Category Archives: mystery fiction

A CASUALTY OF WAR by Charles Todd 2017 … A Bess Crawford Mystery

World War 1 Fiction    Historical Mystery Fiction

casualty

 

The Bess Crawford mystery series follows the activities of a first world war British nursing sister, and in this entry – the ninth in the series – Bess is still at the front but it appears as though the war is coming to a close.  Shortly before the armistice, she encounters a British Captain during a rare tea break and he proceeds to tell her about the home he is dearly missing in Barbados.  It sounds idyllic.  He leaves in a hurry because he is anxious to return to his men.  Despite the rumours of peace, the fighting continues and Bess is dismayed to discover the Captain in her medical station being treated for a head wound.  He returns to the fighting but he is shot in the back.  Even more disturbing than the injuries is his insistence that he was shot twice by a British Lieutenant – a distant cousin no less.  The medical personnel quickly attribute his ravings to his head wound and he is sent to a clinic, in England, that specializes in “shell shock”.   He begs Bess for her assistance and she agrees to help him.  The war is now over but Bess – along with her close friend Simon Brandon – investigate the strange circumstances of his case.  

At this point the novel resembles a traditional English village mystery. There is the vicar, his wife, the country doctor, the pub owner, the solicitor, the village tea room hostess and the wealthy landowner.  The villagers are suspicious of outsiders and the outsiders (Bess and Simon) have difficulty unraveling their mystery because the townspeople circle their wagons and refuse to cooperate.  They are distrustful of strangers and protective of their “boys” who have perished in the war.

I have followed this series diligently since the first entry (A Duty to the Dead, 2009) and I hope it continues now that Bess Crawford’s WWI is finished.  Bess’s father has an undetermined role in the peace negotiations and it is clear that there will be many war-related messes that require attention.  I cannot help but to think of Maisie Dobbs (Jaqueline Winspear 2003) since her story began in 1929 but most of her early cases had roots in WW1. (She was also a battlefield nurse).  Bess is constantly sticking her nose in other people’s business so I imagine there could be many cases to come to keep her busy.

Now for a few notes on the author.  Charles Todd is actually the pen name for a mother/son writing team and they are also responsible for the Ian Rutledge mysteries.  I will confess that I have not yet read the Rutledge books but someday… The Bess Crawford books have an obvious lack of sex so – I don’t know – maybe it’s because of the mother/son thing or maybe it is by design. (When I say no sex I mean none – not real , not implied, not any).   I can’t say I mind much but I am a bit of an old fuddy-duddy. Bess has had a few kisses.

The novel addresses many issues of war but in the forefront is the matter of shell shock (battle fatigue, PTSD) . It is an issue that needs to be addressed more so everyone can have a better understanding.  The conditions that these men and woman endured are hard to imagine and we do owe them everything. Everything.

This is a terrific series that I hope will continue for many years.

A CASUALTY OF WAR  by Charles Todd (2017) Harper Collins 377 pages

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NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016)

Scottish Island Fiction

none

Scottish islands – or really any islands – can provide the ideal setting for a murder/mystery/thriller novel, the remoteness and inaccessibility adding excitement and uncertainty to the overall suspense.  A brilliant storm can disconnect island inhabitants from the outside world by severing communication and prohibiting sea and air travel.  The local law enforcement officials may be dealing with a crisis, but sorry, reinforcements can’t reach you.  And, of course, they’re trapped on an island with the villain.  It is really sort of ideal in a world where just about everybody has a cell phone and are therefore “connected” at all times.  In most contemporary suspense novels there is usually a point in the climax where the protagonist is trying to elude some evil doer – they look  at their phone and – “oh no, no bars” or “damn, I forgot to charge it”, –  but someday we’ll have self-charging phones and network service everywhere.  What are writers going to do then?  Islands!  Yeah, just kidding.

NONE BUT THE DEAD is set on the island of Sanday – a real island in the Scottish Orkney Islands.  This novel gives mention to many historical landmarks that actually exist on this island.  I have read many books where the author has chosen to invent an island to provide a backdrop for evil, murder, and mayhem but this one is quite authentic.  

This is the twelve book in the “Rhona Macleod forensic scientist” series and I’ll admit right now that this is the first entry I have read.  Most of the series is set in Glasgow but the team is sent to Sanday when a construction project uncovers bones.  The owner of the project is converting an old schoolhouse into a home and he also finds strange fabric flowers in the attic.  The local historian takes one look at one of the flowers and becomes extremely distressed.  Vandalism at the dig site makes it apparent that someone doesn’t want the authorities digging into the past.  The police are already overwhelmed, but then a young girl goes missing and a huge storm hits the island.

