A Book Review Blog

Category: Thriller Page 2 of 3

Needful Things by Stephen King

I decided not to wait quite so long to take a crack at another Stephen King novel as I did for Hearts in Atlantis, and quite the understated one I decided on. Needful Things isn’t really one of King’s books that is mentioned terribly often, but I picked it up over some of his more famous offerings as the premise really struck me as interesting. I know, that has lead to some… less than successful ventures for me in the recent past, but my track record with King’s novels has been pretty good so far. What could it hurt?

At the beginning of Needful Things, Castle Rock is more or less your average small American town. A few weird things have happened there in the recent past, but not so hugely weird that most of the townspeople would notice. Then a new shop opens up in the business quarter. Nobody can quite tell what it sells, Needful Things being something of an obtuse name at best, but everyone is intrigued by it in only the way that small things can be fascinating to the population of a small town. When it does finally open, people are quite taken with the vendor, a Mr Leland Gaunt, and his shop proves to sell all kinds of interesting items, all things that people desperately want. And he sells them just within his customer’s budget, an added bonus almost. It’s only when old tensions start to intensify that the true price of said items come to light.
I do love a slow burner sometimes, and after a string of quick reads, it was nice to sit back and let Needful Things work its way under my skin. When you have this sort of story-line, where a lot depends on the slow build of conflict and tension, there are two primary things that you have to get right. First, there’s the basis for conflict within the cast of townspeople and the way that those grudges are exploited. There is quite admirable work on show here: mud thrown at the sheets of the woman who pretty much lives to be angry at her neighbours, spreading incriminating letters and “evidence” to sow the seeds of doubt in the lives of loving couples, and escalating what was already a bitter and petty argument between the congregations of the local Baptist and Catholic churches. Secondly, and inescapably tied to the first point, is the identity of the person masterminding the whole bloody affair. Enter Mr Gaunt, a devil figure who is, for the most part, much more subtle than Randall Flagg from The Stand. I think I kind of prefer this version of the Devil in King’s work, because, while I love The Stand, I did always wonder what really attracted people to someone as creepy as Flagg. In contrast, Gaunt is just the right mix of utterly charming and completely malign. There’s so much power that he could use to much flashier effect, but doesn’t because it’s so much more interesting to just nudge people into indulging the worst parts of their character. With these two aspects, the tension ramps up to some truly impressive heights, and that’s saying something considering that my favourite character is killed off probably less than halfway through the novel.
What stops it from being my current joint favourite King novel along with The Stand is the ending. All the mind-games that Gaunt has been playing on the town are in their final stages, people are dying left, right and centre. And then the heroes have their bittersweet victory after the intervention of a completely unexplained deus-ex-machina. It is seriously frustrating to have your main hero, a sheriff who until now was normal if decidedly more observant and slower to jump to conclusions than the rest of the town, suddenly develop powers that he had previously shown no signs of. Not cool. I’d have settled for a moral victory, have the heroes lose the fight but retain their dignity and souls, just so long as the magic hand-waving could be avoided.

The majority of Needful Things is absolutely brilliant, with a great build in tension stemming from intensifying small town grudges and a subtle mastermind villain. I only wish that the ending hadn’t been the unfulfilling deus-ex-machina that it was. I’d still give it a read though, considering that, bar 11 pages of disappointment at the end, it’s a damn near perfect supernatural thriller. 4.5/5

Next review: Darkside by Tom Becker

Signing off,

Hater by David Moody

Hater was another of those books that I picked up because the premise intrigued me. I had previously read this one and I remember liking it, but I couldn’t really remember the specifics of it terribly well. So I figured that if anything was worth a re-read, it was this.

