Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Two young women, tourists in Venice, are found severely wounded in front of a hospital one late night. Luckily, with the help of video surveillance they can quickly find out the two men who put them there. But which did they abandon them even though they first provided help? As commissario Brunetti investigates the case together with his colleague Claudia Griffoni, they happen to link one of the men to another crime of which the police only have a faint idea so far, but this might be their breakthrough.

Whenever I take up a Donna Leon novel on commissario Brunetti, I know what I will get: a crime story which is solved not by some miraculously appearing deus ex machina, but by meticulous police work combined with the protagonist’s clever instinct and the ability to read people and to actually listen to them. Apart from that, it is always like some kind of bookish holiday to travel to the Venetian Lagoon and to delve into its very unique atmosphere. The thirtieth instalment in the series does not disappoint in this respect.

Quite interestingly, the crime with which the novel opens is quite quickly solved and classified an accident and a series of unfortunate events and decisions. Yet, it is only the beginning of a real crime – a crime of the sort nobody wants to know about and people eagerly close their eyes on. This time, it is Brunetti’s colleague who stirs the investigation and the commissario not only gets to know her from an unknown side but also learns that Griffoni’s hometown of Naples could also be on another planet that different life works there.

A plot driven by interesting and strongly painted characters, just the sort of entertainment one knows Donna Leon to provide.

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Padma and Lalli, inseparable cousins and friends, were only 16 and 14 when they were killed. As their small village in Uttar Pradesh was rather underdeveloped in hygienic and housing terms, the girls needed to go to the nearby fields to relieve themselves. One night in 2014, they went missing and were found hanging in the orchard a couple of hours later. Rumours spread fast about what might have happened and who could be responsible for their deaths, however, even though national media became interested in the case, investigations took their time and the police only reluctantly tried to solve the case. Girls from lower classes have never been high priority and their death seemed to cause more nuisance than alarm.

“This negligence contributed to an epidemic of missing and exploited children, many of them trafficked within and outside the country.”

Sonia Faleiro’s book is a true crime account of how the girls’ lives might have looked like in their last hours, the immediate reaction of the families and villagers and also a lot of facts which help to understand the circumstances in which this crime could take place. The subheading “An Ordinary Killing” already gives away a lot: the murder of girls and women had become to ordinary in India that people didn’t bat an eyelid anymore. However, the events of 2012, when a student was violated in a bus, made worldwide headlines and stirred protests which finally made people aware of the hostile and misogynist climate they were living in.

“Although Delhi was notoriously unsafe, stories about sexual assault didn’t often make the news.”

There are a lot of factors which enabled the murder of Padma and Lalli, their status as girls, their belonging to an inferior class, the remoteness and backwardness of their village – many standards and rights we in the western world take for granted simply do not apply there. But it is not only the crime itself which is abhorrent, also the situation of the police – understaffed, ill-equipped, prone to bribery – and even more of the medical examiner – without any training, just doing the job because nobody else would do it with the logical result of a post-mortem which is simply absurd – are just incredible. What I found most interesting was actually not the girls’ story and the dynamics in the village afterwards but the background information. Sonia Faleiro convincingly integrates them into the narrative which thus becomes informative while being appealing to read. I’d rather call it a journalistic piece of work than  fiction and it is surely a noteworthy contribution to the global discussion on women’s rights.

Carissa Ann Lynch – Whisper Island

Carissa Ann Lynch – Whisper Island

Riley, Sammy, Mia and Scarlett are art students at Monroe and working on projects together when one day, Sammy suggests a trip to Whisper Island, Alaska, where they could spend their holidays for free and profit from its remoteness and special surroundings for their artwork. Even though the others are not too keen on spending summer in the cold north, they agree and see it as an adventure. When they are on their way, Sammy announces that her brother Rob would join them, not just does she thus destroy the girls trip, but especially Mia is angry, her best friend should know that after their breakup, the wounds that Rob had caused never really healed. When they finally arrive, it is not just Rob but also his new girlfriend Opal awaiting them in a run-down house. But not only their lodging is a disappointment, also their boat to travel to the next town is out of order and then their whole trip turns into a nightmare when they realise that they are obviously not alone on the island since a murderer is on the loose killing one after the other.

Carissa Ann Lynch has chosen a classic locked-room setting which strongly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. Even though the students are not total strangers, they evidently know much less from each other than they thought before their departure. The story is narrated alternatingly from the points of view of the characters thus providing insight in their hidden thoughts and offering the reader, on the hand, clues to what could be behind all this murdering but, on the other hand, also a lot of red herrings which keeps suspense high.

