Deep Water – Christine Poulson

A cure for obesity is the Holy Grail of medical research. Two years after a drug trial that went horribly wrong when a participant died, Calliope Biotech is close to success in the quest for a drug that will cure obesity. When another company claims to have got there first, & takes their claim to court, patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont is employed by Calliope’s entrepreneurial director, Lyle Linstrum, to scrutinize the evidence of lab books & trials when the lawyer working on the case, Jennifer Blunt, is killed in a car accident. Daniel’s reservations about taking on the enormous workload of the case are complicated by the fact that Jennifer was his ex-wife, who had left him for his best friend. Now happily married to Rachel, they have a daughter, Chloe, who suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is concerned that taking on Jennifer’s case in such circumstances will revive painful memories but she’s unprepared for the stress that events from the past will place on her marriage. When Daniel discovers that a vital lab book, detailing the experiments undertaken by Honor Masterman & her team, is missing, & questions are raised about Jennifer’s professional competence, the car accident begins to look more sinister. When Daniel finds the missing lab book hidden in Jennifer’s house, the mystery only deepens as he tries to discover why Jennifer hid the book & what impact its contents will have on the case.

Chloe’s condition needs constant treatment – blood transfusions, injections – & the only hope for a cure is either a bone marrow transplant (neither Daniel or Rachel is a match) or the research that consultant paediatrician Paul O’Sullivan & his team are working on. Grant money is fast running out & researcher Katie Flanagan is under pressure to come up with publishable results that will hopefully lead to a cure for Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is involved with the charity sponsoring the research &, after meeting her, Katie is very aware of the lives that depend on her work. That’s why she’s frustrated when her experiments don’t seem to be producing the expected results. Katie is also aware of how important this research is for her own career. She can’t stagnate at her current level forever. She needs to move on from postdoctoral research in a lab to a lectureship or permanent university post. After the sudden death of her supervisor, she was lucky to be offered a bench in Honor Masterman’s lab to be able to complete her research before the grant money ran out.

Professor Honor Masterman has been touted as a future Nobel Laureate & her team, led by Will Orville, are depending on the successful outcome of the patent case; their reputations depend on it. Katie is grateful for a working space but soon becomes aware that there’s something wrong at the lab. Working late at night she’s aware that there’s someone else there, someone who isn’t written in the log book. There are also odd accidents – chemicals misplaced, the spread of radioactive contamination. There’s also the puzzling non-results of Katie’s experiments. A gas explosion that leaves a security guard & lab technician Ian Gladwill in hospital leaves Katie wondering if someone could be deliberately sabotaging the lab. Katie’s friendship with Rachel leads to her renting the Marchmont’s barge when her flat’s lease runs out. She becomes involved in Daniel’s case when she’s able to help him interpret the crucial lab book & begins investigating, putting herself in considerable danger as reputations & a lot of money are at stake.

Deep Water is a terrific thriller. I enjoyed it as much as Christine Poulson’s last novel, Invisible. I really enjoy the way that she combines a tense plot with the very personal stories of her protagonists. Daniel & Rachel’s desperate search for a cure for Chloe that leads Rachel to join the board of the charity raising money for research is underpinned by the details of Chloe’s ongoing treatment. Their life revolves around Chloe’s needs but they’re a happy couple until Jennifer’s ghost brings back Daniel’s memories of their marriage & heightens Rachel’s insecurities about her place as Daniel’s second wife – was she only second-best? Daniel’s reservations about taking on Jennifer’s case are complicated not just by personal feelings but the need for his company to keep Lyle Linstrum happy. He can have no idea of the complications that the case will bring to him personally as well as professionally.

I also loved all the detail about scientific research & the constant need to publish, chase grants & funding, the temptation to heighten or even falsify results is ever-present. The atmosphere of the lab, with its strict security & focused researchers, was great but I always love the sense of place that Christine Poulson evokes. The Cambridgeshire Fens, Ely Cathedral & especially the lonely stretch of water where the barge is moored, were so evocative. As a cat lover I also have to mention Orlando, the ginger cat who has several significant scenes in the narrative. Katie Flanagan is a very sympathetic character & I’m pleased that Deep Water is the first in a series featuring Katie. The moral & ethical dilemmas in the story are incredibly knotty & all the characters have to grapple with the human cost of their actions. I always read Christine’s books in a great rush & this was no exception.

Lion Fiction kindly sent me a review copy of Deep Water. You can read more about Christine’s work at her website here & there are interviews with Christine on Sue Hepworth’s blog & at Clothes in Books.

Cold Earth – Ann Cleeves

During Magnus Tait’s funeral a landslide sweeps down the hill &, along with headstones & grave markers, destroys a nearby croft. Inspector Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral & decides to take a look at the seemingly abandoned croft. He’s surprised to find a woman’s body among the debris & even more surprised to discover that the forensic evidence points to murder rather than accidental death. The croft, Tain, had belonged to Minnie Laurenson &, after her death, her American niece had inherited the property. Apart from the occasional holiday let, the croft was empty & the identity of the woman proves hard to track down. The only clue is a letter addressed to Alis & a belt that may be the murder weapon. Local landowners Jane & Kevin Hay were Minnie’s closest neighbours but polytunnels & trees obscure their view. Perez calls in Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness to lead the investigation & the team’s first priority is to discover the identity of the victim.