Hater is the story of what happens when a sudden and violent shift occurs in British society. Over the course of just over a week, there is a sudden increase in violent assaults across the country with no discernable reason. The reader follows council employee Danny McCoyne and his family as they try to cope with the increasing level of uncertainty and paranoia.
There’s a lot that I like about Hater. The build-up of tension is gradual and quite effective, going from a single incident to the point where armed police are a common sight. The violence is suitably shocking and brutal, counterpointing the comparative normality on show at the beginning. I just wish that I could have liked and sympathised with the narrator. I can appreciate where Moody was coming from when he created Danny: stuck in a dead-end job with the council that doesn’t pay enough, stuck in a council flat with a nagging wife and three children under 10, trying to be civil to a father-in-law who seems determined to dislike you regardless of what he does. Honestly though, he comes across more whiny and self-absorbed than the intended sympathetic everyman. He coasts through his job because he doesn’t have the drive to look for something better, then has the gumption to complain when his situation doesn’t change. He has the money to go to a concert with his wife to get away from the kids, but when the question of a pub lunch comes up suddenly they don’t have the funds. He claims to love his kids and tortures himself over the potential that someone in their family might turn violent, but it’s difficult to believe when the only dialogue that he really has with his kids is either telling them to shut up or fielding their questions to unsubtly imply that they should shut up. There’s just such an attitude there that is admittedly partially brought on by trying circumstances but mostly a result of his own laziness. I want to like him. I want to sympathise with his worries about looking after his family and his fears that one of them might be a Hater. But it falls flat for me, because there’s so much about him that pisses me off.

A solid horror plot with some decent build-up and some really good depictions of violence. But for me it’s made disappointing by a protagonist intended to be an everyman who just comes off as lazy and entitled. It’s difficult to care how the situation progresses when you’re hoping for the narrator to be bumped off, the sooner the better. 3/5

Next review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,

Nobody True by James Herbert

Sometimes I pick up books because I read the premise and I just know instinctively that I need to read the book proper to find out what the author has done with that scenario. Nobody True was one of those books. Considering that my last encounter with James Herbert was mixed at best though, I was somewhat wary going into this, regardless of my enthusiasm for the premise. 

Nobody True follows Jim True, a man who is ordinary in all but one way: he has had incredibly vivid out-of-body experiences ever since he was a young boy. While he is on one of these out-of-body experiences, he returns to his body to find that he has been murdered and his body horribly mutilated while his spirit was away. He finds himself searching for his killer, but first he must figure out whether he was the victim of a serial killer who had similarly mutilated their victims, or whether his murderer was someone he knew and was close to. But even if he can figure that out, is there anything that he can actually do in his now-permanent incorporeal state if he does discover the culprit. 
I really wanted to like Nobody True, but I knew that it was a dud when the first seven chapters or so focused on his childhood from the age of 3 onwards and his career in advertising. If anything was an example of the importance of judicious cutting when writing a second draft, then this is it. I did not pick up a horror novel because I wanted to find out how the everyman protagonist started up his advertising business in excruciating detail. I want to see the everyman protagonist struggle with their own impotence and lack of importance within the universe. That fact that Herbert then proceeds to add footnotes that are both long-winded and almost wholly unnecessary to the actual plot only makes the proceedings all that more infuriating. 
I could have coped with that if the characters were half interesting. They really weren’t. I mean, your main protagonist is a guy who actively wanted to be in advertising. There isn’t really much you can do to save that character. Honestly, this is the most boring, white-bread character I’ve seen in a long, long time. I really couldn’t care less who actually killed him. The fact that the serial killer that I mentioned previously is only evil because they have a physical disability is also really intensely uncomfortable and not in the manner that I had willingly signed up for. 
Having read Nobody True, I have come to the conclusion that James Herbert was an author that had a great eye for a book premise, but didn’t seem to understand that the reader doesn’t need to know everything about the main character’s backstory. The whole book feels in need of a brutal but necessary trip to an editor, and the main character couldn’t be more boring if he tried. A swing and a miss on pretty much every count, which is a shame because I really wanted this to be good. 1.5/5 
Next review: The Fire Thief by Terry Deary 
Signing off, 

Blood Work by Michael Connelly

I think that Blood Work was probably one of several crime novels that I have picked up during my trawls of the second-hand book stalls while staying with my grandparents. As such, this was probably more or less a whim purchase, picked up for a striking blurb.

