First Monday Crime: The Beijing Conspiracy by Shamini Flint

It’s almost time for First Monday Christmas, our fun festive crimey celebration! And we have a terrific line-up: Tarquin Hall, Shamini Flint, Simon Brett and Sam Blake will be joining us to discuss their terrific new crime and thrillers. Not only that, but the super duper Angela Clarke and Claire McGowan will be going head to head to establish once and for all, who is the Queen of Crime!

And I’m spotlighting The Beijing Conspiracy by Shamini Flint, a gripping international thriller following power struggles in both China and the United States.

The Beijing Conspiracy opens with an image familiar to all of us: a lone man, carrying bags of shopping, standing in front of a column of tanks in a display of non-violent resistance, and whose fate remains unknown. 

Years later, Delta Force veteran Jack Ford is startled to receive a letter from a former lover Xia, who was a student leader at the height of the protests in China, where he cut his teeth as a spook. She claims that they have a daughter Fei Yen, and that she needs his help. After everything that happened between them, Jack has no idea if he can trust her, but he can’t ignore a woman who might be his daughter.

Meanwhile, an almighty power struggle is taking place in China. Zhu Juntao is the newly appointed Secretary General of the Communist Party, and is determined to modernise his country. He plans to do so by finding the mysterious Tank Man, presumed to have been given sanctuary by American spies, and rehabilitating him as a hero. But amongst the Politburo, as predicted, he faces resistance, led by General Zhang, who also commands the People’s Liberation Army. Zhang too likes the idea of finding Tank Man – but for very different reasons. Through blackmail and threats, he is building a strong resistance that could bring down Juntao before he even takes the Presidency – and the deck seems fully stacked in his favour.

But, there is another mysterious spy, code named EMPEROR, who has risked everything to smuggle a memo revealing the situation to the US.

BUT, Juntao also faces perhaps surprising opposition from the United States of America. With the buffoonish President taking little to no interest in foreign affairs, but terrified of looking weak, it falls to his hawkish defence team to monitor the situation. And a modernised China doesn’t suit them at all.

With the scene set, The Beijing Conspiracy leaps quickly into action by the second chapter. Seeking more information about his possible daughter, Jack enlists the help of an old spook buddy Peter Kennedy in Singapore to look into Xia before he flies to Beijing. Their reunion is brief – Kennedy is immediately gunned down by Chinese agents – and entrusts the very memo smuggled out by EMPEROR to Jack. Who promptly flies back to Beijing with it. Massive global conspiracy be damned, he has a daughter to find. But he will find that he is directly relevant to Zhang’s plans – because of the events of

If all the double crossing and various conspiracies sound confusing, don’t be put off – it all falls neatly into place for the reader, and launches into a terrifically gripping action thriller. The political conniving is realistically written – and seems terrifyingly plausible, even if I did find it to be a stretch that Mike Pence has at this point died of shame, and Hillary Clinton/Elizabeth Warren has been appointed Veep.

The story crescendos neatly to a breath-taking, edge of your seat climax, with spies revealed, disloyalty unearthed – and yet with a touching father-daughter story at its heart.

Sound good? Come along on Monday 2nd December to meet Shamini and the rest of the panel, and enjoy an evening of criminally festive entertainment!

On My Life by Angela Clarke

A gripping, eye opening thriller, not only packed with bags of tension, but which shines a spotlight on a prison system not fit for purpose.

 

On My Life opens with Jenna being sent to prison to await trial for the murder of her beloved stepdaughter – the murder she insists she didn’t commit – and of her fiancé. Terrified, grieving and confused, her panic is only exacerbated when she discovers that she’s pregnant.

 

Abandoned by her friends and constantly on edge that her fellow inmates might discover she’s a child-murderer, Jenna keeps her head down and tries to fit in whilst also going through that last fateful day, when she came home to discover Emily brutally murdered, to work out who could be responsible. And the more she thinks about it, the more a likely-looking bunch of suspects appears in front of her.

 

Angela Clarke really taps into the terror of being locked up for a crime you didn’t commit, knowing that however much you insist you didn’t do it, to lawyers, family members, other inmates, no one believes you. Angela’s spoken about her time volunteering in prisons, and speaking to inmates, and you sense that in the writing of the other inmates and even the most vicious of prison guards, she blames the system rather than the individual. (And we’re talking vicious here!) The completely broken system where prison guards are resigning or retiring at a rate of knots after years and years of budget cuts is what comes in for criticism, let alone the horrifying treatment of pregnant inmates – which should bring a lump to the throat of even the most hardened reader.

 

Highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking thriller, which ends on a gut punch of reveal that made my breath catch in my throat.

On My Life by Angela Clarke is out now, published by Mulholland.