Jimmy & Willow have worked together before & their friendship is tinged with a tentative attraction that both of them recognise but are unwilling to explore. Jimmy is still grieving for his fiancée, Fran, & he’s caring for Fran’s daughter, Cassie. He returned to Shetland some years before & knows the benefits & disadvantages of a tight-knit community when it comes to a murder investigation. The first clues to the victim’s identity point to a happy, attractive woman buying champagne for a special Valentine’s Day dinner but then another witness, Simon Agnew, comes forward & describes a visit from the same woman to his counselling drop-in service where she had been distraught & despairing. When the team discovers that the woman was using a false identity & that she had ties to Shetland going back some years, they need to find out who could have stayed in contact with her & what brought her back to the island. A second murder close to the scene of the first complicates the investigation & leads to suspicion & mistrust as the victim’s private life is exposed.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites (links to my previous reviews are here). Originally a quartet of novels – Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning – but the success of the quartet led to more Shetland novels – Dead Water, Thin Air & now Cold Earth. The Shetland setting is one of the strengths of the books. A remote, relatively closed community (although less so since the expansion of the oil & gas companies) is a classic setting for mystery novels & Ann Cleeves makes the most of the connections between families that result from living in such close proximity. Jimmy Perez is an enigmatic man who has had enough time away from Shetland to be mistrusted by some but it’s also given him perspective which is valuable in his work. In a way Jimmy is the typical loner detective, self-contained & melancholy, but he’s a more well-rounded character than the stereotype implies. Sergeant Sandy Wilson, who has lived on Shetland all his life, lacks confidence & looks to Jimmy for reassurance. His familiarity with the people & the place is both an asset & a burden but Jimmy has learnt how to work with Sandy to bring out the best in him.

All the characters are interesting & memorable, no matter how small a part they play in the story, like the observant young cashier at the supermarket who grabs any excuse for a cigarette & a coffee break to talk to Sandy to Rogerson’s business partner, Paul Taylor, with his frazzled wife & three small sons. Jane Hay is a recovering alcoholic who is starting to feel restless in her gratitude to her husband for supporting her & worried about her son, Andy, who has dropped out of university & is back home, silent & uncommunicative. Jane’s husband, Kevin, works hard but is unsettled by something or someone. Local councilor, solicitor Tom Rogerson seems successful but some of his decisions on the Council have upset locals & his family – wife Mavis & daughter Kathryn, the local schoolteacher – seem unaware of the rumours about his womanising.

I read Cold Earth so fast that, as usual, I had no idea about the identity of the murderer, even as Jimmy & Willow were racing towards the solution. I love a police procedural where all the steps of the investigation are laid out. There are flashes of intuition but most of the work is a hard slog, often frustrating but with enough clues to keep the detectives hoping & the readers reading along at a breakneck pace. I’m assuming that there will be a final novel in this second quartet with Fire in the title & I can’t wait!

Listening to novellas

Jane Fairchild & Paul Sherringham are lying in bed after making love. Paul is the son of a well to do family & the lovers are taking advantage of an empty house. His parents have gone to Henley to have lunch with his future in-laws, the Hobdays & their neighbours, the Nivens. It’s March 1924. Mothering Sunday, the day when servants are given a holiday to visit their mothers. The Sherringham’s house is empty & Paul has taken the opportunity to arrange this meeting with Jane. Jane has the day off because she’s the Niven’s housemaid. Jane & Paul have been secret lovers for several years & in two weeks, he will be marrying Emma Hobday. This is the last time they will see each other.

That’s all I want to say about the plot of this stunning book. The events of Jane’s whole life are woven through the story of this one day. We learn that Jane is an orphan & left the orphanage with enough education to be able to read (more than just to recognise the word Brasso on a tin) & write, which was unusual in a servant at that time. She’s been in service since she was about 15 & is now 22. Her employer allows her to borrow books from his library, most of which seem never to have been read. She will go on to leave service, work in a bookshop in Oxford, live in London & become a writer. All this is conveyed in the third person although we are seeing everything from Jane’s point of view. The narrative moves from present to past to future effortlessly. Devastating facts are dropped into a casual sentence, so casually that I had to stop listening & wonder if I’d really heard that.

Graham Swift creates a whole world in just 130pp, 3 1/4 hours of listening. The Great War permeates everything about this story. The two houses, in their country estates, have each lost two sons in the War. The young men stare out at Jane from photographs; their rooms are left untouched. The only well-read books in Mr Niven’s library are on a small revolving bookcase next to his chair; even that detail evokes his grief, that he keeps his sons’ favourite book near him. Boys adventure stories – Henty, Rider Haggard, Stevenson – that Jane reads avidly. There are a few books, dated 1915 that still look new & unread, among them a book by Joseph Conrad that shows Jane what a writer can do. So much in this world is unsaid. Each house has only two indoor servants, a cook & a housemaid. The bicycles that Jane & the cook ride on their afternoons out must have belonged to the dead boys but this is never mentioned. They’re called Bicycle One & Bicycle Two.

The sense of grief is there but also of looking to the future as the Sherringhams look forward to Paul’s marriage & his plans to study law. What the characters know or fear is hinted but never spelt out. The transgressive nature of Jane & Paul’s relationship across social classes is evident but there’s also a sense of time moving on & those conventions changing as everything changed after the war. Paul leaves his discarded clothes on the floor & the bed unmade while Jane thinks about the housemaid’s work. Paul is handsome, confident, entitled. We don’t know what he’s thinking or feeling about this last meeting with Jane although by the end of the book, we can speculate. After he rushes away to meet Emma for lunch, Jane slowly walks naked through the empty house, eating the pie left out by the cook for a snack, in possession for a short time, before dressing & riding her bike the long way, back to her everyday life.

