an Instagram famous artist. But that doesn’t count, when somebody is in need, you help. And that’s what Trevor does – not knowing in what a mess all this is going to end.

“The Missing Hours” is a dark novel about the one of the nastiest crimes imaginable. Julia Dahl opens the plot with the big question about what might have happened, once this is answered, the next question follows: why? But then it becomes much more interesting to observe what the experience does to Claudia. She has been assaulted, that much is obvious, and quite often, there are only two options: either the victim withdraws completely blaming herself for what has been done to her or she fights her assailant. The author interestingly chooses to go both ways turning the novel into an intense and gripping read.

The plot is mainly driven by emotion – (unrequited) love, hatred, vindictiveness, but also despair and loneliness. The characters go through challenging times and emotions that they are unable to control, too young and unexperienced they make choices which turn out to be totally wrong, but in their state of being blinded by their feelings, the cannot respond in any other way. It is easy to understand what they do and why they do it, even if you know that nothing good can come from it.

On the other hand, the novel also raises the question about who is there when you are in need. Quite normally, it should be your family, but things are complicated with Claudia’s parents and her sister is about to give birth and surely has other things to care about. Sometimes a stranger can be your saviour, not being too close might be the best for a complicated situation.

What I really liked about the novel is how the protagonist’s conflicting thoughts are conveyed. She feels ashamed, blamed herself, is worried about what might people think of her even though she obviously is the victim. She is educated, knows exactly what to do in such a case and yet, decides not to do what is recommended. As a reader, you can see why she acts in that way and is nevertheless struggling with her choice.

A fast paced thriller which has a lot more depth than one might have expected.

Claire McGowan – I Know You

Claire McGowan – I Know You

When teenager Casey Adams leaves for Los Angeles, she hopes that her job as a nanny with a Hollywood film maker will be the first step in a career. Yet, David is hardly at home and his wife Abby is not only frustrated as she does not get any acting offers anymore but also totally unable to cope with her two kids, 5-year-old Madison and baby Carson. All is left to Casey who herself struggles with the tasks being young and unexperienced with kids. Things develop in the worst imaginable way ending in a family drama. Twenty years later in England, Rachel finds herself accused of the murder of her boy-friend’s wife. All evidence is against her, why did she run when she accidentally stumbled over the body in the woods and not call the police? Rachel has a reason to stay away from murder as she knows how death row feels.

Claire McGowan has created another highly suspenseful and complex psychological thriller. Casey’s and Rachel’s story alternate, it only takes a couple of pages to realise how they are linked and why the two plot lines are connected over such a long time and two quite unalike places. Both murder cases are interesting to follow even though they could hardly be more different and the fact that there is a common ground gives it a little extra of suspense.

It is easy to comprehend Casey’s feeling of exhaustion as she is not really prepared for her job as a nanny. Working for a glamorous family sounded great only on paper, reality hits her hard, but she has a good heart and tries to do what is best for the kids. It takes some time for her to understand the underlying mechanics of the family, that David and Abby’s relationship is going down the plughole and that all she can do is make sure the kids are all right. Until they aren’t anymore. Being accused of multiple murder, nobody wants to believe her, that is the hardest part of the story because you can easily empathise with her despair in telling them about her innocence without being heard. Yet, there are some gaps in her story and the question is looming if she can actually be believed.

Rachel on the other hand, is a lot stronger but nevertheless also a prime suspect whom everybody turns their back to when the police start to question her. She is also alone and tries to prove her innocence. It is obvious that somebody tries to frame her, the big question is just: who would want to do such a thing and why?

A great read that I totally adored. Two wonderful protagonists who are multifaceted in their character traits and a suspenseful plot which brilliantly links the two stories.

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.  

With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.

“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.

The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Ballet has always been the world of sisters Dara and Marie. Their glamourous mother, a former ballet soloist, had kept them close and after the parents’ death, they have taken over the Durant School of Dance together with Dara’s husband Charlie who had become a family member as a boy. When a fire destroys one of their studios amidst the preparations of their biggest annual event, the performance of “The Nutcracker”, they hire Derek, a seemingly highly skilled contractor, to have everything restored as quickly as possible. Yet, they do not have the least idea of whom they let into their studio and lives. The fire was just the beginning of a series of dreadful events which will change their lives forever.

