|THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER
Calum MacLean is twenty-nine years old and lives alone in Glasgow. He is a killer for hire, a hit-man who takes jobs to suit his own schedule and which allow him to minimise the risk to himself. When he accepts a job from Peter Jamieson, he is accepting a more permanent position within the Jamieson organisation. The move has perks, but with it comes a certain loss of freedom. The job is a straightforward one: kill Lewis Winter, a drug dealer so far down the food chain from the Jamieson organisation that he shouldn’t even be on their radar. But Winter is moving into Jamieson’s territory, and looks to have potential backing from a bigger player.
With this simple premise, Malcolm Mackay sets the events of his debut novel in motion. While Calum is ostensibly the story’s central character, he spends a good portion of the novel in the shadows, as perhaps befits his chosen career. Mackay spends time introducing us to the victim and his nearest and dearest, as well as various factions within Glasgow’s criminal underworld, and members of the Strathclyde Police. The lines of moral distinction between these characters are deliberately blurred: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story; Calum may be a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a man doing his job, while the handful of police officers seem to have agendas of their own in carrying out their investigations. The reader is left to form their own impressions and decide for themselves where their sympathy lies.
Mackay’s narrative style is beautiful. Using a conversational tone – a “just between us” approach to telling the story – coupled with the telegraphic style of James Ellroy’s finest works (though perhaps a bit more passive than Ellroy’s abrasive style), he places us directly in the middle of the action and, to a certain extent, makes us accomplices to what is going on. Frequent use of the word “you” – in the general sense, rather than the jarring second-person approach – makes this an easy and engaging read. We’re given details grudgingly, as if they don’t really matter to the story – they often don’t, but they paint a picture, make the characters seem more human, give us something to identify with in a group of people who are, for the most part, people we wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.
Saturday afternoon, football on the radio in the background, sitting on the couch with a book. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham, if you must know, and he’s fascinated by it. It has lured his attention away from the radio; he doesn’t know what the score is any more. The older he gets, the less important that seems.
We’re lured quickly into a world where no-one talks straight, and where every question, every answer, every gesture has an implicit meaning that only members of this secret club can decipher. There’s a thrill to this for the reader, a sense that we are being given a glimpse behind the curtain, a brief look at a world that exists outside the boundaries of our normal experiences.
The clues are all there if you care to look for them. Perhaps you don’t care to; most people don’t. A casual conversation: two people who know each other on a first-name basis, without being too close. Friends who see each other on a weekly rather than daily basis. Friends who don’t care. Phone calls like that are made so often, so why care? It’s a job offer. A very definite offer of something long-term and lucrative.
The novel takes us through preparation, attempt and subsequent investigation, showing us the story from a number of different angles in the process. There is no mystery here for the reader as we, like the narrator, can see everything that is going on. But mystery was never the point; this is about the people, their relationships with each other, their interactions, their lies and half-truths. It is also the setup for a much larger story, the first part of Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy which is set to continue later this summer. If Mackay can maintain this momentum with the second and third parts of the trilogy, it stands to challenge Derek Raymond’s Factory series and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet as the benchmark for British noir fiction.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.
|TOMORROW, THE KILLING (LOW TOWN 2)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Earlier this year, I read, reviewed and fairly raved about Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, The Straight Razor Cure. Picking up three years after the events of that first book, Polansky’s second novel – and the second volume of the Low Town series – takes us back to Low Town, this time around in the grip of an unbearable heat wave. (The) Warden finds himself for the first time in over a decade in the home of General Edwin Montgomery. The general’s daughter, the headstrong Rhaine, has abandoned the family home and moved to Low Town in an attempt to find out what happened to her brother, the infamous Roland, whose death, she is convinced, was not the suicide that it appeared to be. Warden has a history with Roland, having served under him during the Dren War; it’s a history of respect and friendship, but there is also a darker side to the relationship, forged when their paths – and political ideologies – diverged following the end of the war. Driven by a sense of debt to the family, Warden locates the girl, and soon finds himself playing with a political time bomb that could explode at any moment.