Mothering Sunday is such a beautiful book. It has an elegiac quality that reminded me of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, one of my favourite books. The characters & scenes in this novel will stay with me for a long time.

Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is also about the aftermath of war but has a very different tone. I heard a discussion of the book on BBC4’s A Good Read. I’d read the book years ago but discovered the audio in our catalogue was read by Juliet Stevenson so couldn’t resist revisiting it.

In London in 1945, a group of young women are living in the May of Teck Club (named after Queen Mary who was born Princess May of Teck), a women’s hostel. The war in Europe has just finished, the war in the Pacific is coming to an end but there’s still rationing, there are bomb sites everywhere – there may even be an unexploded bomb in the garden of the Club if one of the older residents is to be believed. Food & clothes are vital topics of conversation,. A group of girls living on the third floor share a Schiaperelli dress which has consequently been seen all over London. The dress belongs to Selina, cool & beautiful, with several men keen to escort her around. Joanna, the daughter of a country clergyman, unlucky in her love for her father’s curate, gives elocution lessons. Jane Wright works for an unsuccessful & unscrupulous publisher & spends her spare time writing begging letters to famous writers under the instructions of Rudi. Even if the writers don’t send money, an autographed letter from Hemingway is worth something. She is overweight so can’t fit into the Schiaperelli dress but feels she should have extra rations as she’s doing important “brain work” that requires extra calories.

While the girls wait for lovers or brothers to come back from the war, they continue in their jobs, enjoy what social life they can find, scheme to get up on the roof of the Club through the lavatory window to sunbathe, complain about the wallpaper in the drawing room. The three older members of the Club, spinsters who have been exempted from the rule that members should be under 30, provide a history of the Club & take pride in continuing quarrels about religion & proper Club protocol for as long as possible. One young man, Nicholas Farringdon, becomes involved with Selina. He’s a poet who has written an indigestible manuscript full of anarchist sentiments that Jane’s boss wants to publish if he’ll change it. The feeling of being in limbo at the end of the war ends with a tragic event that scatters the residents of the Club & has an impact into the future for several of the residents.

I loved the satire of the publisher, George Johnson, always with an eye to the main chance, exploiting Jane’s willingness to work & her adoration of authors. The war has had an impact on all their lives & now it’s as if they’re just waiting for the war to finally end for their real lives to begin. Muriel Spark looks with a very beady eye at the girls of the title. The Girls of Slender Means was written in 1963, so not that long after the end of the war. Muriel Spark’s sharpness of tone & observation has none of the elegiac quality of Graham Swift’s writing in Mothering Sunday. I wonder if it’s just the passage of time that influences the way writers think of a period. Of course, Swift never knew England in the 1920s as Spark must have known it in the 1940s & of course, they’re very different kinds of writers.

Juliet Stevenson’s narration is excellent as always, she’s one of my favourite readers. Maybe it was because she also recorded the audio book of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, but I was reminded of Pym as I listened. After listening to & reading some very long books lately, these two novellas were just what I was in the mood to listen to.

I’ve never considered listening to audiobooks as somehow cheating or as not real reading. I see them as a way to read even more while I’m cooking, ironing, driving or walking. Apparently some people do but New York Magazine is on my side.

One Under – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I seem to be regaining my interest in detective fiction. I used to read a lot of series but I seem to have cut back to only a few favourites. It would be easier to keep up if I could stop myself becoming interested in new subjects. Ancient history is my latest interest. I read Mary Beard’s wonderful account of Roman history, SPQR, earlier this year & I’ve become fascinated by a period I know very little about. However, I’ve just finished watching Series 9 of Lewis & that reminded me that I hadn’t read the latest book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series.

Two deaths, seemingly unconnected. Jim Atherton is called to a death at an Underground station, known as a “one under”. It seems to be an uncomplicated suicide. CCTV shows the man jumping in front of the train. There’s no one near him, he wasn’t pushed, he didn’t trip. George Peloponnos was in his late forties, living with his elderly mother, & working for the North Kensington Regeneration Trust. There seemed to be no reason for him to kill himself. On the same day, DI Bill Slider & the rest of his team are at the funeral of another suicide, their colleague, Colin Hollis. The atmosphere of misery at the funeral suits Slider’s mood, the guilt he feels at not being able to help Hollis & also the unresolved feelings he has about the loss of the baby his wife, Joanna, was carrying. The baby would have been due around this time.

Slider goes to the scene of another death, on the patch of another station, because the dead girl, Kaylee Adams, lived on a housing estate in Shepherds Bush. Kaylee was found in a ditch by the side of a country road, apparently the victim of a hit & run driver. However, forensic pathologist Freddie Cameron isn’t happy with her injuries & doesn’t think she was hit by a car. Then there’s the absence of Kaylee’s bag & phone & why were her knickers on inside out & her shoes found some distance away? Kaylee lived with her younger sister & her mother, who was more concerned with her boyfriends & her next drink than caring for her daughters. When Slider discovers that Kaylee had known another girl, Tyler Vance, who was found drowned, he is determined to find out what happened to her & prevent her death becoming just another statistic.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series are terrific police procedurals. I love the way the reader follows the investigation step by step & makes the discoveries along with the investigating team. This is a long running series (no 19, Old Bones, is published early next year) & Slider’s team have become old friends. The painstaking investigation, with flashes of intuition & the odd hunch, draws me in & never lets go. The first death, the suicide of George Peloponnos, seems to be straightforward, but, as a seasoned reader of police procedurals, I knew there had to be a connection. When it was revealed, it was shocking but also incredibly sad. Slider is a decent man, caught between the dictates of his conscience & the struggle to justify a seemingly hopeless investigation when the powers that be control the funding. Even when he is explicitly warned off the investigation, he keeps plugging away, finding other ways to pursue the threads of the story, determined not to give up.

