Back from the Backlist · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!! The Corset by Laura Purcell

Image Description: The cover of The Corset is a dark blue with an embroidered peacock feather and a needle picked out in gold. In the centre of the peacock feather eye is the silhouette of a women in Victorian dress.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Having read, reviewed and enjoyed all three of Laura Purcell’s other novels (The Silent Companions, Bone China, and The Shape of Darkness) I can only assume that I’ve been holding off on The Corset for fear of having no more of her deliciously dark Gothic goodness to read!

The Corset, Purcell’s second novel, alternates between the narratives of Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy philanthropist with a fascination in phrenology; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage seamstress sentenced to death for the brutal and calculated murder of her employer. Fixated on testing her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes, Dorothea at first is dismissive of Ruth’s own belief that her sewing needles hold a deadly power beyond her control. But as Ruth’s story unfolds – and it becomes apparent that this young woman may have more than one death on her hands – Dorothea begins to suspect that there may be more to Ruth’s plight than meets the eye.

Laura Purcell is so brilliant at capturing atmosphere in her work. From the refined confines of Dorothea’s family home to the sparsity of Ruth’s prison cell, the sense of both time and place drips from the page. Purcell’s writing is rich in description without ever becoming overblown, drawing the reader into the world of the characters.

And what a grim and dark world that is! Although Dorothea spends her days in a world of privilege and relative independence, her experience is sharply contrasted by that of Ruth. Coming from a background of genteel poverty, Ruth has known little but hardship in her short life. A natural seamstress, she is forced into labouring as an apprentice for the tyrannical dressmaker Mrs Metcalfe after a series of family tragedies. A seeming escape from penury, Ruth’s time at Mrs Metcalfe’s soon turns into a horrifying ordeal: one that may require use of her strange and disturbing powers to escape from.

To say any more about the plot of The Corset would be to spoil some of the shocking twists and thrilling turns of the narrative. Content warnings, however, for forced labour, forced confinement, imprisonment, child abuse, and murder.

I have to say that I was more drawn towards Ruth narrative – brutal though it is in places – and, at times, felt that some aspects of Dorothea’s story were a distraction rather than an addition to the central narrative thread. Dorothea’s interest in phrenology, for example, wasn’t explored as much as I had expected – although it did make a brilliant comeback towards the end! I also felt that the ending, although satisfyingly surprising, was a little rushed in terms of the way that it connected the two narratives together. In particular, Dorothea’s narrative strand took a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn that I felt could have been introduced and set up earlier on.

Ruth’s ‘power’ – an ability to transmit her feelings and intentions through her stitches – incorporates magical realist elements into the novel and I enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s honest and fearful belief in this supernatural ability and Dorothea’s rational and scientific scepticism. I also found the supporting cast to be vividly drawn: Mrs Metcalf, in particular, is a a truly disturbing creation and it was easy to empathise with Ruth’s hatred of her. I also loved the way in which Laura Purcell uses narrative perspective to manipulate the reader into seeing characters through a particular lens, only for us to see them differently when viewed at a different angle. In a tale in which belief is central, it was interesting to have my beliefs and perceptions of several characters inverted at times!

Although not my favourite of her novels (I think The Silent Companions is still my number one), The Corset is another accomplished and page-turning gothic tale from Laura Purcell. Combining elegant and rich prose with a compelling narrative, it offers readers a creepily satisfying tale of murder, revenge, and the supernatural that enthrals right through to the very last page!

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin

Image Description: The cover of Requiem in La Rossa features an image of Bologna with the sun streaming through the arches of a neoclassical building

In the sweltering heat of a Bologna summer, a murderer plans their pièce de résistance…

Only in Bologna reads the headline in the Carlino after a professor of music is apparently murdered leaving the opera. But what looks like an open-and-shut case begins to fall apart when English detective Daniel Leicester is tasked with getting the accused man off, and a trail that begins among Bologna’s close-knit classical music community leads him to suspect there may be a serial killer at large in the oldest university in the world.

And as Bologna trembles with aftershocks following a recent earthquake, the city begins to give up her secrets.

Confession Time: when I agreed to be part of the blog tour for Tom Benjamin’s Requiem in La Rossa, I didn’t realise that the novel was the third in a series. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up as I always like to begin a series of books with the first in the series. How glad I am, therefore, that I did not realise this as I’d have missed out on a fantastic crime novel that combines a skilfully crafted plot with a highly relatable protagonist and a fantastic sense of place.

Requiem in La Rossa is, it turns out, the third outing for Tom Benjamin’s English-born but Bologna-based private detective, Daniel Leicester, following on from A Quiet Death in Italy and The Hunting Season (both of which will, on the strength of this book, be going on to my TBR). Newcomers to the series need not worry, however, as the novel features an entirely standalone investigation focusing upon the sudden and unexpected death of a professor of music. But when Daniel is tasked with proving the accused man’s innocence, what appears to be an open-and-shut case of a mugging-gone-wrong soon leads him to suspect that a serial killer may be lurking in the midst of the city’s close-knit classical music community.

