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.

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.

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Kristina is waiting to die, finally. She does not live anymore, she has been murdered and dismembered in the woods outside Stockholm, but she only really dies forever when her name will be spoken for the last time. So she floats in between the world and eternity, sees how her parents bury what has been found of her. She also visits her kids in their dreams, kids for whom she so hard wanted to be a good mother but unfortunately couldn’t be. Her life with Shane has always been a struggle and she somehow has always known that growing old wasn’t meant for her.

Sara Stridsberg’s novel is – despite the cruelty of the topic – wonderfully written and a poetic masterpiece. It opens with a description of what Kristina feels last, how she perceives nature during her last minutes when she is to become a part of the lake and the earth. It is also the story of a drug addict, a young woman who comes from a struggling family and does not find herself a place in the world and quickly relies on diverse substances to help her forget the darkness she finds outside and inside herself. It is a life lost, a life which could have become so much but didn’t.

It is heart-breaking to read the young woman’s account. How casually she tells the reader that at first, nobody misses her, neither her mother, nor her father who hasn’t seen her for years, nor her children. Yet, the later live a new life and her daughter might hardly remember her, too early in her life was she taken away and put into a foster family. Yet, this was the best Kristina could do for her, at least once in her life she did something right despite the feeling of loss.

When she was pregnant, she wanted to get clean, to be a good mother, to care for Valle and Solveig. However, the craving was always too strong, harshness of life always brought her back to the drugs. She feels ashamed for not having been able to care for the kids. But she has always lived in the darkness and the rare rays of light couldn’t lead her to another life.

A life not lived and yet, as humans, we are just a blink in eternity. In 2019, “The Antarctica of Love” was awarded Sveriges Radios Romanpris, a Swedish literary prize for the best novel of the year. It wasn’t the first time Stridsberg’s work was highly appreciated. She uses language in a unique way which does not only touch you profoundly but goes deep down into you and reaches you at your core having the novel make a deep impression that stings.

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Mrs March leads the classic life of a New York upper class housewife and mother. Her husband George is a successful writer whose latest novel has catapulted him to the top of the bestseller list. Mrs March was raised to this life, from her childhood on, she has learnt how to behave in society and how to present herself and her family in an adequate way. Yet, her whole life has somehow become only a scenery of a life and she has lost herself. When a young woman’s body is found, she is intrigued and soon she finds more and more evidence that her husband’s inspiration might not just come out of himself and his imagination but might actually stem from actual experience. Is she sharing her bed with a murderer?

Virginia Feito’s debut novel “Mrs March” is an intense psychological study of a woman who has lost connection to reality and is gradually plummeting into an abyss. Brilliantly the author shows how a strongly self-controlled character more and more loses power over her life and in the end can hardly distinguish between what is real and what is only imagined.

It is quite clever how the protagonist is presented to the reader, she is only ever referred to as “Mrs March” thus defined by her status as a married woman and without a first name. She is not given anything that she brings into the marriage from her childhood. From her flashbacks you learn that her parents treated her rather coolly and that she has always felt like not doing anything right, not being the daughter they had hoped for, not fulfilling the expectations, until, finally, they can hand her over to her husband. The only persons she could bond with was her – rather malicious – imagined friend Kiki and a household help, yet, she couldn’t cope with positive feelings since this concept was totally alien to her.

Behind the facade of the impeccable woman is a troubled mind. First, it is just the assumption that people talk behind her back, compare her to her husband’s latest novel’s protagonist – not very flattering since this is a prostitute who is paid out of pity instead of for good service rendered – then she sees cockroaches and finds more and more signs which link George with the murder of the young woman the whole country is talking about. From her point of view, it a fits together perfectly, but she does not see how she herself increasingly fractures. Most of the plot happens behind closed doors, she does not have friends or family she is close to, thus, there is nobody to help her.

As readers, we know exactly where she is headed to and then, Virginia Feito confronts us with an unexpected twist which lets you reassess what you have just read. The distinction between reality and paranoia sometimes isn’t that clear at all.

A wonderfully written, suspenseful kind of gothic novel set in New York’s upper class whose signs of class affiliation are repeatedly mocked while also showing that not all is well just because you live in a posh apartment and can wear expensive clothes.

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

The disappearance of a famous blogger does not seem to be a too interesting case for Jessica Niemi and her team of Helsinki police. After a big music business event, she did not come home and has since vanished into thin air. Her roommate also cannot contribute anything to Lisa Yamamoto’s whereabouts. When the body of a Ukrainian prostitute in Manga clothing is washed ashore, the investigators do not link the two events immediately, but, bit by bit, they untangle the complex web and soon find themselves confronted with a network of ill doings which goes far beyond the city limits. While working on the most challenging case of her career, Jessica is still mourning the loss of her former boss and friend while Erne’s successor openly hates and threatens to expose her, thus destroying her carefully constructed life.

Already in the first case for Jessica Niemi, Max Seeck masterfully crafted a highly complex plot which was great to follow as a reader. “The Ice Coven”, too, seems to be not too mystifying at the beginning but then it slowly unfolds its whole potential and turns into a high-paced thriller. The short chapters add to the suspense which rises and only climaxes at the very end even though long before you were fooled to believe you know what is going on.

Apart from the crime story, the book’s most outstanding element is the protagonist. Being familiar with the first instalment, you already know her backstory, the things she hides from her colleagues and the demons that haunt her. Still, there are some white spaces to be discovered in further stories which I am eagerly looking for.

A multi-layered thriller which is hard to put down once you started.

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.

Martin Walker – The Shooting at Château Rock

Martin Walker – The Shooting at Château Rock

The death of an old sheep farmer does not seem too suspicious, he was suffering from heart problems and scheduled for getting a pacemaker. Yet, when his son and daughter find out that they have been disinherited and that their father had planned to move into a luxurious retirement home, this raises questions. Even more so when neither the insurance nor the notaire responsible for the contract can be gotten hold of. While Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police of St. Denis, investigates, he also enjoys the Dordogne summer and especially the time with his friends, amongst them former musician Rod Macrae who lives in an old nearby castle and is waiting for his children to spend some time there. Bruno is fond of the two now grown-ups and quite surprised when gets to know Jamie’s girl-friend: Galina Stichkin, daughter of a superrich oligarch and close friend of the Russian president.

The 15th case for the amiable French policeman again offers the pleasant atmosphere of the southern French countryside with a lot of talk about the historical heritage of the region and even more about the local food and the best way to enjoy it. What starts with a suspicious case of foul play and thus seems to be quite in line with the former novels, quickly, however, turns into a highly political plot covering debatable recent affairs and bringing the big political picture to the small community. Therefore, “The Shooting at Château Rock” isn’t just a charming cosy crime novel but rather a complex political mystery.

There are several reasons why one can adore the Bruno, Chief of Police series. On the one hand, you will be never disappointed when you like to delve into the French cuisine and learn something new about the Dordogne regions rich nature and food. On the other hand, this is surely not the place for fast-paced action with a lot of shootings and deaths. The plots centre around the people and some very basic motives for their deeds – as expected, all to be uncovered by Bruno.

What I liked most this time was how Walker combined a petty crime – if one can call a cold-blooded murder a petty crime – with the global organised crime which operates in the financial sector just as in politics and is long beyond being controlled by official security agencies. He convincingly integrates real life events which shook the public and will ever remain notes in the history books of where mankind simply failed to protect civilians from underground forces with their very own agenda.

Another perfect read for some summer escape to the French countryside.

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb 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.

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.