Book Review: Never Be Broken

Never Be Broken, by Sarah Hilary, is the sixth and possibly final instalment in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with DI Rome attending a crime scene – the wreckage of a car that is stained with the blood of her colleague, Noah Jake. The timeline then moves back forty-eight hours leaving the reader to ponder if a favourite character from the series has been killed.

DS Jake is receiving counselling following the murder in prison of his brother, Sol. Noah feels responsible for Sol’s incarceration. Despite knowing it must be his subconscious speaking, Noah is haunted by his brother’s ghost. He is reluctant to lose even this tenuous link and refuses to speak of it to anyone.

Marnie’s crime team are investigating the growing number of deaths of children from London’s less than salubrious estates. There are links to drug dealing, the supply of knives and guns, and perhaps even people trafficking. When the latest victim, a white girl named Raphaela Belsham, is gunned down in Muswell Hill close to her parent’s expensive home, questions are asked about possible links to the run-down high rises where the dark skinned victims lived. Raphaela’s father is furious at the suggestion that his privileged daughter could have been caught up in any form of criminal activity.

The police are widely regarded as either incompetent or the enemy. Belsham blames people of colour for the country’s ills. When Marnie takes Noah along to question the Belshams about Raphaela, her father’s anger and racism manifest. He accuses Noah of planting evidence.

Much of the action revolves around Erskine Tower, a block of flats within sight of the fire damaged Grenfell. The residents include the elderly who have lived there for decades and younger people caught up in the escalating violence. Raphaela had been a visitor to the tower as part of a supervised school project. Her level of supervision comes under scrutiny.

Although following the fast moving, tense and twisty structure of many compelling crime fiction novels, the author digs deeper into complex issues raised. This is skilfully done, never compromising effortless reader engagement. Her use of language is impressive conjuring the tastes, sounds, smells and feel of challenging locations. Shocking events are presented to the reader in high definition.

The denouement is violent and rendered without compromise whilst avoiding sensationalism. There are several heart palpating moments involving key characters. There is a nagging fear throughout that the author will kill her darlings – she has ensured that the reader cares.

This is a tenacious and troubling exploration of the many colours of life existing beneath the shiny veneer of our capital city. It is crime fiction at its best.

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

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.

 

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.

Gig Review: Launching Quieter Than Killing

Yesterday evening I attended the Book Launch for Sarah Hilary’s latest crime thriller, Quieter Than Killing (reviewed here). Held in one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, Toppings, it drew a large and friendly crowd. I was soon chatting to two Bristol based crime book reviewers who were unimpressed by my efforts to get there. Ladies, that 45 minute journey is only straightforward for those comfortable with driving a car…

Unusually for me I opted to settle at the back when we were invited to take our seats. Having attended several of Sarah’s events I wanted to take this opportunity to photograph the crowd.

Sarah opened proceedings by thanking her publisher, agent and family before reading from her book to a rapt audience. Alison Graham (@TVAlisonGraham), whose other claims to fame includes her work with the Radio Times, then asked an excellent range of questions.

Throughout the Marnie Rome series the plot arc of her foster brother Stephen, who murdered her parents when he was fourteen years old, is developed. Why did he do it?

Sarah talked of Stephen’s obsession with Marnie and the emptiness he feels, how Marnie fills a void in him, and that she got away. In Quieter Than Killing his predicament is presented in a way that draws a degree of sympathy from the reader. Sarah does not plot her books prior to writing so cannot say if or when his reasons for killing will be revealed.

Alison asked where Marnie Rome came from, and also the writing in general.

We were told that Marnie arrived fully developed and first appeared in a story that has not been published – thank goodness according to Sarah! She has always been scribbling stories but didn’t make any serious attempt to write until about fifteen years ago, starting with short stories and flash fiction. A friend told her that she had a dark streak and suggested she try her hand at the crime genre. Novel writing commenced six to seven years ago.

As this series has progressed Marnie has become softer, nicer. Sarah’s child has suggested that she kill Noah (cue gasps of horror from the audience) to explore the emotional impact on Marnie. No decisions have been made…

Sarah was asked why Marnie has a tattoo.