All of the elements that made The Straight Razor Cure are once more in evidence here: the political, religious, racial hotpot that is Low Town and the gritty feel that makes it feel more real that many fantasy settings; the genre-bending plotline that makes this neither fantasy nor mystery, but some clever combination of the two; and Warden himself, in whose voice we hear the story. There are, of course, plenty of new characters around which Polansky has constructed his story; what’s unexpected, though, is the evolution of the city and the world – there are new areas in Low Town that we’ve never visited before, new organisations and gangs that we have never met. In choosing to introduce us to the place in bite-sized chunks, Polansky makes the place feel fluid, and ensures that the setting is unlikely to feel stale or uninteresting at any point in the near future.
Unlike The Straight Razor Cure, which takes a mostly linear approach to storytelling, Tomorrow, The Killing takes a slightly different approach. The narrative jumps around, sometimes recounting the events of here and now, sometimes events that occurred during the Dren War, and sometimes events that took place between the end of the war and the death of Roland Montgomery. The flashbacks serve to show us a new side of Warden while, at the same time, filling in some of the blanks in the history of this fascinating place. The trench war against the Dren has a First World War feeling to it, while the setup of the Veterans’ Association shows that the Crown and Black House are not as all-powerful as they might have appeared; there is a powerful political opposition force in place, and this provides the basis for the thrust of the story.
With an element of the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing (itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), we find Warden in the centre of a potential gang war and uprising. Pitting one side against the other, and using minor gangs to sow the seeds of distrust, awakening old enmities, Warden’s aim is no less than the downfall of one side or the other, all in the pursuit of the truth behind the death of Roland Montgomery. Warden has a credible “in” with both sides (Montgomery’s friend and a veteran himself, his approach to the Veterans’ Association is seen as a natural step, while his conversations with Black House are inevitable considering his history there) which gives the entire story a firm foundation and keeps things well inside the realms of possibility (all things considered). Polansky takes his time getting all the pieces into place, which makes the payoff all the more worthwhile.
There are a couple of niggles in continuity (like the fact that Warden is now often referred to as “The Warden”), but nothing major, and most explained away by the shifting nature of the world that Polansky is effectively constructing “on the fly”, adding places or historical events as and when they are needed. There is nothing here to detract from the story. Tomorrow, The Killing is, to a certain degree, a standalone novel – the Low Town novels are not part of a traditional fantasy series, but rather a series of stories held together by location and character. While chronological reading would be advised, there’s no reason Tomorrow, The Killing isn’t a good place to jump in for new readers. Polansky set the bar extremely high with his first novel, so it’s difficult to pick this one up with anything other than lowered expectations. This book is a slightly different beast and, while it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, it does bring enough to the table to make it a worthy successor and, most importantly, a worthwhile read.
With the same mix of fantasy and noir, and the added ingredient of playing one powerful side off against another, Tomorrow, The Killing succeeds in presenting a complete and engaging story while keeping the Low Town series on track as one of the best fantasy and/or crime series currently on the market. I, personally, am pleased to see the fantasy-lite cover gone, replaced by something a bit darker that will fit well in any section of a bookshop. Far from sophomore slump, Polansky builds on the success of his first novel, continuing the world-building as he goes: new areas of town, new characters, new political forces and histories, all of which combine to keep the reader interested in what’s going on, and wishing for more once it’s all over. Tomorrow, The Killing reads well as a standalone fantasy-crime-thriller, but readers who start with The Straight Razor Cure will, inevitably, come through with a much more rounded experience. Overall, it’s one not to be missed, regardless of your genre preferences.
|BED OF NAILS
Translated by Siân Reynolds
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
When his friend kills himself on stage in a seedy nightclub in Paris, John Nichols leaves the isolation of his camp in southern France’s Lot and heads to the country’s capital to identify the body. But something doesn’t quite feel right, and John finds himself investigating his friend’s final days in an attempt to find the truth. Inspector Richard Guérin, exiled to Suicides following a scandal two years previously, has found a thread linking together a dozen suicides over a period of two years. John’s friend may well be the latest in a long line of assisted suicides, and together these two men aim to prove it.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that Bed of Nails, Antonin Varenne’s third novel, is not your average piece of crime fiction. As the novel opens, two men are dead, though neither of them seem to have been murdered. The first has stripped naked and run, smiling, along one of the busiest roads in Paris until a head-on collision with a truck ends the frolic and the man’s life. The second, an American fakir, has bled to death on stage after suspending himself from a pair of hooks through his chest. There is nothing to suggest these deaths are suspicious, except in the minds of the story’s two protagonists.
