Gig Review: Sarah Hilary in Bath launching #ComeAndFindMe

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to attend the launch of Sarah Hilary’s fifth crime fiction novel in her DI Marnie Rome series, Come And Find Me. I have been lucky enough to receive proofs of each of the books in this series to review and they just keep getting better. As I now choose to read very few crime fiction novels, I put my continuing enjoyment of Sarah’s books down to the quality of the writing, the challenging topics explored and the skilfully rendered plot development. They are fast moving page turners and follow expected structures but never feel formulaic during reading.

The launch was held in Toppings bookshop where we received a warm welcome alongside a tasty array of nibbles to go with our wine. Alison Graham had prepared a series of interesting questions which enabled Sarah to offer an insight into the nuts and bolts of crime writing. In the audience I spotted Mick Herron, another Bath based crime writer. It is always good to see authors supporting each other’s endeavours.

   

Following introductions and thanks the Q&A began. Below I summarise the key points I came away with.

Marnie Rome is a complex character. Throughout the series she is trying to find out why her step-brother, Stephen, killed their parents. He knows this and baits her. In Come And Find Me the plot is based around a prison riot at the prison where Stephen is serving his sentence. He is hospitalised and Marnie must deal with how she feels about this. A violent offender has escaped and Marnie’s job is to find him.

Sarah was asked what will happen to Marnie in the future.

As she doesn’t plot, Sarah doesn’t know. She develops her characters as she writes them. Part of her impetus, the pleasure in writing, is this discovery. Sarah dislikes giving out too much information about her characters as subsequently this can limit what happens next. Such parsimony of detail has led to readers getting in touch when some minutiae is revealed – as when Marnie mentioned having a slow cooker.

Women in real life write to violent prisoners. Sarah was asked what research she did into this.

When preparing a media interview Sarah was once asked if she had been such a penpal (the answer is no). She was inspired by a particular news story about an apparently intelligent woman who remained in thrall to a cult leader convicted of abuse. The characters she writes are rounded but have flaws, just like people in real life. She will feel a degree of sympathy for most of them. She likes to pose the question: who do you think the monster is?

A further question in this vein was how such a lovely lady as Sarah can write such malign characters.

Sarah told us that she has always been interested in dark stuff. Since reading her books, her mother’s neighbours have commented on this – what is it with Sarah! She reminded us that it is fiction. Had she experienced anything so dark she doesn’t believe she could have written about it in the way she does. She talked of the reader’s desire for a vicarious thrill, to experience from a position of safety.

Asked why women in particular seem to lap such stories up Sarah suggested that part of this may be because, from a young age, women are taught to be afraid – of strangers, of walking alone after dark. Perhaps there is a fascination about what may happen.

Sarah mentioned a real life example. In 1879 Kate Webster, a housekeeper, murdered her mistress. She disposed of the body by cutting it up and boiling the remains. She then sold the resulting dripping to neighbours who had belittled her. She was hanged for the crime but, whilst in prison, people could pay to go in and observe her. Most of those who went were of a similar age and class.

Sarah was asked if she would have gone to look.

After some consideration she admitted that she might have done.

Sarah was asked if she had ever visited a prison.

She hasn’t. She doesn’t even have a police consultant to talk to about the procedures she writes about, although she has been assured they come across as credible.

Moving on, Sarah was asked if Marnie has any friends, and if Sarah would be her friend.

Sarah admires her courage. She considers Marnie brave because she is afraid but tries not to let this get in the way. Sometimes she fails but she doesn’t give up, she carries on. In Come And Find Me she is changing. In the early books Marnie was spiky and brittle. Now she is softer, she has allowed herself to be more vulnerable and this has made her stronger.

One detail about Marnie that has been revealed is her tattoos. Although embarrassed by them she carries them as she does her guilt for how she behaved towards her parents as a teenager. These things are a part of her past that she must somehow learn to live with.

Alison commented that Sarah is good at writing lost souls and asked if she empathised with everyone.

Like all writers, Sarah watches people. She is drawn to the stories of those who do not belong, who are invisible to society, such as the homeless. She commented that it can sometimes be necessary to look the other way. There are so many bad things happening in the world that we feel powerless to change – considering them all would be overwhelming. She is, however, inspired by the Arthur Miller quote:

“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Sarah was asked if she considered her books violent.