It is all about secrets. The quotes are from Albert Camus, who Sarah loves, although she smiled at how pretentious this can seem. She wanted Marnie to have chosen to undertake something painful, a youthful decision that she may, in later life, regret. At a book club event Sarah was taken to task about the cost “How could an 18 year old afford such an expensive procedure?” She would not reveal if she herself has a tattoo.

Sarah’s empathy and her ability to write children so well was commented on.

Her mother spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and Sarah was raised on her grandmother’s stories from this time, although they were told as interesting anecdotes, the full horror only being understood as she got older and learned more from history. It taught Sarah that stories can be multi-faceted.

 

Alison and Sarah – photo credit, the Twitter feed of author MG Harris (@RealMGHarris)

There was a discussion of London, where Sarah lived for eleven years, and of her fascination with Battersea Power Station. She has no plans to buy one of the modern apartments being built there – having Sting as a neighbour, with his noisy, tantric sex, was not appealing.

Sarah was asked if she would consider setting a book in Bath. The answer was no. Three severed feet have been found in the city in recent years. Local news outlets considered if these may be art installations or a student prank. There was no suggestion of a serial killer – as if such a thing could never happen in Bath. She may consider taking Marnie north though, perhaps to Cumbria.

Which contemporary crime writers does Sarah admire?

  • Mick Herron, whose Slough House series  is funny and clever.
  • Ali Land, whose debut, Good Me Bad Me, about a fifteen year old in care because her mother is a serial killer, is amazing.
  • Alex Marwood
  • Sabine Durrant
  • Jane Casey
  • Susie Steiner

Questions were invited from the audience and Sarah was asked if she would consider writing anything other than crime fiction.

She has an idea for a dark and twisty ghost story, although suspects it would be more of a novella. She has also considered a standalone psychological thriller. There are at least two more Marnie Rome books to come (my note – yay!).

Did Sarah know from the beginning that she would write a series?

This was always her hope. She wanted to take Marnie on a journey, developing the character as she was affected by her various experiences. Character is what matters. A diverse cast, especially in London, is a reflection of reality. Characters do not need to be nice to be compelling.

Good fiction is about raising questions in the reader’s mind. Crime fiction, and also young adult fiction, offer scope for exploring a wide range of social and political issues.

After the questions Sarah took time to chat to eager members of her audience who then cleared the counter of the enticing, new hardback editions of her book. A long queue formed for these to be signed at which point I took my leave. This was an excellent event and well worth that anxiety inducing drive.

Quieter Than Killing is published by Headline and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Quieter Than Killing

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Quieter Than Killing, by Sarah Hilary, is the fourth in the Marnie Rome series of crime fiction novels. Each new release has gradually upped the author’s game and this offering proved no exception. Its taut prose and dark imagery encapsulates the chill of the action and setting. The personalities of key characters are vividly portrayed whilst never detracting from the plot.

DI Marnie Rome’s crime unit are dealing with a series of vicious assaults which she believes may be connected. Each of the victims has a criminal record and Rome suspects the perpetrator may be some sort of vigilante. Not all of her team buy this theory but it gives them something to work with given that none of those attacked have provided a description of their attacker and no witnesses have yet been found. When one of the victims dies from his injuries the investigation escalates to one of murder.

A separate team dealing with gang related crime reports that Rome’s old family home has been broken into and turned over, the innocent tenants hospitalised. Young kids, probably carrying out orders, are suspected yet no valuables appear to have been taken as would be more typical of such a crime. When a box of trinkets is recovered Rome intuits the involvement of her foster brother despite the fact he is in prison. When confronted he offers his usual smattering of accusatory riddles and hard to believe allegations.

A potential suspect goes missing as does his mother, a kindly neighbour raising the alarm. The team recovers fresh evidence and witness statements but their new boss, Ferguson, instructs them to focus on the murder. With conjecture rather than proof linking the various cases Ferguson will not prioritise Rome’s hunch that all these crimes may somehow be linked to her.

