Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

ruth rendell dark cornersI almost wish I hadn’t read Dark Corners. I went through a massive Ruth Rendell phase in the late 1990s/early 2000s (at that time the TV adaptations of her work were still running and her books were easy to pick up in charity shops as well as libraries).

What I found so special, and what influenced me, is the way she wrote about ordinary people with a dark twist. She seemed to suggest that evil wasn’t something abstract or other, but something that lurked in all of us, that pushed, we might also commit extraordinary acts.

She also had great craft. If she mentioned a dog barking on page 27, you could be sure that this was not incidental, even though you might not notice it on a first reading, that everything was there for a reason, primed. And I loved her prose. People underestimate her prose because you almost don’t notice it. It is not literary, intended to be weighed and savoured and interpreted, it’s so light and beautifully wrought that in reading it you become inseparable from the story. It’s not true that prose style doesn’t matter in commercial fiction. There are too many thriller writers whose clunky wording and tired phrasing make them unreadable for me.

Dark Corners reminds me why I stopped reading Ruth Rendell’s books over a decade ago – they started to feel too detached from reality. The turning point for me was one of the Inspector Wexford novels, The Babes in the Wood, where a woman reports her children are missing and they get a junior officer to do some desultory paperwork and leave further enquiries till the morning. The most casual watcher of 24-hour news would know that would never happen.

In Dark Corners, Carl at 23 has just got a publishing deal and inherited a house in Maida Vale. By any standards, he is extraordinarily privileged. But when he sells some slimming pills to a friend and she dies, even though he has not committed a crime, he fears publicity and this sets in chain a series of events that have profound consequences.

It’s not a bad set up, but the characters all feel strange and unconvincing. Carl (remember, he’s 23) allows himself to be blackmailed because he is afraid of the story being printed in his local paper! What person of his age reads, or even considers the existence of, their local paper? If he’d feared trolling on social media that might have been more believable, but as a struggling writer he’d be just as likely to welcome the attention. He’d be Instagramming his anguish, while his agent would be lining up interviews where he talked movingly of his remorse, while being photographed with a stack of hardbacks behind him on this bookcase.

There are other examples that seem to belong to another era. A couple of his contemporaries introduce themselves to him as ‘Mr and Mrs’ because they think it will make them seem ‘respectable’. Worse, the flawless plotting is notably absent. There’s a subplot which is equally implausible and which is not resolved by the end of the book. The trademark prose is still there (thankfully it was at least an easy read) but I found myself skimming just to get to the end.

I picked this up because it was Ruth Rendell’s last book but it is not one I’d recommend. Because there are so may, it’s hard to have a favourite. The standalone suspense, the Wexford series, the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine, all have their own character. That’s how I want to remember her.

View Dark Corners on Goodreads

Read more: I haven’t picked a favourite but here’s a good list to start an argument –  Top 10 Ruth Rendell Novels from Dead Good Books



To Catch a Rabbit by Helen Cadbury, narrated by Jonathan Keeble

to catch a rabbit helen cadburyBy sad coincidence, I only discovered Helen Cadbury last week. I loved To Catch a Rabbit and as soon as I finished it I went online to see what else she had written. I learnt that she had died just a few days earlier aged 52.

To Catch a Rabbit is the first in a crime series featuring Sean Denton. Sean is a police community support officer (PCSO) in Doncaster. Two boys lead him to a woman’s body in a caravan. She appears to have been a prostitute, possibly trafficked. The officer in charge seems to want the investigation shut down, but Sean is determined to find out more about her life and how she died.

Meanwhile, Karen Friedman lives in an affluent home but an unhappy marriage in York. She finds sanctuary in her work for a refugee charity. However the disappearance of her brother throws her into confusion and grief.

It is so refreshing to see a working-class character at the centre of a novel. Crime fiction may do better than other genres, but even then they are more likely to be committing the crime than solving it. Sean Denton is not a high flier. He doesn’t drive an eccentric car (or any car at all). He struggles financially and has a complex family background. However, he is observant and focused and able to empathise with people in his community. He has a strong sense of his own beliefs and identity.

It is also good to see a realistic depiction of police work which focuses on the civilians and lower ranks. Just as the woman in the caravan is marginalised, so are many of the police workforce. You get a real sense of the palace intrigue within the force, distinctions of class, hierarchy and power, as well as camaraderie and humour. There is a large cast of characters but they are so vivid that I had no trouble keeping track of them.