The author’s bio tells me that Tom Benjamin is himself a British ex-pat now living in Bologna and his familiarity with – and love for – his adopted city comes across on every page. Reading Requiem in La Rossa on a rainy May afternoon was akin to being transported into the heat of an Italian summer, listening to the bells of San Procolo whilst il vento della sera provides respite to the city’s overheated residents.

Which isn’t to say that Benjamin writes his novel as a tourist brochure: the darker side of the city is well-represented as Daniel’s investigation unveils accusations of professors taking bustarella (a bribe) in exchange for sought after conservatory places, and encounters some of the drug-addicts who mingle alongside the students and tourists at the edges of the Piazza Verdi. Whether describing Bologna’s sun-soaked beauty or it’s darker elements, Requiem in La Rossa has a fantastic sense of place that, for me, utterly immersed me in Daniel’s world.

I also really warmed to Daniel as a protagonist. I sometimes find myself bouncing off crime novels – and private detective novels in particular – because of clichéd ‘noir’ protagonists who, faced with challenging family or work circumstances, seek solace in drink, drugs, and/or violence. It was refreshing, therefore, to spend time with a detective who, despite the death of his wife, is surrounded by supportive family and friends, has a warm and loving relationship with his well-adjusted teenage daughter and, when he does encounter personal setbacks, deals with these in the manner of a reasonable – albeit fallible -adult human.

Whilst some of the elements of Daniel’s personal life and relationships are clearly hangovers from – or references to – earlier novels in the series, the details provided and ongoing interpersonal storylines made me intrigued to read the earlier books rather than feeling as if I was missing something crucial. Occasional scenes at the Faidate family home – particularly those featuring Daniel’s father-in-law and boss, The Commandante – made for a welcome break in the action and, at times, provided some light comic relief amidst all the murder.

Combing a stylishly written and well-plotted mystery with an engaging protagonist and an immersive sense of place, Requiem in La Rossa is a classic detective novel in the vein of P D James, Colin Dexter, and Donna Leon. Fans of detective fiction should definitely take this opportunity to jet off to sunny Italy and explore the streets of Bologna, whilst those who have already discovered the series are sure to enjoy this latest instalment.

Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin is published by Constable and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18th May 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

Image Description: The cover of A Fatal Crossing has the gold outline of a ship against a rough sea. The cover has Art Deco-style edging and the tag line ‘A ship full of suspects. Two Detectives. One Killer.’

November 1924.

The Endeavour sets sail from Southampton carrying 2,000 passengers and crew on a week-long voyage to New York.

When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But James Temple, a strong-minded Scotland Yard inspector, is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye.

Birch agrees to investigate, and the trail quickly leads to the theft of a priceless painting. Its very existence is known only to its owner . . . and the dead man.

With just days remaining until they reach New York, and even Temple’s purpose on board the Endeavour proving increasingly suspicious, Birch’s search for the culprit is fraught with danger.

And all the while, the passengers continue to roam the ship with a killer in their midst . . .

With it’s 1920s setting and closed-community premise, there’s more than a whiff of Agatha Christie about A Fatal Crossing, the debut crime novel from Tom Hindle. However, whilst the stylings may be classic crime fiction, this transatlantic mystery soon ventures into thriller territory with a shady detective, a dash of mob violence, and a final twist that will leave reader’s gasping!

When the crumpled and rain-soaked body of an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a companionway after a stormy night, the majority of the passengers and crew aboard the steamship Endeavour believe it to be a tragic accident. Certainly the ship’s captain, McCrory – two days into his retirement voyage and only four days out of New York – is all too happy to set the matter aside as swiftly as possible. So when obstinate Scotland Yard detective James Temple is insistent upon investigating the death, McCrory demands that ship’s officer Timothy Birch accompany him.

Taciturn, reclusive, and largely ostracised from the rest of the crew, Birch makes for an unusual companion for the brash and fiery Temple and, sure enough, it isn’t long before the two butt heads over Temple’s confrontational investigative style. However, when it emerges that the elderly gentleman was an art dealer travelling under a false name – and that a rare painting was stolen on the night of his death – Birch has to reluctantly admit that Temple might be onto something. As the investigation progresses and another death occurs, Birch and Temple must work together to catch a deadly killer. But with both detectives keeping secrets of their own and the Endeavour steaming across the Atlantic towards New York, can they complete their investigation before time – and their tempers – run out?

Personally, I found both Birch and Temple to be quite challenging characters to spend time in the company of. Both men are keeping secrets that, over the course of the novel, gradually emerge to become part of the wider story and that do, eventually, make them slightly more sympathetic but I have to admit that, even after these revelations, I struggled to warm to either of them. Temple, in particular, felt a little two-dimensional and both men were capable of rapid and irrational mood swings that, at times, felt as if they were serving the plot rather than ensuring well-rounded characterisation.