Blood Work follows Terry McCaleb, a retired FBI agent who is taking time out to renovate his late father’s boat whilst he recovers from a heart transplant. The last thing he is looking for is someone knocking at his door asking him for help. But when the sister of his new heart’s donor comes by, he finds out that he is only alive as a result of a murder and he cannot bring himself to refuse the woman’s request for help in finding the killer.
I wanted to like Blood Work more than I did. At its core, there is a solid enough mystery with some interesting turns and some genuine surprises worked into the mix. My main problem with it is that there are some pretty big departures from reality that are difficult to ignore, for me at least. You see, in my day job I work as hospital administration. So when the book makes all these errors about how hospital systems and security works, it makes me more than a little antsy. Firstly, there’s the fact that Graciela, the victim’s sister, meets up with McCaleb a mere two months after he’s had his transplant, but only a couple of days since she actually started looking for him. Considering how much emphasis healthcare systems put on keeping donations private, you would think that it would take her years if she could figure it out at all. But nope. One article and the knowledge that he got a heart transplant right around the time that her sister was murdered and she rushes out to meet this guy on a hunch and just completely bypasses a system of anonymity set up in order to protect patient confidentiality. Later on, there’s a particular system at the hospital that McCaleb needs to take a look at, and since he can’t get an official warrant due to being retired, he manages to persuade two separate healthcare professionals to completely ignore their duty to protect their patients’ confidential information and gets them to pull both patient and donor records. I’m sorry, but I call so much bullshit here. It’s quite funny really, because mere paragraphs later he feels guilty for committing a crime by briefly impersonating a police officer, when he’s already made his friends do far worse. I read this and had to conclude that Connelly either didn’t know much about how hospitals work or just didn’t care to be accurate, because I can’t think of a single consultant or nurse who would risk being struck off or be stuck with a civil/criminal lawsuit all on the word of one civilian working on their own with no court order. He’d be kicked out before he could even finish introducing the idea. Considering that the law enforcement bit seems to ring more or less true, it disappoints me that the healthcare system is written so poorly. I appreciate that this may be a minor thing to most readers, but after two years in the NHS this stood out like a sore thumb and it just pissed me off to no end.
My other issue with Blood Work is that the ending seemed a bit clunky compared to the rest of the novel. For the majority of the book, there’s a nice consistent pace that’s fast enough to be gripping, but not so fast that it becomes exhausting. Then with about 40 pages to go, it has a moment where everything screeches to a halt, lull you into thinking that it’s ending, then start up again. The last 30 pages didn’t fit right because the pace seemed so uneven compared to what had gone before. More of a minor quibble for me, but for people not pissed off by basic misunderstandings of how hospitals work, I would imagine that this is the more pressing issue.

Really, I think I would have enjoyed this a hell of a lot more if Connelly had put the same effort that he puts into depicting law enforcement into his depiction of healthcare systems. As someone who works in a hospital, the liberties that he takes with patient confidentiality and the consequences of breaching it are glaring enough to completely distract me from the narrative itself. Not a bad crime thriller, but it has a lot of creative liberties taken that don’t pay off. 3/5

Next review: I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan

Signing off,

Envy by Sandra Brown

I can’t remember picking up Envy to buy, but I have a pretty good idea what attracted me to it initially. The way that the blurb played out, it sounded like it would have a lot of suspense and intrigue. All in all, it looked nice and sinister to my jaded little eyes.

