Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


Simon & Schuster

GUEST POST: Researching The Widow’s Confession by SOPHIA TOBIN

tobin_sophia_13017_2_300 Name: SOPHIA TOBIN

Author of: THE SILVERSMITH’S WIFE (2014)
                 THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION (2015)

On the web:

On Twitter: @SophiaTobin1

From day trips to directories: researching The Widow’s Confession

The Widow’s Confession is set during a summer season at a Victorian seaside resort. Researching the life of the Victorian tourist with its excursions, shell-collecting, sea-bathing and fireworks was a necessary pleasure, and a provider of many dramatic possibilities.

widow%27s confession blog tour graphics (2)Having pieced together various visual sources, my documentary research began with reading the newspapers for the period, searching for mentions of Broadstairs. I had prior knowledge of the town – I was brought up there – but the papers gave me the contemporary flavour I needed, historical texture and more information on its maritime culture. Through reading reports of shipwrecks I found descriptions of the sound of the lightships at the Goodwin Sands firing their guns to warn of a wreck, which became a defining motif in the book. Through the newspapers I also learned of events which served to drive some of the action, such as the Ramsgate Regatta, which became a pivotal scene. And when I read, in the London Standard, that Broadstairs was sought out by people who wanted privacy, in a moment I could hear my main character, Delphine, telling me it was ‘the perfect place to hide’.

Contemporary directories and guidebooks were hugely valuable to me, such as W. Kidd’s Picturesque companion to the Isle of Thanet, published in 1840, which described the most desirable shells collected by visitors – including the ‘beauty shell’ which found its way into the plot. As you might expect, the sources sometimes disagree (by 1851, Dickens was complaining that Broadstairs was too loud and busy; a guidebook printed that year described it as ‘very genteel and very dull’) but from such disagreements I could make my own decisions about how I saw the town, piecing together the sources and extracting a sense of atmosphere from them.

Swathes of research never made their way into the book, apart from brief mentions. When Theo describes a book he has been reading on archaeological finds at Reculver, justifying a visit, he is referring to a real book, written by Charles Roach Smith and published in 1850, which I pored over in the stacks of the London Library for an entire evening.

I don’t think you can beat an excursion for research purposes. I can still feel the icy wind whipping at my coat as I looked at the ruins of Reculver. Spending a summer weekend at Broadstairs, I watched the sky transformed by a summer storm, and lightning over the sea. A day later, a thick sea-mist fell, making everything ghostly, so that I could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the creak of the lantern raised at the headland to signal to the boats. The town had given me, in days, a light-show of what I needed for the book. I have to admit, the best part of the research was watching lightning shiver over the summer sky.


widowsconfes_hardback_1471128121_300 THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION

Sophia Tobin (

Simon & Schuster (


In the summer of 1851, Edmund Steele leaves the stresses of London behind and, at the behest of his good friend, heads to the seaside resort of Broadstairs and takes up residence with the town’s parson, Theo Hallam. It isn’t long before Edmund and Theo find themselves part of a group of incomers who, led by the headstrong Mrs Quillian, spend much of the summer on excursions. There are secrets aplenty – Theo and Edmund both have their own; as have the two American women who are part of their group, and the artist, Ralph Benedict, who has a knack for rubbing people the wrong way. Within days of the group’s formation, the body of a young girl is found on the beach. The local doctor claims it as a suicide, but each member of the group has his or her own reasons for believing it to be otherwise. When the body of a second girl is discovered later in the summer, it begins to seem as if Broadstairs is a dangerous place to be, and the incomers are viewed with suspicion by the town’s full-time residents.

widow%27s confession blog tour graphics (2)Sophia Tobin’s second novel takes us on a trip to Broadstairs, a place made famous by regular visits from Charles Dickens (while he doesn’t make an appearance in the novel, his presence is noted a number of times during the narrative), and introduces us to an odd assortment of central characters who each have something to hide. Bookended by excerpts from a letter written by Delphine Beck, the American widow who plays a central role in the proceedings, the story unfolds from multiple points of view as the summer progresses. This is an interesting approach, and allows Tobin to show us all of the characters from several different perspectives: each of these characters has something to hide, and this approach allows Tobin to cast suspicion on everyone, keeping the reader in the dark until the very end.

While the murders provide some impetus to the proceedings, they are almost a sidebar to the novel’s true purpose. An examination of the relationships that develop between strangers in a short period of time, Tobin’s narrative sheds light on the constraints and rules that defined how people interacted during the Victorian era. In stark contrast to modern social mores and rules of civility, many of the dark secrets that haunt these characters are trivial; it is difficult to comprehend how these things – which seem so normal to the modern reader – could have ruined lives or affected futures. Yet, without resorting to tiresome exposition, the author takes us to a place where we can have some empathy with these people, understand the pressures they are under and the impact these seemingly-unimportant decisions have on their lives.