I also found the writing somewhat awkward at times, with Birch in particular obsessing over – and repeating – certain facts. As an example, once he realises that character possesses a revolver – and begins to worry about what might be done with it – it gets mentioned three times in the space of two pages and several more times over the course of subsequent chapters. Although this is a relatively minor niggle in the grand scheme of things, it was something that, once noticed, I couldn’t un-notice!

This was a great shame as the plotting really doesn’t need this heavy-handed signposting. Indeed, the intriguing plot and the eclectic cast of side characters is what kept me reading and preventing A Fatal Crossing from becoming a DNF. There’s some brilliant misdirection, plenty of subtle red herrings and, as I mentioned at the start of my review, a fantastic twist in the tale that I definitely didn’t see coming!

I also really enjoyed the sense of time and place that Hindle conveys. From the quiet luxury of the first-class cabins to the hubbub of the third-class common areas and the sparse utility of the officer’s quarters, A Fatal Crossing conveys a real sense of life on-board a luxury liner, and hints at the wider political and social concerns in 1920s Britain and America.

Although not every aspect of this novel landed with me, I’m glad that I stuck with A Fatal Crossing – and I’d definitely read more by Tom Hindle in the future. Although the characters didn’t quite gel for me, the impressive plotting and regular twists and turns kept me reading and the ending, although definitely pushing at the boundaries of plausibility, was certainly unexpected! Fans of historical mysteries are sure to find a lot to enjoy here, especially if they don’t mind exploring the darker side of human nature and enjoy their Golden Age crime with a thrilling twist.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle is published by Century and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher, to NetGalleyUK, and to the Motherload Book Club for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Image Description: The cover of The Paris Apartment shows a partially open door against a black background. Yellow light from the door emits the outline of the Eiffel Tower onto the floor.

Welcome to No.12 rue des Amants

A beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine.

Where nothing goes unseen, and everyone has a story to unlock.

The watchful concierge
The scorned lover
The prying journalist
The naïve student
The unwanted guest

There was a murder here last night.
A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.

Who holds the key?

Foley’s previous novels, The Hunting Party and The Guest List (both read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed by yours truly), were deliciously plotted thrillers that revelled in revealing dark secrets and painful lies within friendship groups stuck in isolated settings. Her latest, The Paris Apartment, is a slightly different kettle of fish, although no less enjoyable for that.

Set in an exclusive apartment building, The Paris Apartment removes the isolation of her previous books and instead plonks main protagonist Jess right into the heart of sophisticated and elegant Paris. Down-on-her-luck Jess has come to stay with her half-brother, Ben, who has – somehow – managed to secure himself a luxury apartment in the heart of the city. But when Jess arrives in Paris, Ben is nowhere to be found. And his fellow residents of 12 rue des Amants seem to know more than they are telling about his disappearance. Determined to find her brother, Jess begins digging beneath the refined facade of 12 rue des Amants – and soon reveals some sordid truths beneath the glamour of this elegant Parisian building and its occupants.

As with her previous novels, The Paris Apartment flits between narrators, providing a number of compelling perspectives on events. Whilst Jess is firmly situated at the heart of the novel, we also get insights from a number of other characters including aloof penthouse-owner Sophie, Ben’s university friend Nicholas, terrified artist Mimi, and the mysterious, watchful Concierge. As the truth behind Ben’s disappearance – and the secrets of 12 rue de Amants – come to light, moving between these perspectives ups the tension and pulls the reader into a tangled web of half-truths, secrets, and deceptions, making for a page-turning and compulsive read!

I can’t say that I found the characters quite as compelling – this was, for me, definitely a novel that relies on propulsive plot and plenty of shocking twists and turns – but, despite their being a fairly large cast, I was able to clearly distinguish between their voices and perspectives. Foley is also brilliant at portraying unlikeable, dysfunctional, and amoral characters. Even Jess and Ben are shown to be deeply flawed – and, in Jess’s case, deeply traumatised – human beings, capable of acting immorally if it suits their own situation and needs. This amorality, whilst it might not be to every reader’s taste, does give the occupants of 12 rue de Amants a depth that can sometimes be lacking in thrillers.

Saying too much about the plot would be to giveaway the pleasure of reading The Paris Apartment but, safe to say, it’s packed with twists, turns, and secrets. The facade of 12 rue de Amants hides some seedy and unpleasant secrets so readers should be aware of trigger warnings for strong language, sexual content, sexual abuse, trafficking, alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, violence, and suicide. Foley really ramps up the atmospheric tension in this novel as she peels back the layers of faded glamour to reveal the corruption and exploitation that lie beneath the lives of her characters, and there is a real sense of both dread and menace throughout the novel.