She doesn’t like horror to be written in graphic detail as she believes this numbs the reader. Instead she seeks an emotional reaction, to open a door and then allow imagination to take over as this can be more powerful than words.

Alison asked how many more books there are to be about Marnie.

Sarah told us that she may rest the series after book six, although this depends on what temptation presents itself. She is aware that she is stretching readers’ patience for certain answers. When she started writing, series were wanted by publishers. Now it seems that debuts are the thing. Her next book may be standalone.

As a professional writer does Sarah have a routine?

There is a certain element of this although waiting for ideal conditions is a writers way of prevaricating. If words need to be written they will happen. Sarah’s inspiration no longer flows as freely as it once did. She writes in the mornings, currently in a cold kitchen wearing fingerless gloves for warmth – very Dickensian.

Questions were opened up to the audience and the subject somehow veered into a discussion about Blake’s Seven. Sarah was then asked if Come and Find Me could be read standalone.

Each book details a crime that is solved so yes. However, the depth of Marnie’s character is best understood by reading the series from the beginning.

Sarah was asked if she ever felt uneasy when real life crimes mimicked her fiction.

In one sense yes, but in writing realistic crime fiction this can happen. It would probably be different if a copycat crime happened and she was cited as the inspiration. She tries to write with compassion, to shine a light on dark situations. She is not squeamish about what is real.

Marnie is a difficult character to write whereas Noah is easy. He started with a much darker persona but Sarah was told that she must have at least one lighter character. As a result she doesn’t believe Noah could work as a protagonist, there wouldn’t be enough of interest. Her favourite part to write in each book is when Noah plays the part of the criminal in order to allow Marnie to try to solve the crime.

Sarah was asked if we can expect a Marnie cookbook and what her favourite recipe would be.

This ellicited some discussion about slow cookers and pot noodles. In the end Sarah decided Marnie would advise visiting a favourite cafe.

To finish, Sarah mentioned that she had seen a comment on Twitter, that books put us in touch with humanity in surprising ways. She liked this, and also the irony of reading it on such a site.

   

Having wound up the formal part of the event there was time to chat, imbibe, and purchase books. Sarah was being kept busy at her signing table so I slipped away.

Come And Find Me is published by Headline and is available to buy now from all good bookshops. Toppings currently hold a limited number of signed first editions.

 

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Book Review: The Music Teacher

The Music Teacher, by Renata Šerelytė (translated by Marija Marcinkute), is a crime fiction novel set in Lithuania. I found it a strange tale to read until the crux was explained in the final reveal. Unlike other contemporary crime fiction it lacked ongoing tension. The story is told around: numerous flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood; her vivid dreams; the characters who appear in her office demanding that the police deal with issues clearly not within their remit; her depressing social life.

Told in the first person, the protagonist is a provincial investigator dealing with the death of a teenager found drowned in a bath. It could be murder or suicide. With council elections imminent word comes from on high that the case should be closed. Young women are generally treated with contempt, beaten and sexually abused without retribution. Mothers appear more worried about what others will consider their offspring’s promiscuity and how this will affect attitudes towards them and their future prospects.

The investigator’s dreams replay scenes from her unhappy childhood interspersed with present day events. She drinks to try to forget, vomiting when stressed. While still at school she had an affair with a music teacher who, although long since abandoning her, remains the love of her life.

Poisonous plants mysteriously appear on the investigator’s desk which she assumes come from a secret admirer. Psychics offer to help with the investigation much to the chagrin of the church, recently returned to influence in Lithuania. Memories become merged with dreams, obscuring what is real from that which is imagined. As the investigation progresses the narrator shows signs of increasing neurasthenia which threatens to spiral out of control when the music teacher reappears, now a government official, possibly a spy.