The battle for survival fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London are brilliantly evoked. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns. Each new scene oozes menace. Those investigating get caught up in this dangerous world, not least because some of what is going on touches close to home.

I love the author’s writing. Her use of language is masterful – I hope she takes pride in the sentences she crafts. Put together they create a roller coaster ride of a story, heart stopping in places yet every aspect enjoyed. This is crime fiction to satisfy even the most discerning aficionado.

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

Gig review: An Evening with Mick Herron

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On Wednesday evening of this week I returned to Waterstones Bookshop in Bath to listen to Mick Herron discussing his books and writing habits with Sarah Hilary. In preparation for the event I had read the first of Mick’s Slough House series of spy novels, Slow Horses (you may read my review here). Having enjoyed this first foray into his work I now wish to read everything he has written – oh for more time.

The event host was Waterstones’ Senior Bookseller, Steve Andrews, who impressed me by recognising and welcoming me when I arrived. He provided a glass of Prosecco and I took my seat.

Steve opened the discussion by introducing Mick as the finest espionage writer of our time, and pulling from his bag a recently acquired early proof of Mick’s next release, Spook Street. I made sure to approach Yassine, publicity manager at John Murray, to beg a copy for myself afterwards. I do hope he remembers to pop one in the post.

Steve invited Mick to give a reading. Chosen was a short section from Real Tigers, his latest book available for all to buy.

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Sarah then took the helm. She is obviously a fan of Mick’s work. She commented that his character Jackson Lamb, the head of the band of misfits and mavericks banished to Slough House, is one of the greatest grotesques in fiction. Mick explained that what drives Jackson is his view that the Joes – spooks working in the field – must be protected at all costs. Mick doesn’t plot his novels; his characters dictate the action. Although he knows how each story will start he allows his characters room to breath and follows wherever subsequent ideas lead.

Sarah regards Mick’s characters as a team, a type of oddball family. The way their observations and interactions slot together are a joy to read. She asked if they whispered in Mick’s ear.

Mick informed us that Jackson shouts! There is so much more to him than his sometimes monstrous behaviour. Mick hopes that the reader will love each character even if rationally perhaps they shouldn’t.

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One of the more amenable characters is Catherine Standish, a disgraced PA to a late senior spook. Sarah regards her as one of the best female characters in spy fiction. She asked Mick about any difficulties he faced writing a women.

Mick sees Catherine as the moral centre of the team. She is a recovering alcoholic, vulnerable but with a deep inner strength. He mentioned that in Real Tigers she is kidnapped and left with a bottle of wine. He was riffing with Hitchcock and the suspense of a ‘ticking bomb’ in a closed room. This allowed him to get inside Catherine’s mind, something that isn’t always possible in a thriller requiring tension and a fast pace.

Sarah mentioned that Jackson sometimes taunts Catherine but that his apparently crude actions end up displaying compassion. Things are rarely black and white and Mick is a master at showing the grey.

There was discussion of the humour in the novels, the cinematic openings and the crossovers of characters between each of Mick’s published works. Sarah commented that these characters are such a gift, the reader can’t help but want to get to know them better. Mick mentioned that contracts for television or film rights are for individual characters and these crossovers can be problematic when not all his books are to be included in the deal.

Here it was clarified that Mick has published two series – Oxford, and Slough House – as well as two standalone novels. Some of the crossover of characters occurred when it was unclear if a former publisher wished to put out the next Slough House book. Although screenplays have been written for a four part television series it is still unclear when this might be made.

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Mick talked of how he names his characters, and how their personality and actions can slide into place once they have acquired the right moniker. I was highly amused by his take on the name River, his choice for a younger character which he struggled to find for some time. He does not regard River as a real name but rather as something invented by hippies or celebrities. I made sure to pass on through Sarah afterwards that this is the name I chose for my now eighteen year old son.

Mick told us that he does almost no research. His knowledge of the secret service has been gleaned from other spy novels or entirely made up. However, the building known in the books as Slough House actually exists. He passed around photographs as proof.

Mick is often asked if he has any personal experience of espionage, which he denies. The question amuses him as it was not something he was ever asked when writing about a personal investigator.

