Blog tour: Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill

Full disclaimer. I think of Mark Hill as a good friend, so although my first instinct when I heard he had a book deal was joy and excitement, I was a little apprehensive about reading it. What if I didn’t enjoy it? I would have to avoid Mark for the rest of my life, concocting elaborate stalking schemes to work out his whereabouts, coming up with ever more implausible excuses to not go the events I knew he was attending! (I probably wouldn’t have had to do these things, but sometimes my imagination runs away with itself.) But, as I’m sure the reader will have guessed (does this blog have readers? Or is it my own personal bookish echo-chamber?) I needn’t have worried.

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DI Ray Drake is one of the best coppers at Tottenham Police Station. But thirty years ago, he witnessed terrible events at the Longacre Children’s Home, when it was burned to the ground, leaving two dead. Now, a sinister killer calling himself ‘The Two O’Clock Boy’ is brutally hunting down and murdering all those who grew up there, along with their families. Ray is determined to stop the murderer, but more importantly, he will do anything to prevent the secrets of that night coming out. For Ray has a checkered past, which he has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up.

Unfortunately for him, newly promoted DS Flick Crowley is determined to make her mark with this case. Aware that she has a reputation for hiding behind procedure, she’s sure that there is more to these murders than it seems, and she’s dismayed that her boss who she trusts completely isn’t backing her up. It’s almost as though he has something to hide…

Meanwhile, Elliot Juniper, one of the former Longacre boys, determined to go straight for the sake of his family, finds himself dragged back into the life of crime he was sure he had escaped.

From the get-go, The Two O’Clock Boy is an extraordinary roller coaster of a read, captivating and with an unstoppable pace. The narrative jumps back and forth from the present day, to what happened thirty years previously, at Longacre Children’s Home, a hopeless place, where corruption and drug-dealing are rife. As those events come back to haunt him, Ray Drake heads further and further down a path from which there is no return, whilst Flick, the emotional heart of the story, grows tantalisingly close to solving the case. Twists and turns are thrown from all sides – just as I thought I had guessed the end, a whole load more curveballs were thrown my way. After finishing this hugely accomplished and remorselessly gripping thriller, it took a good couple of hours for my heart rate to return to normal.

Congratulations Mark – and curse you for ending it on such a monumental cliffhanger! You better be working on Book 2 is all I can say…


Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill is published 6th April by Sphere

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.

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Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’ 

As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.

Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).

First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.

 

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal

The story of how I came across Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is one that regular readers of this blog (are there any?!) or just people who know me will be familiar with. I saw Sheena Kamal speak at First Monday Crime, thought she seemed pretty cool, and by the end of the night (the bit in the pub) was completely smitten, and shortly after, dived straight into Eyes Like Mine, which sounded like a thoroughly original thriller with a fascinating premise.

Nora Watts works for a private investigation firm. A recovering alcoholic battling self-loathing, betrayals and violations aplenty, she avoids other people preferring the companionship of her dog Whisper, for who she remains sober. Then one morning, at 5am she receives a phone call. A 15 year old girl has gone missing – thought to have run away, but has not returned. And this girl is the baby she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. Nora would rather not get involved, but this girl has eyes just like hers, ‘so dark that pupil and iris are virtually indistinguishable, fringed by long lashes that might make them pretty until you take a closer look, and then you will see that they absorb all the light around them and refuse to budge an inch. When looking into them, if you ever do, you will suddenly remember appointments that you should be making and previous engagements that you’ve forgotten to put in your calendar.’ How can she stay away?

But as she sets off on her daughter Bonnie’s trail, Nora will uncover a deathly dangerous web of corruption, and have to face traumas from her past she’s been desperately trying to escape.

Nora is prickly, and not always likeable. She is suspicious of any offer of help or sympathy, and is reluctant to see the good in any one, admittedly an instinct which usually serves her well in this misadventure. But she is a survivor, with a broken family and unbearable traumas behind her. Though she keeps an emotional barrier between herself and anyone else, including us, the reader, she occasionally displays flashes of a soft side, from her regular offerings to homeless people, to her refusal to bring in an intimidated witness fearful for his family. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend too much time with her, but she’s a captivating character, who you can’t help but feel for and empathise with. And she’s put through the wringer – as are those who care for her, especially Whisper.

I rooted desperately for Nora – her story is furiously compelling, not just in the breathlessly pacey plot, which encompasses medical fraud, and the environmental horrors of mining, but from her voice, which is wryly witty, cynical, and yet vulnerable. It’s a terrific debut, from an exciting new author, and I can’t wait to see what Nora does next.

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is out now, published by Zaffre

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Little Deaths is inspired by the case of Alice Crimmins, whose two children went missing, and were later found brutally murdered. The detectives took one look at Alice Crimmins, who was wearing tight fitting clothes and large amounts of make up and disliked her on sight. So certain was the leading detective of her guilt that he didn’t bother to have the scene of the crime photographed or even take notes. It took two years to bring her to trial, during which the police harassed her and had her phone tapped, but Alice Crimmins had been found guilty in the press, by the public, and in the minds of the detectives long before then. 


Emma Flint’s very impressive literary crime debut follows the case very closely. In the summer of 1965, Ruth Malone awakens one morning to find her children have gone missing. Very soon later, the body of her daughter Cindy is found, and a few days later, her son Frankie is also found dead. Sergeant Devlin, who is leading the enquiry is convinced of her guilt, so much so that he barely considers any other suspect, and when no evidence can be found to justify an arrest, begins a campaign of harassment against Ruth, sabotaging her job prospects, tapping her phone, and having her followed. 