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson

Since I worked with her a few years ago, I’ve always adored Dorothy Koomson’s books – gripping emotional thrillers with a strong sense of principle behind them, whether she’s exploring domestic violence, infidelity, gaslighting or the issues behind adoption. So I was overjoyed when she offered me a beautiful proof copy of her latest Tell Me Your Secret.

 

At their heart, Dorothy’s books have always been thrillers, with a crime of some kind at the heart of the story whilst focussing heavily on the impact of it on those around it. However, this is a very different beast – a much darker direction, and it’s brilliant!

Tell Me Your Secret follows Pieta Rawlings, a journalist working in Brighton – and harbouring a terrible secret. Ten years ago, she was abducted by a serial killer called The Blindfolder, who tortures his victims whilst forcing them to keep their eyes closed. If they manage, they walk free. If not, they’re murdered. And now the women who survived him are being murdered too. Detective Inspector Jody Foster has a very personal reason to want to catch The Blindfolder, bordering on obsessive, and is determined not to let him slip through her fingers again. And when she realises that Pieta could be holding vital information, she will stop at nothing to get it – no matter the impact on Pieta and her loved ones.

One of Dorothy’s biggest strengths is her characters – she writes genuinely relatable and sympathetic, yet flawed women. And all her supporting characters are brilliant, from the walk-on PCs, to Pieta’s magnificent seagull-hating son Kobi.

All builds to a grand, and genuinely shocking reveal, with tantalising clues dropped along the way, scattered with heartbreak – and a depressing realistic, almost mundane motive.

It’s been a joy jumping back into a Dorothy Koomson thriller – thanks for the journey! – and I kind of want to try pottery now…

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson is out now.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

Amer Anwar was kind enough to send me a copy of his excellent thriller Brothers in Blood some time ago, and I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me some time to get to it, this despite it coming with a chai teabag, and some butterfly plasters – so useful for fingertip wounds! But at last, this summer, under a powerful Provençal sun, I lost myself in hugely promising, pacy debut set in deepest West London…

Zaq Khan is just out of jail, stuck working at a dead-end job at a builder’s yard, and just wants to keep his head down. But any hope of that is finished when he’s forced to search for his unpleasant boss’s runaway daughter Rita, who has presumably run away with a boy not of her father’s choosing. Reluctantly, Zaq decides he has no choice but to do what he’s told, no matter the consequences for her. He has the threat of going back to jail hanging over him – or death by Rita’s terrifying brothers. But London’s a big place.

With the help of his best mate Jags, Zaq gets to work, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t simply a case of runaway brides or family honour – and that Rita may not be the helpless damsel she appears to be. And on top of that, it appears that ghosts from his past are reappearing – and they want revenge.

The stakes are high in this thriller – more than once, Zaq crawls into bed having suffered a heavy beating, and there’s one particularly nasty scene which almost finished me off. That said, it’s also a genuinely funny thriller with real heart and friendship. I loved Zaq’s relationship with his boisterous yet loyal flat mates, and of course his friendship with the brilliant Jags, always happy to help Zaq through his death-defying plans, and then make him a cup of tea and pass him the paracetamol at the end.

Superbly plotted, gritty and edgy, yet written with real humour, Brothers in Blood is a truly cracking debut, with a wonderfully likeable and engaging main character. I can’t wait to read more of Zaq and Jags’s adventures around Southall, righting wrongs, staying out of trouble, and then enjoying tea and parathas at the end of the day.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar is published 6th September by Dialogue Books.

Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour: The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy

It’s an honour to be asked to take part in the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 blog tour – cheers Craig! I was asked to – or begged to – read Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room for the awards this year. I confess to have had no knowledge of the premise or plot: only that it was written by Stella Duffy, who comes most highly recommended.

The Hidden Room follows Laurie and Martha, happily married with three children. Laurie’s career is taking off in the way that she could never have expected. Their children are all dedicated athletes – Hope, the oldest is a talented dancer, and Jack and Ana, the twins, are swimmers. Hope’s new dance teacher is motivating her to a new level, and when Martha befriends him, he asks her to help with his life coach training. And by the time that Laurie, busier than usual, realises the extent that this dance teacher has wormed his way into her family’s life, it’s too late. Because this man is a dangerous figure from Laurie’s past, that she has done her best to conceal from her family.

Laurie grew up in a ‘community’ in the US, a cult demanding absolute loyalty, but with the expectation of physical and sexual abuse. She was taken away and adopted at the age of 9, and this is the story that most people know – but as the reader gradually learns through glimpses of the past, this isn’t the full story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the shocks and twists that come through, but let it be said that The Hidden Room is an exquisitely written literary thriller, and a compelling exploration of how cults come to be. Despite the usual wanting to yell ‘you fool, CALL THE POLICE!!!’, Duffy makes a clever and convincing case for how manipulation and brainwashing can so easily turn into complicity – how abusers can maintain a hold. The narration is almost despairing, yet strangely detached, which has the effect of heightening the intensity, and making the atmosphere all the more claustrophobic.

