“The Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor (2018)

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“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Given the state of the world, fiction always serves as a grand, eternal escape, but one would imagine I’d be wanting to fall into something soft and funny that acts as a welcome distraction. As it is, I find myself inside the creepiest thriller I’ve read in a long time. Despite the subject matter, I can’t recommend it enough.

In 1986, Eddie was just twelve years old. He was pretty normal, spending time with his friends Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky in their average town. That was, until he saved Waltzer Girl’s life. This is perhaps the beginning of the story, although he can’t be entirely sure. It was certainly then that he met the albino teacher Mr Halloran. It would be later that he and his friends began drawing chalk men, and later still that the chalk men began appearing on their own. It was before the body was found, however. That was when it all came to an end.

In 2016, Ed, now a teacher himself and doing his best to hide from the past receives a letter in the post that threatens to bring everything back to the forefront of his mind. When Metal Mickey reappears in his life, too, things seem particularly nasty. Mickey wants to write a book about what happened back in 1986 and wants Ed’s help in filling in the gaps. Because it turns out that the police were wrong all those years ago. Mickey knows who really killed her, and now Ed sees that he’s got to dive back into the past and relive the worst years of his life in order to get the answers the world has been missing for thirty years…

It’s been a long time since I devoured a book so quickly. It is the very definition of gripping, and keeps you enticed until the very last page before it finally lets go of your lapels and throws you back into reality, confused and scared. The fact the narrative switches between the two time periods in roughly alternating chapters means we pick up the story in the wrong order, but references are often made to things that will happen in the future, or happened in the past that we’ve not seen yet. As such, the jigsaw begins to come together, but we must have lost the box with the picture on it, as it never seems to get any clearer. If anything, I found it much easier to work out what wasn’t going on than what was.

It’s the kind of story that, in the wrong hands, would be bland, boring and tiresomely predictable. As it is, Tudor manages to produce a masterful example of the genre, filled with exactly the right levels of unease, tension, bluff and pathos that is required. The characters are rich and interesting, and even when it feels like it’s leaning too heavily on coincidences and chance, she somehow gets away with it and there is an answer for everything. I’m wary to say too much about this book, as to speak too openly about it will remove much of the tension and might untangle some of the twists before you get to them. Most, you’ll never see coming.

I guess, really, the book is all about questions and answers, memory and secrets. It reminds us that in seeking out the truth, sometimes we find out things we’ve always wondered about, and other times we learn things that we simply wish we’d never uncovered. As Fat Gav says, conjuring up a vivid mental image, everyone has secrets and everyone has an arsehole, but some are just dirtier than others.

Beware the past – it is not the place it once was.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“The Man In The Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie (1924)

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“Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again.”

It’s hard to know how to keep prefacing the Christie novels, other than to say it’s another cracker, so we’ll just press on. Today, I’m discussing Christie’s fourth novel, and first to contain none of her most famous detectives, The Man in the Brown Suit.

After the sudden death of her absent-minded but brilliant father, Anne Beddingfield heads to London to seek adventure and thrills. While standing on the tube platform at Hyde Park Corner, she witnesses a man fall onto the tracks. He’s pulled back up and a doctor appears, confirms the man is dead, and then leaves. Convinced that that was no doctor, Anne gives chase. He manages to get away from her, but drops a scrap of paper that reads: 1 71 22 Kilmorden Castle. Hours later, a woman is found dead in an empty London house. These things seem unconnected, but it turns out the first victim had in his coat an order to view the property. The only lead the police have right now is a mysterious man in a brown suit.

Desperate to work out what happened, Anne approaches a journalist with her findings, but he is sceptical of her abilities. Nevertheless, Anne soon discovers that Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship heading to South Africa the next day. Buying a ticket, she finds herself among a number of suspicious characters and finds that she is unable to trust anyone. There’s Colonel Race, who may or may not be in the Secret Service; Suzanne Blair, a wealthy independent woman; Eustace Pedlar, millionaire owner of the house where the dead woman was found; and his two mysterious secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. When Anne’s life is threatened, she becomes convinced that “the man in the brown suit” is one of her companions, and she quickly learns that adventures aren’t so fun as they seem in books when they’re happening to you for real…

I think I’ve said before that Christie is never held up as a feminist icon, but I think this is a mistake. Here she gives us one of those spunky young girls that the twenties were terribly keen on. Anne is cut from the same cloth as Tuppence, but is shown again and again to be sharp, smart, wickedly cunning and more than capable of holding her own. She exhibits fear, but she isn’t going to wait around for a man to save her. One of my favourite moments is when she approaches the police who dismiss her as being a young woman who doesn’t know anything useful, and manages to use her scientific background to entirely flummox them and show that they are not her superiors in every way.

Although none of the major detectives turn up here, we do meet Colonel Race, who will appear in later Christie novels as a friend of Hercule Poirot. In his first outing, we get to learn more about his emotional life than we ever do later, plus this also sets up his position and background when he turns up later. The other characters are good fun, and as ever Christie intelligently lays down all the red herrings and we gleefully pick them up and run with them, only to realise too late that we’ve been going in the wrong direction. It isn’t one of my absolute favourites – the solution is just a touch too convoluted for me, and one character manages to have five or six distinct aliases over the course of the book – but it shows her chops as a thriller writer, an aspect of her work which is often overlooked.

