Short Story Review: Outside the Law by Anthony Berkeley

I found “Outside the Law” by Anthony Berkeley in “Great Crime Stories”, originally published by Chancellor Press in 1936.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A tense short story that held my attention to the very end.  A good lesson in creating believable, well-imagined characters. 5 / 5

Summary

After committing the crime of breaking into a house and robbing it of any valuables, three very different men find themselves trapped in a building, surrounded by the police.

There appears to be little if no chance of escape.  And, should the police catch them with the big pile of stolen goods still in their possession, they know for certain that they will be spending the next few years in prison.

With two of the three men armed, how will they react to this twist in their fortunes?

Favourite Quote

He knew little English, but already he had gathered that the word “busies” meant the police.

Review

For a short story, Outside the Law is really quite tense.  I think it’s down to the clear, concise characterisation by the author.  The three men were all very different.  They each have differing reasons to turning to crime, different reasons for being there and have very different characters and backgrounds to each other.  As their options fall away, it’s no wonder they all respond differently to the pressure they find themselves under.

As for the ending…it’s very good.  You suspect you know what is going to happen but still you are glued to the story.  I can’t say any more for fear of giving too much away.

But I will say is this: when a writer knows his characters well, the story just flows.  And this is what we have here.  For any writers out there who want to read what is, in my opinion, a great demonstration of creating well-defined and believable characters, you could do a lot worse than taking a look at this.

Rating

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Book Review: The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris

The Anatomist’s Apprentice is the first book in the Dr Thomas Silkstone series by Tessa Harris.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Dr. Silkstone is an interesting character and the mystery isn’t too bad either.  I will be reading more of these books.  3.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

The death of Lord Edward Crick has unleashed a torrent of gossip through the seedy taverns and elegant ballrooms of Oxfordshire. Few mourn the dissolute young man-except his sister, the beautiful Lady Lydia Farrell. When her husband comes under suspicion of murder, she seeks expert help from Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a young anatomist and pioneering forensic detective from Philadelphia.

Thomas arrived in England to study under its foremost surgeon, the aging Dr. Carruthers, and finds his unconventional methods and dedication to the grisly study of anatomy only add to his outsider status. Against his better judgment he agrees to examine Sir Edward’s decomposing corpse, examining his internal and external state, as well as the unusual behavior of those still living in the Crick household.

Thomas soon learns that it is not only the dead but also the living to whom he must apply the keen blade of his intellect. And the deeper the doctor’s investigations go, the greater the risk that he will be consigned to the ranks of the corpses he studies.

Favourite Quote

A good corpse is like a fine fillet of beef, the master would say – tender to the touch and easy to slice.

Review

First impressions: The front cover grabbed my attention immediately.  Then, as I read the back cover, I thought the story sounded very interesting.  According to the acknowledgements in the front of the book, it was inspired by a murder trial at the Warwick Assizes in 1781 during which an anatomist was called to give evidence for the first time (that we know of).  However, this is not the fictionalised version of that case.  The case in question is entirely fictional.

The Anatomist’s Apprentice is Dr. Thomas Silkstone.  I think the title is a little misleading because by the time the book is set, the doctor is no longer an apprentice.  That being said, it does sound good, doesn’t it?  As soon as we meet him, we are introduced to his work.  There are passages within the story that are not for the faint-hearted – or those who like to eat their lunch whilst reading.  The reason for this is that we are given some very graphic details about the work and experiments of Dr. Silkstone in his capacity as an anatomist.  (See above quote).

Dr Silkstone, along with his work, is interesting and engaging, and makes for a very good main character.  However, a number of the other characters were a little flat, my least favourite being the Lady Lydia, who spent most of her time looking beautiful whilst being confused or upset.  Also, I felt some of the other characters didn’t read as consistent.

One of the highlights of the book was the level of detail the reader is given.  Places jump off the page so you can easily visualise where the characters are, and the author doesn’t shy away from darker topics: the grim reality of life at the time and the cost that must be paid for scientific breakthroughs.  I did find the pace a little slow in places and I wasn’t particularly bothered by the romance – it didn’t feel like an integrated part of the plot.

On the whole though, I did enjoy it and would read more books from this series.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Book Review: Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Snow White Must Die (translated by Steven T Murray) is the fourth book in the Kirchhoff and Bodenstein series by Nele Neuhaus.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A complex yet gripping mystery thriller, full of plot twists and turns.  I couldn’t put it down. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

On a wet November day, Detectives Pia Kirchoff and Oliver von Bodenstein are summoned to the scene of a mysterious accident. A woman has fallen from a bridge onto the motorway below. It seems that she may have been pushed. The investigation leads them to a small town near Frankfurt, and the home of the victim, Rita Cramer.

On a September evening eleven years earlier, two seventeen-year-old girls, Laura and Stefanie (also known as Snow White), vanished without trace from this same village. In a trial based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Stefanie’s boyfriend, handsome and talented, Tobias Sartorius, was sentenced to ten years in prison. He has now returned to his home in an attempt to clear his name. Rita Cramer is his mother.