In Envy, the reader follows Maris Matherly-Reed, a New York editor who seems to have the perfect life. Working with a plethora of talented writers as part of her job at her father’s publishing house, and married to a remarkably handsome and talented man responsible for the creation of her favourite book. Yet when she picks up the prologue of Envy from the slush pile, she finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew as she gets more deeply involved with the story of friendship turned destructive and its mysterious author, Parker Evans.
I feel more than a little torn about Envy. On the one hand, there is a lot to be commended. For one thing, the characters are all vividly portrayed and distinct. My personal favourite was Parker, but that may just be because I have a real soft spot for curmudgeonly characters with a heart of gold, regardless of how tarnished that gold is. The plot is also written in such a way that it keeps the tension high throughout, which is probably the main thing that saves the plot of Envy from sinking under its main problem. My main issue with the book that leaves me torn is that I had guessed the basic structure of the plot probably around the point that I finished the third or fourth chapter. Admittedly, my predictions about the finer points of the conclusion were a bit off, but having guessed the general shape of the plot so early, it was difficult to keep feeling quite as tense as I had hoped. So while I feel justified in saying that I found Envy to be a highly enjoyable book, I find myself wondering if it actually works as a thriller, simply because of the demands of the genre. If your genre dictates that you need to create suspense by introducing threat while withholding crucial plot information, then I don’t think that this works terribly well, simply because it’s almost painfully easy to figure out what the likely outcome of these circumstances are. While I wasn’t expecting certain particulars of the finale itself, I don’t think that works in its favour either, because the information withheld from the audience feels kind of cheap compared with the twists that had come earlier, predictable as they may have been. So yeah, I have a weird situation where the novel doesn’t work as a thriller right up until the very end, at which point it stops ringing entirely true. I will say that despite the shortcomings, I did enjoy the experience and would probably read it again if I were looking for some high quality popcorn reading.

If I were to sum it up, I would say that Envy is a thriller that surprises far less than it probably should, but it’s well written enough that you can kind of gloss over it. Maybe not for those who are looking for more tension, but still a solid enough effort. 3.5/5

Next review: Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi

Signing off,

Ratking by Michael Dibdin

I honestly have no memory of why I picked up Ratking out of all the other crime novels available. I guess it might be that I had heard that crime novels based in Italy tend to have an interesting focus on corruption and wanted to see what that was like. Quite possibly it might just be that the cover featured an actor whose work I am rather fond of, and I wanted to read the book before potentially tackling a new series. What can I say, I’m fickle.

Ratking is the first book in a series following Italian police detective Aurelio Zen. After being unofficially demoted due to his actions on a past case, he finds himself being assigned to active duty again as part of a kidnapping case involving wealthy industrialist Ruggiero Miletti. What he arrives in Perugia to find is a fractured, unhappy family unwilling to cooperate with the police, a magistrate determined to find guilt for the kidnapping amongst the victim’s family and a force unwilling to work for an outsider. All of this only makes the delicate situation with the kidnapping even more precarious, and Zen only has one chance at salvaging his career.
Having finished the novel now, I find myself a bit torn. On the one hand, it is a very competently written crime novel, with no real glaring faults for me to latch onto. I suppose the thing that gives me pause most of all is more that I don’t think I’ve ever read a detective novel where the main investigator is quite so willing to be completely underhanded in his methods. While I’m sure there are points in any crime novel where the investigator has to confront the whole question of do the ends justify the means, Ratking takes things further than I’m used to. There is no other series where I look at how the investigation has proceeded and think to myself that the detective stealing a car and planting it somewhere suspicious just so that it can be brought in for forensic testing is a reasonable course of action. While I can appreciate that the nature of the difficulties that Inspector Zen deals with do sort of warrant the extreme lengths that he will go to, it is a bit disconcerting that he does it so blithely. It doesn’t really detract from the quality of the story-telling, it just might be a point to take into consideration if you were thinking of picking up Ratking: Aurelio Zen very much proves that you don’t have to be nice or play fair in order to be a good person, and if you like your detectives to be more noble and just in their actions this may be a serious issue.

Definitely an interesting and rather more sleazy take on the crime genre. The problems with bureaucracy and privilege are clearly spelled out, and the methods that the main character uses are underhanded enough to match. If you want a more traditional detective with an unspoken code of conduct, you may wish to look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for something a little different, then this might be your answer. 4/5

Next review: De Sade’s Valet by Nikolaj Frobenius

Signing off,

The Surrogate by Tania Carver

I picked up The Surrogate for the very simple reason that I’d never read anything where the plot occurs somewhere that is local to me, let alone a crime series. As such, I was curious to see how the more-or-less peaceful market town that I’m familiar with would be portrayed.