Still one for the completists, with a few good jokes, funny observations and a good sense of peril.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Night Of Camp David” by Fletcher Knebel (1965)

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“Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth.”

I’m not someone who wants to use his platform to discuss political opinion, but in reading a wide variety of novels, sometimes it’s inevitable. In this book, I found myself at the heart of the political system.

Senator Jim McVeagh gets the feeling that his political career is about to get a boost when, after a gala dinner, the President himself, Mark Hollenbach issues an invite for Jim to attend a private meeting at Camp David. When he arrives, Jim becomes uncomfortable when the President reveals that a joke he made during his speech earlier in the night about wiretapping was actually in earnest. It gets worse when he begins to display true paranoia and is convinced that “they” are out to get him.

Unsure what to do, Jim confides in his mistress, Rita, who shares her own story of instability from Hollenbach. Jim attempts to raise the subject with some others high up in Washington, but all that does it make people convinced that he’s the one with the mental illness, and he begins to spot the Secret Service are on his tail night and day. Suddenly, the life he saw as the future vice president is shattered as the President begins to share more of his secret plans, and Jim becomes convinced that the the most powerful man in the world has gone mad – but who is going to believe him?

First published in 1965, the book was at the time pure escapism. Knebel wrote many political thrillers, but this one appears to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years. In 2018, Vintage announced they were going to publish it again and it has definitely struck a nerve in today’s political climate. Proving to be remarkably prescient, the novel includes early mentions of there being no such thing as “true facts” because it implies the existence of “false facts”, which obviously can’t exist. And yet doesn’t that just resonate with the cries these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? There’s also a moment where the President plans a meeting with the Russian premier, and the main characters argue that the meeting cannot be allowed to go ahead. Again, timely.

Being of its time, the book is notable for its lack of female characters, with I think only four ever getting any speaking roles: Jim’s wife, his daughter, his mistress, and a secretary. This is not a political landscape where women are present, and probably not even welcome, and with a twenty-first century mindset, their absence is very obvious. Women are never even mentioned as political figures, with many conversations using “men” to describe everyone in the room or who may be of relevance at that moment.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, then this is surely something that you’ll enjoy. As a Brit, my knowledge of the American political system is pretty shaky and I don’t necessarily understand all the titles and roles in play here, but the tension racks up well enough that I also don’t think it matters completely. The dialogue is occasionally quite dense, but not impenetrable, and it does deal with very real and important issues of mental illness, responsibility and power. While interesting and loaded with food for thought, maybe it is a little far fetched. I mean, can you really imagine a mentally unstable, paranoid halfwit being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

Exactly.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Possession Of Mr Cave” by Matt Haig (2008)

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“Of course, you know where it begins.”

I’ve been a big fan of Matt Haig’s work since I first read The Humans. I’ve since worked through most of his adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, but I realised that there were a few of his earlier works that I’d not got to yet, so here we are. Haig has become a loud and important voice in the world of mental health, and I think some people only know him because of his memoirs, such as Reasons To Stay Alive. I think sometimes his fiction gets lost behind this, which is a dreadful shame, as he’s one of the finest writers working today.

Antiques dealer Terence Cave has suffered three great losses in his life. As a child, his mother killed herself. As a young man, his wife was murdered. And now, he’s just seen his son, Reuben, die in a terrible accident. All he has left is his daughter, Reuben’s twin, Bryony, a teenage girl who is beginning to find her place in the world. Cave begins to realise that he must protect Bryony from the outside world, whatever the cost.

As Cave’s rules become more and more draconian and he goes to more extreme lengths to keep Bryony in line and away from a boyfriend he deems unsuitable, it appears that Reuben has some unfinished business, and Cave realises that the word “possession” has more than one meaning…

So, here’s the really weird thing. When the supernatural elements began to kick in, my first thought was, “Oh, this is something a bit different from Haig – all his other stuff has been pretty normal,” but then I realised how wrong I was. He’s written about aliens, vampires and immortality, and narrated a novel from the point of view of a dog. This is his magic. He makes the really weird stuff seem totally plausible and normal. How he does this, I can’t quite be sure, but it’s certainly a very special talent.

The novel is, at its heart, a story of obsession, and the troubles of fatherhood. There’s no denying that Terence Cave has been through some horrific things in his life, but I’m not sure that any of them excuse his behaviour. I was reminded at several points of You, a Netflix series that I recently watched that has similar themes of obsession and desperation. (If you’ve not seen it yet, I would strongly recommend that, too.) Cave is not necessarily a likeable narrator, but he’s certainly beguiling and you find yourself drawn into his sticky web of lies and paranoia. I’ve no idea what it’s like to raise a teenager, but Bryony certainly seems pretty realistic, and you do sympathise with Cave’s frustrations as his daughter grows away from him.

