Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad (2016)

when-she-was-bad

I’ve read many crime novels and thrillers this summer. Some of them still make me yawn. Luckily, Tammy Cohen’s novel When She Was Bad wasn’t one of them. On the contrary. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the structure. The book is told as a dual narrative, from eight different points of view. This could have resulted in a very disjointed story but it is rounded and convincing. Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize many things— petty jealousies, backstabbing, gossip, toxic bosses, ludicrous team building events, but also daily rituals, after-work drinks, and camaraderie.

If there hadn’t been the blurb on the book cover and the first chapter from the point of view of Anne, a character who is outside of the story, I wouldn’t have considered this to be a psychological thriller at first. That’s not a bad thing, because it is captivating nonetheless. It works just as well as a story about office politics as it works as a thriller.

But the initial chapter is there and tells us that something bad will happen. Anne, the narrator of that chapter, is a psychologist. When she was a young woman she worked with very troubled children. One of these children has committed a crime. She sees the now grown-up on TV and remembers. Her memories, which form the first narrative strand, explain why a horrific crime happened, while the second narrative strand, at the office, tells us the story of the crime.

At the beginning of the story set at the office, the former boss of a group of people has been sacked without forewarning. A new boss, Rachel, has taken over. Initially the group, consisting of six people, is brought closer together because of this. They feel like victims. Not only did they like their old boss, but they are afraid of possible changes and have heard that the new boss is toxic. As soon as Rachel arrives, the group dynamic changes as she’s one of those bosses who play their employees off against each other. But her toxicity doesn’t stop there. She poisons the atmosphere, is openly hostile and offensive, and makes everyone feel inadequate.

It was fascinating to read how the different members of the group experience her and where they stand in their personal lives. The characters are all so different and for each of them something else is at stake.

There’s plenty of conflict from the beginning of the novel and there’s the second narrative which explores a story of child abuse, but what made this really suspenseful is a series of things that happen that show there’s someone among the group who wants to harm people. So, with the exception of Anne, everyone, even the former boss, is a suspect of foul play and the reader is led to belive that each of them would be capable of doing something dreadful.

There was  a manipulative element that bugged me a bit, once I found out who was capable of committing a crime, but the book as a whole, especially as a story of office life, was so entertaining that I’m willing to forgive that. I would also happily read another of Tammy Cohen’s novels. Tammy Cohen has also written as Tamar Cohen and, next year, Transworld Books will publish a novel written under her pen name Rachel Rhys. When She Was Bad has just been optioned for TV.

Lucie Whitehouse: Keep You Close (2016)

Keep You Close

This is just a quick review of Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Keep You Close. It’s short because it’s more easily spoilt than other crime novels. It has a couple of really surprising twists and it would be sad to give them away.

The famous, rich young painter Marianne Glass is found dead in her garden. The police say that it was an accident. Her former best friend Rowan Winter doesn’t believe this. Marianne suffered from crippling vertigo and would never have gone this close to edge of the roof.

When Rowan hears of her former best friend’s death, she travels to Oxford and the home of the Glass family. Marianne’s house is a place where she once used to be a constant visitor. Rowan, who lost her mother as a young girl and whose father never had time for her, found a second family in her friend’s family. Coming back after all these years is intense, to say the least. Although the circumstances are dire, the Glass family, or what is left of them, are happy to see Rowan again and even ask her to house-sit for them. Rowan however has a hidden agenda. She’s the only one who cannot belive that Marianne’s death was an accident. Could it have been a suicide? She doesn’t think so, she thinks that something far more sinister has happened and wants to investigate Marianne’s death.

Early on we find out that Rowan and Marianne hadn’t been in contact for ten years because of something that happened back then. This was right about the same time Marianne’s father died in a car crash. The official version was that they had a falling out because Rowan intruded too much and didn’t let Marianne grieve. But the reader questions soon whether Rowan isn’t hiding something.

A lot of things are mysterious. Someone seems to watch the house at night. Someone else or maybe the same person tries to break in. A lot of people seem to gain, one way or the other, through Marianne’s death. Some even attack Rowan, saying that she’s profiting as well, since she was able to renew her friendship with the Glass’s and begins a relationship with Marianne’s brother.