The Paris Apartment is sure to delight Foley’s existing fans. Although it moves away from the isolated settings of her previous thrillers, it definitely hasn’t lost that readability and page-turning ‘I need to know what happens next, TELL ME NOW’ quality! If you’re not a fan of suspense thrillers, The Paris Apartment is unlikely to convert you to the genre but if, like me, you enjoy the occasional compulsive read that will have you gripped for the whole of the weekend, you should definitely get Lucy Foley’s latest on your radar!

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley is published by HarperCollins and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! We Know You Remember by Tove Alsterdal

Image Description: The cover of We Know You Remember features a desolate countryside scene with sparse fields in the foreground and a single house against a backdrop of thick fir trees.

Where were you the night Lina Stavred went missing?

The case was closed.
Everyone in Ådalen remembers the summer Lina Stavred went missing. At first, the investigation seemed like a dead end: there was no body, no crime scene, no murder weapon.

The records were sealed.
Then a local boy confessed to Lina’s murder. The case opened a wound – one the whole community has spent over two decades trying to heal.

But we know you remember.
Now Lina’s murderer has reappeared, and detective Eira Sjödin must face the spectre of his brutal crime. This is her chance to untangle years of well-kept secrets – but the truth is something Ådalen would rather forget.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Scandinavian crime fiction. Amidst the slew of psychological thrillers and dark domestic dramas, ‘scandi noir’ seems to have faded somewhat from bookshop shelves. Tove Alsterdal’s We Know You Remember, translated into English by Alice Menzies, reminded me of just how compelling this particular subgenre of crime can be though – and introduces and exciting new voice to English language readers.

By Stockholm standards, the vast and remote region of Ådalen is a remote and sleepy backwater. Outside of the major towns, everyone knows everyone – and collective community memories are long ones. So everyone knows where they were when Lina Stavred went missing. And everyone remembers that fourteen-year-old Olof Hagström confessed to her murder. Even though he was never formally convicted – and the case was officially closed long ago – everyone knows why Olof left town.

But now Olof Hagström is back. His father is dead, apparently killed by an unknown assailant – and the ghost of Lina Stavred is, despite the best efforts of the small community, starting to wander in people’s memories once again. For detective and Ådalen-native Eira Sjödin, the case is an uncomfortable one. The claustrophobic communities of Ådalen are her home – and unsettling their still waters may bring uncomfortable truths back to the surface.

With an atmospheric and menacing small town setting and a likeably flawed central protagonist, We Know You Remember swept me away into the Swedish countryside. Although a little slow to start, the central mystery soon turned into a compelling one, with the present investigation into Sven Hagström’s apparent murder soon colliding with the cold case of Lina Stavred’s disappearance.

With the gritty realism one expects of the genre, We Know You Remember makes for a dark read – particularly once some uncomfortable home truths begin to surface – but I never found it too gory or bleak. This was, in large part, due to the witty voice of central protagonist Eira: young, ambitious, but working the relative backwaters of Ådalen because she needs to care for her mother, who is in the early stages of dementia.

Although certainly flawed as a character, I immediately liked Eira, and I enjoyed reading her interactions with her mother and, later, with her troubled and partially-estranged brother. I also enjoyed her relationships with her colleague, August Engelhart, and her senior officer Georg Georgsson (known as GG), and hope that these might develop in later books in the series. Indeed, the overall likeability of the characters made a nice change for me as it certainly isn’t always a given in this particular sub-genre!

We Know You Remember appears to have been smoothly translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies. Key spellings, terms, and phrases have been retained which gives a real sense of the original language, without overwhelming English language readers. In tone, the novel reminded me of both The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir and The Dry by Jane Harper, with their atmospheric small town settings and slow-build but compelling pace. Certainly fans of Scandinavian crime fiction will find much to enjoy in We Know You Remember – as will anyone who enjoys a well-written and compelling police procedural.

We Know You Remember by Tove Alsterdal (translated by Alice Menzies) is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! After Agatha by Sally Cline

Image Description: The cover of After Agatha has a black and white portrait of Agatha Christie, covered with post-it notes that have the signatures of modern female crime authors on them.

Spanning the 1930s to present day, ‘After Agatha’ charts the explosion in women’s crime writing and examines key developments on both sides of the Atlantic: from the women writers at the helm of the UK Golden Age and their American and Canadian counterparts fighting to be heard, to the 1980s experimental trio, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created the first female PIs, and the more recent emergence of forensic crime writing and domestic noir thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Apple Tree Yard’.

After Agatha examines the diversification of crime writing and highlights landmark
women’s novels which featured the marginalised in society as centralised characters. Cline also explores why women readers are drawn to the genre and seek out justice in crime fiction, in a world where violent crimes against women rarely have such resolution.

The book includes interviews with dozens of contemporary authors such as Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah, Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs and features the work of hundreds of women crime and mystery writers.

