A monk’s thoughts must be like a town defended by a sturdy wall

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church book coverApothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church
by Indrek Hargla
translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

This is my fourth book completed for the EU Reading Challenge, and the first one that came from a recommendation I received after my initial blog post. So thank you to Kätlin (who is Estonian but lives in the UK) for suggesting this book. I’ve learned a little about the history of Tallinn and enjoyed a satisfying murder mystery to boot.

The setting is 1409 Tallinn, which at the time was not strictly part of Estonia, but a recent addition to the Holy Roman Empire. A preface sets the scene: Tallinn is a small coastal town finally enjoying growth and prosperity after a terrible band of pirates have been caught and punished. Christianity is central to everything. As well as having multiple churches of its own, a new castle on the hill overlooking Tallinn houses monks and holy knights.

It is in this castle, Toompea, that the story opens, with a drunken knight stumbling towards his gruesome murder (I should add that only the barest of details are given – this is not a grossout/medically-detailed crime novel). When the body is discovered, Tallinn’s town magistrate, Dorn, is called upon to catch the murderer quickly. He in turn asks his friend, the town apothecary, to help him investigate.

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Witches had to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire powers

Last Rituals book coverLast Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

I remember learning about Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from the much-missed The Readers podcast, back when it was hosted by Gavin Pugh and Simon Savidge. They discussed her crime novels in such glowing terms that I immediately added this title, the first in her ongoing series, to my wishlist. But then I stumbled across a later book in the series in a charity shop, read that first and wasn’t blown away, so I settled for following Sigurðardóttir on Twitter (she gives good Twitter).

A few weeks back, I decided that I wanted to give crime another try (after the failure of one of my March reads) and this was on offer on the Kindle Store. Cue my second venture into the world of lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir.

The crime that opens the book is the murder of German postgrad history student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland. Some gruesome things have been done to the body that appear to be linked to his research into witchcraft. His family in Germany are not happy with the police investigation, so they ask their family lawyer Matthew to team up with an Icelandic lawyer – Thóra – to dig deeper.

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He was a mystery to me till the bitter end

never tell book coverNever Tell
by Lisa Gardner

I picked up this crime novel in need of an engrossing, compelling read to get me back into reading. It worked on that level, but it definitely has flaws, primarily that I found the conclusion offensive. So I can’t in honesty recommend this book. If you’re interested in my specific objection, read beyond the spoiler warning below.

For the most part, I liked the characters and the set-up of the crime. The leads are all women and they’re not all broken and/or alcoholics – particularly not the police professionals, which was refreshing. The chapters alternate between three characters: the prime suspect, Evie, a high-school teacher pregnant with her first child; the lead detective, D.D. Warren, who is a recurring character of Gardner’s; and Flora, who is a survivor of a past crime turned police informant and victim-support worker.

The book opens with Evie arriving home to find her husband Conrad dead. She takes the gun from his lap and fires it, and seconds later is found by the police still holding the gun, which makes it hard for them to believe her statement that she didn’t kill Conrad. D.D. recognises Evie from one of her first cases as a police officer, when Evie was a teenager who had accidentally shot and killed her father (or had she?). To make matters even more complicated, when news of the murder is televised, Flora recognises Conrad as an associate of the man who kidnapped and serially raped her.

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No-one knows what this feels like

Jessica Jones vol. 3: Return of the Purple Man
by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Michael Gaydos (artist), Matt Hollingsworth (colours), David Mack (cover art)

So this is it, the last time (for now?) that Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos will work on the character they created, the almighty Jessica Jones (Bendis and Gaydos have left Marvel for DC). And they’ve certainly gone out with a bang, with what might be the best volume of all the Jessica Jones stories.

As the title suggests, in this volume, super-powered PI Jessica Jones learns that her greatest fear has come true: Killgrave has escaped from the SHIELD prison for supervillains in a very similar manner to his escape in series 1 of the Jessica Jones TV show, but this is not the same story, because the Jessica Jones of the comics universe is in a very different place in her life and has different things to lose. Killgrave can control the bodies and voices of other people and he delights in taking that power to the darkest places imaginable.

The story and the art beautifully capture the fear of having the worst thing that ever happened to you happen again. As Jessica says, this time it’s worse because she knows what the Purple Man is capable of, what he can reduce her to, what he can make her do. And what he can do to her loved ones.

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Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

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Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

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Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

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The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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Stirring, like a sleeping monster about to wake up

blood-harvestBlood Harvest
by SJ Bolton

Last year one of my books of the year was Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton, a crime drama set in the Falklands that I found beautiful and gripping. So I had been on the lookout for other books by her and was excited to spot this one on sale. You can tell it’s an older title from the fact she was still using the pen name “SJ Bolton”, presumably to disguise her gender, but also from the fact it’s a slightly less ambitious undertaking.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s just less impressive than one of my favourite books of last year. Now that’s out of the way I’ll explain what it’s all about.

Heptonclough is a fictional Lancashire village surrounded by the Pennine Moor. It’s a classic atmospheric setting, both wide open space and spookily claustrophobic thanks to the residents effectively being trapped at night or in bad weather by the danger of the surrounding countryside. New vicar Harry is not a local and neither are the Fletcher family, residents of the village’s only new build in decades thanks to the Church of England selling off some land next to the church. Both the church and the Fletchers’ home are loomed over by the ruins of an ancient abbey, giving the village a gothic centrepiece.

The book opens with Harry being shown a crime scene by local policeman DCS Rushton – a mudslide has caused a 10-year-old grave to collapse, revealing not one but three bodies, two of which should not be there. The story then skips back two months to the arrival of Harry shortly after that of the Fletchers. He’s a groovy young vicar who wears shorts and sometimes swears, and he’s nervous about the task ahead of him – Heptonclough’s church has been shut up and unused for 10 years.

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