The other aspect of the series that I love is the humour & wit. The chapter headings are often puns & Slider’s boss, Porson, can’t open his mouth without uttering a malapropism. Slider’s personal life is as important as his work. His musician wife, Joanna, still recovering emotionally from the miscarriage but back at work & enjoying it. His father, living next door with his second wife & a willing babysitter for young George, his namesake. There was less emphasis on the personal in this book but I think Harrod-Eagles strikes the right balance. There’s even a further instalment of Atherton’s fraught love life as he tries to keep up the playboy facade after the departure of Emily, his most serious girlfriend. I read One Under in a weekend & I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. Now that I’m back on the mystery bandwagon, I wonder what will be next?

Sandlands – Rosy Thornton

It can be difficult to write about short stories. It’s not easy to discuss plot without giving too much information. In this case, however, it’s easier because Rosy Thornton’s impressive new volume of stories, Sandlands, share many common elements. Place is the most obvious as all the stories are set in the Suffolk fenlands & often share the same locations – the Ship Inn, Willett’s Farm, a WWII airfield now turned into a museum, the village of Blaxhall. There are also common themes – nature, remembrance, the past reaching into the present. I enjoyed the literary echoes too, of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors in Ringing Night, a story featuring bell ringers & of Edward Thomas’s poem As the Team’s Head Brass in Stone the Crows, where a WWII Spitfire pilot looks back on his war service from his nursing home to a scene that became as familiar during WWII as it had been thirty years before.

Nothing in that evening landscape moved to give it life and substance – until suddenly, beyond my left wingtip, a miniature figure swung into view, straddling the midline of a field where it changed from the dull grey-brown of stubble, to a deeper richer russet, ridged in black. At first I had no sense that the figure was in motion, so slowly did it creep along the line of the last furrow, edging forward no faster than a sluggish beetle, dazed by the sun. I took another turn, dropping my height a little, to gaze down until I could make out the broad backs of a pair of chestnut horses, the glinting Y-shape of the plough and, behind it, just visible, the dot of a man’s head.

Sometimes the literary inspiration is more overt as in A Curiosity of Warnings, when a man follows in the footsteps of the protagonist of one of M R James’ ghost stories with unintended consequences. Other stories with supernatural touches include The Witch Bottle, where Kathy’s new home holds the memory of a long-ago tragedy that threatens the present; The White Doe, where Fran experiences the mythical or mystical visitations of the doe while coming to terms with the death of her mother & The Watcher of Souls, where a barn owl’s nest hides a cache of love letters from long ago.

One of my favourite stories was Whispers. Dr Theodore Whybrow has been working on the definitive biography of Regency poet Wiliam Colstone for years. He’s almost paralysed by the pressure that comes with writing a book so long-awaited. On impulse, he buys a Martello tower on the coast, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars that he knew as a boy, & as he spends more time there, he feels the closeness of the past & the inspiration that he needs.

It had been a calm night outside, overcast and starless, the sea as close to a millpond as he had known it. But the tower was never silent. Even on the most breathlessly still of nights, there were whisperings in the bricks. He sometimes wondered if it was really the sea – some subterranean echo or vibration, rippling up through the walls from the shingle on which they stood. Or perhaps an illusion, a trick of the mind, like the echo of the waves heard in a seashell. Yet, for all that, there was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy – yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated – which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

Many of the stories are about the links between generations, of the same family or of the people who have lived in a house or a place. In All the Flowers Gone, three generations of women are connected to an airfield. Lilian works at the airfield during WWII & falls in love with a pilot. Her daughter, Rosa, protests against nuclear weapons at the base in the 1980s. Rosa’s daughter, Poppy, is a botanist, searching for a rare flower that has been sighted near the old runway. I loved the way that the women were linked not only by blood but by cycling with its connotations of freedom & the way that the place played a significant role in the lives of Lilian, Rosa & Poppy.

It was a perfect morning for cycling. The temperature must have fallen during a clear night and a dawn mist had formed over the fields.As Poppy bowled along Tunstall Lane it rose in layers, which seemed to lift and peel away without losing any of their density, and hung just clear of the barley so that sunlight filtered through underneath, tingeing them from below with watery gold. Once through Tunstall village and out on the road that stretched straight ahead into Rendlesham Forest, she rose on her pedals in her battered trainers, pushing down harder with each stroke, enjoying the stretch in her calves and the rush of cool air in her lungs, until the dark trees on either side were no more than a blur.

In Nightingale’s Return, the son of an Italian POW travels back to the farm where his father worked during the War & we travel back to Salvatore’s time at Nightingale Farm while his son makes the journey in the present day.