If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while, you’ll probably be able to guess that I’m a keen reader of both classic and contemporary crime fiction. Whilst I’ve definitely started to reach saturation point with some of its subgenres (yes, I’m looking at you psychological thrillers and domestic noir), I continue to find the genre endlessly fascinating – and it appears I’m not alone.

As Sally Cline observes in After Agatha: Women Write Crime, women are, increasingly, both the main producers and the main consumers of crime fiction: a somewhat surprising fact when you consider that many crime novels involve violent acts being conducted to and against female victims. So what exactly is it that draws so many women to produce and consume crime fiction?

To answer this question, Cline has spoken with an impressive number of female crime writers who came ‘after Agatha’, including well-known US, UK and Canadian names such as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Sophie Hannah, and Ann Cleeves. In doing so, she charts the production and consumption of crime fiction from its genesis in the ‘golden age’ right up to the genre’s present-day popularity, examining the trends – and tribulations – it has experienced along the way.

As you might expect from a book based primarily around interviews, After Agatha has a lively, anecdotal style. This works well, for the most part, although there were moments when I wanted Cline – who has clearly conducted extensive research for the book – to take a little more time to critically analyse what was being said. Whilst I loved reading about why some of my favourite authors read and enjoyed crime fiction – and why they chose to write it – I didn’t always feel that the larger question of why women produced and consumed so much crime fiction was being answered.

I was also a little disappointed that novels featuring black and disabled protagonists were thrown together into one chapter/category, and that the increasing diversity of crime fiction – both in terms of protagonists, writers, and readers – was not more widely reflected. Whilst I understand that Cline cannot include – indeed, cannot have read – everything, it felt as if there was more to be said about the specific and individualised marginalisation of both black writers/protagonists and disabled writers/protagonists and, specifically, about the way in which publishing has, until very recently, limited opportunities for writers wishing to tell these particular stories.

That said, I was otherwise impressed by the range of UK, US, and Canadian crime writing that is covered in After Agatha. Other chapters discuss female private detectives, serial-killer novels, domestic noir, and the rise of women in forensic science. And although Cline has to occasionally generalise and adopt the stance of the ‘everywoman’, I felt she did a good job of distinguishing the many and varied reasons why women might wish to write and read crime fiction.

Crime fiction aficionados may not agree with all of Cline’s assertions and findings – indeed, I myself sometimes thought some of the arguments were a little stretched (for example, whilst it is true that Robert Galbraith’s books sold considerably more once their author was revealed to be J.K Rowling, I suspect this was less to do with Rowling’s gender and more to do with Harry Potter mega-fans reading anything she wrote, regardless of gender or genre) – but that does not detract from the enjoyment they’ll get from reading and engaging in the debates Cline opens up.

For those new to the genre, After Agatha offers an excellent – and reasonably extensive – overview of the variety and breadth of UK, US and Canadian crime fiction written by women, and would operate well as a ‘reading list’ for those seeking to expand their reading. The writer interviews are fascinating and Cline has an accessible yet intelligent writing style.

Sally Cline clearly has a deep passion for – and knowledge of – her subject matter and, in After Agatha, she has written a lively and interesting exploration of the genre, suitable for both avid crime fiction readers and for those seeking to increase their knowledge and expand their reading list. It would make a fantastic read for a crime fiction book club to discuss – and provides a detailed overview for anyone seeking to know more about the women who write, and read, crime.

After Agatha: Women Write Crime by Sally Cline is published by Oldcastle Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Maid by Nita Prose

Image Description: The cover of The Maid is a deep emerald green with the title in gold. A sign hangs from a stylised gold door handle. On the sign, there is the image of a grand hotel, picked out in white and gold.

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanour has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

Nita Prose’s lively debut, The Maid, which nods towards both to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, introduces readers to twenty-five-year-old Molly the Maid. Molly adores her job at The Regency Grand Hotel: not only does she take take great pride in returning guest rooms to a state of perfection but, more importantly, her role allows her to pass as invisible to the majority of people she meets.

This suits Molly down to the ground because she knows that doesn’t really ‘get’ people. Her beloved gran – from whom Molly inherited her love of order and cleanliness- used to help her interpret social clues and, ever since her passing, Molly has been left adrift; struggling to navigate both the world around her and her place within it.

Molly’s world only gets more complicated when she finds a wealthy hotel guest – Mr Charles Black – dead in his luxury suite. Before she’s even processed what has happened, Molly’s unusual demeanour has bought her to the attention of investigating police and, with no one to turn to for help, Molly soon finds herself caught in a mess that may be too much for even her to clean up.

Molly is an endearing protagonist who, despite having exceptional powers of observation and an attention to detail that could rival Hercule Poirot, is unable to fully interpret what she sees and hears. Yet her neurodivergence – so long a source of frustration, marginalisation, and ridicule – turns out to be exactly what is needed as she delves into the sinister goings-on that lie behind the perfect façade of The Regency Grand.