There is acknowledgement that memories can be corrupted by what subsequently happens and that crimes are rarely solved as is portrayed in TV dramas where the action is intense and never ceasing:

“The thing you needed most to solve a case was time”

This is a dark portrayal of life in Lithuania coloured by the apparent mental trauma affecting the everyday life of the protagonist. The shifting narrative made it a challenge to differentiate between dream and reality. Although marketed as a crime novel its atypical composition may appeal more to fans of literary structualism. A memorable but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Noir Press. 

Book Review: Lord of the Dead

Lord of the Dead, by Richard Rippon, is a dark crime novel set in the North East of England. Its protagonist is Dr Jon Atherton, a university lecturer and psychologist who freelances for the local police force providing profiles of perpetrators from crime scenes. The story opens when he is called to a particularly gruesome murder. The body of a young woman has been found by a dog walker, carved into bits and left in a field.

Atherton suffers from cerebral palsy which affects his mobility. He is married with a daughter but is in counselling following an affair with a colleague he worked alongside on a previous case. His wife is unhappy when he is once again asked to team up with the woman, DS Kate Prejean.

Prejean and Atherton start their investigations by visiting the scene of a previous murder in which another young woman was found in pieces. Their fear is that they may now be dealing with a serial killer, and as time passes this proves to be the case. To find him (apparently it is always a him) they need to work out the motive and how victims are selected. Other than their similar looks the dead woman appear to have nothing to link them.

The police team must deal with the modern trials of crime fighting: an invasive press;  social media sharing; a PR department whose budget is the only one not to suffer recent cuts to funding. Added to this it becomes clear that an insider is leaking sensitive information. As further bodies are discovered a need for results leads to an ill advised and disastrous attempt at an arrest.

There are elements typical of the genre: Atherton drinks heavily and struggles to be a decent husband; Prejean is conventionally beautiful and emotionally defensive; there are sexual undercurrents and objectification, a lack of detached professionalism; a woman of colour is underrated. The plot arc, however, is strong enough to belie any accusation of being overly formulaic. Tension is retained without feeling overdone and the prose remains engaging.

I found the forensics lead, Sue Cresswell, a more interesting character than Prejean. Even Atherton’s wife, despite her depression, appeared stronger than this supposedly capable senior investigator. Amongst the men DC Rogers felt somewhat underplayed. Given the large cast I wondered if some were introduced with a view to development in potential sequels.

This is a competently written crime novel, British noir with some intriguing reasoning. A strong addition to a popular genre. For fans of crime fiction it is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Obliterati Press.

Book Review: Come And Find Me

Come And Find Me, by Sarah Hilary, is the fifth book in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with a prison riot during which several inmates are viciously attacked, a fire is started and, in the ensuing mayhem, one escapes. Mickey Vokey was incarcerated after he assaulted a young mother in her home. He has been receiving impassioned fan-mail from women since his conviction, who have provided him with their addresses that he may write back to them. In attempting to locate the felon, the police are spread thin. Cutbacks and the interest of the press add to the pressures the force comes under, that and the consensus from those who knew Vokey that none of the photographs being circulated of the missing person look anything like him.

DI Marnie Rome must once again detach her professional life from her personal demons. Her foster-brother, Stephen Keele, has sustained life-threatening injuries in the riot. Marnie approaches her contacts within the prison but is unsure of the veracity of their testimony. Prisoners know that they must not upset those within the system for fear of direct retaliation. They are also aware that those on the outside maintain control by threatening family members.

Marnie and her team quickly uncover a number of valuable leads, including access to the Vokey family home. Mickey Vokey is a talented artist with a particular interest in capturing the emotions of his subjects. He collected photographs including some of his known victim. The police officers fear that there could be others unaccounted for within his collection, and that now he could strike again.

Interspersed with the details of the ongoing search and investigation are chapters narrating the thoughts of Vokey’s cellmate who is on life-support due to injuries sustained in the riot. Ted Elms was convicted of benefit fraud and is regarded as a model prisoner. He knows what happened during the riot but is now unable to speak. He is, however, more aware of what is going on around him than his carers and visitors realise.

The reader is offered glimpses of past lives that enable empathy with the varied cast of characters despite their obvious flaws. Where there is evil it has been exacerbated by the prison system. Prisons also exist on the outside due to loneliness and societal dislocation. Initial, easy judgements rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The author is a master of suspense – it is almost frightening how good she is at injecting dark, twisted suspicions and changes of direction. Although gruesome in places the prose remains emotive and sensuous. Smells and tastes permeate each tightly constructed scene.