I loved the humour in many of the stories. I think my favourite story was The Interregnum. The rector of St Peter’s Blaxhall goes on maternity leave & her replacement is Ivy Paskall. Ivy is a lay reader studying for the ministry rather than a member of the clergy but secretary of the PCC, Dorothy Brundish, is sure that the parish will manage. That is until Ivy’s plans for bonfires at Epiphany & a women’s feast at Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, begin to cause some uneasiness. Ivy’s explanations seem very reasonable but are her ideas maybe a little pagan for the congregation of St Peter’s?  In High House, a woman cleans for Mr Napish, a retired engineer whose obsession with theories about tides & flooding feed into his unusual hobby.

I enjoyed this collection of stories very much. The book is beautifully produced by Sandstone Press & the cover image is incredibly striking, evoking the themes of nature & unease in the stories. I’ve read all Rosy’s novels & reviewed several of them here (see Ninepins, The Tapestry of Love, More than Love Letters). Rosy was the first author to contact me back in 2010 when I started blogging & ask if I would like to review her book which was such a thrill. Luckily I’ve enjoyed her books so reading them has been a much-anticipated treat.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a review copy of Sandlands.

The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal is the sequel to Helen Dunmore’s 2001 novel, The Siege, set during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. The war has been over for seven years. Anna Levina is married to Andrei Aleksayev. Anna works in a nursery school & Andrei is a paediatrician at the local hospital. Anna’s younger brother, Kolya, lives with them in Anna’s family apartment, the place where they struggled & suffered through the cold, the starvation & the threat of bombing during the siege. Life for Anna & Andrei means being careful, careful not to stand out, careful not to antagonise the neighbours lest they tell the authorities that there are only three people living in a family apartment, never revealing your true thoughts to a colleague or a friend, keeping your voice low even when they are alone in case someone is listening. Every action is scrutinized & there is always someone willing to put a black mark against your personnel record if your commitment isn’t considered patriotic enough. The memories of the siege are never far from the surface. Everyone who was in Leningrad during that time cannot forget, either the small acts of kindness or luck that kept you alive another day or the acts of cruelty & selfishness.

She can still feel little Kolya in her arms, in the freezing darkness of the midnight apartment. He is so thin than she can touch each separate bone of his ribcage. His lips move against her neck, sucking in his sleep. She holds him all night, for fear that without her warmth Kolya will die.

 Anna’s father was a writer, an intellectual who was persecuted during the purges of the 1930s. He was lucky to survive then but, like hundreds of thousands of others, he died of cold & starvation during the siege. Anna still has some of her father’s writings carefully hidden in the piano stool. She hasn’t even told Andrei about the papers, afraid that he would want her to destroy them. Anna & Andrei are conscientious workers, doing the best for the children in their care even when silence may be the more sensible course to take. The Levin family’s dacha outside Leningrad miraculously survived the German advance at the end of the war & Anna, Andrei & Kolya spend weekends there, repairing the house & cultivating the garden. It’s the only place where they can breathe & relax, forgetting the restrictions of their everyday lives.

It’s beautiful here. Lots of people wouldn’t think it was. But when you’ve hunted mushrooms in the woods year after year, and you know all the best places; when you’ve fished every pool and stream and know where the trout hide on the stony bed while water ripples over their backs; when you’re covered with scratches from foraging for berries; when you come home dusty, sweaty and triumphant with a load of firewood; when the marshes have sucked at your boots as you’ve jumped from tuft to tuft; then you love it with all your heart. You want it to live forever. Your own death doesn’t seem to matter as much.

Andrei is maneuvered by a colleague into seeing a child with a possible tumour in his leg. Cancer isn’t Andrei’s area of expertise, he looks after children with arthritis, but he knows why his colleague is reluctant to get involved. Gorya Volkov’s father is an important man in State Security, a man who has the power to make you disappear. Even being noticed by such a man carries danger. Andrei is well aware of the danger but agrees to see Gorya. It soon becomes apparent that the tumour is cancerous & Gorya’s leg must be amputated. Andrei is aware that there’s a chance that the cancer will spread & he’s the one that has to tell Volkov the prognosis.

But how has it come about that I’m in this room, with this man? Andrei asks himself, as his clinical eye notes the pallor of Volkov’s face, his heavy breathing and the dilation of his pupils. Anna and I were always careful. We believed we’d thought of everything that could happen to us, but we never allowed for this. Is it just chance or is it fate? If it’s fate, then this was coming towards me all my life, even when I was happy and completely unaware that there was any such child in the world as Gorya Volkov. I was here in this hospital, and Volkov was wherever such men have their offices.
Anna has always said that the important thing is never to come to their attention.

When the cancer does spread & it’s certain that Gorya will die, Andrei receives a phone call in the middle of the night, suspending him from his work at the hospital. He is abandoned by nearly all his friends & colleagues although he does hear that the surgeon, Brodskaya, who operated on Gorya, has also been investigated, even though she had left Leningrad & taken an inferior job as far away as she could go. The inevitability of what follows is still suspenseful as Andrei waits at home for the next phone call or the sound of a car stopping outside the apartment building in the middle of the night. Anna is pregnant & they try to make plans that will keep Anna, Kolya & the baby safe.

He should have let Anna stay home with him. They should be together. Or perhaps that is completely wrong. Perhaps the only way to save her is for them to be quite separate. He should go off somewhere, far away. She should say that she threw him out because she was so ashamed of having  a husband who had to be investigated. Yes, the example of Pavlik Morozov was the one for Anna to follow. Let her denounce him.