A moving and magical novel from one of the masters of the speculative fiction genre that will keep you gripped until the final page.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Fear Nothing” by Lisa Gardner (2014)

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“Rockabye, baby, on the treetop…”

The cosy crime novels of the early twentieth century are where I spend a lot of my time. There are some modern crime novels I love, including the easy and engaging works of Peter James and the supernatural-tinted Rivers of London series, but generally I prefer the bloodless criminal activities of the aristocracy in their large country estates. Although crime and thrillers are huge genres today, it’s a bloated arena, and not all are created equal.

In Fear Nothing, Boston homicide detective D.D. Warren has been injured after attending a crime scene alone in the hopes to find out more. The victim was found in bed, the sheets stained with blood and her skin entirely peeled from their body and left in a mound of thin strips on the floor. D.D. hears a noise as she explores and the next thing she knows, she’s at the bottom of the stairs having fired off her gun, with a severely damaged arm and no memory of how she fell or why she fired her gun.

Elsewhere, Dr Adeline Glen – a pain specialist and the daughter of infamous serial killer Harry Day – is having trouble with her sister, Shana Day, who has inherited their father’s bloodlust and fascinating with killing. Adeline has a rare condition that means she cannot feel pain, which leaves her vulnerable to many things, leading to a life of almost entire isolation. She meets D.D. after the detective is told to visit her to learn how to manage her pain. But then another body is found in the same condition, and the police realise that they’ve seen this kind of thing before, from a man who died forty years ago. It seems that Harry Day is back from the dead and killing again … or maybe someone else has decided to follow in his footsteps…

I confess that around 150 pages in I really started skim-reading. Although the book does open dramatically with the discovery of the first body, it then seems to take ages to get going. This is apparently the seventh book in the series featuring Detective D.D. Warren, but I’m not sure that even having started at the beginning would have served me any better. The characters are flat and usually defined by a single trait – D.D. is a cliched, no-nonsense female cop with pain problems; Adeline is a psychologist who can’t feel pain; Shana is a serial killer; Alex is D.D.’s husband – and never really feel like people you would ever genuinely meet.

Also, I’m definitely not someone who has a problem with gore – both of my books feature a fair amount of it – but here is just feels entirely unnecessary. Excessive detail is used which, in fairness, does make the actions leap off the page, but is this quite so welcome? It did lead to me having several horrible dreams last night that were certainly related to content of the book. It wasn’t just the gore that was overly detailed, however. At one point, D.D. takes two paragraphs to get her sweater off over her painful shoulder. Yes, this helps emphasise the agony she’s in, but it doesn’t half slow down the story. That’s really the problem here – it gets too wrapped up in its own detail to let the story emerge from underneath all the padding.

Fear nothing but long-winded modern thrillers.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi (2017)

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“I’m just going up to the room for a second.”

I’ve never been one for travel or holidays where one sits by the pool or on the beach for hours at a time. If I’m somewhere new, I like to explore the museums and landscape. Some reading time is, of course, essential, but there’s only so much time you can spend laying in the sun in my opinion. However, despite the heatwave that ravaged the northern hemisphere for much of the last few months, the last week or so has been wet and chilly, so a beach might be a decent idea. Without the time or funds to take off to one, however, I instead hid myself inside a novel set on the sunny shores of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. However, this is a book, so there’s naturally trouble in paradise.

While enjoying a family holiday on the beautiful resort of Saint-Gilles, Liane Bellion goes to her hotel room for a moment leaving her husband Martial and daughter Sopha by the pool. When she hasn’t returned after an hour, Martial goes to find her, but all he finds is a locked room. When it’s opened, there’s no one inside, but no one ever saw her leave. The police are called and Martial is initially worried about the incident, but after a couple of days when Liane hasn’t returned, he grabs Sopha and the pair go on the run across the island, evading the police at every turn.

Things look worse when another body shows up, and Martial’s fingerprints are all over the weapon. Who is he, and what is he running from?

Honestly, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the story. The premise is great – a locked room mystery is always good fun – but I never properly clicked with any of the characters or their motives. Martial Bellion is a confusing character, at times a terrified husband but simultaneously a master criminal with the ability to outrun an entire police force. While some characters have motives that make sense, Martial’s aren’t always clear and even when everything is explained at the end, it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. Sopha, the six-year-old daughter, too, is irritating, as her narration is entirely unconvincing and makes her seem much older than she is.

The novel is unfortunately also heavily reliable on deus ex machina, with particular clues being revealed or unlikely coincidences happening on at least four occasions that I can think of. Being surrounded by police just as thick fog envelops you and allows you to escape? Please. It’s all a shame really, because my friend was hugely positive about the novel, but for me none of it stacked up. It is interesting to learn more about the culture and people of Réunion, however, as it’s an island I’m unlikely to ever visit, and some of the descriptions of the landscape are fascinating and give the reader an image of a land that seems almost otherworldly.

The book had such potential, but there were threads left hanging, a somewhat hurried denouement, and a cast of characters none of whom ever really sparkled for me. Nice to spend a bit of time in the sun, but my TripAdvisor review would leave a lot to be desired.

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