Karen’s world is very different but equally sharply observed. Karen goes through a range of emotions in both her personal and work life and her dilemmas feel very real. The two stories are skilfully woven together, criss-crossing the contrasting landscapes of contemporary Yorkshire.

To Catch a Rabbit is a crime novel but it is also a book about big issues, told through unforgettable characters.
I listened to the audio version of To Catch a Rabbit. The excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble meant I was immediately immersed in the story.

View To Catch a Rabbit on Goodreads

Read more: Helen Cadbury obituary in the Yorkshire Post




Spook Street by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb 4)

spook street mick herronWhat happens to spies when they get old? This is the intriguing question posed by Spook Street. Former senior spy David Cartwright is showing the early signs of dementia. He wanders round his village in his pyjamas, convinced that the flickering streetlights are a code, and that the local shopkeeper’s small talk is an interrogation. What might he reveal in his confusion?

His grandson, River Cartwright, is one of the misfit spies exiled to Slough House under Jackson Lamb (the so-called Slow Horses). He is concerned about his grandfather and wants to take care of him before the Service move to ‘take care of him’ in another sense.

At first I found it hard to orient myself in the present day, particularly as this was my introduction to Slough House. I’m a big fan of John le Carré and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was back in the world of Smiley. The grotty building, the sluggish central heating, the air of ennui, the animal terminology (stoats and horses rather than moles) – Even the cadence of the prose echoes le Carré. It’s only the references to technology that hurtle you back to the present day.

But this is more than Smiley with iPods. I soon warmed (if that’s the right word) to the Slow Horses. They are flawed but clever, unlikeable to varying degrees (likeability is, in my view, a much-overrated quality in a fictional character) but always interesting.

One way Spook Street differs from le Carré is that no one here seems to much believe in anything. In Smiley’s world, people are motivated at times by principle, even if they’re not the principles they’re supposed to have. Here the ambitious are motivated by their own power and status, while the employees at Slough House seem to have enough to do just to make it through the day.

A lot of contemporary spy fiction, and crime in general, seems to be high in concept and low in substance. Fast food for the eyeball, with clockwork characters marching through the obligatory twists. This is the opposite. The plot is the plot, and is probably best not examined too closely, but the prose is rich and satisfying and funny in the darkness and bleak in the light. There are complex, grown up characters and a world in Slough House that may owe a debt to le Carré but clearly has a life of its own. A world that lives and breathes and which you are sure is still there when you have stopped reading. I’ll definitely be back.

I received a copy of Spook Street from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Spook Street on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my crime novel Recognition on Kindle

A child’s evidence convicted him – what if she was wrong?

facebook girl crop and flat cover



No Good Deed by John Niven

no good deed by john nivenNo Good Deed has the perfect elevator pitch: Alan, a successful, affluent journalist with a happy family life, stops to give some money to a homeless man one night on the way to his club in Soho. The man turns out to be his old school friend, Craig. Alan feels obliged to help him and takes him home. But Craig, far from being grateful, proceeds to take over Alan’s life…

Too often these high-concept stories are peopled by flat characters and hackneyed plots, but in this case the novel does live up to its promise. Alan’s milieu – a kind of Notting Hill set without the (overt) politics, peopled by columnists and aristos and minor celebs, fuelled by nepotism and booze and lots of lots of money, is richly and satirically drawn.

Alan is an interesting character, an outsider from a council house in Scotland who has somehow found himself married to the daughter of a duke. He is both insider and outsider on his world, comfortable in it but painfully aware of its privilege and absurdities, which are heightened when he sees it through Craig’s eyes.

There are some funny set pieces in this novel (and plenty on the protagonist’s complex relationship with his bowels, surely an under-explored area in contemporary fiction) but what marks it out for me is its study of friendship. Alan was the not-quite-cool kid in his crowd, while Craig was the leader. Craig went on to be a rock star while Alan was a struggling reporter until his wife’s connections got him a decent job.

No Good Deed explores the darker side of friendship, the way the dynamics of your teenage years, at that age when friends mean more than family or bands or even sex, can influence you as you go through life. The plot wraps up neatly, as you’d expect from such a deftly plotted novel, but it also leaves you room to think about why the characters behaved the way they did, which makes it a thought-provoking as well an entertaining read.

I received a copy of No Good Deed from the publisher via Netgalley.
View No Good Deed on Goodreads

Noah’s Ark by Barbara Trapido

noah's ark by barbara trapidoThis is the story of a marriage but it is also a clever study of power.