Keep You Close is an entertaining book but not entirely convincing. I didn’t mind the slow pace as much as the implausibility of some of the twists. One was really surprising and well done, the others were over the top. All in all, it’s not a bad book, but not as good as some of her older novels. This is her fourth and I’ve read three of them so far. I liked both The House at Midnight and Before We Met better than this. If you’ve never read anything by Lucie Whitehouse, I’d suggest to start with one of her earlier novels. I read The House at Midnight before blogging, so you won’t find a review, but here’s my review of Before We Met.

 

Clare Mackintosh: I Let You Go (2014)

I Let You Go

I came across Clare Mackintosh’s novel I Let You Go on Twitter. It’s another one of those psychological thrillers with a split narrative and a huge, stunning twist. But, for once, I really loved the twist and the split narrative actually added not only other POVs but another genre altogether. Unfortunately I can’t say much about the twist, only that I found it great but if I told you why, it would be utterly spoilt. But I can talk about the split narrative.

The prologue describes a horrible accident. A small child runs from his mother and is killed in a hit and run. The novel is told from several POVs – the two most important ones being Clare’s and the police’s. Adding the POV of the police was quite unusual and made this book a combination of psychological thriller and police procedural, which worked well.

Clare runs from Bristol after the accident and hides in Wales. She’s an artist but her hand has been so severely wounded that she cannot work as a potter anymore. She starts to take photographs of the beaches, where she lives. It’s out of season when she arrives and the cottage she rents is far away from any other houses. The only people she sees are the owner of a caravan park and the local vet who helps her when she finds an abandoned puppy. While Clare, who is haunted by memories of the accident and other traumatic events,  tries to heal and find new meaning in life, the police frantically look for the person who killed the little boy.

The book has a leisurely pace until the twist in the middle, but from then on it gets very fast paced and suspenseful. We find out that the accident isn’t the only horrible thing in Clare’s past and that the past she hopes she’s left behind, is catching up with her. I can’t say more.

This is a suspenseful, well-plotted, fast-paced psychological thriller with a major twist. The characters are well-drawn, the setting is atmospheric and the end doesn’t disappoint. Maybe the police parts are a tad too long, unless this is meant to be a first in a series. If it’s a standalone, then those parts could have done with some cutting because we don’t need to know that much about the private lives of the detectives. Possibly, though, it was Clare Mackintosh’s homage to her twelve years in the police force. All in all, a minor thing that doesn’t change that I enjoyed this book a lot.

 

Louise Millar: Accidents Happen (2013)

Accidents Happen

I’m not sure where I’ve first heard of Louise Millar, but the review I read was very positive, so when I saw Accidents Happen at the local book shop, I picked it up.

It’s a book that’s easily spoilt. For once, the blurb doesn’t give away anything. All it says is that Kate had some serious bad luck in her life, which has made her obsessive and paranoid. We learn early that her parents have died tragically and later her husband too. It takes a while until we know how they died, and since I enjoyed discovering it for myself, I’m not going to reveal anything more.

When the book opens, Kate and her young son, Jack, live in Oxford. They have moved from London and live in a shabby neighbourhood, although Kate is very rich. Her parents-in-law aren’t happy about this choice. But they are equally unhappy about Kate’s behaviour which is extreme. She’s obsessed with statistics and hopes that if she controls her son’s and her every move, she’ll be able to avert more bad luck. The relationship with her in-laws and her sister-in-law is more than a little strained. On top of that there were break-ins in the house, Jack pretends he hears noises in the cupboard, and Kate can’t shake off the impression that someone enters while they are out. Unfortunately the in-laws think Kate’s making it all up and that she’s a bad influence on her child. They are planning on taking Jack away and so she’s forced into action. Either she sees a therapist or she changes radically. That’s when she meets visiting Oxford professor Jago, a statistician who proposes a very unorthodox way to cure Kate. I can’t say more.

This is one of those novels that might lose readers halfway in because a lot of what happens during this so-called therapy is more than a little bewildering. I’m not sure why I kept on reading anyway, but I’m glad I did because at the end – everything makes perfect sense. I think I don’t spoil too much when I say it has a major twist but a twist that works because Kate doesn’t know what’s going on either. You have to trust the author in this case, and just wait and see.