In the village, Pia and Oliver encounter a wall of silence. But when another young girl goes missing, the events of the past repeat themselves in a disastrous manner. The investigation turns into a dramatic race against time, because for the villagers, there is soon no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator. And this time they are determined to take matters into their own hands.

Favourite Quote

Like poisonous lava these words erupted from the depths of him; finally all the bottled disappointment came pouring out.

Review

I didn’t realise until I finished the book that this is the fourth book in the series that stars Kirchhoff and Bodenstein.  However, the book works very well as a standalone. I don’t believe I missed out on anything of significance by not starting the series at the beginning.

Every character we come across in this story has a tale to tell.  It’s not only the main characters that have the depth of a backstory while everyone else is simply there to move the story along, but, just like in real life, all these personalities, histories and choices weave together to create a fabric of community.  And somewhere, in amongst all this, are secrets and truth.

Kirchhoff and Bodenstein are both very interesting, modern characters.  Kirchhoff keeps so many animals that she almost lives on a farm, so before her day of investigating crime begins, she’s already been up for hours looking after the animals.  As for Bodenstein, his family are land and castle-rich but money poor.  Their personal lives are brought with them wherever they go, and this helps them to appear very realistic.  What is going on at home isn’t only important when the chapter says they’ve left work behind, so it’s all right for you to flesh out your character.   Most people are not like that; and believable characters are not like that either.

There are a lot of characters in this story and it was a little difficult to keep up with who’s who, but that’s my only real problem with the book.  I found the story to be gripping and I resented having to put it down when real life said I had others things to do apart from read.  I wanted to know what was going to happen next, what the next plot twist would uncover, if the truth would come out before it was too late…

This is my first foray into German crime fiction and I really enjoyed it.  I definitely plan to read more of these books.  If you enjoy Scandi-Noir, or any other sort of European crime-drama, I recommend Snow White Must Die to you.

Rating

 

Book Review: Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce

Last Tango in Aberystwyth is the second book in the Aberystwyth Noir series by Malcolm Pryce.

Summary (from back of book)

To the girls who come to make it big in the ‘What the Butler Saw’ movie industry, Aberystwyth is the town of broken dreams.  To Dean Morgan who teaches at the Faculty of Undertaking, it is just a place to get course materials.  But both worlds collide when the Dean checks into the notorious bed and breakfast ghetto – a dark labyrinth of Druid speakeasies and toffee-apple dens – and receives a suitcase intended for a ruthless Druid assassin.  Suddenly he is running for his life, his heart hopelessly in thrall to a porn star known as Judy Juice.  Once again, Louie Knight, the town’s only private eye, steps into the moral netherworld to make sense of it all.  He knows that in order to find the Dean, he has to discover what was in the Druid’s case.  It turns out to be something so evil it makes even the hard-boiled gumshoe gasp…

Favourite Quote

It was so hard to pick just the one…

The enamel hot dog sign squeaking in the wind, the doors banging and the newspaper gusting across the cheap concrete crazy paving lent a strange unsettling air to the place.

Review

I love this series.  It’s different, very quirky and like nothing else I have read.  If I had to sum up the series in one sentence…”A fast-paced, dark humoured, surreal hard-boiled detective series that is wonderfully set in an alternative Aberystwyth.”

The surrealism comes from taking everything that makes a classic hard-boiled detective story, giving them a Welsh twist before placing it in the quiet seaside university town of Aberystwyth.  And it works so well.  I struggle to put these books down once I start reading them.

As for this instalment in the series, it was as good, if not better than book one, Aberystwyth Mon Amor (which I reviewed here back in 2015).  Again there is plenty of witty dialogue, plot twists and comedy, but the author is also capable of writing some quite heartfelt passages too, which brings balance to the story.

Many of the characters have returned for book two (Aberystwyth is a small town).  Some favourites include Calamity, Louie’s wheeler-dealing teenage partner and Sospan the ice cream seller (who is equated with the ready-to-listen barman in the usual hard boiled detective stories).  But there are plenty of new characters too, keeping the plot fresh and interesting.

All-in-all, a truly imaginative series that I’m enjoying re-reading so much.

Rating 

Short Story Review: The Text by Claire Douglas

Summary (from Goodreads)

A single text changed her life. Did it end his?

Emily Latimer is furious. Her boss Andrew is being so unreasonable, as always. She fires off a text to her boyfriend, only in her haste she sends it to her whole office group.

In it she says Andrew’s being difficult about letting her have time off work. That she is angry. That she hopes he dies. The next day her face burns in the office. No one believes her when she says it was a typo, she meant to say does. She hopes he does.

It’s a nightmare. But it gets worse – Andrew doesn’t turn up for work. And then the police come knocking. Because Andrew Burton has been murdered . .