A crime thriller that dives straight into the action and maintains a roller coaster tension through to the unanticipated denouement. It will appeal to fans of the genre but contains sufficient depth and consideration to satisfy any reader. A fiercely assured addition to an unflinching series. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Whiteout

Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English by Orenda Books. At the beginning of this instalment the protagonist, policeman Ari Thór Arason, is once again working in the small fishing town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. His former boss, Tómas, has moved to Reykjavik where he has joined the city force’s Serious Crimes Department. Neither is completely happy in their roles.

When the body of a young woman, Ásta Káradóttir, is discovered beneath cliffs near the deserted village of Kálfshamarsvík, Tómas feels he must prove himself to his new colleagues by uncovering how she came to die. He eschews their offers of help preferring to call on Ari Thór for assistance. Together they travel to the scene of the investigation, in a remote, northern location which has a chequered history and harbours many secrets. Ásta’s mother and sister were found dead at the same spot more than twenty years before. The policemen question if each of these deaths could have been accident, suicide or something more sinister.

In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. The cliffs are located by a large house, a lighthouse and a nearby farm, with little else close by. The residents of these properties have barely changed in the decades over which the story is set. Parents have died, their children grown, but few have moved on.  Although Ásta was sent to live with a distant aunt when she was seven years old, shortly after her sister’s death, those who knew her as a child remain.

Ari Thór and Tómas set about questioning their potential witnesses and suspects. An elderly brother and sister, Oskar and Thora, live in the basement of the big house and work as housekeeper and caretaker. The house is owned by Reynir who inherited the property and a successful business from his father and spends time there regularly. Living on the nearby farm is Arnor who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with his duties at the lighthouse. All were close by at the times of each of the three tragic deaths.

Post-mortem examination shows that Ásta had sex shortly before she died yet the men deny involvement. Her body was found on rocks but there is a possible head injury from another cause. Her mother and sister’s deaths were officially regarded as suicide and accident. Rumours float to the surface that Ásta, when a child, may have witnessed more than has been acknowledged. The policemen’s questions bring to light historic behaviours that those involved sought to suppress. Then another body is discovered within the big house.

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas which everyone is eager to celebrate for a variety of reasons. To avoid problems encountered in previous years, Ari Thór has brought his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Kristin, along with him to the hotel where they are staying. The author does not introduce plot threads without reason. Knowing this adds to the tension.

I was eager to review this book as I have followed Ari Thór through each of his adventures to date and grown fond of this young man trying so desperately to do something worthwhile with his life alongside creating the happy family of his imagination. He resents having missed out on this himself. His flaws are not of excess but rather a struggle to deal with his past and accept Kristen’s individuality. The ghosts haunting all the characters are the secrets they have tried to bury.

The writing is effortlessly captivating with a brooding quality that ensures plot direction remains actively unsettling. The reader’s eagerness to understand how and why is gradually rewarded. The denouement is accomplished yet retains a degree of ambiguity.

An entertaining read from a master storyteller that is crime fiction yet avoids the genres sometimes cliched predictability. I hope this is not the final book in what is a fabulous series. Highly recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher. 

This post is a stop on the Whiteout Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.  

Whiteout is published by Orenda Books.

 

Book Review: Fair of Face

Fair of Face, by Christina James, is the sixth novel in the author’s DI Yates series of crime thrillers. Set in contemporary Lincolnshire it first introduces the reader to Tristram Arkwright, an inmate of HMP Wakefield who, as a reward for good behaviour, works in the prison library. He strikes up an illicit correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a city analyst turned bookseller who supplies the maximum-security jail with its reading material. Bored with the ‘honest intentions and humdrum goals’ of the local citizens, Jennifer considers her secret correspondence with the incarcerated librarian an exciting diversion. Both are attempting to play mind games believing they can retain the upper hand.