Apart from this bewildering element, the book has a lot to offer. I liked that it’s set in Oxford and the way she described the city was really appealing. The topic of statistics and the theme of whether someone is cursed or whether you can prevent accidents, was unusual. The pacing is great. It’s suspenseful but never too fast-paced. Most of the characters are extremely unlikable. Luckily Kate isn’t and we care for her.

I’d love to say more about the transformation she undergoes but – again – it would spoil the book.

While this isn’t one of my all-time favourite crime novels, I liked it a lot. It’s solid and highly entertaining, with some really nasty, even creepy characters. I’ll certainly pick up another of her novels. I was also glad that I couldn’t come up with a comparison. It didn’t feel like I’ve read  a book like this or similar authors before.

Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter (2014)

Mind Of Winter

I wonder sometimes whether authors prefer we read their books very slowly, savouring every word or whether they take it as a compliment if we devour a novel in one sitting. I don’t think Laura Kasischke’s going to pop in and let me know how she feels about the way I read her latest novel Mind of Winter. I bought it, started reading on the tram, kept on reading at home – resenting even the shortest interruptions – and finished it a couple of hours later. I don’t do that very often and if I do, it means that I found a book highly enthralling and couldn’t wait to find out what’s going on. Not a bad thing for a psychological thriller, right?

Mind of Winter (which I discovered on Tony’s Book World here) takes place on December 25, during one snowy day. Holly Judges, a poet, who has been suffering from writer’s block for decades, wakes late on Christmas morning. Her husband dashes out the door to get his parents at the airport, their daughter Tatty – Tatiana – is still sleeping. Holly, who woke from a nightmare, tries to make sense of a sentence that haunted her when she woke up “Something had followed them from Russia.”

Moving back and forth in time we hear about the adoption of Holly’s daughter, thirteen years ago, from a Russian orphanage and we witness how this Christmas day develops. It’s snowing constantly and after a few hours it’s obvious that neither friends nor family will make it and join Holly and Tatty for their traditional Christmas meal.

Inside of the house tensions rise. Tatiana not only displays the moodiness of a teenager but behaves more and more erratic.

There are many dark elements of the past mentioned – dead animals, neighbours who don’t speak to Holly anymore, a family history of hereditary cancer and much more. In the beginning there are just a couple of words that hint at something sinister but then, more information is added on every page, a fuller picture emerges and the reader is wondering constantly what really happened in the past and what is going on in the present.

Saying more would spoil this utterly compelling novel. There’s just one tiny thing that I feel I have to reveal—while the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the book is more than a little creepy at times, there’s no supernatural explanation. As much as I love ghost stories, I really hate it when a psychological thriller takes the easy way out and uses some lame paranormal explanation for the things that go on.

This is a tightly woven novel, a real page-turner, but still a book that explores a huge amount of interesting themes like hereditary disease, writer’s block, poetry, motherhood, family  . . .  I know I’ll be returning to this author soon.

Laura Kasischke isn’t only a novelist, she’s also a poet. It’s not surprising that poetry is important in this book. I’m grateful that she introduce me to a whole bunch of poets I didn’t know and to the poem referred to in the title,  Wallace Stevens’  The Snow Man.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Kate Rhodes: Crossbones Yard (2012)

Crossbones Yard

When I reviewed Nicci French’s third Frieda Klein novel two weeks ago, Alex (Thinking in Fragments) mentioned Kate Rhodes’ Alice Quentin series as being similar and just as good. Of course, I had to get the first in the series Crossbones Yard and read it right away. Reading a new author with a favourite one in mind is often an unfortunate thing, but not in this case. I noticed similarities – a well-described London setting – one protagonist is a psychoanalyst, the other a psychologist – they both work for the police – they both get in trouble – they both have family issues and loyal friends – the pacing is similar and so is the knack for a strong plot. The best news is—Kate Rhodes’ book is still different enough to be interesting. I think one reason is that Alice is at least ten years younger than Frieda. She sounds and feels younger. She goes clubbing and drinks too much on occasions. She’s a professional, but she’s working for a hospital, not for herself, like Frieda. The London described in Crossbones Yard is edgier, it also seems bigger, as Kate Rhodes mentions more neighbourhoods.