The Widow’s Confession is, as you might expect, something of a slow-moving read. Categorised as a historical thriller, the thrills are few and far between – though the sense of threat is always present since we have no idea who the culprit is – the bulk of the novel focuses on the relationship between the characters, and the loves that blossom as the summer progresses. It’s an engrossing read all the same; the characters, and the interplay between them, perfectly-wrought to fill the spaces – and make us unaware of the fact that not much thrilling is happening – between the scenes of horror that face them in the lifeless forms of the young girls on the beach. The killer’s identity, when revealed, is pleasantly surprising, and their reasoning further evidence of the straight-laced times in which the story is set. By this point, though, whether or not the killer should be found is relatively unimportant to the reader, superseded in many ways by the petty deceits and arguments that define this small group of strangers.

A beautifully-written novel, The Widow’s Confession captures the tone of the writing of the period as well as the mood of the people. The characters are well-drawn, and the amount of information that Tobin holds back from the reader well-judged to add a bit of intrigue to the stuffed-shirt nature of the period. Tobin has already won acclaim for last year’s The Silversmith’s Wife; The Widow’s Confession builds on that solid foundation and is sure to win her an army of new fans. Intelligent and well-plotted, this is a novel with huge appeal for a wide range of readers.

COLD GRAVE by Craig Robertson


Craig Robertson

Simon & Schuster (


There is, it would seem, an unwritten rule for writers of cop-centric series that states that at some point the cop must become involved in an off-the-books investigation. Craig Robertson’s third novel, Cold Grave, sees the return of series characters Rachel Narey and Tony Winter, and drops them into the middle of a cold case that they have no business investigating.

1993 – Detective Inspector Alan Narey’s last case involves the brutal murder of a young woman on a small island in the middle of Scotland’s only lake. Not only is Narey unable to find the murderer, but he retires never even having discovered the identity of the murdered girl. Nineteen years later, Alan Narey is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. His daughter, Detective Sergeant Rachel Narey, hoping to relieve his burden before it is too late, decides to reopen the case. When her father’s only suspect dies shortly afterwards in suspicious circumstances, and the body count starts to rise, Narey and police photographer Tony Winter discover themselves working to a much more imminent deadline than the one imposed by Alan Narey’s failing mental faculties.

Craig Robertson’s third novel marks a welcome return for Narey and Winter. This time around, the narrative is more evenly split between the two central characters, and we start to see a much more likeable side to Winter – he gets less time to air his grievances this time around (though he does still manage a fair amount of whinging), and we are allowed deeper insight into his odd fixation with photographing the dead. Narey, we find, is a much more vulnerable character, and her increasingly difficult relationship with her father – a man who may or may not remember who she is at any given point in time – forms the core of her sections of the novel. Alan Narey’s rapid decline is heart-breaking to watch, and Robertson does an excellent job tugging at the reader’s heartstrings; it’s unexpected beauty in the midst of this dark and gritty thriller.

Once again, Robertson manages to nail Glasgow and its people to the page. We’re introduced to the seedier side of the city – a side that the tourist board will most likely not thank Robertson for highlighting – through a series of dark and dingy pubs and restaurants and a cast of hard men and assorted reprobates. Dialogue is written in a way that makes it easy for the reader to hear the thick accent in which the words are spoken, and once again littered with local words and phrases (don’t worry: more often than not make perfect sense in the context in which they are uttered). Football shines through as an important element of these peoples’ lives – the bars are often Celtic bars or Rangers bars, and the people themselves often divide along the same lines. It’s obvious, though, that the game and the teams are the external face of a much deeper rift along political and religious lines and we see a city – if not a country – simmering with barely-repressed rage and contempt.

The central plot – the nineteen-year-old murder of the young girl – is cleverly constructed and a frozen lake on the verge of thaw provides the enabler for the perfect crime.

Just twenty minutes later, he was walking back across the ice on his own, every step washing away behind him, every footprint slipping softly into the lake. The crunch of foot on snow and the glide of boot on the icy bridge to neverland disappeared without trace. All he and she had ever been were ghosts and every sign of them had become lost in the blue.

Misdirection and judicious use of point-of-view combine to keep the reader guessing to the end. The gritty feel of Snapshot is present, but tempered with a cold so deep and bitter as to be almost Scandinavian, and the humour is as black and expletive-filled as ever, introducing some much-needed levity at points throughout the story’s progress.

