A Few Good Scares


Having reviewed books on and off for twenty years I’ve inevitably built up a spectacular stack of them, mostly good – I don’t see a point of reviewing books you disliked because press space is valuable. The one exception I was forced to make was for a surprisingly weak Stephen King tome about farting aliens, which was granted a 2,000 word space in the paper for no reason other than that everyone else would be covering it.

So here are a few authors I’ve cherry-picked from that vast stack whom you may have missed. None of them, I note, were particularly well served by their covers, all of which are off-cuttingly bland.

513sJHDQhvL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Breed by Chase Novak

Crime frequently makes excursions into outright horror, but ‘Breed’ succeeds more than most because of its obsession with a primeval emotion; the child’s fear of its parent.

Alex Twisden is an arrogant old-money New York lawyer, and his trophy wife Leslie is happy to share his lifestyle. Alex needs an heir, but the couple fail to conceive. When they bump into friends who‘ve become fertile after visiting a Slovenian doctor, they follow the same course and Leslie is soon pregnant.

Unfortunately the friends who made the recommendation vanish and their home appears to have been destroyed. Leslie has twins, and as the couple are drawn to thoughts of meat and murder, a kindly teacher risks all to help the children…

Novak puts an innovative spin on the idea that monsters lurk inside every parent, and delivers pulse-racing set pieces on the Manhattan streets as a pervasive sense of dread blossoms into something poisonous and midnight-dark. The result is a stylish parable of greed and uncontrollable appetites, peppered with plenty of dry urban humour. A sequel, Brood, proved disappointing.

51gCUzy2zWL._AC_US218_Border Run by Simon Lewis

A good crime novel combines anticipation with uncertainty, and thanks to Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, there’s an unnerving anticipation of bad things to come from the outset of this backpacking tale.

Will and Jake head into the Golden Triangle on the promise of finding a waterfall and local girls, but Howard, their stoner guide, has another agenda. The border is patrolled by police on the lookout for drug runners, and soon the vacation becomes memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Expectations are neatly upended. As the students venture into the jungle darkness, their escalating nightmare is tempered by hopeless attempts at being British and reasonable. There are absurd grace-notes; in a tense standoff with a loaded and unreliable crossbow, an unconcerned forest butterfly floats between them, and a pursuing cop fails to conform to his sinister stereotype – he’s just trying to improve his English. With characters as annoying as any of us would be when pushed into panic, this tight exercise in real-time suspense succeeds where more convoluted thrillers fail.

UnknownThe Flight by M R Hall

As hooks go, this one has a killer; a gigantic Airbus A380 crashes into the icy waters of the Severn Estuary, but it appears that one young passenger who washes up on the shore survived the crash only to die later. A boat with a lone sailor also appears to have been sunk by the faltering airliner. The coroner starts asking questions that extend beyond her remit; the plane seems to have slowed to stall speed without anyone realising, so how could the computerised plane have failed, and could there be another connection between the crash and the death of a ten year-old girl?

This was Coroner Jenny Cooper’s fourth outing (there are more now). Cooper was in poor shape to begin with, a divorced bundle of nerves on anti-depressants, but this time she’s tangling with big business as well as the establishment, so the stakes are even higher. It’s a terrific series, meticulously researched, sharply plotted and peopled with sympathetic characters, led by Cooper, who is always aware of the human consequences of failure.

51dqcpqRJJL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Hanging Hill – Mo Hayder

Never put a tennis ball in your mouth. DI Zoe Benedict does this in Hayder’s new novel to see the effect it had on a victim, and nearly chokes to death. It’s the kind of detail the author is fond of adding, because she believes in putting her readers through the same kind of visceral extremes experienced by her characters.

Ditzy Sally and hard-headed Zoe are sisters who have spent two decades apart, but circumstances draw them back together. Sally’s divorce leaves her in dire straits, and with a teenaged daughter to support she resorts to increasingly desperate measures. Working for the kind of man anyone else would have the sense to run a mile from, she soon finds herself involved in drugs, pornography, murder and her sister’s buried past…

I’ve always liked Mo Hayder, although I sometimes think she needs to lighten up a tad. One of her great strengths is showing the connection between economic hardship and criminal actions. Here, Sally’s life unravels as a direct result of her inability to manage financially. Although relentlessly grim, ‘Hanging Hill’ is an authentically disturbing, gripping winner.

