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Whodunit

A TAP ON THE WINDOW by Linwood Barclay

A TAP ON THE WINDOW - Linwood Barclay A TAP ON THE WINDOW

Linwood Barclay (linwoodbarclay.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

Heading home from an out-of-town job on a wet and miserable night, Cal Weaver stops at a red light close to Griffon, New York’s local hangout spot. When a teenage girl taps on his window and asks for a lift, Cal knows it’s the height of stupidity, but the fact that the girl recognises him as "Scott’s father" causes him to renege. In the darkness, he can’t see much, but he does notice the scratch on the back of her left hand. Claiming to feel ill, the girl asks Cal to pull into the nearby fast food restaurant. When she gets back into the car, the scratch is gone, the original girl replaced by someone new. When one of the girls turns up dead, and the other is reported missing, Cal finds himself dead centre of the police investigation. But there is more going on here than the disappearance of a teenage girl, secrets and political enmities that define the small town of Griffon and which, if he follows the trail, may lead Cal to some understanding of how his own son died eight months earlier.

Linwood Barclay recently described the first chapter of his novels as a hook designed to draw the reader into the story. In the case of A Tap on the Window, this is certainly very true: we’re as intrigued by this switch as Cal Weaver is, and the book quickly becomes that old cliché of reviews of thriller novels: unputdownable. Far from a cliché itself, though, the story is original and engaging, drawing the reader ever onwards, increasing the sense of mystery and tension in tandem, notch by notch, as we progress through the chapters.

Told from the point of view of Cal, a private detective and ex-policeman, we see the town of Griffon as he does: as an outsider who, despite having lived here for six years, still doesn’t have the full measure of the town. There is a Stepford or Midwich feel to the town, a certain quality that sets it apart from the rest of small-town America: the police force seem to be a law unto themselves, beating out-of-towners or young troublemakers rather than going to the trouble of processing them through official channels, sexually assaulting young women in the guise of searching them for illegal substances. The town’s mayor is a lone voice in condemning this approach, the vast majority of the townspeople happy to have a peaceful town, unaffected by the sort of trouble that plagues the city of Buffalo, a mere twenty miles distant. It’s this setup, a large group of otherwise seemingly normal people who live in fear of the big bad world bursting their tiny little bubble of peace and harmony, that makes the setting feel slightly odd and gives the reader the uncomfortable sense that what’s going on may not conform to our usual expectations.

Cal is an unwilling participant in the events of the novel, drawn into the mystery through sheer bad luck, and a nagging need to see the mystery through to the end. He’s a man with baggage: his teenage son threw himself from the top of a four storey building while high on Ecstasy eight months prior to the story’s opening, and it’s a burden that still weighs heavily on Cal’s mind, affecting his relationship with his wife, and also with the people in town who knew his son prior to his death. Cal has a short temper, which frequently leads him to trouble, and while the reader never suspects for a minute that Cal could have been involved in the death of the second young girl, it’s obvious to see why the police might view him as a suspect, under the circumstances. In some ways, this defect makes Cal more real for the reader, and certainly more human than his fellow Griffoners.

Barclay carefully has carefully constructed his plot, and his characters, to keep the reader in the dark as much as possible. It is impossible to know who to trust, and who to suspect, all helped by the first person point of view that removes any outside influence for the reader. When the revelations come, and they come thick and fast as the book approaches its climax, they are surprising and, best of all, satisfying. Barclay doesn’t make life easy for his central character, though, so expect to be shocked. It’s a wonderfully-written novel, a very literate thriller that manages to move at a cracking pace without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade: short chapters filled with short sentences, or screenplays barely re-written in prose form. Barclay has an ear for the language used in northern New York state and, as a result, the dialogue flows with ease, worthy, perhaps, of comparison to the dialogue of the late, great Elmore Leonard.

The perfect hook to get the reader interested in the first place, and enough substance to keep them turning pages once the scene has been set, Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, A Tap on the Window, is a masterclass in thriller writing. Intelligent, witty, exciting and with a touch of oddity that serves to set it apart from others in the genre, this is crime-fiction escapism at its finest. It’s my first experience with Mr Barclay; it certainly won’t be my last.

PATH OF NEEDLES by Alison Littlewood

45851_Path_of_Needles_PBO.indd PATH OF NEEDLES

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£7.99

PC Cate Corbin is one of the first officers on the scene when the body of a young girl is discovered in rural West Yorkshire. Seeing something familiar in the way the body has been posed – the gown, mirror, partially-eaten apple – Cate is immediately reminded of the tale of Snow White. Her insight earns her a place on the investigation, and she brings Alice Hyland, an expert on fairy tales, on board as a consultant. When a second body is found, this one bearing the more obvious cape of Little Red Riding Hood, it becomes clear that Cate’s instincts were right. Both scenes contain elements found in obscure variants of the well-known tales and suspicion immediately falls on Alice.

Following last year’s stunning debut, A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood moves into the realms of straight police procedural with her second novel, Path of Needles. It’s a surprising move, and I will admit to being slightly dubious through the early sections of the book. But, as with its predecessor, there is a pervasive sense of creepiness that sets it apart, makes it difficult to slot into one genre pigeonhole or another.