Cold Grave comes with a much more human side than its predecessor, in the relationships between Rachel Narey and her father, and between the protagonists and the unidentified dead girl. Even so, it maintains the dark and darkly-comic style that made Snapshot so appealing. Robertson, keenly observant and with a well-tuned ear, takes us on a tour of a rarely-seen side of Glasgow in the company of characters who, while not always likeable, are nonetheless easy to spend time with. Cold Grave is another excellent novel from a man quickly becoming one of the best crime writers in Scotland, if not Britain.

THE INQUISITOR by Mark Allen Smith

inquisitor_hardback_1849836558_300 THE INQUISITOR

Mark Allen Smith (

Simon & Schuster (


Geiger is a man without a past; his life started with his arrival, several years before, in New York. Before that, a black hole. After chance leads him to the local Mafia boss, he decides to go into Information Retrieval – torturing subjects to extract information required by paying clients – and discovers that he is very good at it. Geiger rarely draws blood, but he has a knack for knowing truth from lies, and for understanding exactly how to get the information he needs. When a client presents a twelve-year-old boy as the subject instead of the expected adult, Geiger acts quickly without considering the consequences for himself or his partner, Harry: he grabs the boy and runs. But the client has the resources to track them down, and the motivation for getting the boy back and finding out what he knows; everyone else is expendable.

I will freely admit that when I read the blurb for The Inquisitor and learned that the author started out life as a screenwriter, I set my expectations for a very specific type of thriller. You know the type – two-dimensional characters and a very cinematic experience; a Jason Statham movie in book form. So I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The central characters spring from the page fully-formed and with complete backstories, and the book reads like a well-structured novel, rather than the dialogue- and action-heavy converted screenplay we might have expected.

Geiger is a man of few words, and something of an enigma, even to himself. As events progress, we begin to see glimpses into his past, and the events that formed him. Throw in the fact that he has been seeing a psychiatrist since his “rebirth” and Geiger suddenly seems more human than he pretends to be. Given his line of work, he is clearly a man of few scruples, but he does have a strict moral code for which he is willing to sacrifice everything. It is in his relationship with his business partner, Harry, and, ultimately, his fast friendship with the boy, that we see the humanity behind the stone facade and find someone worth rooting for. His choice of name shows us something of the man’s personality:

At first he’d used the name Gray, then Black. One day, passing a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he spotted a book about the artwork of H. R. Giger. The byzantine images appealed to him, as did the name with its twin g’s. For visual symmetry, he added an e and so became Geiger.

Smith offers a taut thriller with dark undertones. The events take place over the course of 24 hours and this compact time-scale allows the author to ratchet up the tension very quickly once the introductions are out of the way. It’s a fast-paced and, most importantly, believable piece of fiction. Smith manages to keep things down-to-earth and on a tight rein: Geiger is no superman, and as the story progresses he becomes more ragged, to the point where we wonder how he keeps moving. The author manages to tell his story without levelling half of New York and, with the exception of one or two little surprises, presents a straightforward tale that is engrossing, entertaining and uncomplicated. Which is not to say that it’s predictable; far from it, but you won’t find any convoluted twists or high-concept macguffins designed purely to confuse the reader. At its heart, The Inquisitor is a tale of evil versus evil – let’s not forget what Geiger does for a living. It’s a daring concept for a first-time author, but it succeeds due to careful plotting and characters who are immediately engaging and intriguing.

The Inquisitor is Mark Allen Smith’s first novel. Well-written and well- (if simply-) plotted, it serves to introduce the character of Geiger and sidekick Harry to the world. It is unlikely, in this reader’s humble opinion, that this is the last we’ll see of either of them. Geiger presents as a cross between Jack Reacher and Sheldon Cooper. While The Inquisitor may not appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory, fans of Lee Child’s series would do well to give it a shot: it’s an excellent first novel, and brings with it the promise of more to come.

The 2011 Round-Up

As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.


If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.

The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.

There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.

The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).

MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011

SANCTUS-Simon ToyneSANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.

A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.






untitledTHE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)

The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.

If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.






PLUGGED_HB_21_02.inddPLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)

Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.

It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.





OUTPOST-AdamBakerOUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)

In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.






beauty-and-the-infernoBEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)

Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.

Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.





KILLER MOVE - Michael MarshallKILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)

Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.



THE SISTERS BROTHERS - Patrick deWittTHE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)

Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.






REAMDE - Neal StephensonREAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)

Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.





HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony HorowitzTHE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)

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. 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.




JULIA - Otto de KatJULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)

In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.





11-22-63 - Stephen King11.22.63 by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.








Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:

OBELISK - Howard GordonTHE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)

A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24  box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.