This led to a discussion about genre and where spy novels fit in. Mick sees crime as asking ‘what happens?’ whereas thrillers ask ‘what happens next?’

An audience member asked Mick how he had switched from character driven novels to action driven. He replied that he had removed his use of the semi colon. This cut out much of the imagery and increased the pace.

He was also asked where his characters came from. He claimed they were aspects of himself. He prefers to deal with issues and creates characters who will deal with these in different ways.

With no further questions the evening concluded with the signing of books and Mick was quickly surrounded. It is clear that, in Bath at least, he has a solid fan base. Given the quality of his writing this is only likely to spread.

Gig Review: Crime Night at the Rooftop Book Club

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Not being a resident of London I look at the wealth of book events happening in our capital city with a touch of envy. Seeing pictures of all those happy people getting together to celebrate the work of the authors whose books make my life so much better is delightful, but does make me feel somewhat wistful that I can so rarely join them.

When I read online last year about a new initiative from publishers Headline, the Rooftop Book Club, I started to dream that one day I too would stand on the terrace of Carmelite House (the headquarters of Hachette UK) and enjoy a book event whilst gazing out over the Thames. Yesterday this became a reality. The line up for their collaboration with Crime Files was enough to persuade me to make the journey, an eight hour round trip as it turned out, and be a part of something rather than watch from afar.

I attended the evening with my daughter, a student in the city and also a writer (fan fiction rather than a blog). Prior to the event we explored the area as tourists, braving rain, hail and snow between the sunshine. It was one of those days when the British weather appeared unable to decide what to do. Thankfully when the time came to climb to the top of 50 Victoria Embankment the only inclement weather was a stiff breeze. We could cope with that.

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We were welcomed with a glass of wine and had time to venture out onto the terrace and mingle with other attendees before the event kicked off. I recognised a few faces but all seemed engrossed in conversation so I contented myself with playing ‘spot the book celebrity’. The organisor, Caitlin Raynor, then invited us to take our seats and the guest authors were introduced.

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The first panel consisted of James Law, Claire McGowan and Elly Griffiths discussing ‘Sense of Place: Region as Character’. Chaired by the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer, Jake Kerridge, this turned into a fascinating discussion during which it became apparent that crime writers like to locate their stories within a broadly defined ‘closed room’ but that this could be anywhere. You could see new ideas for plots forming in the author’s heads as alternatives were suggested.

Each explained their reasons for choosing particular locations – Elly had fond memories of Norfolk from childhood and is inspired by the archaeology, Claire wished to write Ireland out of her system, James worked on submarines for many years and when the idea of setting a story on one was suggested he thought it was a grand idea.

The authors offered the audience an insight into the way a story is conceived. They agreed that a fictional place offers more scope for creative writing, and also avoids the possibility of being sued for misrepresentation!

There followed a short break during which time I helped myself to a second glass of wine and returned to the terrace just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. London from this vantage point was looking very beautiful despite the cold.

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The second panel of the evening consisted of Antonia Hodgson, Sarah Hilary and Janet Ellis discussing ‘London: Past and Present’. Chaired by author, journalist and Times reviewer Antonia Senior they were quizzed on their views of the city and how important it was to their plots. As their novels are set over different historical time periods this offered an insight into how period can be a factor in the detail, but that people are much the same.

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I enjoyed their musings on research and how, for them, Google can be more useful than personal experience of a place. They prefer to allow the plot to lead and characters to develop rather than fretting over factual detail. There will always be a reader pointing out something they believe is incorrect.

The evening concluded with thanks and a show of appreciation from the rapt audience before the authors made themselves available to sign copies of their books. As I had a bus to catch across London I felt compelled to hurry away, pausing only to admire the night time skyline.

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I am grateful to all who made this fun and fascinating evening possible. I may now enjoy the contents of the generous goody bag that was given to each attendee. My tote bag collection is growing.

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Book Review: Tastes Like Fear

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Proof copy pictured above. The cover art for this book has not yet been finalised.