The characters are the key to this story, and Varenne has injected each with enough life to leave the reader wanting more from them long beyond the end of their participation in this odd little tale. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, but the characters – and the story, for that matter – never seem stale. Guérin is the inward-looking obsessive policeman, his yellow mac as much a symbol of who he is as the badge he carries. His assistant, Lambert, is the stereotypical French policeman of a hundred films – tracksuits and indolence. The American, John Nichols, is an over-exaggerated Davy Crockett, while even the old men that patrol the streets of the village where he lives might have been plucked from a Stella Artois advertisement. Throw in a beautiful German artist who strips naked, covers herself in paint and throws herself at canvasses, and an old ex-convict who bears a striking resemblance to the late Edward Bunker, and you begin to get some sense of just what to expect.
This is part gritty police procedural, part tragicomic examination of modern life and the inventive ways – and associated motives – in which some people leave it behind. In Guérin, Varenne gives us the shell of a once-great man. A scandal two years earlier – the details of which we don’t learn until later in the book, in a revelation as grotesquely funny as it is shocking – has led to his removal to the wilds of Suicides. But his mind – the mind of one of the force’s greatest detectives – continues to work, and he quickly becomes obsessed with these suicides that he believes have had some outside assistance, to the point that the obsession has an adverse affect on his emotional stability and physical wellbeing. It is his driving desire to find the truth that carries the story along, and ultimately leads him to John Nichols and the death of the fakir. Here we find a more concrete story, involving Gulf War veterans and CIA cover-ups. The fakir’s suicide provides the perfect pivot around which these two seemingly unrelated cases revolve.
Bed of Nails is a beautifully-written novel and, even in translation, Varenne’s flourishes and narrative tricks shine through. There is the hint of a hard-boiled novelist here in some of the phrasing, and the staccato dialogue. Here, too, you will find a Paris that you are unlikely to find in the tourist guides – no Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysées; this is a Paris where tourists rarely stray. The City of Light and Love has a dark and seedy side, and it is here that we find Varenne’s assortment of freaks and misfits, and spend time in their company.
It’s an unconventional crime novel that nevertheless has the power to shock and entertain. A strong cast of characters and a dark sense of humour are the story’s strong points, and help to carry the reader through some of the more surreal aspects of the plot. Varenne has no trouble getting inside the heads of his protagonists, and has a talent for bringing his readers along for the ride. Bed of Nails is another winner from the consistently excellent MacLehose Press and, while Antonin Varenne may be something of an acquired taste, he’s definitely worth a try. If your tastes are remotely similar to mine, you’ll be counting down the months until his next novel.
Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.
A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.
Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.
It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.
You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.
The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.
Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.
|THE CHILD WHO
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Released: 5 January 2012
Earlier this year, in the inaugural post on Reader Dad, I noted that Simon Lelic, after only two novels, is an absolute must-read author. His third novel, the tense and ultimately heart-breaking The Child Who is released in January, and is, to my mind at least, his best work to date, and surely one of the top books of 2012.
Leo Curtice is a solicitor who spends his days dealing with drunk and disorderlies, an unchanging, soul-destroying routine that ends when he takes a phone call and finds himself defending a twelve-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, who has been accused of murdering a schoolmate, the eleven-year-old Felicity Forbes. Leo jumps at the chance, seeing it as a career-making move, ignoring the advice of everyone around him, not seeming to grasp the fact that the tabloids will paint him as a villain, a man willing to defend the murderer of a child. As the case proceeds, and Leo develops a rapport with the young boy, he fails to acknowledge the strain his actions are placing on his family. His daughter, Ellie, is attacked in school and quickly becomes an outcast, her friends deserting her because of what her father is doing. When Leo and his family are threatened, he tells himself it comes with the job, nothing to worry about. But Leo is heading towards disaster, an event that will change his life, and the lives of everyone around him.