In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.

It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.

SNAPSHOT by Craig Robertson


Craig Robertson

Simon & Schuster (


Glasgow, present day, and someone – a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope to match – is taking out the rulers of the city’s underbelly: drug dealers, murderers, extortionists. As the body count grows and war breaks out amongst the various underground factions, the Strathclyde Police find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to solve a crime, and stop a murderer that the rest of the world is lauding as a hero.

Snapshot, Robertson’s second novel, centres on the characters of Tony Winter and Rachel Narey. Winter is a police photographer, a gifted man who enjoys his work a little bit too much. He’s a leftover from an earlier time, fighting to stay in employment in a time when crime scene photography is increasingly becoming the domain of the crime scene investigators, Jacks-of-all-trades in an environment where saving money is key. Tony has a problem, a need to photograph the dead that borders on obsession, an itch to capture people on the borderline between life and death. Detective Sergeant Narey, who appeared in Robertson’s first novel, Random, returns here to investigate another high-profile case, despite the office politics that remove her from the investigation for a short time.

Snapshot is one of those novels for which the clichés breakneck and gripping, amongst others, were seemingly invented. Opening on a crime scene which introduces us to the key players in as economical a way as possible, the book maintains a frenetic pace for its 400-page duration. We are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of modern Glasgow, and Robertson has no problem littering both narrative and dialogue with words and phrases that, to an outsider, can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to miss anything important – an insult or jibe between friends. It feels natural and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, which offsets the grim central plot, a gruesome collection of dead bodies as seen through the lens of Tony Winter’s camera.

Winter is a strange character to put in the central role. He’s not a particularly likeable man, with his slightly creepy hobby and his whiny attitude: Winter is a civilian employed by the police force. As a result, he is outside the main body of the investigation and not privy to the information they are gathering, or the theories upon which they are working. As a result, he is prone to frequent strops when his friends, Narey and Addison, both key players on the team, withhold information from him. I for one wanted to throttle the man and tell him to get on with his work and stop his moaning on more than one occasion. But for all that, the book works, and you care enough for this man to want him to make it out the other side.

The only problem I have with the book is the cover – this sort of stock photography makes a lot of these British thrillers look the same and can, for me, be very off-putting. But it’s a minor quibble, given what lies behind that cover. Dark and darkly-humorous, thrilling and highly addictive, Snapshot is an excellent novel from a self-assured and talented author who has found his stride early in the game.

TABOO by Casey Hill


Casey Hill (

Simon & Schuster (


“First in a new series featuring forensic investigator Reilly Steel,” the review copy informs me and I’m immediately on my guard. In my experience, this means one of two things: the author has already planned out the first twenty-seven books in the series and none of them are particularly good, or my bank account is about to take another long-term hit as I try to keep up with the annual release schedule of another must-read series.

Reilly Steel is an American crime scene investigator, trained at Quantico, and now living and working in Dublin trying to whip the new Garda Forensics Unit into some sort of shape. When a young couple is found dead in an apartment in an upscale part of the city, Reilly finds herself working with Detectives Chris Delaney and Pete Kennedy, and all three find themselves drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer who is completely in control and, seemingly, one step ahead of the police. Reilly’s unorthodox working methods give the Gardai an edge they would otherwise have been missing, and it soon becomes evident, as the body count rises, that the killer is toying with Reilly directly..

Simon & Schuster seem to have cornered the market this year in thrillers written by people who normally write in other genres (see my ALTAR OF BONES review). Casey Hill is the pseudonym of husband and wife team Kevin and Melissa Hill. Melissa Hill, for anyone unaware, is one of Ireland’s major players in the so-called “chick lit” market. TABOO, as well as being the first book in the Reilly Steel series, is also the couple’s first thriller.

The plot picks up quickly, and we’re introduced to the characters as we find ourselves standing in the middle of the various crime scenes. Early on, the book suffers from a touch of what I like to call Pattersonitis: discoveries and deductions are made early in the chapter then referred to in veiled and, sometimes, convoluted terms so that it can be dropped on the reader as a massive revelation in the chapter’s final sentence. Fortunately, it’s not a full-blown case, and it’s a lot subtler than the look you, this is important! style that Patterson tends to use. But towards the middle of the book, it’s as if the Hills find their stride – and their voice – and the read becomes a lot more natural and a lot less frustrating.