Tastes Like Fear, by Sarah Hilary, is the third book in the DI Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It is preceded by the 2015 Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, Someone Else’s Skin and its fabulously disturbing sequel, No Other Darkness. All of these books may be read and enjoyed standalone. I was fortunate to receive an early proof copy, hot off the press. It went straight to the top of my TBR pile and was devoured within a day. This is crime fiction of the highest calibre.

The author takes the difficult theme of teenage runaways, surviving unseen, a blight within the shadows of London; and creates a fast paced, twisty and riveting tale. Set in and around the iconic remains of Battersea Power Station, between the glass boxes rising up on their fetid foundations to provide protected homes for the wealthy, we are introduced to the dregs of a broken society. Those with homes in the remaining ghettos live in fear. Those without homes look at any sort of shelter as safer than life on the streets.

In a junction between the worlds of the despised and the revered there is a car crash. A partially clothed teenager runs across a road causing a driver to swerve into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Seemingly decent families’ lives are thrown into turmoil by life threatening injuries. The girl who caused the accident has disappeared.

Marnie Rome and her sidekick Noah are called in to investigate. There is a possibility that the girl could be May Beswick, photogenic and therefore cared about by a fickle public, missing for twelve weeks and of a family from whom she should have had no reason to run. Eye witnesses confirm that May was not the mysterious girl, but subsequent investigations suggest a possible link between her and other teenage runaways. She lived a life that her parents knew nothing about.

The story is told from several points of view. There exists a ‘safe’ house run by a man named Harm who collects lost girls in order to care for them. They are his family but they must do as they are told. He lectures them on the dangers that lurk in the outside world from which he rescued them and where they may no longer go. He provides clothes, food and shelter but demands a compliant, childlike purity in return.

Alternating between the stories of the girls in Harm’s dubious refuge is the progression of what soon becomes a multiple murder investigation. Accident investigators take over the details of the crash, eager to press charges against one of the drivers. Marnie and Noah are left to search for the terrified looking girl who ran across the road. It is possible she found shelter in a run down housing estate, but it is populated by people with no reason or desire to help the police.

Each time I thought ‘it could be him’ there was a reveal that opened up new and chilling possibilities. Every character is significant and preconceptions are played with before facts remind that all is rarely as it first seems. The writing has depth which belies the ease with which the chapters are read. This is the work of a skilled writer with a sharp and uncompromising understanding of how individuals allow themselves to be manipulated.

At no point did I guess the denouement; I had wandered down several blind alleys along the way. It was a masterful tidying up of threads, some of which I had not even noticed until the reason for their inclusion was made clear. This is truly a book where every word has fought for its place.

I couldn’t wait to reach the end to find out who had done the deeds and why. I then felt bereft that I had allowed myself to finish such an enjoyable read so quickly.

If you enjoy crime thrillers then add this to your wish list for the coming year. It is devious, dark, deliciously chilling. A formidable addition to an accomplished series that just keeps getting better and better.

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

Gig Review: An Evening of Readings

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Having spent yesterday afternoon attending a captivating author talk by Sarah Jasmon at Swindon Central Library, I then spent my evening meeting three more authors in the City of Bath. Organised by the Bath Short Story Award, An Evening of Readings was held in the Gallery Room of the St James Wine Vaults, a friendly pub situated in the streets behind the famous Royal Crescent. The size of the room dictated that this was going to be an intimate event, and great fun it was too.

Opening proceedings was Rachel Heath, who had stepped in at the last minute to replace an unwell Tania Hershman. Rachel read to us from two of her books, and I have now added ‘The Finest Type of Englishwomen’ to my wish list. I loved the pictures painted by the prose which came to life when given the author’s voice. This is what makes these author readings so special.

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Next up was Sarah Hilary, a crime fiction author I have been happy to cheer on from the sidelines for some time. I have watched her well deserved, increasing success with pleasure, but had not yet managed to meet her in person. She read from both her books, ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and ‘No Other Darkness’, giving life to the dark themes at which she excels. I noted details in the passages chosen which I had missed in my eagerness to turn the page and find out what happened next. Writers work so hard to craft beautiful sentences. It is a shame that some can be overlooked when a story is as compelling as these.

