The Burning Man by Solange Ritchie

25359216I love a good crime book and, when I began reading The Burning Man by Solange Ritchie, I was delighted to find this is exactly what I’d been given to review – a good crime book – one in which we follow an horrific case through the eyes of both a top FBI forensic pathologist, Dr Cat Powers, and that of the perpetrator – a killer with a twisted, maniacal mind.

Basically, a series of dead women are found, all of whom have been brutally tortured. Cut with precision all over their body and with acid poured into their wounds, it’s clear these young women have suffered. But what links them and why have they particularly been targeted?

Assigned to the case, Cat is forced to leave her young son in the care of her estranged husband as, along with a group of other police and agents, she determines to hunt down the killer before he strikes again… Only, he does. Yet, it’s the victim he’s determined to add to his growing tally that makes this case suddenly very, very personal for Cat.

A driven woman, one whose intelligence, talent and hard work has taken her far in her career, Cat is nonetheless torn between the eternal binary of family versus professional life. Respected by those she works with, she is also aloof and it’s really only the reader and one or two of the men with whom she works who are given an insight into what makes her tick and her various vulnerabilities – the latter which come to the fore as the killer tries to manipulate her and those she loves.

The writing in the first two-thirds of the book is mostly very good. While there are some repetitions in terms of character motivation and even odd decisions that seem out of character for not only Cat, but the other people who populate the book – for example, Cat flies here, there and everywhere at a crucial point in the case and narrative when, surely, other options (eg. telephone, skype or relying on colleagues in situ) would have made much more sense. She also makes a really silly decision towards the climax – one that doesn’t sit with this strong and smart woman – there is a consistency to the attitudes being expressed and the processes unfolding.

Now, while I really enjoyed the first two thirds, even three-quarters of the book, something happened in the latter half that had me most perplexed. The narrative (after a silly choice by Cat) suddenly jumps all over the place. At one stage, I thought we were in the middle of a dream sequence and had to go back to ensure we were not. Sense is briefly lost and, as we build towards the climax, it’s hard to makes sense of the action – someone appears to get shot and is bleeding all over the place, then they appear to be well enough to do quite physical things. The killer and Cat are also involved in scenes that are fraught with problems in terms of logic and it was hard for this reader at least, to suspend her disbelief. I started to lose interest.

After a very promising start, the end was disappointing in terms of plot and writing. Nevertheless, I think for the most part, the book itself is quite good, though the murders were incredibly and sometimes gratuitously gruesome, there was a cracking pace set and in the lead character, Cat Powers (a name laden with symbolism) there is a strong woman with many cases left to solve.



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Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

images-3The second novel in the David Beckett and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney is a cracker of a read. Set a few years after the first instalment, Firedrake’s Eye, though it features our erstwhile and now estranged heroes, it’s very much a tale about a diary the young Princess Elizabeth kept that, if it should fall into the wrong hands, could mark the end of her glorious reign.

Discovering the diary, which has a unicorn upon the front replete with a ruby eye, is missing, Elizabeth tasks her trusted servant, the dwarf, Thomasina with finding it. But Thomasina’s quest is just one of the narrative threads; the others involve Simon and David, a former nun who is now the queen’s nightsoil woman and her granddaughter, a courtier who has become too grandiose for his already considerable boots, and Sir Francis Walsingham and his intelligencers, all of whom together prove we do indeed weave a tangled web. From the freshly scented rooms of the courts, to the stench of the streets of Bankside and the Stews, to the cruelty and fierceness of the prisons, the barbarity of torture and depravation, to the female-centred spaces of the laundries of the palaces, to the ditches and snickets of London, Finney conjures up a real and lived place and time. Like it or not, you can breath the malodorous fumes of people and lanes, hear the tolling bells or screams and sobs of prisoners, many punitively punished for little more than trying to eke out an existence, and feel gratitude that we live in the era (for all that’s wrong with it) that we do.

Narrated by none other than Virgin Mary (Finney’s originality with this works so well and adds a fantastical element to the novel) and featuring a few of the characters from Firedrake’s Eye, this is such a beautifully written and structured story that reveals both Finney’s knowledge of the era and skill as a writer.

Filled with philosophical insights and reflections on class, social (in)justice, female sexuality and the very real burden of gender in those times, the book swings from heart-wrenching, to exciting, depressing, all the while respecting and understanding that history, whether fictive or factual, is worth revisiting for any number of reasons.

A stellar book by a fantastic writer.

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Martyr (John Shakespeare #1) by Rory Clements

imgresA fabulous, well-paced historical crime book set during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign (it opens in 1587), a time when conspiracies abounded, suspicions towards Catholics and fears for Elizabeth’s life were rife in a country still trying to lay firm Protestant foundations. This was an era when paranoia was alive and well (and often with good reason) and Mister Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham and his spies or intelligencers played a significant role in shoring up the safety of the land and its monarch.


Enter John Shakespeare, brother to William and a clever, generous and handsome bloke to boot, who is recruited into Walsingham’s network. Between the brutal murder of one of the queen’s cousins in a burnt out house on London Bridge and a plot to assassinate Sir Francis Drake, John has his work cut out. Alongside all this, King Philip and his armada threatens, Mary Stuart is poised for execution, while Jesuit priests walk the streets, harvesting English souls, evading capture by hiding in the houses of Catholic sympathisers.


Tasked with discovering Drake’s would-be assassin, the killer of the queen’s cousin and the recusants hiding the Jesuits, Shakespeare is forced to confront his own beliefs, his heart’s desire and the fears and realities of both Protestants and Catholics alike.