Half the story is narrated from Ruth Malone’s perspective, even though the third person narrator keeps us at arm’s length. Trying to cope with her grief, and the tragic loss of her children, she watches aghast as the police misinterpret everything she does, when she does not fit how a grieving mother ought to act. The rest is narrated by Pete Wonicke, a junior reporter who sees this as his big break. He too initially convicts Ruth in his mind, but becomes increasingly uneasy watching Devlin pursue his vendetta against Ruth, tampering and destroying evidence to make his story fit. His interest turns into obsession, and in a discomfiting mirror image of Devlin, he too becomes obsessed with Ruth, following her more than journalist would need to.

Emma Flint effectively racks up the tension, as the net closes around Ruth, with even the men apparently on her side harbouring ulterior motives. And whilst the deaths of Alice Crimmins’ children were never solved, Little Deaths is given an interesting conclusion which hammers home the collusion of men against women. 

Little Deaths is a book about Ruth Malone, about the effect she has on men: irrational hatred from Devlin to obsessive desire from her estranged husband and Wonicke, lust from countless others – and Ruth herself, caught in the middle, coping with the tragedy as best she can, and trying – not quite managing – to live her life to the full. 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is out now, published by Mantle.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.

Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?

The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.

Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Interesting footnote. Whilst looking for a jacket image for this review, I discovered that there was once a very sweet-looking pub called The Essex Serpent near Covent Garden. It is now a shoe shop. That’s a shame…


The Essex Serpent opens with Cora Seaborne, newly widowed but not unhappy about this – indeed, the novel is punctuated with memories of Michael’s cruelties small and large, from plucking several hairs from her head and leaving her with a small bald spot, to pressing a candlestick against her collarbone hard enough to scar. Given a new lease on life, she departs with her devoted companion Martha and her obsessive son Francis for Colchester to look for fossils, inspired by the fossil hunter Mary Anning. There, to her delight, rumours abound of the mythical Essex Serpent, picking off the locals one by one on the Essex coast in Aldwinter. Cora is convinced that it could be a new species and determines to track it down. When she arrives in Aldwinter, she meets the vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to crush rumours of the Essex Serpent, seeing it as a distraction from real faith. Having initially been very suspicious of the other, Cora and Will develop an extremely close friendship – agreeing on nothing, yet inexorably drawn to each other.

This is primarily, for me, a book about love, and all the forms it can take, from friendship, and its ensuing friendly jealousies, to romantic love, requited or otherwise. Will is devoted in his love for his beautiful wife Stella, yet the deep friendship and love that builds between himself and Cora is something different and indescribable. Luke Garrett, the doctor and Cora’s close friend, loves Cora unrequitedly, but eventually finds solace in his friendship with a colleague. It is also about how love can motivate us, and change us – from George Spencer, who becomes an ardent defender of slum dwellers because of his love for the working class and socialist Martha.

It’s also a book about perceptions, and how we make assumptions and interpret signs as we wish to. Cora and Will have almost hilarious preconceptions of what the other will be like before becoming fast friends. And of course, everyone has their own ideas about the eponymous Serpent and what it means.It’s also about our own perceptions. Many of the characters are initially set up as Victorian stereotypes, from the working-class Martha, who is educated and an ardent socialist, to Stella Ransome, set up as the beautiful and frail, not-long-for-this-world vicar’s wife, but who subverts our expectations.

The Essex Serpent is beautifully written and warmly funny book, with the most stunning and evocative descriptions of nature and landscape – which has made the prospect of a holiday in Essex oddly tempting. It’s a clever and enchanting story about people, how we function and interact with each other, and with the world around us.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is out now, published by (appropriately) Serpent’s Tail

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

A confession. Not having been alive at the time of the 1976 heatwave, part of me always sort of resents books about them. We had one in London around 10 years ago – my father had to stand next to the drain with a bucket when we were showering so there was water for the plants, and Ken Livingstone recommended we didn’t flush loos ‘unless necessary’. Ripe ground for fiction surely? But I digress. This resentment doesn’t stop me actually enjoying the books in question, it’s just a small insight into my personal follies. 


The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a book about mysteries, about how communities draw together, and the secrets our neighbours keep. When Mrs Creasey goes missing, ten year old Grace and her loyal friend Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. Following advice from the vicar (sort of), they set out uncover as Brownies to ‘find God’ in their neighbours’ houses, on the logic that if they find Him, Mrs Creasey will return. Periodically, the perspective changes to that of the neighbours: Mrs Forbes, bullied by her sinister and controlling husband; Eric Lamb, still mourning the death of his wife; and Mr Creasey himself, who has withdrawn into obsessiveness following the disappearance of his wife. And it’s through them that we get to know Mrs Creasey. In addition, mysteries skip through the pages: a baby who was kidnapped many years ago, an unexplained fire, and suspicious meetings held at the British Legion. And Walter Bishop, one of the neighbours who keeps himself to himself, suspected by everyone of various misdemeanours, and shunned and persecuted accordingly. Is Walter Bishop one of the goats of the title, banished by the Lord for not looking after him? And who are the sheep? 

I found this a wonderful book to read, captivating, perceptive, funny, and with beautiful turns of phrase, such as that Mrs Morton is ‘rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.’ Grace is joy to read as a narrator – convincingly childlike, as she bosses Tilly around, and muddles through, and yet innocently wise as she observes the neighbours’ hypocrisies and absurdities. For instance, in the village hall following church, ‘No one mentioned Jesus. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked in, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Artic roll.’ A very special debut. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now in paperback from Borough Press.