The Surrogate follows DI Phil Brennan as he is called to the scene of a serial killer’s latest brutal crime. This killer has been targeting heavily pregnant women, incapacitating them and then removing their unborn child. With significant pressure from his superiors to get the murderer behind bars, quickly if possible, a criminal profiler is brought in to assist their more traditional police work. But the woman they bring in, Marina Esposito, has some unresolved history with the local police, and with DI Brennan in particular.
I think I might have an inkling how weird it must be for Londoners to keep reading about murders happening practically on their doorstops now. Even though I knew it was coming, I had quite a few moments when reading this initially where my brain would pause and go “I used to go swimming there”. Not especially helpful when reading about the killer stalking his next victim, but there you go. It mostly wore off by the end, so I guess it must be a feeling that wears off pretty quickly. For the most part, I did sort of wonder why the author had chosen Colchester of all places to place her murder mystery. There is a line right at the beginning of the book where one of the officers gives the whole “crimes like this don’t happen in a town like Colchester” spiel, only to refer to Ipswich not expecting the activities of the Suffolk Strangler back in 2008. The thing is though, I remember the atmosphere back when those murders were happening, and the feel of the book doesn’t seem to match up. When I was growing up and the Suffolk Strangler was active, the tension was palpable wherever you went, even if you were trying to carry on as normal. With The Surrogate, I guess I was expecting to see a similar sort of fear and tension, especially considering the brutality of the crimes depicted, but there didn’t seem to be any real kind of reaction from the general public shown at all, which I found a bit disappointing. There is tension, certainly, but it doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the location; honestly, if I hadn’t recognised a load of landmarks from personal experience, it could have taken place anywhere, and it seems like a waste of a decent setting.
In terms of the actual murder plot, I thought it held up pretty well. The murders are intensely disturbing, especially when your heavily pregnant coworker is sat right behind you. Quite glad I don’t get asked about my reading material much these days, now that I think about it. There are a lot of twists and turns, and a couple of rather clever red herrings thrown in. Really good all in all, but not something that I can really discuss in great detail. The other sizeable part of the plot deals with the relationship between Phil Brennan and Marina Esposito, as they meet as ex-lovers whose last encounter ended more than a little messily. I feel kind of torn about this. On the one hand, the two of them are interesting, incredibly damaged people who I want to read more about. Hell, this was the first time that I’ve read a book where a main character regularly has panic attacks and just has to muddle along with it. On the other hand, I don’t think that the romance was necessarily handled all that well. If I hadn’t checked, I would have assumed that I had accidentally picked up the second book in the series, as their prior relationship is kind of skimmed over and felt more like a recap from a previous story. Additionally, I feel like the previous relationship was used almost as a crutch in place of building sexual tension. I mean, their relationship healing is a big part of the narrative, to the point where it begins to feel tumorous and a bit melodramatic sometimes, but there didn’t really seem to be much in the way of actual feeling behind it. So yeah, a bit conflicted.

If you want a tense, dark thriller, then The Surrogate really delivers with its disturbing murder plot. The romance subplot feels a bit rushed and tacked on, which is a shame because the characters seem likeable and definitely made me want to read more about them. For those readers in the Colchester area, this may be of some interest to you, although it doesn’t fully realise the potential of the setting. I would probably still be interested in getting the next volume to see how the series progresses, despite its flaws. 4/5

Next review: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Signing off,

Dracula the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

I seem to remember receiving Dracula the Un-Dead as a present, from a relative who knew that I had enjoyed the original Bram Stoker book and noticed that this was a sequel written by one of Stoker’s descendants. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the prospect of reading it, because on the one hand it’s a sequel to a book that I enjoy, but on the other I couldn’t help but think that Dracula had ended on a pretty final and happy note, so couldn’t really conceive of what the sequel could possibly run with. But, like many of my books, it has been on my shelf long enough that it has guilted me into finally picking it up.