Ali Bobrow, artistic, beautiful and unworldly, is easy prey to controlling men. Her third husband, Noah, is at least a benign dictator. Before him she was mistreated, her daughter was unhappy and she was unable to resist the demands of any manipulative neighbour or acquaintance. Noah, a doctor, the ultimate protector, replaces the chaos with love, calm and security – so long as she follows his rules.

Then one day Ali decides to rebel – and this disrupts the delicate balance of her life with Noah, and leads her to look back at her past in South Africa.

Trapido’s characters are funny and vivid and clever. You feel like you want to climb into her world (though probably not for too long – who could keep up?). She creates atmosphere with economy and style. The opening scene shows Ali sewing in her kitchen, an icon of domesticity. The apparently ordinary items – the fruit bowl, the pinboard – and her thoughts about them immediately evoke the family and her place within it.

There are other types of power here. Ali grew up under apartheid, the descendant of German refugees from World War Two. Her best friend at school was Jewish, and she is attracted to Jewish men. Her unconsummated first love was dark-skinned and was rumoured to have lied about his background to attend the all-white university.

There are also the dynamics between parents and children. Noah’s step-daughter, once so timid, is able to be rebellious and demanding precisely because he has made her feel safe – for now. He is also confronted by the stubbornness of his own daughter.

How do we respond to a world where every day people are harming others? Trapido asks subtle questions about the limits of power, resistance and compassion.

View Noah’s Ark on Goodreads

The Red Hill by David Penny

the red hill david pennyMy prelaunch tension means I have been struggling to read fiction lately but The Red Hill turned out to be just the immersive experience I needed.

It is the first in a planned ten-part series which covers the decade leading up to the fall of Granada to Isabel and Fernando (or Isabella and Ferdinand) in 1492. Thomas Berrington is an Englishman with a complex backstory, some of which is revealed in this book. He is an accomplished surgeon, equally in demand on the battlefield and at court. When the Sultan asks him to investigate a series of murders, he would rather continue with his surgical work, but how do you refuse a man who can have you decapitated on a whim? He enlists his friend Jorge, a eunuch from the harem.

The Red Hill gives you a vivid sense of the culture of Moorish Andalucia. It takes in everything from medicine to religion to the intrigues of the harem. There is great chemistry between the serious and thoughtful Thomas and the handsome, playful Jorge, and there are a number of colourful minor characters. I have spent some time in Granada and it was particularly enjoyable to revisit familiar locations through their eyes and to imagine the Alhambra as it would have been at that time.

You get a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the Moorish world. But always in the background is the threat from Spain, reports of battles on an ever-shifting border. Our knowledge that this is a world which will soon end, knowledge which of course the protagonists don’t have (though some see the possibility) gives the book an added poignancy.

The Red Hill ends pleasingly as it both wraps up the plot and sends Thomas’ life in a new direction, setting things up for the rest of the series. Occasionally I felt that Berrington’s thoughts were over-explained, or the dialogue a bit wordy, especially as the tension was building towards the end. However this is a small price to pay for such an enjoyable and engaging story. When I finished this book I immediately bought the next two in the series, which says it all.

View The Red Hill on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with David Penny on the Self Publishing Journeys podcast.

Tumanbay by John Dryden

The wonderful audio drama Tumanbay has returned for another series to BBC Radio 4. Here is my review of Series 1, which first appeared on my What Big Ears blog. You can listen to both series on BBC iPlayer or on iTunes.

If you want to know more about the real Mamluks, BBC Radio 4’s In our Time has a great episode on them (also on iTunes).

I haven’t got to Series 2 of Tumanbay yet but I’m looking forward to a binge-listen soon!


What Big Ears

tumanbayBBC Radio 4
Series – 10 episodes

In the Mamluk sultanate of Tumanbay, there is a sense of impending danger. The fearsome armies of Queen Maya are on the march, and her spies are believed to be everywhere in the walled city. There is constant suspicion in the city and the court.

Tumanbay is a society built by former slaves. The wise among them know their lives are contingent, that all they’ve achieved can be taken away. Their struggle is relentless, even – especially – if they are at the top. Nothing is as it seems and power is constantly shifting between competing factions. Torture and shame await those who fail.

This is wonderful drama, full of twists and moral ambiguity. There is a large cast, but the characters are vivid and distinctive so you soon know where you are, if not who to believe. There is Gregor, played by Rufus…

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