The identity of the killer will become apparent to the reader a lot sooner than it does to Reilly and the detectives, but there’s still enough uncertainty – a mistrust of certain central characters threaded through the narrative – that it’s impossible to get cocky about it, and until the final reveal, you can’t quite be sure if you’re right. It’s something of a formulaic serial killer novel, but it’s a formula that works, and Hill’s style is fresh and interesting. This one is going to appeal to fans of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and probably even Boris Starling. It’s a fast-paced novel which will keep you on your toes and drop a new murder in your lap before you’ve finished trying to get your head around the first one. And while there’s no pervasive sense of place – TABOO could take place anywhere – it’s not overly important to the novel.

Steel is an interesting character – smart, sexy, damaged beyond belief – and has enough charm to carry a series. She’s also a lot more accessible than Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, mainly because Hill has kept the science to a minimum and concentrated on the excitement. It’s an assured debut with a number of issues, but if the evolution of writing style evident over the course of these four hundred odd pages is anything to go by, this is a writing team that has just hit its stride. I’m expecting great things from Reilly Steel #2. The Reilly Steel series will be hitting my bank account for the next few years at least.

ALTAR OF BONES by Philip Carter


Philip Carter

Simon & Schuster (


Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).

Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.

The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.

“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.

Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.

As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.

The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.

In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.

THE OBELISK by Howard Gordon


Howard Gordon (

Simon & Schuster (


Here’s a good concept for one of those rollercoaster-ride thrillers that I like to read from time to time, the type of book that doesn’t require much concentration, but delivers entertainment by the bucketful: Gideon Davis is a peacemaker, a man working for the US president who spends most of his time at the negotiating table, trying to get all sides in any civil war or otherwise violent conflict to see eye to eye. He’s good at what he does because he believes in the peaceful approach and, because of a horrific incident in his past, has vowed never to take a human life, or use a gun. His brother, Tillman, is the flipside of the same coin: a man who believes that the only way to combat violence is with violence. Tillman, working undercover for the government, has spent the past several years in the oil-rich nation of Mohan posing as terrorist Abu Nasir, attempting to infiltrate the jihadist movement that is threatening the stability of the small island nation.

Tillman, seemingly, has gone rogue, and taken the terrorist activities to the extreme. Now, he wants to come home, and will only surrender himself to his brother. The handover is scheduled to take place on the monolithic Obelisk, a giant drilling platform located off the coast of the island in the South China Seas. But as the main players move into position, the Obelisk is seized by a man claiming to be Abu Nasir, and Gideon Davis finds himself struggling to survive in a hostile country with nothing but the rapidly-solidifying knowledge that the only way he might survive is with a gun in his hand.

With a concept like that, a main character who sits in the same moral space as Jack Reacher, and a man like Howard Gordon – executive producer and writer of popular television series 24 – behind the wheel, you can be guaranteed a great ride. Or can you? Or should I say, Or can you?

The answer is a resounding “Yes”, for the first half of the book. With twists that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of 24 – you certainly can’t trust anyone – and a plot that moves at frantic speed, you’ll be quite literally perched on the edge of your seat, trying to turn the pages faster to see what’s going to happen next. And introducing a 24-hour deadline certainly doesn’t hurt things. But somewhere around the halfway mark – maybe slightly further in – Mr Gordon loses his momentum, or maybe his interest, and what could have been an action thriller to rival the best of Lee Child turns into a formulaic, predictable, frustrating mess.

Simon & Schuster appear to have looked at the name on the front of this manuscript, slapped a 24-like cover on the front, and thought “instant audience” (as a long time fan of the show, I am that instant audience), with nary a thought for actually reading what was inside, never mind assigning an editor or proof-reader. The book is littered with typos – from spelling mistakes that should have been picked up by any spell-checker, to the omniscient third-person narrator using “we” and “our” instead of “America” and “American” (most obvious in a sentence about how President Diggs was attempting to keep “our troops” out of any more conflicts). There is one point towards the end of the novel where I counted FOUR point-of-view shifts in the space of a single page, sometimes mid-paragraph, leaving the reader more than a little confused about whose head, exactly, we’re supposed to be in right now. And then, the coup de grace: within the first fifty pages, there are at least three attempts on Gideon Davis’ life, all masterminded by the Main Bad Guy, who feels Gideon is a viable threat to his plans. Shortly after his arrival on the oil rig, MBG has Gideon dead to rights, trapped in a small room with no way out, Gideon unarmed and MBG holding an AK-47 on him. And in true Dr Evil style, he decides not to kill him, but to lock him up with the rest of the hostages where he can plot further damage in the run-up to ending up in bed with the only female in a hundred-mile radius.

The scene from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery popped into my head as I read it, and I would have thrown the book across the room if I hadn’t already invested so much time in it:

Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
[guard starts dipping mechanism]
Dr. Evil: Close the tank!
Scott Evil: Wait, aren’t you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don’t get it, do ya? You don’t.

A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24  box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.

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