Indeed, although The Maid is, primarily, a ‘whodunnit’, it’s also a heart-warming story of personal growth and development. I loved seeing Molly’s confidence in herself and her unique worldview increase as the novel progressed, and cheered for her as she overcame her social isolation and the prejudices of those around her through sheer force of will and determination. She’s a fantastic lead character and her voice really elevates the novel.

That said, the remaining cast – and the plot itself – certainly do their bit too! For those who enjoy a good old-fashioned ‘cosy’ style whodunnit, The Maid has serious Agatha Christie vibes. From the cheery doorman who greets Molly on her arrival every day, to the flighty and impetuous widow, Mrs Black, the cast of ‘stock’ characters are all present and correct – although Nita Prose does an brilliant job of using these archetypes to play with expectations at times.

With plenty of twists and turns along the way, Molly’s investigations into the death of Mr Black – and her fight to prove herself innocent of the crime – become increasingly tangled, and begin to highlight other nefarious deeds going on at The Regency Grand.

The novel also does a great job at balancing the puzzle-solving with a slice of deliciously dark humour. I frequently found myself laughing out loud at Molly’s unique turns of phrase, and I had a serious case of the warm fuzzies by the time I turned the final page. Smart plotting, darkly comic, and with a nice dash of heart-warming goodness? What more could a mystery reader want?!

Indeed, readers who love a good ‘cosy’ mystery will undoubtedly find plenty to hold their interest with The Maid: a unique, witty, and interesting narrative perspective, a cast of well-conceived characters that often play against expectations, and a twisty-turny old-school mystery packed to brimming with clues and red herrings. It’s perfect for brushing off the January blues and, for those who think it sounds like their kind of bookish pick-me-up, available now from all good booksellers!

The Maid by Nita Prose is published by HarperCollins and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 08 February 2022 so check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Image Description: The cover of The Twyford Code has a stylised image of a koi-style fish in black with blue symbols (including a gun, a cat, a diamond, gold bars, a phone) on its fins. A splash of blood can be seen on the LHS of the cover. The tagline is ‘It’s Time to Solve the Murder of the Century…’

It’s time to solve the murder of the century…

Forty years ago, Steven Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. He took it to his remedial English teacher, Miss Isles, who became convinced it was the key to solving a puzzle. That a message in secret code ran through all Edith Twyford’s novels. Then Miss Isles disappeared on a class field trip, and Steven’s memory won’t allow him to remember what happened.

Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Steven decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. Was Miss Isles murdered? Was she deluded? Or was she right about the code? And is it still in use today? Desperate to recover his memories and find out what really happened to Miss Isles, Steven revisits the people and places of his childhood.

But it soon becomes clear that Edith Twyford wasn’t just a writer of forgotten children’s stories. The Twyford Code has great power, and he isn’t the only one trying to solve it…

If you read my Best Books of 2021 post, you’ll know that I absolutely loved Janice Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal. With its clever modern take on the epistolary format, relatable small-town setting (complete with all-too-realistic petty squabbles of the main characters), and compelling murder mystery, it combined a ‘cosy’ style with witty social observation and some devilishly difficult puzzles to provide a compulsive page-turner for armchair sleuths everywhere. After finishing The Appeal in a matter of days, Janice’s second book – The Twyford Code – quickly made its way to the top of my most anticipated reads for 2022 and, I’m pleased to say, doesn’t disappoint!

Although foregoing the epistolary style of its predecessor, The Twyford Code is similarly inventive in the way it tells its story, with the majority of the book comprising of transcripts of 200 audio files, retrieved from the iPhone 4 of missing ex-con Stephen Smith, AKA ‘Little Smithy’. Recently released following a lengthy sentence, estranged from the son he never really knew, and adrift in a world that has moved on while he’s been inside, Stephen is drawn to investigate the disappearance of his former Remedial English teacher, Miss Iles, who vanished on an impromptu class field trip many years earlier.

At the time of her disappearance, Miss Iles was seemingly obsessed with a secret code that, she claimed, ran through the books of disgraced children’s author Edith Twyford (a brilliant pastiche of Enid Blyton). For Stephen, who has learnt to read in prison, the idea of a secret code hidden within a series of innocent children’s books. But as he starts to pull together the fractured memories of his own past – and reconnects with friends and classmates from his schooldays – it becomes clear that Miss Iles might have been onto something. The Twyford Code could lead to a great discovery – and Stephen soon realises that he isn’t the only one trying to solve it.

Quite how Janice Hallett manages to weave together such intricate plots utterly baffles me! As in The Appeal, The Twyford Code as enough twists, turns, and revelations to rival Agatha Christie at her best. Seemingly random encounters and insignificant conversations become, by the end of the novel, a vital part of the mystery – and plotlines that seem to have no meaningful connection become intimately entangled as the novel progresses.

