Monthly Archives: September 2013

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

black chalk

Puzzle compiler isn’t a profession you’ll see on many author’s CVs, but Christopher J Yates’ début Black Chalk shows what perfect preparation it is for twisting readers in knots.  This fiendishly clever book follows six students at the fictional Pitt College in Oxford during the 1990s, adjusting to the ego bruising experience of going from smartest kids in school to middling intellectuals in waiting surrounded by much sharper minds.

Lead by American ex-country boy Chad and the gloriously effete Brit Jolyon the group decide to play a game, an initially simple and frivolous one with forfeits served to the loser of each round.  It needs to be worthwhile though, these are competitive people, and a large cash pot is provided by the shadowy Game Soc, three older students who are initially treated as laughable weirdos, until the true depth of their involvement emerges.

What starts out as harmless fun quickly escalates into all out psychological warfare.   The group dynamics shift, personal relationships lead to destructive alliances and real world betrayals, both romantic and plutonic, which feed back into the game.  The forfeits evolve from sniggering, childlike dares to acts of downright sadism, with the players ruthlessly exploiting their growing intimacy to find the soft spots in each others defences.

The parallel narrative skips neatly between the groups time at Pitt College, teasing out the development of the game, and modern day New York where Jolyon is now holed up in his apartment, enduring a hermetic existence structured around a series of OCD rituals; something which seemed like a charming affectation at university now signalling the true scale of his psychological trauma.  Quite early on we know that the game has proved destructive but we don’t know who is the victim and who the aggressor and Yates skilfully manipulates our impressions of the players, ensuring that just as you get a handle on events another move is made and you’re back to square one, questioning everything you thought you knew.  Yates is definitely not a man you’d want to play chess with.

Although the entire cast is well drawn and completely credible Jolyon steals the book.  Quintessentially English, with a distinctly Waughian vibe, he’s the man everyone wants to impress at college, foppish but effortlessly clever,  dripping with charisma, the perfect foil for the seemingly plodding Chad, who arrives at Oxford yearning to be part of the world Jolyon represents, and the increasingly toxic nature of their friendship is driving force behind much of the action.

Black Chalk is a tremendously enjoyable novel, elegantly constructed, with lots of mini-twists and cliffhanger chapter endings, so that it is near impossible to put down.  Yates writes with confidence and great flair, his prose is crisp, his characterisation beady-eyed, and there is a delightful fizzy wit running through the book.  Definitely a writer to watch.

Witness the Dead by Craig Robertson



Craig Robertson just keeps getting better, which is some achievement when you consider that his first novel, Random, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger and hit the Sunday Times bestseller list.  He has made Glasgow’s mean streets his own and built a strong ensemble cast, led by the no nonsense DS Rachel Narey and scenes of crime photographer Tony Winter, who plays a central role this time round.


A young woman is found dead in Glasgow’s Northern Necropolis, raped, strangled and carefully laid out across a tomb with the word ‘SIN’ written across her body in red lipstick.  When a second woman is killed the next day Narey and her team realise they have a serial murderer on their hands.  Which would be bad enough, but Winters uncle and ex-copper Danny Neilson believes the case is even more complex than that.


During the 1970s Danny worked the infamous ‘Red Silk’ murders, a case which gripped and terrified the city of Glasgow as several women were murdered in quick succession without the police ever managing to catch their killer.  And these recent deaths exhibit links to the historical case which no copycat could know.  But the man suspected back then is locked up, serving multiple life sentences for a string of murders and can’t be responsible, despite the similarities.  Archibald Atto is a psychopath who has tortured his victims families for years, refusing to reveal the location of their bodies or the full extent of his crimes, playing with them and the prison authorities and the police for his own amusement.  Atto craves attention though and, worryingly for Winter, when the two men meet he seems to believe he’s found a kindred spirit.


As Narey and her comrades chase down leads on the street Winter is drawn into an mental chess match with Atto.  They know he has information about the killer but he won’t give it up easily, not without extracting something from Winter in return; an audience, a sympathetic ear, an admission that the thrill Winter feels in photographing the dead isn’t so different to the one Atto feels at killing?  No matter how repulsed he is by their encounters the police need Atto and Winter will be forced to confront his own darkest impulses if the murderer is to be caught.