Thought-provoking and genuinely chilling in its simplicity, The Hidden Room is a clever thriller about the nature of devotion and obsession and how far you will – or won’t – go to save your family.

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy is out now from Virago.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I absolutely love an Agatha Christie novel. Upper class toffs, murdered and murdering for revenge, money, to keep secrets concealed… all to be revealed at the end by a moustachioed Belgian, or an elderly spinster. Just perfect. And now here comes an exceptional thriller with all the conventions of the genre: the rich family who suffered a terrible tragedy, the beautiful but doomed heiress, the haunted butler, the unscrupulous doctor, the blackmailer, the rake… then all spliced up, and drenched in a little more blood, as though by one of the more slash-happy villains of Stuart Turton’s remarkably assured debut.

The Hardcastles are throwing the party of the year at their dilapidated family estate, Blackheath, to celebrate their daughter Evelyn’s return from Paris. All the great and the good have been invited, and no expense has been spared. But the night will end in tragedy, with Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. A murder, that doesn’t appear to be a murder. And Aiden Bishop is trapped at Blackheath until he solves the murder. Every day, he sees the events through the eyes of a different person in the house and if he hasn’t solved the mystery by the end of his time there, he returns to the beginning, his memory wiped. On top of that, he isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery, and only one of them can leave.

From the very first page, when Aiden wakes up in the body of his first host, with no memory of who or where he is, the pace of this novel doesn’t let up. As he gets to know the household, and begins to piece together clues, he also determines, despite being told it can’t be done, to save Evelyn. Some seem to helping him, some seem to be hindering him – and one person is hell bent on his death. Is there anyone he can trust? Without his memories, can he even trust himself?

There’s room for humour as well – each of Aiden’s hosts are different, some particularly monstrous, but each one has their own personality, battling with his own. In one case, he has to fight his host’s stupidity; in another, his host is so obese that he must be assisted in every task by a valet, to Aiden’s shame.

As Aiden runs around Blackheath over eight days, learning a little more as every guest, and working around his other seven selves, a lesser novel could have got lost in its own winding plot and challenging premise. With its truly unique, and perfectly executed premise, this is a terrific twist on the locked room mystery. Beautifully written, and populated with a mad cast of characters, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will blow your mind.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is out now, published by Bloomsbury Raven.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

The Old Religion, Martyn Waites’s first novel in a while written under his own (male) name, has been described as ‘Brexit Noir meets The Wicker Man’ but there was another film that came to mind as I read this intensely sinister and creepy thriller. Remember the end of the Pegg/Frost/Wright film Hot Fuzz, in which [spoiler alert] Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel stands in front of the villagers, as they all chant ‘the Greater Good’, having realised that they’re all in on a series of murders committed in order to keep their community perfect? Well…

After tragic events in his home city, Tom Killgannon is in witness protection, living in the tiny Cornish village of St Petroc. It’s a tight-knit, often downright hostile community, which suits Tom perfectly – he’s happy being the ‘outsider’ for as long as necessary as it avoids unwelcome questions about his past. His policy of keeping himself to himself ends when he comes home to find that Lila, a young woman on the run, has broken into his house and is eating his cheese. Before he can find out much more about her, she’s taken off again, with his coat, and, inadvertently, his entire identity. He takes off after her, with no idea what he’s letting himself in for…

But Lila is on the run from something more terrifying than Tom could even begin to imagine. St Petroc is a community in peril – destroyed by years of neglect and underfunding, with the lies of Brexit being the final kicker, and out of desperation the villagers have turned to the unthinkable. Into the void has stepped a charismatic leader, full of promises – but with a terrible price.

Dark, chillingly atmospheric and thought-provoking, The Old Religion explores the insidious power of mob mentality, but also the desperation of those who have nothing. But this is also a page-turning thriller, with an extraordinary cast of characters, and a plot that races along. Highly recommended.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites is out now, published by Zaffre

Dark Pines by Will Dean

There’s really something to be said for reviewing books when you actually read them, rather than some months later. Nonetheless, let’s give it a go. I had heard much about this exciting Sweden-based debut from the oh-so charming Will Dean. Liz (of the ‘Loves Books’) fame had been talking it up for quite some time, and the premise (one word – Swedish) sounded intriguing. So one cold January evening, I curled up and took a look.

Dark Pines’ protagonist is Tuva Moodyson, a young deaf reporter working in the remote town of Gavrik. She is used to covering local stories, ‘your daughter scoring in a hockey match or your neighbour growing the town’s longest carrot’, but when a body is found in the forest, eyes missing, in a manner similar to another case known as the Medusa case twenty years ago, Tuva senses that this could be the story that makes her name. But between visits to her sick mother, navigating the resentful locals who don’t want negative stories damaging their town, and even keeping on top of laundry, nothing about this story will be simple.