As with Christie, you do have to take a few of Hallett’s plot twists in the spirit with which they are intended. There were a couple of moments in The Twyford Code that stretched my suspension of disbelief and, for me, wandered into the realms of the far-fetched. Unlike Poirot or Miss Marple, however, Stephen is a deliberately unreliable narrator and, as the novel progresses, you begin to realise that the more fantastical elements of his narrative may be being included for an entirely different reason – and for a very specific audience.

I also loved the way that Hallett uses the device of audio transcription to render her characters. The transcription software inaccurately transcribes names and colloquialisms – ‘Miss Iles’ becomes ‘missiles’, ‘cos’ becomes ‘Kos’ – and omits expletives from Stephen’s speech with often hilarious effect: ensuring that when, for example, the s[EXPLICIT]t hits the fan, readers can fully appreciate what a lucky f[EXPLICIT]g escape Stephen has had! The software also renders pauses, breaths, shouting, and whispers meaning that, once you’ve got your eye in, you really feel as if the characters are ‘talking’ on the page.

That said, the transcription format is harder to read on the page. Despite the compulsive plot I found the digital proof of The Twyford Code hard going (although, admittedly, I find reading digitally difficult at the best of times due to some ongoing issues with my eyes) and opted to wait for my physical pre-order to arrive before finishing the book. I mentioned ‘getting your eye in’ with the style and, sure enough, once I’d settled down with the hardback, it was much easier for me to follow the format. I’ll also be really interested to see how the audiobook of The Twyford Code is rendered. You’d think it would be easy given the nature of the narrative – but, as becomes clear towards the end of the book, there’s a reason you’re reading transcripts and not ‘listening’ to the audio itself!

The Twyford Code is both an ambitious and accomplished follow-up to Hallett’s best-selling debut. Although quite different in tone and style to The Appeal, fans of that novel will be delighted to find that Hallett’s flare for ingenious plotting has carried over to her second novel – as has her ability to challenge the reader with deliciously devious puzzles! Once I had my physical copy, I stormed through The Twyford Code – and I already can’t wait to see what twists, intrigues, and puzzles Hallett’s next novel has in store for us!

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett is published by Viper Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you decide to pick up a copy of the book, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Demon by Matt Wesolowski (Six Stories #6)

Scott King’s podcast investigates the 1995 cold case of a demon possession in a rural Yorkshire village, where a 12-year-old boy was murdered in cold blood by two children. Book six in the chilling, award-winning Six Stories series.

In 1995, the picture-perfect village of Ussalthwaite was the site of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, in a case that shocked the world. Twelve-year-old Sidney Parsons was savagely murdered by two boys his own age. No reason was ever given for this terrible crime, and the ‘Demonic Duo’ who killed him were imprisoned until their release in 2002, when they were given new identities and lifetime anonymity.

Elusive online journalist Scott King investigates the lead-up and aftermath of the killing, uncovering dark and fanciful stories of demonic possession, and encountering a village torn apart by this unspeakable act.

And, as episodes of his Six Stories podcast begin to air, King himself becomes a target, with dreadful secrets from his own past dredged up and threats escalating to a terrifying level. It becomes clear that whatever drove those two boys to kill is still there, lurking, and the campaign of horror has just begun…

It’s no secret that I have long been a fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series. Every single book in the series to date has been a 5-star read for me, with their page-turning combination of true crime podcast and supernatural folkloric chills.

Demon, the latest outing for podcaster Scott King, was, for me, a slightly different reading experience to previous entries in the series. I usually race through a Six Stories book over the course of a day or a weekend. Demon took me longer to read – not because it was any less brilliant (because let me tell you know, it is a FANTASTIC read) but because the tone and subject required, for me anyway, a more meditative pace of consumption. Instead of tearing breathlessly through the pages, I read the book almost like I would listen to a podcast: consuming an episode at a time, waiting a few days to digest that, and then consuming the next one. As a means of reading, it worked very well – especially for this particular topic.

For Scott King’s sixth outing, he’s investigating the brutal killing of twelve-year-old Sidney Parsons, brutally murdered by two boys his own age. No reason was ever given for their terrible crime but, in the small village of Ussalthwaite, dark rumours of an ancient evil circle around the tragedy. Could demonic possession account for this horrific crime? Familial and societal neglect? Or are some people just born evil?

Make no mistake, Demon is dark read in parts. The book comes prefaced with a trigger warning for fictional violence against children and animals and, in parts, the scenes and scenarios described are upsetting. There’s also discussion of suicide and attempted suicide. That said, I didn’t feel that these elements were used in any way that was gratuitous. Instead it is used to ask quite serious – and at times difficult – questions about personal choice, societal behaviour, and social responsibility in the social media age.

As with previous Six Stories novels, Demon combines a slightly supernatural element with the true crime podcast format and, as in previous novels, this adds a level of spooky tension to the story without ever becoming cliched or overblown. The balance between the folklore and the ‘true’ crime elements is particularly well done here, demonstrating the way in which deviations from societal norms remain insidious even in supposedly ‘modern’ times.