The present events on the island are surely the main focus of the plot, however, the girls’ past, the things they hide from the others – and astonishingly, each of them has quite a story to offer – are much more interesting to unravel. Sammy soon hints at the fact that she did not suggest the trip out of the blue but actually had a good reason to vanish from Memphis and so had her brother. Mia seems to have been in a scandal a couple of years ago which she hopes the others have never heard of but of which the anniversary is close and threatening to make the others a see side of her she prefers to keep hidden. Scarlett struggles with drug abuse and hopes to get sober in the weeks on the island. Riley is new to the group and she is also the one who is quite closed up not giving away too much form herself and her family, so, what does she have to hide?

I liked the atmosphere on the hardly welcoming island which immediately gives you the creeps and fits perfectly to the plot. Speculating about why the six might have been chosen as targets was great fun and finally was revealed and explained. An entertaining and fast-paced mystery following a classic structure.

Marie Benedict – The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict – The Mystery of Mrs Christie

An abandoned car brings the police to Styles, the famous residence of Agatha and Archibald Christie. The famous writer has gone missing after a fierce quarrel between the couple during breakfast. Archie does not seem concerned at all and he is astonishingly reluctant to cooperate with the investigators. For the detectives, his behaviour is highly suspicious and even more so when they uncover an affair he has had for quite some time and because of which he asked his wife for a divorce. Yet, all this information is not really helpful in determining the whereabouts of the grand dame of crime. This is one way the story can be told, but maybe there is also a completely different version.

“Then the phone rang, shattering my lonely vigil. When I picked it up, I nearly cried in relief to hear a familiar voice. But then the voice spoke. And in that moment, I knew that everything had changed.”

Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 is, due to broad media coverage, a well known fact. However, the mystery has never been really solved and the crime writer herself did not comment on what actually happened during the ten days of her absence. Marie Benedict, by whom I already totally adored the portrait of Hedy Lamarr in “The Only Woman in the Room”, fills this gap with a very clever story which especially enthused my due to the tone which perfectly copies the crime writer’s style.

The narration tells the events of two points in time alternatingly. The first recounts how Agatha and Archie met, their first years during WW1 and their quick marriage which is immediately followed by darker years stemming from Archie’s depressive and dark moods. The second point of time follows the events after her disappearance. The first is shown from Agatha’s point of view, the later gives more insight in Archie’s state of mind thus revealing a lot to the reader but at the same time, omitting very relevant pieces of information which keeps suspense at a high level.

Even though it is a mystery, it is also the story of a woman who wants her marriage to succeed, who is willing to put herself and her daughter second after her husband’s needs and who fights even though there is nothing to win anymore. However, she does not breakdown but emerges stronger and wiser since she used her cleverness and capacity of plotting to free herself of her marital chains.

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

Robert Cole – A Breeze Across the Aegean

After his wife’s death, Nicholas has lost the energy to live and fallen into a dark hole. When he takes a holiday on the Greek Island of Rhodes, the incredible happens. He meets a woman who immediately sparks something in him. They are on the ferry to Halki and agree to meet in the afternoon before taking the ferry back to Rhodes. Yet, Alessandra does not show up. Nicholas is disappointed but apparently, she did not feel the same as he did during their brief encounter. Back in England, he goes on with his life when one evening, he sees a report about a young woman gone missing – Alessandra. Could he have been the last person to see her alive? He contacts the police and the parents before he resolves to return to Greece and to have a look himself since no one seems to be really preoccupied. He cannot simply do nothing when the one person who brought back his will to live has gone missing. It does not take long for him to be sure that there is much more behind Alessandra’s disappearance than just a woman who decided to start a new life and cut all former strings.

Robert Cole’s debut novel is a mixture of suspenseful crime and interesting dive into ancient history. Nicholas’ search for Alessandra is strongly linked to the past of the Greek islands, old trade routes between Europe and the Middle East as well as modern trade – which is rather of the illegal kind. Stolen goods of inestimable value, belonging to the world heritage which in the turmoil of wars fall into the hands of shady businessmen. Some of the history is well known, a lot was also new to me and I found it wonderfully integrated into the thrilling search for the young archaeologist.

Strongest is certainly the atmosphere of the islands which offer such a long and great history which finds its place in the novel. Even though Nicholas is a bit naive at times and irresponsible at others, I found this characters quite charming to follow. He cleverly understands the evidence and draws the right conclusions leading step by step him closer to Alessandra and some very dangerous dubious men.

Not an absolutely thrilling psychological mystery, but rather an entertaining, yet nevertheless enthralling, trip into history.