The Orkney Islands (like the Shetland Islands) are north of Scotland and have a greater Scandinavian influence than the Hebrides.  The location made Sanday a good location for a military outpost during World War ll: the remains of the outpost figure in the story.

This novel has all the elements that make Scottish Island mysteries so effective and I was not disappointed.  The characters were fine but I wasn’t enthralled enough to be tempted by previous volumes.  There was also one coincidence in this novel that I found a little farfetched, but it is an excellent mystery/thriller especially for fans of Scottish Island books.

NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016), MacMillan, 419 pages

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THE WAGES OF SIN by Kaite Welsh 2017

Historical Fiction                Mystery Fiction

wages                                                                                                                         Pulchritudinous: physically beautiful. (Merriam-Webster).  Wow! I don’t think I have ever come across this word before.  Apparently it was one of the many words that Richard Burton used to describe Elizabeth Taylor when he first met her.  It is also a word used by the heroine of this novel – in a sentence no less.  It sounds like a medical condition but it is actually derived from the Latin root word “pulcher” meaning beautiful.  My spell-check doesn’t even want to let me use it – so wow!  So I read this entire book and this is all I took away from it. No, just kidding.

This is actually a compelling, but grim,  first novel by a Scottish author named Kaite Welsh.  The narrative is  drenched in misery,  and centers on a female medical student at an Edinburgh university in 1892.  Sarah Gilchrist had been a London debutante from a wealthy family when a single night changed the course of her life.  She was raped by the son a of a Lord and the response from her family and society was to blame her entirely and to send her to a sanitorium to be treated for hysterics and melancholy.  After she was  released from the sanitorium , she was ostracized by her immediate family and forced to reside with an Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh.

 She is one of a dozen female students admitted into medical school to the consternation of  – well – everyone.  She is determined to obtain her medical qualifications but she faces an uphill battle.  The Aunt and Uncle with whom she resides can barely hide their contempt for her unladylike obsession and she also receives opposition from the other female students.  Two nights a week she volunteers at a woman’s clinic in the poorest, and most downtrodden area of the city.  She administers to prostitutes, addicts, thieves, and runaways and begins to realize how grim life can be for a woman with few options in a male dominated world.  She has her “aha” moment when she realizes that their crummy life is worse than her crummy life. Eventually she discovers one of the prostitutes she had treated at the clinic, on the slab in her dissection class and she is sure the young lass has been murdered.  Sarah yearns to unravel the mystery surrounding this girl but she is hampered by restrictions too numerous to count until she finds an unlikely ally.

The author very successfully captures a sense of powerlessness  that would have defined a woman’s life in Scotland one-hundred and twenty-five years ago. The restrictive nature of women’s lives  comes through loud and (painfully) clear.  There are places in the world today where women live under conditions this prohibitive – or worse.  It is heartbreaking but it is something worth taking away from this novel – something to think about.

The Wages of Sin …by Kaite Welsh (2017) Pegasus Books 287 pages

 

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THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey (1952)

Scottish Island Fiction     Mystery Fiction

singing sands

This is Josephine Tey’s last novel, discovered in her papers after her death, and published posthumously.  She is probably better know for her 1951 novel THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, a  book that has graced a number of top ten mystery novel lists in the past sixty-five years not to mention some required reading lists for college courses (a friend of mine took such a course).  I read that novel over thirty years ago and, although I don’t agree with all the conclusions set forth in that book, I think it did open my eyes to the way history is recorded.

 But back to THE SINGING SANDS.  This is the oldest book I’ve included in my “Scottish Island” series but I think it has a lot to offer to anyone who enjoys reading novels about Scottish Islands.  Only part of the book takes place on the fictional island of Cladda but the character has  lots to say about the effects of visiting the Island.  

The novel opens with Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard enduring the overnight train ride to the Scottish Highlands.  I say “enduring” because Inspector Grant is suffering from  nervous disorders, including claustrophobia, and the small, enclosed sleeper car is agonizing for him.  He departs from the train, after a sleepless night, only to catch the porter trying to wake another passenger;  it’s not going to happen – the man is dead.  Later Grant realizes that he has somehow obtained a newspaper belonging to the dead man and it has a wee poem scribbled in the margins. The poem intrigues him  – so much so that he begins to obsess about it when he is supposed to be enjoying rest and relaxation with his cousin’s family.  The poem leads him im many directions as he tries to discover more about the dead man on the train.

The mystery is intriguing but there are other angles of this book that are also interesting.  Mental health issues are served up 1951 style.  He is on sabatical on the orders of his physician yet it is actually painful when he berates himself for being so “weak.”  His boss is not a supportive man but fortunately his family are quite supportive.

He spends some time on a Scottish Island and fans of these islands will enjoy his reaction to his temporary residence. That’s all I will say.

An excellent novel- even after 65 years.