17 comments on “A Few Good Scares”

  1. Roger says:

    “Never put a tennis ball in your mouth.”
    Is it possible to put a tennis ball in your mouth without dislocating your jaw? Do you mean a table-tennis ball?

  2. Steveb says:

    Thanks Chris always appreciate your recs

  3. Michael Dugdale says:

    I always enjoy reading the blogs on this site, and am an avid Bryant and May fan – my OCD compelled me to purchase the books in chronological order, (The graphic novelette was the most difficult to get hold of), and I am nearing the end of my quest, only the last 2 published to read. I was surprised that in all of the books, none of the street markets in London seem to be covered. For a Londoner with an eye for a bargain, these markets are part of the lifeblood of the ‘working class’, and cover most of the London scene. Just thought it may be a good idea for a B & M book.
    On the subject of books, I have recently read a corking first novel by Mick Finlay, called ‘Arrowood’, which I can highly recommend. A contemporary of Sherlock Holmes, but with a far less lucrative clientele. Also, I have collected all of the paperback editions of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch. I have to say, these books are so good that I recently re-read them, and picked up some salient points I had missed first time round. So, if you like a little weirdness in your detective reading, you could do no better than to read these book.

  4. Jennie says:

    I’ve just discovered Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels as well. Delighted to find something that fits with B&M’s sensibilities so well while I’m cooling my heels until Arthur and John’s next outing. Arthur wouldn’t blink an eye at the goings-on in the first Peter Grant book…in fact, he’d say I told you so.

  5. Jan says:

    The Aaranovitch books the Rivers of London series are great.
    My favourite being the one about the Sky Tower South of the River.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, goody, I have returned all my library books so here’s a handy list to be going on with.

  7. Jan says:

    There a good idea for a B+ M “backdrop” theme.
    All the historical markets in town Portobello road, the Sunday morning Hyde Park picture market (which I bet you think is godawful but I loved) Strutton ground the one just down the road from the recently pensioned off NSY where stall holders were surrounded by plod on their refs breaks and officers + others walking to and from Horseferry Road Mags. (Now yet another luxury block of flats)
    Columbia road flower market.
    Petticoat lane
    Islington street markets
    Even Wembley Sunday market where the stall holders used to have to produce evidence of being Jewish, Seikh, Moslem,Hindu or any religion other than one which had to be engaged in hymn singing in church during Sunday in the a.m.

    Here do other religions hymn sing? Thinking have asked this ?.b4….do they?

    Here do other religions have this idea of EXORCISM and do they have THE DEVIL? Do they define “possession” by evil? Is there a specific figure within their faiths designated to deal with like poltergeists,or demonic possession? Interesting theme in a multiple multi faith city.
    Spring heeled Jacks not been really touched upon yet has he?

    He could appear in the dark early mornings when marked are being set up.

  8. Davem says:

    Thanks Chris

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers Of London’ sequence just gets better and better. I picked up the first, because I knew Ben Aaronovitch from his writing on 1980’s Doctor Who, the superb ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’ most of all, and also because I’m interested in the ‘Lost Rivers’ of London, and thought he’d written a factual book on the matter. I was wrong there, but oh, so right to pick up the book. Great characters, a totally bizarre and horrid way to kill people, and… Magic. That has to be constantly be learned properly, or there are serious consequences, not just waved about, as in H***y P****r. I then started noticing other Doctor Who writers’ books – Andrew Lane’s beautiful, and great fun ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ novels, and, even better, Andrew Cartmel’s ‘Vinyl Detective’ books. Brilliantly written, and fascinating, if like me, have a huge collection of vinyl records, bought, played and loved, since 1976. Clever plots, and jargon that will baffle you if you don’t own any vinyl. You might scoff, but several years back, the pioneering Hip-hop and Rap label Def Jam, re-released many of their classics on nice heavy 12″ vinyl, and I picked up as many as I could find from my local HMV. A teenaged boy watched me with interest, and asked me what they were. I thought he was taking the piss, but no, he’d never seen a vinyl disc before. I had to explain to him how they worked, and how much nicer they sounded than digital media, with the full range and no compression. He was shocked when I said that the sound was created by a tiny sliver of diamond running in a spiral groove. I asked him how ‘scratching’ was done, and he said it was probably a computer. He’d probably had a brain haemorrage if he had seen how many records my brother and I have at home.