Watching his every move but always seeming to be one step ahead is the awful character of Richard Topcliffe who, in real life, was known to be a blood-thirsty sociopath with a genuine love for torture. His name alone was enough to cast a long and horrifying shadow – and if you read books on the torture of the time and what this man did, it still will…


Topcliffe knows John has secrets, secrets that could undermine his position, family and his life. But when the assassin and Topcliffe start to threaten those John has grown to love, the stakes become even higher.


I thoroughly enjoyed what at times is a very, very gory book that doesn’t hold back from the shocking realities of Elizabethan life for the men and poor women who were held in thrall by violent, powerful people. The constant pressure brought to bear on Catholics and the religious schism that existed at the time is painful to read, but also reflects what was again a reality for many folk.


In some reviews I’ve read, readers’ criticise Clement, the author, for giving his hero what they term “modern religious sensibilities”, meaning, I think, a tolerance for both sides of the religious divide. The historical facts record that just like in any period, while there were fundamentalists and those who truly believed their soul was at stake if they adhered to a different set of religious principles, there were also those very tolerant and even ambivalent about specific religious practices, even if they never doubted God. This period was not as black and white as many other writers of the era make out, so in that regard, I think Clement has done something very original and interesting with John Shakespeare and the other characters who populate this book. Certainly, his evocation of the era is outstanding and his use of language rich and fruity.


I really enjoyed this book and upon finishing it, immediately commenced the next in the series.

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Book Review: The Watchers, by Stephen Alford

Sent The Watchers, A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Ist,  by the publishers, I really looked forward to reading what’s ostensibly a behind the scenes account of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign but from the point of view of the “watchers”: that is, reporters, listeners, spies – the men whose speciality was espionage. Elizabethan times, it turns out, are notorious for their extensive use of spies and networks, all of which were established to protect England and ensure the queen’s successful reign. As Alford writes in the introduction, while Elizabeth and her council worked hard to maintain “clever and persuasive projections of political stability, empire, self-confidence and national myth” there was, in fact, “a darker story… set against a Europe divided and oppressed by religious conflict, cThe Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Iivil war and the ambitions of kings and princes.”

Taking the crown after her half-sister “Bloody Mary” tried to purge the Protestant stain, and trying to stabilise an England divided by religious schism and rapidly changing succession, Elizabeth’s job was not easy. Declaring England as Protestant, but claiming that Catholicism would be tolerated, Elizabeth nonetheless was acutely aware of how precarious her position as ruler and religious head of a reeling nation was. Plots to declare her rule invalid, assassination attempts, never mind trying to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne abounded. Then there was the job of trying to find Elizabeth a suitable husband, all of which meant that though the kingdom flourished in terms of exploration, the humanities and arts, there was also a seething underbelly that threatened to erupt and destroy everything at any time. The greatest threat was that of the Catholics who, discontent with Elizabeth’s heretical leadership and perceiving it as ungodly, sought to rid themselves of Henry VIII’s daughter and restore the “true religion”. Working from within their homeland, their overseas networks were extensive, travelling across Europe and involving some of the most powerful people abroad as well.

The stage is thus set for espionage, betrayal, treason, propaganda, secrets, torture, faith, martyrdom and lies all of which Sir Francis Walsingham and his successors sought to control.

Carefully researched and very well-written, this book is an eye-opener that also makes the mind boggle. The lengths to which various individuals would go to inveigle themselves into (Catholic) families or communities in order to uncover plots and treasons were phenomenal. Conspirators were discovered frequently, many from noble families. The Throckmorton plot was one of the most famous and this is covered in detail throughout the book. Fascinating in its complexity and the degree of commitment and sacrifice believers were ready to make, uncovering it was to prove an even greater triumph.

The book goes onto explore the stories, derring-do, successes and failures of many spies and traitors, how far they were willing to go (disguise, denying their identities for long periods, sacrificing family and a “normal” life for little reward) and from these we also learn how disposed Walsingham and his men were to use torture to uncover secrets and plots and how brutal their interrogation methods were. Some of the spies, or intelligencers, were gentleman and even poets, others were criminals, but many were chameleons, able to shift, camouflage themselves and change with subtlety. There was William Parry, Thomas Phelippes, Gilbery Gifford, Chrales Sledd, Sir Robert Cecil, Burghley, simply to name a few (forgive my memory) – names both known and unknown to history buffs. Perhaps, for those names less familiar, it’s testimony to how well they performed their roles – they disappeared not simply into the woodwork, but became lost in the pages of history and time until Alford recovers them. Uncovering the plots and deeds of desperate men, these watchers brought many to trial and death and, in doing so, ensured Elizabeth’s long reign.

Utilising surviving records, Alford has done an amazing job and recreated in detail a tumultuous but fascinating period. Almost akin to a Renaissance version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I found this book fascinating, challenging (to keep track of the different names and roles), but also a wonderful insight into what occurs behind the doors, under the tables and in the shadows and whispers of a colourful and deceptively confidant queen’s reign. Like an ice-berg, it was the seven-eights we didn’t see that ensured the topmost part remained afloat. Alford has given us access to that which we don’t normally witness and exposed the intricacy and deadly seriousness of spying in Elizabethan times.

A great read for history buffs, writers, anyone who loves tales of espionage and appreciates solid research delivered in an entertaining and engaging manner.



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Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.

Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial sThe Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter #1)tages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.

Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.

So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.

I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.

There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.

Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.

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