The action moves to Spalding where the bodies of a mother and her infant daughter have been discovered in their beds. The house is run-down and in one of the roughest streets in town where everyone knows everyone else’e business and few men seem to stick around. The murder house had been checked after the postman found the front door wide open early in the morning on his rounds. The dead woman’s foster daughter, Grace, is missing.

DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are called in to investigate. When Grace reappears with a friend, Chloe, both girls are acting strangely. These ten year olds are gently questionned but do not seem able to account for their whereabouts over the weekend just past with any consistency. Chloe seems more upset about the two deaths than Grace.

Due to the girls’ ages social services become involved. Marie Krakowski is a big hearted woman who DI Yates resents for her determination to protect her young charges. Her persistent interference during formal interviews makes getting the truth from the two children a challenge. Another social worker, Tom Tarrant, is held in higher esteem. Both social workers are familiar not just with the girls and their chequered backgrounds but also their troublesome wider families, details of which they are reluctant to share citing client confidentiality.

The murder investigation keeps coming back to these youngsters, one of whom is a survivor from a previous violent attack on her family. Although the perpetrator of this atrocity was apprehended there are secrets to uncover that could potentially have a bearing on the more recent case.

There are a number of links between characters which I found somewhat challenging to follow – uncles, nephews, siblings, partners, employees and social workers had multiple interactions and a variety of roles. The point of view kept switching between chapters which interrupted my concentration as I worked out who was narrating and their relationships. Having a Tim and a Tom didn’t help my attempts to retain a coherent overview. I wondered if some of this would have been clearer had I read previous books in the series.

There are many detailed descriptions of clothes, some of which seemed unnecessarily acerbic:

“Marie was wearing a floor-length red cotton tartan skirt and a jacket with a nipped-in waist (insofar as it was possible to nip in Marie’s waist)”

One of the characters plays a role that subsequently appears superfluous to the plot.

Despite these minor criticisms the writing remains engaging. I had guessed many of the reveals early on but had by no means worked out them all. Introducing two ten year old girls as potential witnesses or even suspects to murder was a plot driver I haven’t encountered before. The difficulties this presented to the police investigation added food for thought.

A crime novel that held my attention and offered sufficient originality to make it worth the read. Where I am sensitive to what I regard as over emphasis on looks and dress, others will likely find this helps picture each scene.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

This post is a stop on the Fair of Face Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Rocco and the Nightingale

Rocco and the Nightingale, by Adrian Magson, is the fifth novel in the author’s Inspector Lucas Rocco series of crime thrillers. It is the first to be published by The Dome Press. Set mainly in rural France in the 1960s, the protagonist is a competent and diligent police officer. It is refreshing to read a crime novel with a main character whose work is not affected by troubling personal issues.

The story opens with a murder on a lonely back road near Picardie in 1964. Rocco and his team are called to investigate but can find little evidence other than the body. Just as it looks as though the victim may be identified, Rocco is taken off the case and assigned to protect a senior government minister ousted from the Gabon Republic in central Africa. Unhappy with this new role Rocco can’t quite let the murder investigation go.

Using trusted contacts in Paris, links with a criminal gang and the recent murder of a former police officer come under Rocco’s scrutiny. It would appear that an assassin may have been hired for a series of vengeance killings and Rocco himself could be a target. Although willing to take additional precautions, Rocco does not let this potential threat affect his work. When fellow policemen are gunned down where he should have been the extent of the danger is brought home.

Rocco risks the wrath of his superiors by travelling to other jurisdictions to investigate further. With a far reaching case to solve involving a vicious gang leader out to prove himself and a killer who appears to believe he is fireproof, Rocco’s willingness to follow procedure will only stretch so far. He suspects his superiors of ulterior motives.

Having cut back on the number of crime and thriller books I am willing to read, as so many merged into each other, this story proved worth making an exception for. It is comfortably paced with a good mix of interesting characters. The plot concentrates on solving the crimes without veering into unnecessary subplots such as romance. It is deftly written with enough humour and warmth to balance the gruesome detail of much of the action. Despite being part of a series it reads well standalone.

An engaging police procedural set before many modern methods of crime detection and communication became available. Rocco may enjoy more than his fair share of luck in garnering relevent information and in survival, but this is a well put together, entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dome Press.