    Getting back to the ‘Rivers Of London’ sequence, don’t forget the graphic novels, either – they are canonical, and events from them are mentioned in the standard novels, too. Another series I’m tremendously fond of, is the ‘Aberystwyth Noir’ sequence, by Malcolm Pryce. The hard boiled adventures of Louie Knight, the best (and only) gumshoe in Aberystwyth. An Aberystwyth where you can buy hallucinogenic icecream, or Whelks from a 24 hour Whelk stall. Where old ladies in wool shops have Scanning Electron Microscopes. Where you will find a teenaged super criminal genius, and Druids act like the Mafia. Utterly barking, and completely irresistible, these books inhabit a world reminiscent of 1960’s TV show ‘The Avengers’. They’re a great, weird read. And in places, laugh out loud funny, with the occasional bout of eye-watering violence.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Regarding markets, London may still be recovering from the burning pop-up shop in The Burning Man

  11. Jan says:

    I’ve heard mention of this Aberystwyth series b4. It’s got lots of fans.

    Lots of facts about the lost Rivers worked into the Rivers family in Rs of L. Series.
    Absolutely inspired to tie up the idea of river deities with magical characters who people the stories carrying the plots forward. Very, very clever comical perceptive.

    Isn’t Peter dating Beverley? (Miss Brook!) think I am a couple of books behind I think.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    My library is pretty skimpy on Aaronovitch; it doesn’t have Breed, but does have Brood; has a number of M.R. Hall so I’m starting those, but leaving Mo Hayder for now. There was a Marsden Railway detective we hadn’t read yet. I’m reading the Peculiar Children series and am well into the second one. Has anyone in England read them? I have a feeling he’s got England wrong. Did first class “cabins” on trains have an open area like a private car? Were there private cars in 1940? It all sounds wrong, too. Perhaps I’m prejudiced because the author is American.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, in The Hanging Tree Peter and Beverly Brook are certainly an item so far.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    British railway stock came in many forms. I’m just old enough to remember ‘corridor’ coaches, which had lots of compartments for 6-8 passengers connected by a narrow corridor, that you could access other parts of the coach whilst on the move. Other coaches just had the compartments, so you had to stay put whilst on the move. There were ‘buffet’ cars, which were open areas, and of course ‘dining’ cars, possibly the nicest way to eat on the move. You may be interested to know that, in the past, one could get a cooked breakfast on certain London Underground services, like the Metropolitan line, which travelled far out of Central London, to Buckinghamshire, hence Sir John Betjeman’s ‘Metroland’, an idea and a fascinating film, well worth seeking out. And private cars in the 1940’s? Not that many, as you might guess. Petrol rationing made it difficult for the average driver, and a vast number of vehicles spent the war years propped up on bricks. Essential services, like Doctors, Midwives, The Military (all services), Police, and Vets, etc., were allocated petrol vouchers. Penalties for misuse were severe, too. Many cars were requisitioned for military or official government use. In short, if you were driving a car and stopped by the Police, Military, or A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions, a forerunner of Civil Defence), you had better have a damn good reason for being on the road. Furthermore, road vehicles had to have shrouded lights at night, which shone a feeble slot of light on to the road, and have front and rear bumpers painted white, to make them more visible in the blackout. Night-time driving, especially in the countryside, could be lethal, which also curtailed a lot of car driving for the duration of hostilities. Most ‘new’ cars bought immediately after the war, were old ones from before the war, and for a while, you could have a car in any colour you liked – as long as it was black.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    My use of ‘Vets’ here, means vetinary surgeons – as most goods were still moved by horse and cart, they were an essential service.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, sorry, Ian, across the Pond terminology. Private car meaning a private thing as part of a train. Some firms and rich people here used to have a coach/car/ what you will which they could have attached to the end of a train (for a fee) and have it pulled to wherever on the line (following the timetable of course) and parked on a siding. They were expensive but gave you the privacy we didn’t get on our (non-corridor) cars. Those people now use private jets, I imagine.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    No, no private railway coaches, unless you count the executive trains used by the big cheeses of the pre-war railway companies when surveying their domains, usually fortified by copious amounts of booze.

Comments are closed.