As with Lelic’s previous two novels, the strength of The Child Who is in the characters, solid chunks of humanity that evoke real reactions from the reader. The story is told from the point of view of Leo, and it is through this means that Lelic builds suspense. There is no omniscient narrator here, despite the third person narrative, so we learn things as Leo does, and we only ever know what he knows. Each of the characters with whom he interacts – his wife and daughter, Daniel Blake and his parents, the head of the detention facility where Daniel is being kept, his colleagues, friends – comes fully-formed and in three dimensions, real people that we come to like, or to hate, or to meet briefly in passing, as we do during the day-to-day course of our own lives.
Lelic has his finger on the pulse of how Britain thinks, the tabloid mentality that grips the common man when these horrific events occur:
He goddamn nearly raped her. This is what they all kept coming back to, as though rape were as bad as it could get.
The second chapter of the book repeats the phrase “he goddamn nearly raped her” and the reader, like Leo, is stunned that this is almost bigger news than the fact that he killed her, as if the fact that this young boy took this young girl’s life is not enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the nation.
The Child Who deals with a shocking subject matter, and does so head-on. This is a story grabbed from so many newspaper headlines over the course of the past decade and beyond. Lelic adds a human element through an examination of the impact this terrible crime has on everyone involved: the family of the victim; the young murderer who cannot quite comprehend what he has done despite what the law says of his culpability, and his family; and, unusually, the family of the solicitor hired to defend this murderer, a man who will do everything he can for his client, because that is his job.
Lelic displays a keen mastery of language, his turns of phrase unusual, but immediately evocative, much more effective at planting images in the mind of the reader than verbose descriptive passages:
[…] pupils were beginning to appear in the playground below. There was a boy, alone, rummaging in his rucksack and weaving towards the entrance. In his wake whirled a gossip of girls.
Much like the guards tacked to the common room walls, the boys all wore smart shirts and trousers […]
The Child Who starts slow, the tension building as the story moves forwards and Leo loses himself in the case at the cost of his family relationships. When disaster strikes, it does not come as much of a surprise to the reader, because we have a little bit more distance than Leo. From there Lelic works his way towards the book’s final paragraph, a masterstroke that, I’m not ashamed to admit, brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, the most effective and impactful ending to a novel I have read in a long time.
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.
|KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.”
As Colin Cotterill’s latest novel – the first in a series featuring crime reporter Jimm Juree – opens, we find ourselves in rural southern Thailand as Old Mel and his able-bodied (if not -minded) assistant attempt to dig a well to irrigate the twenty palms that grow along the back fence of his property. In an attempt to shift a piece of metal that is blocking their way, the younger man finds himself falling into space and landing on what turns out to be the bed in a Volkswagen Kombi. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he discovers that the camper’s original inhabitants are still strapped into the front seats.
Enter Jimm Juree, once a top crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail, now living in a small resort hotel on the Gulf of Siam, against her wishes and better judgement. The move had been instigated by her mother, slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, who, without consulting the family, sold their property in the city and bought the aforementioned resort hotel in the somewhat backwards Maprao. Jimm latches onto the story, two decades-old dead bodies being better than no dead bodies, which is what she has seen in the eight months since her move. Befriending a number of the local constabulary, Jimm soon learns that a third murder has been committed, this one much more recent: an abbot at a local temple has been brutally stabbed to death, and Jimm takes it upon herself to help the local police investigate the crime.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog (or even if you have a brief scan through some of the titles I’ve reviewed), you’ll know that I like my crime fiction dark. So it was with some trepidation that I started in on latest offering from the man behind the Laos-set Dr Siri series. The book, like the region is which it is set, is somewhat slow and laid-back. Cotterill describes the area as having a “southern temperament”, and his description fits the story perfectly. It’s an intriguing set of mysteries, each with an unexpected resolution that will nonetheless leave the reader satisfied. To a certain extent, plot is secondary, and the beauty and strength of Killed at the Whim of a Hat lies in the offbeat characters that populate its pages, and the relationships that form between them as they become embroiled in the mysteries that surround them.