Inevitably Andrei is arrested, interrogated & moved from Leningrad to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. The State has decided that doctors are part of a conspiracy to eliminate important Party members, just as in the 1930s scientists were targeted & in the late 1940s, artists & musicians were denounced. He is kept in solitary confinement, apart from one short period when he’s put in a communal cell by mistake. The knowledge that he is not alone sustains him through the punishments & the degrading conditions where his only mental resource is to go through his medical training to stay sane & stop him thinking of what might be happening to Anna on the outside. Anna & Kolya leave Leningrad & go to the dacha, not knowing Andrei’s fate &, with the help of Golya, a family friend, wait for Anna’s baby to be born.

The Betrayal is a beautifully-written, incredibly tense & suspenseful novel. Helen Dunmore is a poet as well as a novelist & her writing is full of striking images, especially in the lyrical scenes at the dacha, where life seems almost normal, as if the war & the terror of State control was far away. I was reminded of a movie I saw many years ago, Burnt by the Sun, the story of a Red Army officer during the purges of the 1930s. The opening scenes at the officer’s dacha in the height of summer, before his fall, have the same quality of innocence before unimaginable darkness moves in. Inevitably I also thought of Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzberg, the remarkable memoir I read a few months ago. Dunmore shows how easily innocent people can become guilty, because of a change of policy or just by being conspicuous. Putting your head above the parapet is always dangerous even if, like Andrei, your conscience & sense of duty gives you no choice. Once you’re part of the so-called justice system, then the steps are preordained & there is rarely any escape.

I don’t think it’s necessary to have read The Siege before reading The Betrayal, especially if, like me, you read The Siege back in 2001 when it was published. I had no trouble getting my bearings even though I could remember very little of the plot of the first novel apart from the powerful effect the book had on me. Andrei & Anna remember past events & put their present lives in the context of their past. Their memories sustain them & also act as a warning of the arbitrary nature of life in a totalitarian regime.

The Novel Habits of Happiness – Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher. She lives in Edinburgh, she’s wealthy (she bought the applied ethics journal she edits when it was under attack from rivals), married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. All these advantages worry Isabel, even though she is philanthropic, kind & always ready to help anyone in need, especially when their problem has a moral or ethical dimension. Isabel’s relationship with her niece, Cat, is another source of worry. Cat is not much younger than Isabel & was once involved with Jamie. This hasn’t helped their relationship & Cat, who is a prickly woman, takes offence very easily while also presuming on Isabel’s good nature when she needs help. Cat also had terrible taste in men & has just gone off to Paris for a weekend with the latest man, leaving Isabel to help out in her delicatessen at short notice. Isabel’s social prejudices are on show when Eddie tells her that Cat’s new boyfriend is a dishwasher repairman & is then surprised by his knowledge of art & poetry. She also has to adjust her ideas about a colleague, Professor Robert Lettuce, who has made her professional life very difficult. She discovers that Lettuce is in line for a senior post at the Enlightenment Institute at the University of Edinburgh which disconcerts her. However, after meeting Lettuce’s wife, Clementine, & finding out a little more about the man & his motivations, she has to reassess her instinctive dislike of a man she has considered a personal enemy.

When a friend of Isabel’s asks her help for a neighbour, Isabel agrees to meet the woman, Kirsten, who’s concerned about her son. Seven year old Harry has begun talking about another life, his “other family”, & his mother is worried about his mental stability. Kirsten has recently separated from her husband so is Harry’s preoccupation with another family just a reaction to the separation or is it really evidence of reincarnation? Isabel agrees to look into it even though she’s profoundly sceptical about reincarnation. Harry’s memories of the house he lived in are very specific & Isabel decides that a possible location is near a lighthouse on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. What Isabel discovers when she visits the house seems to put Harry’s memories down to chance but that isn’t the end of the story.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this latest instalment in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I seem to be reading fewer & fewer modern novels & I’ve stopped reading several authors for whose new books I was always first in the reservation queue. Although I borrowed this when it was published last year, I took it back unread. A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly decided the time was right & then sat down & read it in one sitting. I like Isabel, the Edinburgh setting, her musings about Scottish art (she visits Guy Peploe’s gallery this time & looks at an exhibition of Colourists), the visits of Brother Fox &, this time, the visit to the west coast of Scotland. I’m afraid Isabel’s endless worrying & musing drives me a little crazy & I can’t help wondering that if she had less money & had more to do, she wouldn’t have time to endlessly debate the ethics of her own & everyone else’s motives. But then, she is a philosopher & that’s what she’s like – there, I’m dithering just as much as Isabel! I also find Jamie a bit of a cipher – handsome, kind, endlessly supportive, great cook – but Isabel seems a little less inclined to question their relationship in this book.

I was also interested in the reincarnation theme. I’ve always been fascinated by reincarnation. As well as reading lots of time-slip novels over the years, I’ve also read quite a few more serious books on the subject, including the ones by Ian Stevenson that Isabel mentions. It’s one of those subjects, like the existence of ghosts, that can never really be proved one way or the other although there are certainly some very convincing stories about both phenomena. As a rational person with a leaning towards scientific explanations of the world, Isabel finds reincarnation hard to believe but she’s open minded enough to do some research as she pursues her investigation. The Novel Habits of Happiness was an enjoyable way to spend a cool summer afternoon & with the enticing hook of a new plot development at the end of the novel, I’ll look forward to the next book in the series.