“No one wanted to face the truth. That every family was a hothouse, a swamp. Its own atmosphere, its own rules. Its own laws and gods. There would never be any understanding from the outside. There couldn’t be.”

Megan Abbott is a master of foreshadowing and again has created unique characters who reveal their full potential slowly throughout the novel. The title – “The Turnout” – is quite ambiguous but perfectly fits in several respects. A turnout is a demanding move in ballet and that’s what the sisters expects from their élèves. Secondly, it is also the moment where you are confronted with different directions and have to decide for one. Thirdly, it is a clearing out, an act of cleaning what has been spoilt. All three can be found in the novel. The preparation for the ballet performance is at the centre when the sisters get into a deep conflict in which they decide for different roads and, in the end, the initial state is restored and all disruptive factors are cleared. At least they might think so.

The novel moves at a rather slow pace but this adds the creepy atmosphere which makes the plot quite authentic. The threat does not come in in an obvious way, it is sneaking into their lives with a friendly and smiling face like a predator who observes his prey, gets closer and tenaciously waits for the perfect moment to attack.

It is also a novel about family structures and sisterly bonds. Quite obviously, their mother’s way of keeping the girls away from other children, of treating them in a special – or rather: strange – way to form them according to her own ideals cannot be healthy. Dara and Marie become like two sides of one coin, an inseparable unit which even cannot be divided by Charlie who integrates into their union. No wonder, at a certain point in life, such a bond is threatened and the lack of experience with people makes them even more vulnerable than others might have been.

From a psychological point of view, an outstanding novel which is also full of spine-chilling suspense.

Daniel Silva – The Cellist

Daniel Silva – The Cellist

A poisoned Russian dissident, an investigative journalist on the run and a non-descript German banker. Linking these three is not easy for Gabriel Allon but he will most certainly not just watch when one of his friends who once saved his life is killed with Novichok. The traces soon lead to Isabel Brenner who works at RhineBank in Zurich, the world’s dirtiest bank. Apart from calculating risks and laundering money, she also plays the cello like a professional. Deceived by her misogynist co-workers, she starts to leak information about the “Russian Laundromat”, the bank’s way of cleaning Russian oligarchs’ rubles. It does not take long for her to be convinced to work with Gabriel Allon to bring the bank and the Russians to fall. Their main target is Arkady Akimov but he himself is actually only a small figure, it is somebody much bigger and much more influential who is behind the Russian money.

In the twenty-first novel of the series about the legendary Israeli spy and art restorer turned into director-general of the world famous intelligence service, Daniel Silva focusses on another current topic: the political influence which money can buy, especially money which was acquired illegally and washed through layers of fake firms by banks which are only too willing to profit. The author also managed to incorporate the Covid restrictions as well as the challenges to the American democracy that we have witnessed in January 2021 making it highly topical.

The cellist is a remarkable character, on the one hand, she is a highly intelligent cool mathematician who knows how to juggle with numbers and money. On the other hand, as a woman, she experiences the misogynist behaviour of her colleagues in a dominantly male business and despite her skills is prevented from unfolding her full potential. She finds solace in music, the cello she can play on her own and the impact the tone has on her own mood but also on others is amazing.

The Russians are an old but nevertheless still interesting topic in spy novels. It is not the cold war scenario of piling up destructive weapons anymore, the war between the systems is fought a lot more subtly today. Nerve agents like Novichok have become broad knowledge and the fact that money makes the world go round is also well-known. Having the financial means leads to the necessary power to rule the world, regardless of democratic systems and boundaries which only seem to exist on paper.

Silva proves again that he is a masterful storyteller. He brilliantly interweaves different plot lines to create a high paced and suspenseful novel. Still after so many instalments, one does not get exhausted by the protagonist since the author always finds a completely new story to tell.

Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

The narrator leaves busy New York after her father’s death for The Hague where she is to work as an interpreter at the International Court of Justice. She befriends Jana whom she had already met in London and who has moved to the Netherlands only a short time before her and who has already made the city her home. She cannot talk about her job outside the Court, not even with Adriaan, her kind of boyfriend who is still married to another woman. Unexpectedly, two major events come together, Adriaan needs to leave for a couple of days which soon turn into weeks and the interpreter is required in a high profile case: a former president of an unnamed African state is accused of crimes against humanity and she is to become the first interpreter. She does not only meet him in court but also when he confines with his lawyers where she sits close to him and can feel the impact and power the charismatic man can have on people. As the weeks go by, she struggles more and more, not only with her absent partner but also with how close she gets to a man who can only be considered a monster.

Katie Kitamura’s novel “Intimacies” invites the reader into the thoughts of an interpreter who knows that the slightest mistake in her translation can have severe consequences. It also highlights the position of a job which is often overlooked but crucial in many ways and where people are forced to retreat behind words which is easier said than done. At times she feels depersonalised, like an instrument, but for the accused, she is the first person of communication.

Many questions are raised throughout the plot, first, the question about belonging. The narrator does not have a place she can really call home. A cosmopolite speaking several languages and having lived in diverse countries, she does not know which place she could actually associate with a feeling of home. Her apartment in The Hague perfectly reflects this: she has rented a furnished place which she never managed to give a personal note.

More importantly, however, is the place of the interpreter. Nobody prepares them for what they are going to hear at the court. The lawyers remain cool when being confronted with atrocious crimes, the interpreters react in much more humane way which can be heard in their voice immediately but which is considered unprofessional. Being often close to the accused over months, they form a very peculiar bond which makes them separate the deeds from the defendants.  

A wonderfully written homage to language and its force, even though there are a lot of things which remain unsaid in the novel.

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels:  Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.

“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”

Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.

The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.

A classic whodunnit I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Lucy Harper has achieved what many writers dream of: her detective novels about Eliza Grey have become highly successful and she built up a huge fan base. Her husband Dan supports her and takes care of their finances and everyday life. When he, without asking her first, decides to buy a house, she gets angry, even more so when she learns where exactly the house is located: close to where she grew up, next to the woods where her younger brother once disappeared and which she connects with her most dreadful nightmares. How could he do something like this, knowing about her childhood? Quite obviously, he is gaslighting her – that’s what Eliza tells her. Eliza, not only the protagonist of her novels but also the voice that has been in her head as long as she can remember. What has been useful for her writing now becomes complicated when Lucy struggles to distinguish between what is real, what is fiction and what is only in her head and when her husband is found murdered, the writer finds herself the main suspect of a story just like her novels.

I have several of Gilly Macmillan’s novels, always liking how she plays with the reader’s sympathies for the characters and the unexpected twists which keep suspense high. “To Tell You the Truth” is also masterfully crafted in terms of being vague and keeping you in the dark about what is real within fiction and what is only imagined by Lucy. Just like the protagonist, it takes a long time to figure out where the actual threat comes from, many different leads offer options for speculation which makes reading totally enjoyable.

Having a crime writer who finds herself suddenly suspect in a crime in which the police use her own writing against her, is a setting which has been used before. Yet, Gilly Macmillan added a lot of aspects to make the case much more complicated. On the one hand, the voice in Lucy’s head is quite strong and surely a negative character whom you shouldn’t trust. Again and again, Lucy also seems to suffer from blackouts thus opening the possibility of actions she simply cannot recollect and which therefore remain blank spaces also for the reader. The backstory of her vanished brother and the big question looming over all if she herself might be responsible for his likely death – maybe even willingly – also add to the unpleasant feeling that she might not be a victim in this story at all.

Her husband, too, raises many questions. He is, quite obviously, envious of his wife’s success since he also dreams of a career in writing but lacks talent. The bits and pieces of information one gets directly lead to the assumption of him gaslighting her. However, the possibility of Lucy getting it all wrong due to her hallucinations and the Eliza-voice is also in the air.

A creepy thriller which keeps you alert at all times. Even though I found the end a bit too simply for the plot, a fantastic read I totally enjoyed.