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Jane is on the run, she hasn’t simply given up her old life, there are things which need to be forgotten und buried and never talked about. When she comes to Thornfield Estates, the McMansion area of Birmingham/Alabama, she sees a life which could hardly differ more from hers. Having grown up as a foster child, she has never known love and affection and surely not the riches she can observe in the families for whom she walks the dogs. One day, she meets Eddie Rochester who recently lost his wife Bea. They fall in love and suddenly, everything seems possible for Jane. Leading a carefree life, no worries about money anymore and a loving husband. But at times, she wonders if she sees something different, threatening in his eyes. Then, however, she remembers that she herself also has some secrets. Yet, there is a third person in that house also having secrets.

Rachel Hawkins does not hide that her novel is a modern version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. The names are identical and even parts of the characters’ biographies show large similarities, only small Adèle has been turned into a dog. The plot is not set among the British upper class but among the newly rich who are driven by greed, egoism and the conviction that they can have it all.

What I liked about this version of the classic plot is that Rachel Hawkins created some unexpected twists which keep suspense high and make you reassess the characters. You can never be totally sure about who is good and who is bad, actually, they are all some dark shade of grey. I would have liked the protagonist to be a bit more complex, Jane remains a bit plain and shallow throughout the novel for my liking even though the other characters repeatedly consider her rather clever and strong. On the other hand, everything around Bea was quite surprising and I actually adored the utterly malicious character.

An enjoyable read with a lot of Jane Eyre to be found and some new aspects which added to the suspense.

Sara Sligar – Take Me Apart

Sara Sligar – Take Me Apart

Journalist Kate flees New York and her job and hopes to have a new start in Callinas close to San Francisco where she is staying with her aunt while working as an archivist for Theo Brand. He is the son of the famous photographer Miranda Brand whose legacy has been stored unattended in their home for more than two decades. Even though Theo is quite reserved, Kate gets on well immediately with his kids Oscar and Jemima; the deeper she digs into Miranda’s work and story, the more fascinated she becomes. Spending hours daily at the Brand home ultimately also brings her closer to Theo and makes her challenge her luck: he explicitly prohibited her from accessing some parts of the home which he considered strictly private. Kate cannot resist and thus finds Miranda’s diary which sheds a completely new light on the artist and her mysterious death.

It only took me a couple of pages to be totally enthralled by the story. Sara Sligar’s debut is a clever combination of an extraordinary artist’s (fictitious) biography, a crime novel and also feminist psychological thriller. Miranda’s death is the central aspect which Kate investigates, but what I found much more interesting was, on the one hand, how Miranda’s relationship with her obsessive-aggressive husband develops and, on the other, how Kate, herself just having recovered from an episode of mental struggles, reacts to it and becomes increasingly fixated. A brilliant study of two female characters who try to cope with psychological issues and being misunderstood by the world around them.

“I must figure out how to be exactly the right level of insane.”

The crime part of the novel is not that obvious from the beginning, it develops slowly and is surely reinforced by Kate’s prying in Theo’s home. It does not seem to make sense why he hides important information from her while paying her to sort out his mother’s legacy. Their getting closer over the time, not surprisingly, makes things even more complicated.

Even though some serious topics are addressed, Sara Sligar keeps a light tone and works on suspense rather than having the novel turn into a too melodramatic story. Added to this, her characters are not just black or white but give an authentic representation of the complex layers of grey which exist when it comes to relationships, violence and mental issues.

William Boyle – City of Margins

William Boyle – City of Margins

New York in the 1990s isn’t an easy place to live. Several people’s paths cross but fate has decided not to grant them a lucky end. Ex-cop Donnie Parascandolo saves Ava Bifulco when her car breaks down. Ava’s grown-up son and teacher Nick wonders how his mother could so easily trust a stranger when he believed her still to mourn his father’s death. Donnie’s ex-wife, on the contrary, is still mourning since she didn’t get over the suicide of their son Gabe whose suicide note is found by another lost soul, Mikey, a college dropout without any plans or future. Unexpectedly, their lives are linked, yet not only by the encounters, but also by the blood that some of them have on their hands.

“City of Margins” is a perfectly pitched genre mix. On the one hand, Boyle meticulously studies and portrays the inhabitants of Brooklyn, a borough which could hardly have been in a worse state than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. On the other hand, it is a cleverly constructed crime novel which admittedly seems a bit outdated in its style but nevertheless is quite tempting. He creates a lively and gripping atmosphere which makes it easy to enter the plot.

The most fascinating was how Boyle links the different characters. Their stories are narrated alternatingly and only slowly is revealed what connects them. None of them has an easy life, nothing is granted, the need to fight every single day, but they know that this fight will not necessarily end in better times. There is a certain melancholy quite close to a depressive mood, but sometimes, this is just how the world works.

A great read with real depth in the character development.