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, 1952, Random House, 246 pages

Post Script

I need to quickly add something because I forgot to include Inspector Grant’s theory on vanity;  “Vanity.  The first requisite in wrong doing.  The constant factor in the criminal mind.” p. 195

“When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in.  But that is merely personal conceit.  Real vanity is quite different.  A matter not of person but of personality.  Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”.  It is a frightening thing because it is incurable.  You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about.  He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch”. p.200

Vanity – an interesting perspective.

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MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

m murders

Mystery Fiction

“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings, and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.” page 4

This is the quintessential quote about whodunnits and it expresses exactly how I feel.  They’re not just about reading; they’re a game, a puzzle, an experience. My adoration of whodunnits directed me to this novel because it promises, not one, but two whodunnits in a single book.  What could be better than that!  There has been a lot of buzz around this novel and it even made the list as one of Oprah’s favourites of the year.  That said, I typically don’t write about such “High profile” books, mostly because there are about a gazillion reviews out there already – do we really need another? No, yet here I go.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve never read an ANTHONY HOROWITZ book in my life until now,  but I am still a big fan of his.  But, how can that be?  Well, this talented man has written and/or created some of my favourite tv shows of all time. He wrote many of the scripts for the first year of “Poirot”, “Midsomer Murders” and “Foyles War.”  I am a Canadian but I  subscribe to a special channel so I can receive these  programs.  And isn’t it nice to watch a show where every single character does not look like a Barbie or a Ken Doll – yeah I’m talking about you American tv.  When you read this book you will notice that these shows are mentioned often.  The title of the book (within the book) is MAGPIE MURDERS but the publisher complains that it sounds too much like MIDSOMER MURDERS.  The novel even contains guest stars (yeah guest stars just like tv)  with Agatha Christie’s grandson making an appearance in a couple of the chapters.

The novel begins with Susan Ryeland, the editor of a small but successful publishing house, getting cozy with the intention of reading the first transcript of a novel from her most successful writer.  Then we are introduced to the novel – Magpie Murders – and the reader is transported to an English Village circa 1955, and an eccentric detective named Atticus Pünd.  This is classic English village mystery literature.  Just as the detective is about to gather his suspects and announce the murderer – the novel ends because the last chapters are missing.  And…the  second mystery begins.

This is certainly an homage to Dame Christie and the other writers of the golden age of mysteries.  A modern whodunnit in the old style – you know – no tracking people with cell phones or catching the murderer on cctv.  All the clues are there so just get comfortable and enjoy the experience- it really is a fun book.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 2016, HarperCollins Publishers, 236 pages

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THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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IN FARLEIGH FIELD … by Rhys Bowen (2017)

in farleigh field     Mystery Fiction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I have been a Rhys Bowen fan for years and I  await each installment of her two current series with eager anticipation.  The “Molly Murphy” mysteries feature a capable and enterprising young woman – an Irish immigrant with an unfortunate past – rebuilding her  life in early twentieth century New York City.  There have been 16 installments in this series, with a new adventure available later this year.  It is always nice to have something to anticipate.

 The “Royal Spyness” mysteries  are set in England between the wars, and feature a young lady who is 35th in line to the throne.  Lady Georgiana  is dirt poor but rich with connections and usually finds herself performing some favour or another to stay in the good graces of her royal family.  In the background, her cousin Edward is courting a certain Mrs. Simpson.  There are nine books and counting in this more lighthearted series.

As soon as I heard that Rhys Bowen had a new novel coming out I knew I had to read it.   I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  This is a World War ll era novel with great characters (and in my opinion Rhys Bowen writes great characters)

 Farleigh Place is the stately English manor of Lord Westerham, his wife, and five daughters.  England is at war with Germany and half the estate has been commandeered by the British army; meanwhile the family learns to live in more reduced circumstances.  Middle daughter Pamela has a position at Bletchley Park, although her family thinks she is doing secretarial work.  Another daughter, Margot, is living in Paris and refusing to return home to England.  Ben is the son of the village vicar, and Pamela’s childhood friend.  (of course he is secretly in love with her)  A recent accident has kept him from enlisting but he does undercover work for the government and receives a lot of flack for not doing his part.  Another childhood friend – dashing flying ace Jeremy Prescott- has joined the RAF.

One day, as youngest daughter Phoebe is crossing the estate on her pony, she comes across a battered body in soldier’s clothing.  He has fallen from the sky due to a failed parachute.  This sets off  an inquiry with lots of  questions and Ben is tasked with discretely finding some answers.

 Each daughter has her own story.  This is where I always admire Rhys Bowen; I think she is great at writing characters that the reader can care about.  And she excels at writing women with good minds and strong personalities.  This novel has been promoted as a “stand alone” but I , for one, would love to see it become a series.  I feel the author has only scratched to surface with these characters.