Through dual narratives, one following Danny Neilson and the original Red Silk case during the 1970s and the other the contemporary investigation, Robertson skilfully creates a sense of emotional involvement with the murders as well as a breathless pace which had me whipping through the pages.  The team is growing with each book and dynamics becoming more involved; there are some great exchanges between Winter and the gloriously foul-mouthed DI Addison which are a real joy to read, while the relationship between Winter and Narey continues on its complicated way.  The scenes with Archibald Atto are the most compelling in the book though, recalling the Starling/Lecter meetings, but with an added frisson created by Winter’s own almost-deviant psychology.


Last year I raved about Cold Grave but Craig Robertson has surpassed himself with Witness the Dead, a perfectly constructed police procedural with real psychological depth.



Red Winter by Dan Smith

red winter


Dan Smith’s previous novel The Child Thief, an intense thriller set among the Bolshevik-infested forests of 1930’s Ukraine, was one of my novels of 2012, so I had high expectations for Red Winter.  And I’m glad to say that it more than lived up to them.  Set in central Russia during the 1920s, an especially tumultuous period for a country which has rarely been settled, it sees Smith reprising some of the themes from his previous novel, the brutality of extreme political ideologies and the power of family ties.

Red Winter opens with a deserting soldier returning home to rejoin his family and bury his fallen brother, but after days of arduous trekking through snowy forests fraught with danger, and with his old life within touching distance, Kolya makes an unsettling discovery.  His village is abandoned, his house empty and showing signs of a speedy, possibly forced departure.  He is fully aware what the Red Army is capable of, he has worn that uniform and swept through villages like this, and he knows that many of his former comrades do not share his sense of human decency.

A lone woman remains in the village, filthy and emaciated, driven to the point of insanity, and she takes Kolya into the forest to show him the aftermath of the massacre which emptied the village.  The men have been killed in unspeakably terrible ways, their corpses left to rot where they fell, bearing star-shaped brands.  The old woman claims it is the work of Koschei, The Deathless One, a demonic figure from Russian folklore, but Kolya is a rational man and sees a human hand behind the brutality.

With no trace of his wife and children to be found he clings to the slim hope they have been taken prisoner, bound for the work camps or worse, and resolves to track them down, following the trail of destruction which Koschei has cut through the frozen countryside.  He isn’t the only person on Koschei’s tail though and his status as a deserter makes him a potential target for any soldiers in the area; it’s hard to conceal the mark which command leaves on a man, and so he must use all of his guile, and the skills which made him a formidable officer, to maintain his liberty long enough to find his family.

Once again Dan Smith has produced a first class historical thriller, which will satisfy the most demanding of crime fans, while exploring the consequences of unchecked military might and the persistence of the human spirit.  Smith’s prose is crisp, his sense of pace flawless and his appreciation of the mundane terrors of warfare nothing short of masterly.  In Kolya he has created a fascinating character, flawed and conflicted, with dark secrets he isn’t ready to face, but from the very first page you will find yourself rooting for him, gasping at his heartbreak and cheering the triumph of his spirit.

I read this book in a single sitting – not something I do very often – because I simply couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page.  Red Winter is utterly compelling and genuinely unsettling.

Wee Danny by Gerard Brennan


wee danny



Gerard Brennan’s acclaimed novella Wee Rockets was a pulsating slice of Belfast grit, following the lives of a gang of teenagers who spent their time harassing old folks and getting wrecked in parks on cider and weed, a story which hummed with street smart credibility.  The recently released Wee Danny is a sequel of sorts and sees one of the main characters, Danny Gibson, now locked up in a young offenders institution.


Danny has worked out how to make it through his stretch and his eyes are fixed firmly on his upcoming release.  He knows to keep his head down, avoid trouble and play the reformed character.  Maybe he is being rehabilitated, he’s certainly behaving better than he did on the outside – making nice with his psychologist and teachers, side stepping the macho crap of his fellow inmates, or at least making sure he looks like the innocent party when the fists start flying.