The novel opens with a prologue. A flashback: an abusive father, a child in hiding. At the beginning of the novel, Alice avoids taking the elevator to her office on the 24th floor. She’d rather jog. Although she’s a successful psychologist, she suffers from claustrophobia. She’s working at a hospital where she has her practice and helps the police. Not surprisingly then, DCI Burns comes to fetch her. He wants her to talk to a man who is in prison for murder but will be released soon. Burns wants Alice to assess how dangerous he really is. She finds him creepy but mentally challenged and doesn’t see him as a risk. Unfortunately, just after he’s been released, a young woman, who’s obviously been held captive, is brutally murdered. Her face and abdomen were carved. Alice finds her body when she goes jogging one evening. The woman’s been dumped on the former burial ground Crossbones Yard. Nowadays it’s just a wasteland and happens to be exactly where Alice goes for her evening runs.

It will not be the last body Alice finds. At the same time she receives threatening letters and Alice knows that whoever kills these women is after her as well.

The book is swarming with suspects and many of them are somehow linked to a couple of serial killers. The husband is already dead but his wife is still serving time and the new murders look strikingly like those they committed.

I really liked Crossbones Yard a great deal in spite of feeling let down by the ending. The red herrings were too obvious; instead of misleading me, they led me to discover the murderer a bit too early. Still, this is a promising beginning to a series and I’m looking forward to read the sequels. Alice is a strong character and her troubled family history adds to her complexity. Another aspect I liked is that the comments Alice makes on psychology and human behaviour are eve more pertinent than those coming from Frieda Klein. And the descriptions of London are fantastic.

Harriet Lane: Her (2014)

Her

Last year I read Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always and loved it so much that I had to read her new novel Her as soon as it came out. Amanda Craig calls it “Thriller of the Year” and while I might not have read enough of the books that came out in 2014 to confirm this, it’s certainly the best thriller I’ve read so far this year. Take Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met and one of Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers and you’ll end up with something like Her.

Her has a split narrative. Nina tells one half of the chapters, while Emma narrates the other half. Do you ever wonder what people truly think of you? What they might say about you behind your back? Whether they truly like you or just pretend they do? If you have, and I’m pretty sure, we’ve all wondered at some time, this book will resonate deeply with you as Nina is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable character. She does tell us the truth, albeit in small doses, but she’s anything but truthful to Emma.

At the beginning of the book Nina sees Emma in the street, in London. She hasn’t seen her in years, decades even, and is pretty sure that Emma will not remember her. However, Nina remembers Emma because, all those years ago, Emma did something that Nina could never forgive.

At first Nina doesn’t do anything. She just relishes seeing Emma in a bad place, with one small demanding child and a second on the way. She’s not a young mother and the sleepless nights, the demands of motherhood, have taken their toll. She’s not as gorgeous as she once was. And she’s neither rich nor does she have a career, unlike Nina who lives a life of elegance and wealth and is a succesful painter.

Their paths cross again. This time Nina makes contact. What follows is extremely chilling. Nina befriends Emma, is helpful and kind, but we know what she really feels. Unbeknownst to Emma she manipulates, stages disasters that are just small at first but become more menacing every time.

Reading what Nina thinks and does, followed by Emma’s interpretation of the events, made me feel so uncomfortable. I couldn’t help putting myself into Emma’s place and tried to imagine what it would be like being duped like this. Creepy.

The book is extremely gripping because we constantly ask two questions: What did Emma do all those years ago? and How far will Nina go?

What makes this book even more readable is Harriet Lane’s writing. Her descriptions are fresh and elegant. The only thing that bothered me was the depiction of motherhood. I’m sure it’s stressful to have small children but to the extent this is described here?

The end wasn’t exactly what I had expected but I thought it made sense and it shed another, even darker light on Nina.

If you liked Notes on a Scandal or Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers, you’ll enjoy this and appreciate Harriet Lane’s lovely, elegant writing.