The suspects are all weirder than the next, and include a keen hunter, two terrifying sisters who carve unnerving wooden trolls, and a militant anti-hunting vegetarian possibly taking revenge on the many hunters in the area. Tuva already has a fear of the forest, let alone with one of them on her tail… Nothing about the trail makes sense, and as more bodies pile up, Tuva is running out of time.

Dark Pines is a thrilling and clever mystery, but what made it outstanding to me is the unique and interesting lead character of Tuva, and the completely exquisite, evocative and atmospheric writing. You can almost smell the damp pine needles, and feel the boggy thickness of the air as you read. A very exciting debut, and I look forward to reading whatever Will Dean produces from the forest in which he lives (obvs).

Dark Pines by Will Dean is out now, published by Point Blank.

All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker 

Chris Whitaker is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for at least a year now, partially to get Liz Barnsley (book influencer extraordinaire of Liz Loves Books fame) off my back, but partially because it sounds like he’s quite good. So when my colleague received a copy the other week, it seemed appropriate, nay, essential, to steal it.  


Summer Ryan is the shining light of Grace, Alabama. Unlike her troubled twin sister Raine (clever weather-related wordplay there), she’s a devout churchgoer, and a musical prodigy whose cello performances have moved the town to tears. But now she’s gone missing. Could she have run away? Or is she one of the so-called Briar Girls, teenaged-girls living in Briar County who have been abducted by the mysterious being known as the Bird?  

Unconvinced that the alcoholic police chief Black will succeed in bringing Summer home, or even that he believes she’s really in trouble, Raine enlists the deep-hearted teenage wannabe police officer Noah and his loyal friend Purv to help her investigate. Meanwhile, an angry black cloud hovers over the town, promising a storm, and exacerbating the already-heightened tensions. The whole town is teeming with secrets, and with everyone on high alert, they’re likely to rise to the surface. And between chapters, Summer tells us her own version of events that led to her disappearance. 

All The Wicked Girls is a gripping thriller, but also a deeply emotional story with a big heart and characters you’ll cry over. It’s a portrayal of a town left behind in an America which has apparently never been so prosperous, set in the late 80s’ but equally relevant to today. Although the town is meant to pull together as a community, an undercurrent of violence simmers constantly. And yet, we also have astonishing scenes of kindness and love, such Noah waiting in Purv’s back garden to await a sign that his friend has survived a beating from his father. It’s a thriller that explores the worst excesses of organised religion, but also the positives aspects of faith. I definitely sensed a Twin Peaks influence (but the bits from the first series I could get on board with rather than more recent episodes… “What’s going on? Are they miners?! WHAT’S GOING ON?!”) in the idea that not everything can be explained away, and sometimes things just happen. 

I’ll be stealing (more theft… Maybe Chris is a bad influence on me?) the copy of Tall Oaks I gave my father for Christmas, and look forward to reading whatever Chris Whitaker has to offer. Highly highly recommended! 

All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker is out now, published by Zaffre. 

Ngaio Marsh blog tour: In Dark Places by Michael Bennett

I was asked to review In Dark Places as part of a blog tour for the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and, I won’t lie, true crime is not really my thing. Nevertheless, I agreed, and ploughed on. 


In 1992, Susan Burdett was raped and murdered in her own home. About a year later, a 17 year old car thief named Teina Pora confessed to the police, and was jailed for life. Over the years, his lawyer pointed out the various holes in the case but a jury couldn’t get past the fact that Teina confessed. Why would he confess, unless he did it? Even though there was, like, actually, NO EVIDENCE! Years later, Tim McKinnel, an ex-cop turned private investigator, decides to look into a case which never quite sat right with him. 

It’s hard to explain quite what makes this book so good. You’re devastated by Teina Pora’s life, who despite everything, is a sweet, if law-breaking, family-man teenager. As any evidence that was brought against the teenager is demolished, the fact that his confession might have been false is the one thing that a jury will struggle to accept. And whilst Michael Bennett convincingly, and heartbreakingly talks us through the horrific miscarriage of justice that convicted Teina, he never loses sight of the main victim, Susan herself. 

I defy readers to get through In Dark Places and not feel the need to go around telling everyone they meet about the shocking miscarriage of justice. Pity the poor Kiwi woman I met in my running group last week… (‘Wait, you don’t know about Teina Pora?! Well…’) And honestly, even if you don’t read true crime, read this true crime. It’s truly something special, and a story that needs to be told. 

In Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-Cop’s Fight for Justice by Michael Bennett is out now, and is shortlisted for a Ngaio Marsh Award