The chapters are headed by snippets of speeches given by George W. Bush, each containing one of the man’s trademark “Bushisms”. The quote at the top of this review is, as may be obvious, the source for the novel’s title. The reason for the quotes becomes obvious partway through the book, but they fit nicely with the sense of “oddness” that runs through the novel – there is something slightly skewed about this small chunk of land on the Gulf of Siam, not in any sinister way. Maybe it’s just that southern temperament again.
The book is frequently funny, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Take this exchange between Old Mel and his helper:
“There’s skeletons down here.”
“They animal bones boy?” he asked, just to humour the lad.
“No, Old Mel. They’re people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“One’s wearing a hat.”
Or this quote from the police, as contained in Jimm’s report:
“I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
While it won’t appeal to everyone, Killed at the Whim of a Hat is an engaging and entertaining novel. The humour, like the characters who are its source, is natural and unforced. There is enough of a plot to give the characters motivation, but when it comes down to the bit, this is a story about Jimm Juree, her family, and the friends she has made in her new home. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer for people who like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to which it’s likely to be favourably compared. For me, though, it has proved that the old saw about books and covers is still very true: it may not be as dark as I like, but there’s enough of an undercurrent, along with all of the book’s other strengths to make it a worthwhile read, and to make me want to come back for the second book, if only to see how quickly Cotterill can turn the Lang Suan region into the murder capital of the world.
|CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS
Aberdeen, 1631. Alexander Seaton, lecturer and regent of Marischal College, stumbles upon the dead body of his friend, the university’s librarian, and is asked by the principal to look into the man’s life with an eye to protecting the college’s interests. Convinced that his friend has been murdered because of something he knows – or something that he has found in one of the books recently gifted to the library – Seaton begins his investigation. As he digs, he uncovers links to alchemy, Rosicrucians and freemasons and, when a second man dies, Seaton discovers that he may not know his friends as well as he thought.
This is Scotland, post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment. Religion plays a huge part in peoples’ everyday lives and the beginnings of modern science are still a handful of decades away. MacLean’s sense of this period is impeccable; it should be: she has a PhD in history, specialising in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scotland. So we find people dabbling in alchemy in search of the Philosopher’s Stone and religious fanatics – the wonderful character of Matthew Jack – decrying their unnatural and godless practices.
Crucible of Secrets is Shona MacLean’s third novel, all of which feature Alexander Seaton. Seaton is a complex character with an eventful history – much of which seems to play out in the pages of the previous volumes in the series – and more than a touch of insecurity, especially where his relationship with his wife is concerned. The city of Aberdeen is vividly-imagined, and the division between college and city provides the perfect excuse for Seaton’s role of amateur sleuth. The novel starts slowly, despite a gruesome discovery in the first handful of pages, and doesn’t really find its stride until around the halfway mark. There is too much melodrama in the first half, too many instances of Seaton mooning over his wife’s infidelities, real or imagined. And while this plays an important part later in the story, it could have been trimmed down considerably without any loss of impact.
Once the story hits its stride, though, it becomes a hard book to fault, and any minor quibbles about the first half are quashed by admiration of a master plotter at the height of her game. In much the same way that the end of The Sixth Sense makes you question your ability to follow a simple plot and read all the signs that are in plain view, so will the denouement of Crucible of Secrets leave you in awe of MacLean’s ability to pull the wool over your eyes and keep you guessing until the very end.
MacLean’s novels have drawn favourable comparison with C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. On the strength of Crucible of Secrets it’s not difficult to see why. Expect a slow first half, but your patience will be well rewarded if you stick with it. It may be worth reading the previous books in the series before starting on this one, but the book works as an excellent standalone novel should you wish to start here – there is enough backstory included on the characters that you won’t be lost by anything that is said or done (I can personally vouch for this, as Crucible of Secrets is the first of MacLean’s books that I have read). If you like historical fiction in the vein of Sansom or Eco, or if you like a good, challenging mystery, then this is definitely the book for you.