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Last to read was Paul McVeigh whose debut novel, ‘The Good Son’, I recently enjoyed so much. Paul entertained us to great effect, becoming for a time his eleven year old protagonist, Mickey Donnelly. Unfortunately my camera failed to capture a decent image of him reading as he is quite the showman.

Between authors the organisers ensured that the audience were well supplied with a selection of nibbles, while the bar was never far away to quench our thirst.

With readings complete the three authors took seats at the front to answer questions. What ensued was a good deal of amusing banter, feeling more like a friendly conversation amongst friends than a formal Q&A.

At the end of the evening there were books to buy, and a chance for me to introduce myself. Paul is to be commended for working out who I was, despite the chicken avatar I hide behind on Twitter. I was amazed to discover that he is old enough to remember our shared hometown during the period in which his book is set. He claims he uses good moisturiser and I now want to know the brand.

Did I mention that Sarah Jasmon was also in the audience? I couldn’t resist getting all four authors together for a picture.

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My thanks to the Bath Short Story Award for organising such an enjoyable evening. Any writers wishing to submit a story for their consideration should check out these details:

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Guest Post: Writing Our Fears

 

 

Sarah Hilary portrait and collects of her grandparents and mother that were taken in a Japanese POW camp. Mementos - a heart shaped pendant and a crucifix carved from the canopy of a plane and a book.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 31/1/2014.

 

Today I am happy to be hosting a guest post by Sarah Hilary, author of

  • the superbly disturbing Someone Else’s Skin which recently won the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award;
  • No Other Darkness which was published in paperback last week and which I enjoyed even more than her debut.

If you enjoy quality crime fiction then you want to read these books. In the mean time, enjoy this post. 

Writing Our Fears by Sarah Hilary

‘Write what you know’ always struck me as bunkum. ‘Write what you want to know’ was my maxim for many years, but now I have a new one that sums it up much better (for me, at least).

‘Write what you fear’ is my new mantra.

No Other Darkness was a scary book to write and is, I hope, a scary book to read because so much of its story spoke to the under-the-bed monsters in my head. Here, then, is a rundown of my fears as manifested in Marnie Rome book two.

Going underground

So, bunkers. While I’m not quite claustrophobic, I can think of several places I’d rather spend time than in an underground bunker. I could feel its bruising damp as I started to write and that’s what I need—to be where I’m writing. I could smell the green-black rot, and feel the raw cement walls squeezing me. My palms were sweating the whole time I was writing the scenes towards the end of the book when Marnie’s trapped underground.

Angry teenagers

I’m scared of them. I’m scared for them. Marnie’s bogeyman is an angry teenage boy, but it’s more complicated than that because she herself was an angry teenager—something that haunts her throughout the series.

Creepy dolls

Anyone who’s seen the Penguin US cover of No Other Darkness will be with me on this one. I used to collect dolls as a girl. My ‘Mama’ doll went in the bath with me so many times she ended up saying, ‘Murder’. True story.

Lost children 

I’m a mother. I cried when I wrote the opening chapter of No Other Darkness. Like Marnie, it mattered to me that I was with the lost boys every step of the way. When Marnie sits in silence with them in the bunker—that was a seminal scene in terms of her character.

Losing yourself

‘There is no other darkness than this: what’s inside us. Where we hide; what we hide.’ The character who speaks this line in No Other Darkness scares me because of who she is and what she’s done. Her despair scares me, and her loss. Her fear scares me. The idea of losing yourself so completely that you’re no longer in control of your thoughts or actions—terrifies me.

 

So, there you have it. A handy list of the buttons to press to send me over the edge. But if you think this is frightening, you should see where book three is taking me. It’s not called Tastes Like Fear for nothing.

 

This post is part of the No Other Darkness blog tour. Check out the other stops on the tour, detailed below.

No Other Darkness pb.indd        Blog Tour

 

If you are on Twitter and live in the UK then, for today only, you can enter to win a copy of No Other Darkness. Check out my feed for details: Jackie Law (@followthehens) | Twitter.