At the centre of the story are Cate Corbin and Alice Hyland, two very different women who form an instant friendship upon meeting. Alice has been visited by a strange blue bird that she believes is, in some way, related to the deaths that she has been called upon to help with. Cate, at first a staunch defender of the other woman, soon begins to call her own judgement into question as she grows more suspicious of Alice’s motives, ultimately viewing her as a prime suspect as the fairy tale references grow ever more obscure with each body found. The novel’s strength lies in the characterisation of these two women: on the one hand, the ditzy, mysterious Alice, whose actions make her a suspect in the mind of the reader from the outset; on the other Cate, insecure and fickle, her relationship with Alice driven, in large part, by her relationship with her boss, and her constant need to impress him.

The fairy tale references, the strange blue bird that turns up from time to time – and plays an important part in the novel’s denouement – and the rural, wooded setting all combine to give the reader a sense of unease, a lurking dread that there might be more to this than a series of related murders, something sinister waiting in the wings. This is what I want from an Alison Littlewood novel and Path of Needles delivers in spades. It’s where she excels, those elements of quiet horror that insinuate their way into the mind of the reader to unsettle and unnerve. Littlewood uses the West Yorkshire countryside to her advantage, and the deeply embedded sense of place that comes as part and parcel of the story is as important as the characters who drive the story along.

At first mildly disappointing (“ugh, another police procedural; where’s the horror?”), Path of Needles quickly sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill police drama. Very different to A Cold Season, it does share some of the themes and elements from the earlier novel: strong central female characters and the beauty of rural England being the two most obvious. The disappointment disappears quickly enough, as we find ourselves sucked into the mystery. Legitimate suspects abound, including Alice herself, and Littlewood does a fine job of keeping the reader on their toes until the surprising final revelation.

Alison Littlewood’s second novel serves to cement her position as one of Britain’s finest living horror authors, while proving that she can also turn her hand to a credible whodunit. Well-researched and impeccably-plotted, Path of Needles will keep you turning pages long after bedtime while making you wish you’d stuck to daylight hours. If you like your fiction dark and uncomfortable, then this is definitely one for you. I can’t recommend book or author highly enough.

THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz

HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz THE HOUSE OF SILK

Anthony Horowitz (anthonyhorowitz.com)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 1st November

Anthony Horowitz is, perhaps, best known by a certain generation of young boys as the man behind the popular Alex Rider series of books. It is, I think, less well-known that he is also the man behind some of the most popular mystery dramas currently on British television: Midsomer Murders, Poirot and Foyle’s War are amongst his creations. Young boys of a different generation (namely my own, and it is here that I start to show my age) know him better for an altogether different series of books: those featuring the Diamond Brothers, beginning with his 1986 novel, The Falcon’s Malteser. With The House of Silk, Horowitz makes his first (and hopefully not his last) foray into the world of probably the most iconic detective of them all: Sherlock Holmes.

When Dr John Watson’s wife takes a break to spend some time with a previous employer – and now good friend – outside London, he decides to move in with his old friend Sherlock Holmes for the duration. Whilst there, the men receive a visit from Edmund Carstairs, an art dealer from Wimbledon who spins a tale of train robberies, destroyed artworks, and a gang of flat-cap-wearing Irishmen operating out of Boston. He is afraid for his life, he tells Holmes, because a man wearing a flat cap has started standing outside his home, following him on evenings out; this man is, he believes, the sole surviving member of the Boston gang who has come to London to exact revenge on Carstairs for his involvement in the demise of his gang.

Holmes, intrigued, takes on the case, and visits Carstairs’ home. Within hours the man in the flat cap has burgled the house and fled to a small hotel in Bermondsey, where Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars track him down. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, they find one of the Irregulars – a young boy called Ross – acting somewhat erratically. Inside the hotel, they find the man in the flat cap stabbed to death, and Holmes explains away Ross’s behaviour as being related. When the boy’s badly-beaten body turns up days later, Holmes and Watson find that things have taken a much more sinister turn, and that the mysterious House of Silk lies behind everything.

As is traditional, the story is narrated by the ever-faithful Dr Watson, now an old and infirm man who has outlived his best friend by several years. Bookended by brief notes from this elderly Watson, we are given explanation for why this story has never been told before. As is also traditional, the story opens with a lesson, by Holmes, in ratiocination and deductive reasoning, as he divines the reason for Watson’s visit based on a handful of seemingly innocuous clues.

I should mention at this point that I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years. Like, I suspect, many people of my generation, the abiding image I have of the man – and therefore the benchmark against which I compare all other Holmeses – is Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the long-running ITV series. From the moment Horowitz’s Holmes opens his mouth, I heard Brett’s distinctive voice in my head and knew I was on to a winner, at least in terms of characterisation. The relationship between the two men is as fans have come to expect, with the mens’ mutual respect sometimes tempered by a certain amount of acerbic ribbing, usually by Holmes, of Watson:

“I take it you will join me?”

“Of course, Holmes. I would like nothing better.”