The Woman in Blue – Elly Griffiths

Cathbad is house sitting for a friend, Justin, who lives in a house next to St Simeon’s in Walsingham. As well as the house, Cathbad is also looking after Justin’s cat, a defiant black tom called Chesterton. When Chesterton escapes one night, Cathbad follows him through the churchyard & sees a woman, dressed in white & wearing a blue cloak, standing next to a tombstone. As Walsingham has been a site of pilgrimage for worshippers of the Virgin Mary for centuries, & Cathbad is a druid, unfazed by spiritual experiences of any kind, Cathbad is not afraid but interested. Next morning, though, the body of a young woman, Chloe Jenkins, dressed in a white nightdress & blue dressing gown, is found carefully laid out in a nearby ditch with a rosary on her chest. Cathbad’s vision was all too real.

Chloe was a patient at The Sanctuary, a clinic for people with addictions. She was a beautiful, blonde young woman, a model who had become involved with drugs & spent several periods in clinics trying to overcome her problem. DCI Harry Nelson & his team soon discover that security at The Sanctuary wasn’t particularly rigorous & Chloe wasn’t the only patient who had slipped out that night. Harry is also disconcerted by the resemblance of Chloe to his wife, Michelle, & their daughters. Harry’s marriage had been shaky for a while when Michelle discovered that Harry had had a brief affair with archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway & that he was the father of her daughter, Kate. Harry wants to be part of Kate’s life & Michelle agrees that he should but her own unhappiness has become more apparent, especially as she has become emotionally involved with Tim Heathfield, one of Harry’s team.

Ruth is surprised to be contacted by Hilary Smithson, who she knew when they were both post-graduate archaeology students at Southampton. Hilary’s career has changed course & she is now a priest. She’s going to be in Walsingham at a course for women priests with ambitions to become bishops. Hilary has been receiving disturbing anonymous letters, addressing her as Jezebel & abusing her & all women priests as unnatural. Ruth convinces Hilary to show the letters to Nelson & soon there appears to be a link with the murder of Chloe Jenkins when one of the women on the course, Paula Moncrieff, is also murdered. Both Chloe & Paula were blonde & attractive, both killed in Walsingham. Could there be more of a connection? Could the same killer be responsible? There seems to be a religious theme – the rosary left on Chloe’s body & the fact that Paula was a priest. Nelson & his team find clues in the past & in the connection of both women to Walsingham. The action spans the weeks from early spring, when the snowdrops cover the ground in the ruins of Walsingham Abbey to the performance of the Passion Play on Good Friday when everything becomes clear.

I love this series. The relationship between Ruth & Nelson is just wonderful. Ruth has had several inconclusive relationships since Kate was born but she really seems to be in limbo, unable to forget Nelson, despite the tenuousness of their relationship. Nelson is also torn between Michelle & Ruth, wanting to do the right thing & not hurt anyone but continually wrong footed & mostly making himself miserable. Nelson discovers that Michelle has been seeing Tim in a very dramatic scene that results in a reconciliation of sorts with Michelle. Ruth’s life as a working mother isn’t easy. Her boss, Phil, is still irritating & she feels inadequate as a mother, although Kate is happy, healthy & has lots of friends. Cathbad & his partner, Judy, now have two children & are very content, although Judy is anxious to get back to work in Nelson’s team as soon as her maternity leave is over.

It’s so lovely to find out what’s been happening with Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad & their families. Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, is as enthusiastic & as clumsy as ever & there’s a new member of the team, Tanya Fuller, who tries a bit too hard & gets on Nelson’s nerves because she isn’t as empathetic as Judy. The suspects are a reliably creepy lot with potential motives all over the place. As in the best mysteries, hardly anyone is quite what they seem & everyone has secrets. The religious & historical themes are also fascinating & there’s even an archaeological angle as Ruth investigates the results & the finds from a couple of digs that took place at the abbey in the past, looking for the site of the holy house where pilgrims came to worship a phial containing the Virgin’s breast milk.

My only problem with this series is that I read them so fast (less than two days for this one) & then have to wait a year for the next book. I couldn’t even wait for my library copies to arrive & bought the eBook on the day it was published. It’s the mark of a great mystery if I read it that fast so I’ll just have to sit tight & wait for the next instalment.

Star Fall – Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I love this series. Bill Slider is one of my favourite detectives & this entry (number 17) in the long-running series is as good as any of them.

Rowland Egerton is an expert on Antiques Galore!, a TV program that sounds very similar to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. The program visits various locations, experts appraise objects brought along by members of the public who are amazed or horrified by the valuations. Egerton is one of the stars of the show; handsome, debonair, charming. One afternoon, Egerton is found dead in his home, stabbed in the throat. His business partner & friend, John Lavender, who discovered the body, is shocked & distraught. Slider & his bagman, Jim Atherton, are quickly on the scene & realise that this is no random burglary gone wrong. There was no sign of forced entry & only two objects, out of the vast array of antiques on display, are missing. A green malachite Fabergé box & a painting by Berthe Morisot. Neither object was fabulously expensive so there must have been a reason why the killer only stole those two pieces.

As Slider’s team begins to investigate, Egerton’s public persona as the charming expert is dented quite a bit. He’d changed his name, left his wife & daughter & had many affairs. His colleagues also accused him of pinching the most promising objects to feature on the show & of buying the best objects from their flattered, star-struck owners after the show. Egerton & Lavender owned an antiques shop which was mostly bankrolled by Egerton although it was Lavender who had the real knowledge of antiques that propped up Egerton’s role as an expert. It soon becomes clear that there were several people with a motive to kill Egerton. Politics, forgery & the television business all have a role to play in solving the murder of Rowland Egerton.