Dracula the Un-Dead follows Quincey Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, who decides to defy his father’s decision for him to follow him into the realm and become an actor instead. He finds himself falling in with an actor named Basarab who is taking Europe’s theatres by storm; Basarab’s patronage leads to his inclusion in the troubled production of a little-known gothic novel named Dracula, headed by its author Bram Stoker, and the revelation of a whole host of secrets that his parents have kept from him.
I have some seriously mixed feelings about Dracula the Un-Dead, especially when considering it as an official sequel to the original 1897 novel. If I were to sum up my feelings, I feel that this novel had the wrong audience in mind. This is where the author notes at the back really help, because without them the book could seem somewhat incompetent. Basically instead of feeling like a true sequel to Dracula, it feels like something that you would get if Hammer Horror were given permission to make a direct sequel to the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, and they also had a surplus of fake blood that hadn’t been used in an earlier production. This is due to the fact that the authors make several alterations to the original canon and almost all of them have their origins in the various film adaptations that have been made of Dracula and the vampire fiction that it inspired. The two that are most egregious are as follows: first, that vampires burn up if exposed to sunlight, and second, that Mina Harker and Dracula had a romance. They are direct references to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula respectively, and they encompass the main problem that I have with the novel: it is aimed squarely at the fans of the film adaptations, and not at the fans of the original novel. I somehow doubt that out of all of the people who have watched and enjoyed a Dracula film adaptation there are many who decided that they would read the source material afterwards, and if they aren’t reading the original novel, who on earth would assume that they would pick up the sequel. The people who would pick up the official sequel are people like me, who enjoyed the original Dracula and won’t necessarily have watched many of the film adaptations; we’re going to notice the alterations and there’s a strong possibility that the only reaction you’ll provoke is one of irritation.
The other main issue that I have with Dracula the Un-Dead is the presence of Bram Stoker himself. The authors state that his inclusion in the narrative was meant to be a tribute to a man who was little appreciated beyond his friendship with eminent actor Henry Irving while he was alive, but the overwhelming impression that I got was not terribly favourable towards the author. While I can concede that depending on how it is written, Bram Stoker could well share the page with some of his own creations. But the way that the narrative unfolds, revealing that Stoker got the inspiration for his novel from some drunken stranger’s story at a pub in Whitby and managed to get quite a lot of details wrong in the process, it gives the impression that he didn’t actually have any decent ideas of his own. Combined with the way that the narrative quite happily alters or reimagines parts of the original Dracula, it seems less a tribute to a man poorly received in his own lifetime and more like a seriously backhanded compliment at best.
Honestly though, I feel bad that these issues were so big for me, because by itself Dracula the Un-Dead is actually a pretty decent vampire novel. There’s intrigue, double-crossing, interferences from the police, violent deaths and blood up to your eyeballs. If it weren’t trying to be an official sequel to one of the most influential Gothic novels ever, I could have enjoyed this a lot more.

A decent enough vampire romp that shoots itself in the foot by taking on the mammoth task of following Dracula. For me, the unnecessary concessions to the film adaptations and the unexpectedly backhanded way that it deals with Bram Stoker himself proved to be far too distracting for me to appreciate it more. 3/5

Next review: The Surrogate by Tania Carver

Signing off,

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

When you pick up a book promising contents that are like a mixture of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes if it were written by Tolstoy, there has to be at least a little part of you that is intrigued by that description. That’s pretty much the sole reason that I picked The Winter Queen up really, curiosity and a desire to see if it can live up to the big claims made on its behalf.

The Winter Queen starts with an unpleasant but seemingly innocuous event, when a wealthy student shoots himself in the middle of a public park in Tsarist Russia, amongst scores of witnesses. The papers dismiss the incident as an unfortunate consequence of the youths of the day’s seemingly endemic selfishness. But a young police officer by the name of Erast Fandorin sees the incident and, following a weird gut instinct that he has about the whole affair, finds that there may be something far more sinister afoot than initially meets the eye. He begins to uncover a plot that will take him from Moscow all the way to London and back.
I’m really not sure how to consider The Winter Queen. On the one hand, I like that the story is tightly plotted and at times incredibly tense; on the other, I find something of the coincidences to be really quite outlandish even for a cosy mystery. On the one hand, I like Fandorin because he seems genuinely sweet and gentlemanly and kind of dorky; on the other hand, his perceptiveness is easily matched and perhaps overwhelmed at times by his incredible lack of perception when it comes to people and their true motives. The vast majority of me wants to recommend this book, because the plot is genuinely interesting with an ending that is completely out of left field and totally gripping because of it. Additionally, Erast Fandorin is a detective unlike any other that I’ve seen: a little bit vain, more than a little foppish, incredibly earnest and overwhelmingly sweet and good-natured. These are things that I can look at and say “This is a book that entertained me and left me wanting to continue reading the series.” But then I can’t deny another voice, almost as loud, that leaves me unsatisfied. While the plot is well-written, it can feel a bit predictable at times, the ending aside. You learn fairly quickly that if Fandorin appears to be doing well, then he’s missed a factor and is about to be sorely disappointed. That leads me nicely to my next point: while he is a detective like no other, that’s also a fairly major negative for me at times, as it means that he’s really not very good at times. Honestly, other than some admittedly good thinking in his few brief moments of peace and quiet, he has a habit of doing some really stupid things. He doesn’t seem to understand that he isn’t as good at tailing people as he thinks he is, and has a really bad habit of judging people by their appearances even after he should have realised that suspicion is a good trait for a policeman to have.