“Excellent. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to find the energy or the will to undertake another investigation if I am not assured that the general public will be able to read every detail of it in due course.”

Horowitz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Holmes canon, and sets his story in a definite time period, both in the very real sense – the story takes place in November 1890 – but also by placing it in relation to the rest of Conan Doyle’s stories – we are some seven weeks after “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, and Holmes has just completed “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”. There is no doubt, both in terms of the references both overt and implicit, and the general tone Horowitz strikes, that the author has immersed himself in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whilst writing this latest adventure. It should be noted that this is the first Sherlock Holmes story that has ever been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, which should go some way to indicating how close Horowitz has come to depicting Holmes and the sometimes-hapless Watson.

Horowitz pulls out all the stops, reintroducing us to a whole cast of characters that have become, over the years, part of the national – if not global – consciousness: apart from Holmes and Watson, there is the ever-present and often-ignored Mrs Hudson; Detective Inspector Lestrade; Holmes’ unofficial police force in the shape of the Baker Street Irregulars; the more-intelligent older brother Mycroft; and, of course, Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. With one exception, these characters are introduced naturally, and play roles that are as familiar to any Holmes fan as the Persian slipper where he keeps his tobacco, or the infamous address at which he lives. Unfortunately, Moriarty’s introduction seemed slightly shoe-horned, as he appears as a kind of deus ex machina whose intervention, in the end, goes nowhere. But this is a minor quibble, and in no way detracts from the story, or interferes with canon.

The House of Silk consists of two mysteries which seem, at first, to be separate, one nested neatly inside the other and the two related, seemingly, by the flimsiest of links. “The Man in the Flat Cap” proceeds to a seemingly neat conclusion, and then Holmes hurries off in pursuit of the “The House of Silk”. But as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the two cases are more closely related than it seems at first and as the detective wraps up the mystery of the House of Silk, he returns his attention to the original mystery. In some ways, as with many Holmes stories, this is not a mystery for the reader to solve: it is a showcase for the singular talents of Sherlock Holmes. Like the stories of Conan Doyle, there are plenty of clues scattered around, and the eagle-eyed reader may be able to piece together some of the solution. Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.

The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I have high hopes that this will not be Mr Horowitz’s last foray into the world of Holmes. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience. To quote Watson himself:

[I]t has been good to find myself back at Holmes’s side, […], always one step behind him (in every sense) and yet enjoying the rare privilege of observing, at close quarters, that unique mind.

I doubt I could have said it better myself.

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A. A. Milne

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY

A. A. Milne

Vintage Classics (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/)

£7.99

Anyone who has perused Reader Dad at any point during its so-far short life could not help but notice that I like my fiction dark and, if at all possible, violent. So, it will probably come as something of a surprise (as it does to most people) that one of my favourite pieces of fiction is A. A. Milne’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s one of those strange facts of life that just can’t be explained. I was unaware, until very recently, that Milne had also dabbled in the mystery genre, having published The Red House Mystery in 1922.

The Red House of the title is a country cottage owned by Mark Ablett. As the novel opens, we find Ablett entertaining a handful of guests, among them the young Bill Beverley. At breakfast one morning, Ablett announces to his guests – as well as his cousing Cayley, who plays the roles of secretary, confidante and business advisor – that his brother, the wastrel Robert, has returned from his 15-year exile in Australia and will be visiting the Red House that very afternoon. When Robert arrives, the guests are off playing golf, and only Mark, Cayley and the servants are present in the house. A shot rings out just as Anthony Gillingham arrives to visit his friend, Beverley, and along with Cayley, he finds Robert dead, lying on the floor of the office, and Mark nowhere to be seen.

In some ways, The Red House Mystery is an homage to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Gillingham taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes to Beverley’s ever-eager Watson. As the plot unfolds and we gain more information, Gillingham walks us through a number of equally plausible theories, and we learn the secrets that the Red House holds at the same time as our amateur sleuths. In other ways, the book is a playful satire of the entire mystery genre – Bill’s boyish keenness about the matter at hand, Gillingham – a man with a photographic memory – falling accidentally into the role of sleuth, and still managing to outthink not only the murderer but the police as well – but Milne manages to avoid cliche, despite the hidden passage and an abundance, of Christie proportions, of suspects.

When the final reveal comes, it’s not entirely unexpected, and sharp-eyed readers will have picked up on the clues Milne scatters throughout the story, but it’s no less satisfying a book for that – the joy of this novel comes more from the journey than the destination, and Milne provides us with a cast of likeable characters and an interesting enough mystery to keep us entertained throughout this light and entertaining whodunit.

The only thing that disappoints about The Red House Mystery is that it was Milne’s only foray into the genre. The book earns its “classic” status, and deserves a much wider readership that it presumably enjoys (I say presumably because it’s not a book I’d heard of until recently, but maybe I’m underselling it). If you’re a fan of a good mystery novel – cosy or otherwise – that exercises, in the words of one of Gillingham’s contemporaries, “the little grey cells”, then this should be top of your list.

Once you’ve finished, give Winnie-the-Pooh a(nother) read. You’ll thank me for it.

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