IN FARLEIGH FIELD is a novel about WW ll with great characters and an exciting plot;  espionage, secrets and alliances of all kind are all explored in this excellent book.

The reader may want to read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) as a companion book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney (2015)

the long and faraway gone

Crime Fiction

This is a novel I read about a year ago and I loved it – so why has it taken me so long to put this review to paper? That’s a great question,  and the nearest I can come to an answer is to say that I just didn’t feel like I could do it justice. This is terrific crime novel featuring a current case and two cold cases but it is also so much more… Some readers will appreciate the trip down memory lane to the eighties, the clothes and music, it brings it back.  Other  readers might be anticipating the resolutions of the three main cases.  But for me – well – I have to admit I just love the way the author nailed “the nature of memory” It doesn’t hurt to have a likable (though flawed) protagonist with a sense of humour that is pointed, yet considerate of the difficult subject material.

This is fiction although it was loosely based on a true crime that happened in another year.

In this imagined account of the summer of 1986, Oklahoma City is rocked by two tragedies.  A botched burglary at a local movie theater ends with the murder of six young employees, and a few months later a young teenager disappears at a local fair.  Neither crime is solved.

 Wyatt was sixteen that summer and inexplicably he was the only survivor at the theater massacre.  It changed him forever: he moved away, changed his name and never looked back. 

Julianna is the sister of the missing teenager. Unlike Wyatt, she stayed in Oklahoma where she obsessively tried to unravel the mystery of her missing sibling. The evening her sister disappeared has never left her mind.

It is 26 years later in 2012 and Wyatt is a private investigator in Las Vegas.  A friend asks him to take a case in Omaha (as a favour— double pay) and Wyatt grudgingly accepts.  Oops! What the friend meant to say was Oklahoma, and soon  Wyatt finds himself heading back to a place he has avoided for 26 years.  And he starts to remember things about that summer.  This is where the author is brilliant at showing how the five senses trigger memory – and this is a guy who doesn’t want to remember.  As soon as he sees the city skyline his stomach clenches. The scent after the rain, the taste of the food,  the sounds unique to this city;  they generate the memories of that summer and he is soon asking himself why was I the only survivor?

But memories can be fickle companions and Julianne is not having much luck remembering the night her sister vanished.  Until…

This is a tremendous story that is well told and meaningful.  A true gem – and there must be folks who agree with me because it has won a few awards  ( among them an Edgar.)

The Long and Far Away Gone, 2015, HarperCollins,  454 pages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear (2017) …A Maisie Dobbs Novel

in this grave hour

Mystery Fiction

Historical Fiction

“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.  For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. ” — The opening lines of a speech given by King George Vl of England, on the day it was announced that England was at war with Germany. (September 3, 1939)

 The 13th novel in the MAISIE DOBB’S series begins with Maisie rushing to the home of her dearest friend Priscillia, so they can listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on the wireless: war has been declared. This is a time period the British often refer to as the “phoney war”, or Churchill’s term “the twilight war” where nothing much happens on land, involving the Allies,  for about eight months – ( although the seas are a different matter). The children of London are evacuated to country homes and the adults of London must carry gas masks and adhere to strict blackout rules. The initial  chaos contributes to the cases that Maisie must confront since the police force,  and the bureaucrats are overburdened.  Maisie is employed to investigate the murder of a man who was a Belgium refugee in the first war and she also attends to a little girl who is an evacuee with a mysterious background.

Fans of this series will remember that the first novel (MAISIE DOBBS, 2003) began in 1929 with Maisie, also a psychologist, opening her inquiry agency.  Many of the early cases had seeds in the first war and many of the characters were physically or mentally wounded by that war. But there was also healing and new life.  It is therefore terribly heartbreaking that many of the children that offered up hope throughout the series are now eligible to fight in the new war. And here is what separates a series from a stand-alone novel; the reader may become totally invested in the characters in a series. I thought the last book ( JOURNEY TO MUNICH, 2016) was the weakest in the entire collection but I still wanted more Maisie (and friends).

The author manages to convey an overall sense of incredulity among the older characters that there is – indeed – another war.  And some acceptance.  But the younger characters – meaning those who weren’t yet born during the 1st war or those who were too young to remember – often display a sense of excitement.

Overall I felt this was maybe not the best entry in this series – but it was good – and I will look forward to reading about the next chapter in Maisie’s life.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, a Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear, (2017), Harper Collins, 332 pages.

 

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THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home (2015)

Scottish Crime Fiction

Scottish Island Fiction

This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh,  named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and  a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.

Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event.  The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit.  This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands.  Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.

There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.

.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.

So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?

Published by Penguin Random House

383 Pages

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