Apart from the puzzle element of this series, I really enjoy catching up with the characters. Bill’s wife, Joanna, is a musician & they have a son, George. Joanna suffered a miscarriage at the end of the previous book & they’re both still coming to terms with it. Jim Atherton is a ladies man who looked as though he was finally ready to settle down with Emily until his inability to stay faithful doomed the relationship. The rest of the team are just as individual & I enjoy the procedural element of the book. No flashes of brilliant deduction, just dogged police work – interviewing potential witnesses, looking at CCTV footage & asking lots of questions. My favourite character is Slider’s boss, Porson. His speech is full of malapropisms. I always like to quote a few of Porson’s most beautifully mangled sentences,

Porson went on, “Well, keep me informed. The instant you’ve got something. And don’t go plunging in irregardless, like a bowl in a china shop.”
“No, sir.”
“I want all your ducks in a row before I go in to bat. This is a whole new kettle of worms you’re opening up.”
“I know, sir,” said Slider. It was never a good sign when Porson’s imagery started to fracture.

The atmosphere of this book is a little more downbeat, in tune with Bill’s worry about Joanna. The wintry weather is also very much in tune with Bill’s melancholy & the depressing dead ends of the investigation. I picked up Star Fall when I was reading several big books & needed a change. It’s been a while since I read a contemporary detective novel & I read this in just a few days. Bill & his team are reliably entertaining & I’m looking forward to the next Slider mystery, One Under, which is published in November.

The Ghost Fields – Elly Griffiths

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is excavating a possible Bronze Age cemetery when she’s called to a nearby field to examine the remains of a WWII plane. The pilot’s body is still in the cockpit but Ruth soon realises that he hasn’t been there since the 1940s.  DNA testing reveals that the pilot was related to local landowners, the Blackstock family. The family knew that Fred Blackstock had been killed in a plane crash during the war but thought he had crashed at sea. His body was never recovered. So, where has Fred’s body been for the last 70 years & why is there a bullet hole in his forehead?

DCI Harry Nelson & DS Dave Clough investigate Fred’s death & meet the present day members of the Blackstock family, still living at the lonely family farm near the crash site. Fred’s brother, Old George, is still alive & living with his son, Young George & Young George’s wife, Sally. George & Sally’s son, Chaz, has started a pig farm on some of the family land, & their daughter, Cassandra, is an actress, recently returned home. The land where the plane was found belonged to the Blackstocks but has recently been sold to a developer. The construction work on the new estate uncovered the plane.Old George is the only member of his generation left. His older brother Lewis disappeared after the war & Fred had moved to the United States before the war & was thought to have been killed in a plane crash after joining the US Air Force. The Blackstocks seem to be an unlucky family. Old George’s mother said the land was cursed & that the sea would reclaim it one day, before drowning herself & Old George himself has become quite odd in his old age, his “funny turns” only whispered about by the family.

Further complications arise when a TV company wants to use Fred’s story as the focus of an episode of their new series The History Men, looking at historical events through the personal stories of those involved. Fred left a wife & daughter in the States when he was killed & his daughter, Nell, travels to Norfolk for his funeral & to meet the family she barely knows. She’s also agreed to appear in the TV program. At the funeral, a mysterious man with long grey hair appears & soon after, Cassandra is attacked in the churchyard. The investigations into Fred’s death lead Nelson to suspect that one of the Blackstocks was responsible for moving Fred’s body from its original burial place to the cockpit of the buried plane. He also suspects that one of the family was responsible for Fred’s murder.

I love this series. It’s an absorbing combination of archaeology, history & police procedural but, above all, it’s the characters that make the series so compelling. Ruth & Nelson had a brief relationship that resulted in their daughter, Kate. Nelson has stayed married to Michelle, the mother of his two daughters, although he feels a protective concern for Ruth & Kate. Ruth has had half-hearted relationships with a couple of men (Frank Barker, the American historian Ruth met in the last book, returns to Norfolk with the film crew in this one) but she loves Nelson, even though she knows he won’t leave Michelle. Nelson’s team – Dave Clough, DS Judy Johnson & newcomer Tim Heathfield – all play an important role in the story although it’s their personal connection & loyalty to the team that is paramount. Clough is the rough diamond of the team, rescuing Cassandra Blackstock from her attacker, & surprised by his own involvement in the Blackstock story. Judy Johnson is now living with Cathbad, Ruth’s Druid friend, & very pregnant with her second child. Tim is a good policemen but there’s something reserved in his manner that hints at a secret that prevents him bonding with his colleagues completely.

I enjoyed all the personal subplots, especially the fact that Cathbad’s predictions about future events, usually foolproof, prove to be way off the mark on a couple of crucial points. Ruth is such an appealing character. She is always doubting her abilities as a single mother & dithering about her relationship with Frank; resenting Nelson’s picky comments & over-protectiveness, yet wanting him to be part of Kate’s life, & her own. The Norfolk landscape is the other attraction. The loneliness of the marshes where Ruth lives & the coastal areas is described so evocatively. The Ghost Fields is a very satisfying mystery & although I had an inkling about one of the characters, there were still plenty of surprises a second murder & two attempted murders to keep me occupied until the last page. My only problem with Elly Griffiths’ books is that I read them too quickly & now I have another year to wait for the next installment.