Overall, this feels a bit uneven. The story and the character of Erast Fandorin are well made, but there are too many points where I feel that Fandorin’s flaws outweigh whatever analytical abilities he has. It meant that there were several times it felt like he got out of situations purely by chance, instead of through his own competence. A decent cosy mystery nonetheless. 3.5/5

Next review: Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy by W. J. Burley

Signing off,

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

This was a book that I had sort of attempted before. Back when I was in high school, I used to read to my mum while she did the ironing. We got through all sorts like that, and I had picked up The Secret of Crickley Hall in the hopes that I could read it to her. We read a couple chapters and then put it down because she thought it would be too scary for me. Now I picked this book up because there is a part of me that really likes the haunted house genre of horror. Problem is that it’s quite difficult to get good examples of it these days. Is this yet another disappointment?

The plot follows the Caleigh family as they move temporarily to the remote Devonshire village of Hollow Bay. It is coming up to the first anniversary of the disappearance of their middle child, Cam, and the husband hopes that a change of scenery will be good for himself and his two daughters, but especially for his wife who has been blaming herself for her child’s disappearance. But the house that they are renting, the eponymous Crickley Hall, has a dark past that refuses to stay quiet. There is something wrong with the house and if they don’t figure out what it is in time, then evil from the past may well repeat itself. I’m somewhat torn on whether I think this is well written or not. On the one hand, the plot is well constructed and it does manage to be incredibly tense and uncomfortable for a good chunk of the book. Additionally, the awful events that unfolded in the Hall during the Second World War are genuinely traumatic enough to warrant multiple spirits with unfinished business, which is nice after some haunted house stories where the past trauma really isn’t all that exciting. On the other hand, Herbert has a tendency to repeat himself quite a bit, often echoing certain phrases over and over despite the fact that different people are saying or thinking it each time. One of the main examples is the married couple, Gabe and Eve, and their contrasting ways of coping with their son’s disappearance. Eve is on the verge of a nervous breakdown but keeps it at bay by refusing to believe that her little boy could be dead, while Gabe just locks it all away and puts on a brave face. When in their respective viewpoints, they consider their own coping strategies, which is fine if a little wordy. But then they consider their partner’s coping method and come up with almost identical thinking processes. I don’t need to know that Eve knows that Gabe is putting on a brave face for her, I’ve already had confirmation from him. It makes it feel like there were whole chunks of narrative that went unchanged during the editing process because they sound amateur, quite frankly. Additionally, I just don’t think that the Caleigh family are all that interesting. They also seem to have a weird habit of continuing their domestic dramas even when the hauntings become increasingly more unnerving. I can understand that characters will have their own personal concerns, but when they seem to practically forget the fact that their house is full of unexplained phenomena in favour of the eldest daughter’s troubles with a school bully, then it seems a little like their priorities are wildly out of sync with the reader’s. So a bit of a mixed bag, but when Herbert knuckles down to the actual creepy stuff, then boy does he get it right.

One of the better haunted house stories I’ve read in a while, but far from perfect. When the focus is on the house, it’s tight and tense and everything you could possibly ask for in a horror book. When the focus is on the protagonists, I just lost interest fast. Plus the ending can perhaps be as bit on the saccharine side. 3.5/5

Next review: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Signing off,

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