Favourite Quote

It’s warm and cosy in here with Radio One playing quietly in the background and the rain drumming on the roof and bonnet like an amateur pianist plonking out a tune.

Review

This was a quick, engaging read. I think I got through it in about half an hour, but for the whole of that time I found it gripping.  Although short, there are plenty of twists to keep you reading.

The characters quickly came to life as soon as I started reading.  I really felt for Emily.  Two small slip ups – a typo in a text and sending the text to the wrong people – and everything unravels for her.

It lost as star because I thought it ended a little abruptly, making the closing pages feel rushed.  However, I thought it was a good read with a believable story line. I will definitely be reading more from this author.

I downloaded The Text for free from iBooks.

Rating

Book Review: Blood of Angels by Michael Marshall


Blood of Angels
is the third book in the Straw Men trilogy by Michael Marshall

Summary (from back of book)

Notorious serial killer the Upright Man has escaped from a supermax prison.  The FBI have no idea how it happened, or where to start looking.  Ex-CIA agent Ward Hopkins suspects the Straw Men, a shadowy conspiracy of killers with a macabre agenda.

But apart from Ward’s girlfriend Nina, a discredited federal agent, the only person who believes the Straw Men even exist is John Zandt, a homicide detective obsessed with tracking down his daughter’s killers – and who is now wanted for murder himself.

The terrifying thing is that Ward’s right – his brother was broken out for a reason.  The Straw Men are planning something big.

And now only Ward, Nina and Zandt stand between them and a spectacular act of carnage…

Favourite Quote

It had been like being held in a giant’s warm hand for a spell.  We could feel that hand lowering, preparing to put us back down.

Review

First off, I didn’t realise this was the third book in this storyline until I had already started reading. Having already enjoyed what I had read, I decided to continue on instead of going back to start at the beginning of the trilogy.  This clearly shows that Blood of Angels works well enough (rather than perfectly well) as a standalone read.  However, had I not already started the third book, I would have preferred to start at the beginning.

There are a lot of characters in this story and a number of story threads which are cleverly woven together.  The beginning did feel a little slow, but the pace did pick up.  The author does a good job of trying to include all the pertinent information from the first and second book in the narrative.

The conspiracy theory aspect of the storyline wasn’t overplayed.  Instead the thriller aspect of the story was the main focus point, and this involved quite a bit of action.  The characters were detailed and engaging, as was the plot itself.  At certain points in the book I couldn’t help but wonder how the separate storylines were going to come together, but when they do, it’s cleverly written.

I would happily read more from this author as I found this book quite gripping once I got into the story…

Rating

3.5 / 5

Book Review: The Devil’s Priest by Kate Ellis

Summary (from back of book)

In 1539 King Henry VII is completing his ruthless destruction of England’s monasteries and the ripples of this seismic change are felt even in the small northern port of Liverpool.  A pregnant novice nun, Agnes Moore, ejected from her convent and staying with resentful relatives, claims to have been attacked in the ancient chapel of St Mary del Quay on Liverpool’s waterfront by Satan himself.  Her former abbess, Lady Katheryn Bulkeley, comes to her aid but Agnes refuses to identify her lover.

When a young priest is found dead in the River Mersey, his right hand hacked off, Katheryn realises that Liverpool harbours some disturbing secrets.  Then Agnes is brutally murdered after which corpses are subsequently found mutilated in the churchyard.  What is the link with Agnes’ death?

Katheryn slowly uncovers the secrets of Liverpool’s dark side as she seeks Agnes’ killer amongst the town’s highest and lowest citizens.  As she draws closer to the truth, she faces the most urgent question of all, Why has such evil come to Liverpool and who is The Devil’s Priest?

Favourite Quote

It was difficult to calculate his age, but it must have taken many years to cultivate the characteristic stoutness of an ardent ale drinker.

Review

This is the first book I’ve read by Kate Ellis and I enjoyed it.  I liked the author’s style of writing and I am looking forward to reading some of her other books.

The Devil’s Priest is an interesting tale, full of interesting characters and with plenty of twists and turns.  Lady Katheryn Bulkeley was a real former abbess living at the time the story was set.  Her backstory combined with this fictional mystery makes for entertaining reading and a gripping yarn.  The supporting cast of characters were also good: Valentine, the apothecary; Bartholomew, the ferryman; and Jane, Katheryn’s young maid who enjoys a good gossip.

The Liverpool in the book is pretty unrecognisable compared to the great port city of today, so it was interesting to learn about how it would have looked nearly five hundred years ago.  Before reading this, I didn’t know that the famous “ferry across the Mersey” was run by the monks of Birkenhead Priory up until the dissolution of the monasteries.

I sincerely wish that this hadn’t been a standalone book – it would have made the perfect historical mystery series.  So, I am going to deduct half a star from my rating because of my disappointment.  Only joking – that would be mean and this book fully deserves it four stars.

Rating