With its ambiguous conclusion, Demon isn’t a book that provides easy answers but it is one that provides a captivating and compulsive reading experience. For fans of the Six Stories series, it is a worthy – and much awaited – addition to the series whilst newcomers will get a darkly compulsive introduction to Six Stories’ fantastically readable blend of crime thriller and supernatural horror.

Demon (Six Stories #6) by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Orenda Books store, Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 31 January 2022 so check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd

Image Description: The cover of The Bloodless Boy features a section from a map of seventeenth-century London, with a seal in the centre.

The City of London, 1678. New Year’s Day. Twelve years have passed since the Great Fire ripped through the City. Eighteen since the fall of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic and the restoration of a King. London is gripped by hysteria, where rumors of Catholic plots and sinister foreign assassins abound.

The body of a young boy, drained of his blood and with a sequence of numbers inscribed on his skin, is discovered on the snowy bank of the Fleet River.

Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, the powerful Justice of Peace for Westminster, is certain of Catholic guilt in the crime. He enlists Robert Hooke, the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, and his assistant, Harry Hunt, to help his enquiry. Demanding discretion from them, he also entrusts to them to preserve the body, which they store inside Hooke’s Air-pump. Sir Edmund confides to Hooke that the bloodless boy is not the first to have been discovered. He also presents Hooke with a cipher that was left on the body.

That same morning Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society, blows his brains out. A disgraced Earl is released from the Tower of London, bent on revenge against the King, Charles II.

Wary of the political hornet’s nest they are walking into – and using evidence rather than paranoia in their pursuit of truth – Hooke and Hunt must discover why the boy was murdered, and why his blood was taken. Moreover, what does the cipher mean?

Harry, wanting to prove himself as a natural philosopher and to break free from the shadow of Hooke’s brilliance, takes the lead in investigating the death of the boy. He is pulled into the darkest corners of Restoration London, where the Court and the underworld seem to merge.

Harry has to face the terrible consequences of experiments done in the name of Science, but also reckon with a sinister tale with its roots in the traumas of the Civil Wars.

Set in seventeenth-century London, The Bloodless Boy introduces readers to Harry Hunt, Observator of the Royal Society and protégé of Robert Hooke, the society’s renowned Curator of Experiments. Called to the banks of the Fleet on a snowy winter’s morning, Hunt and Hooke are charged with the investigation and preservation of the body of a young boy, drained of blood and, apparently, transported to the river’s bank without the perpetrator leaving a trace of their passing.

The discovery of the bloodless boy provides Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, Justice of the Peace, with a puzzle – and Hunt with an opportunity to step out from his master’s shadow and prove his mettle as a natural philosopher in his own right. Solving the mystery of the bloodless bodies being left over London will take Hunt into some of the darkest – and most dangerous – corners of Restoration London, where the pursuit of knowledge rubs shoulders with criminality, and where a political hornet’s nest is waiting to be stirred up.

Seventeenth-century London comes vividly to life on the page in The Bloodless Boy, from the intrigues of the Court to the grimy streets of London’s shadowy back alleys. The early proceedings of the Royal Society – and the tensions created as the secular rationalism of the ‘new’ philosophy came into increasing conflict with established, often deeply-held, religious belief – are richly portrayed, and a real sense of the world that the characters occupy comes across on the page.

For me, the characters themselves didn’t come to life quite as vividly as the setting – probably because there were a lot of them. Fictional creations mix with real historical figures and, whilst I admire the dedication Robert J Lloyd has put into creating his rich and detailed world, there were times when I wondered whether the roles of some characters could have been combined to make it easier for readers to distinguish. A character list is provided at the beginning of the novel – which does help – but reading on my e-reader made flicking back and forth to refer to this every time that I’d forgotten who someone was something of a chore.

The mystery of the bloodless boy is, however, certainly intriguing – and considerably more complex than it first appears, and utilises this history of this tumultuous period to add additional depth. With as much a focus upon the ‘why’ as well as the ‘who’-dunnit, you also get a fantastic history lesson alongside your crime-solving, with a Hunt and Hooke’s inquiries taking them back to the dark days of the English Civil War, as well as the very edges of the moral boundaries of philosophical enquiry at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.

With its blend of political intrigue, underworld vice, and scientific enquiry, The Bloodless Boy reminded me of Ambrose Parry’s Will Raven and Sarah Fisher series of medical crime-thrillers, as well as Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London series. With a strong narrative drive and an intriguing mystery, the pace rarely drops off. Whilst this may leave readers who like to spend a little longer getting to know their characters wanting more, those seeking a plot-driven crime thriller within a well-realised historical setting will find much to enjoy here.

The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd is published by Melville House and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

My thanks go to Nikki Griffiths at Melville House Press for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues until 25 November 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!