Then Danny is befriended by Conan Quinlan – The Barbarian, naturally – a gentle giant with learning difficulties who prompts an uncharacteristic protectiveness in Danny.  Conan is a big target, physically capable of taking care of himself but lacking in Danny’s feral guile.  They’re an odd double act but their friendship is the kind that develops in harsh situations, sparked at random and tentative to begin with.  Danny is initially wary of Conan, not sure if he’s a threat or a friend, confused by his strange behaviour and intimidated by his bulk, but he feels protective towards him and when the opportunity to spend some time outside on a work placement arises he talks the prison psychologist into letting Conan out too.  A move which will lead to his rehabilitation being tested.


Wee Danny is a much gentler book than Wee Rockets, there’s violence but because of the setting it is contained and brief, more a battle of wills than all out warfare, and Brennan does an excellent job of teasing out the small slights and power games which define the hierarchy within a young offenders institution.  At the heart of this slim but perfectly formed novella is the relationship between Danny and Conan, and through it we see the tearaway of Wee Rockets in new light, capable of decency and kindness.  Maybe he’ll be fully reformed in a future book, or maybe it’s only his environment which allows him to show this new side to his character, hopefully we’ll find out at some point.


Gerard Brennan has always been a writer with a great flair for character and this has come to the fore in Wee Danny, a large hearted character piece which, despite the subject matter, is actually really touching.



Dead Line by Chris Ewan


Earlier this year Chris Ewan’s first stand alone thriller Safe House became a runaway success, dominating the Kindle charts for months, and garnering rave reviews from critics and readers alike for its driving pace and twisty narrative. So I must admit to having high expectations for Dead Line after being hooked by Safe House.  Whilst the setting and subject matter are very different Dead Line once again showcases Ewan’s talent for spinning a story which grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up.

Daniel Trent is a hostage negotiation specialist, experienced, highly skilled and absolutely unflappable.  So when his fiancée Aimee disappears he has no intention of involving the police.  Because Daniel is certain that Aimee has been abducted and he knows who took her from that stretch of winding, mountain road high above Marseilles; Jerome Moreau, a well set up gangster with his fingers in many dirty deals.  The plan is simple, grab Moreau and make him talk.

But somebody else gets there first.  Swooping in and snatching Moreau from under his nose with well oiled precision which suggests that this team of kidnappers are at the top of their game.  Daniel is adaptable though, he has no choice but to be, and he finds himself working with Moreau’s beautiful, ballet dancer wife and his feckless son, pulling out all the stops to secure Moreau’s release, needing him alive if he’s ever going to get Aimee back.  Daniel is an emotional wreck though, swinging between hope and despair, trying not to let his ultimate motive show through his professional facade, while Moreau’s right-hand man picks away at him, sensing that Daniel might not be quite what he seems.

Meanwhile somebody is watching Daniel very closely, hidden in the shadows, exploiting his compromised state to monitor his movements for some obscure reason, and as the situation within the Moreau household becomes more fraught, with secrets and lies bubbling up through the cracks, demands being made and threats uttered, Daniel will have to use every trick in his arsenal to free Moreau before the kidnappers do something everyone will regret.

Dead Line has all the ingredients for a smash hit poolside thriller, the exotic location, pungently evoked, the steely lead man with a soft core, gangsters, henchmen and a trophy wife with something to hide.  It’s a more glamorous book than Safe House, has a cinematic scope which makes for very easy reading, and enough twists and turns to ensure your heartbeat doesn’t have a chance to settle down until the final, breath taking pages.  I literally could not stop reading – even when I was cooking dinner it was in my free hand – and writing this compelling is a rare thing, even in the crime genre.  It’s more than just crash bang wallop though.  Ewan is a technically accomplished writer; his prose is downright silky, his characters memorable and original, and he invests this action packed story with a genuine emotional weight which will leave you feeling wrung out.

With Dead Line Chris Ewan has gone from ‘must-watch’ author to top flight thriller writer.  Make room in your suitcase for this one.