The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

I love Sharon Bolton’s books; I don’t read contemporary crime very often these days, but she is an author I always look forward to reading. Her latest novel, The Craftsman, marks a move to a different publisher and is apparently the first in a trilogy.

The Craftsman opens in 1999 with Florence Lovelady, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, attending the funeral of Larry Glassbrook in the Lancashire town of Sabden. Larry has spent the last thirty years in prison – and it was Florence who helped to put him there. His crime? The murder of three teenagers, all buried alive in the graveyards of Sabden. After the funeral, Florence visits Larry’s house where she had been a lodger at the time of the crimes, and here she finds something which makes her begin to question what really happened all those years ago.

About half of the novel is set in 1969, taking us through the events leading up to the murders and the police investigation which follows. As a young female police constable, Florence is the target of prejudice and bullying – and her suggestions that witchcraft could be involved in the murders make her even less popular. But high above Sabden looms Pendle Hill, a place associated with witchcraft since the Pendle Witch Trials of the 17th century. Florence is sure they are dealing with no ordinary crime and no ordinary criminal…but how can she make her colleagues take her theories seriously?

Sharon Bolton’s novels are always dark and eerie, but this one even more so than usual. After all, what can be more terrifying than being buried alive? The setting – an area steeped in superstition and with a history of magic and witchcraft – adds to the atmosphere; it’s more than just a backdrop because a coven of witches and even Pendle Hill itself eventually begin to play an important role in the story.

I loved the way the novel was split between the 1960s and 1990s, showing the contrast in attitudes between the two. In 1969, Florence is a young woman fresh from university doing what many consider to be ‘a man’s job’. The men she works with belittle her achievements constantly, try to give her the less dangerous tasks to carry out, and resent her for thinking of things they hadn’t thought of themselves. And it’s not just the men – Florence observes that some of the worst sexism she encounters actually comes from other women. Florence is also a southerner, so even when she’s not at work, she still feels like an outsider amongst the people of Sabden, most of whom were born and bred in the North West of England. Following Florence’s ordeals as she tries to win the trust of her neighbours and the respect of her fellow police officers interested me almost as much as the mystery itself.

And there is a mystery to be solved here, although it doesn’t seem that way at first. We are told in the very first chapter that it was Larry Glassbrook who was found guilty of the murders, but even knowing that, there are still plenty of twists and turns to the plot and plenty of tension, building and building as we move towards the end of the book. The ending, when it comes is…unexpected, to say the least, and probably something readers will either love or hate. I would have preferred something more conventional – and it does make me wonder what direction things are going to take in the second book in the trilogy. Apart from that, though, I really enjoyed The Craftsman and will look forward to meeting Florence Lovelady again.

This is my sixth book read for the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery/horror).

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction, but I do love Sharon Bolton’s books! Her latest, Dead Woman Walking, is another great one featuring the usual combination of mystery, suspense, atmospheric settings, stunning plot twists and even humour that I have come to expect from her work.

It begins with a group of people enjoying an early morning flight over the Northumberland National Park in a hot air balloon. Among them are Jessica Lane and her sister Isabel. Now a nun known as Sister Maria Magdalena, Isabel is celebrating her fortieth birthday and Jessica has booked the trip as a special treat. As they drift across the peaceful countryside, Jessica spots a man on the ground below attacking a young woman. He looks up to see her watching him just as she picks up her phone to take a photograph. With all of the other passengers now aware of what is happening, the man is left with no choice other than to bring down the balloon and ensure that everyone in it dies.

When the emergency services arrive on the scene, they begin the unpleasant task of locating and identifying the bodies. It’s not long before the pilot and eleven of his twelve passengers are accounted for, but one woman is missing. Has she managed to escape alive? If so, where is she? And who will find her first – the police or the killer?

This is a wonderful book – one of Sharon Bolton’s best, I think – but now that I’ve started to write about it, I’ve found that there is actually very little I can say that won’t be a spoiler! Part of the fun of reading this book (or anything else by this author) is in being surprised by the many clever plot twists which come one after another throughout the second half of the novel and I would hate to take away any of that enjoyment, even inadvertently, for anyone else. You could guess the twists anyway, of course – I think Sharon Bolton is very fair with her readers and the clues are there from the start, if you’re able to put them together – but I did not and as each one was revealed, I found myself turning back to reread earlier passages in the hope of spotting things that I’d missed the first time.

I mentioned the humour, and I’m aware that from what I’ve said so far this probably doesn’t sound like a very amusing story at all – but although some of the themes at the heart of the novel are undoubtedly very dark, there is also a lot of lightness mixed in with the darkness. Believe it or not, most of the touches of comedy are provided by the nuns of Wynding Priory who are following the balloon story with interest, keen to use some of the mystery-solving skills they’ve picked up from watching repeats of old crime dramas on the convent television.

I loved this book and am already looking forward to her next one, The Craftsman, which it seems we can expect in 2018. In the meantime, I still need to read Blood Harvest, the only one of Sharon Bolton’s novels I haven’t read yet.

This is book 10/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

My Commonplace Book: June 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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Daisy

“Do you know what, that does interest me. Not the fact that he was popular before he was arrested. He’s a good-looking man, there’s nothing remarkable in that. What fascinates me is the number of women who, by all accounts, write to him in prison. Why would they do that, do you think?”

“All notorious killers have a fan club,” he says.

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (2016)

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Oh, there was pomp and pageantry and all the splendour of trumpets and gold brocade and wine flowing from the conduits, but there was something more that I can only think of as passion – the passion of a queen for her people and of the people for their queen. Already Elizabeth had the gift of investing the most ordinary action with an almost symbolic nobility, and, conversely, the ability to draw a touch of humanity from the most solemn ceremony.

The Virgin Queen by Maureen Peters (1972)

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At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be — inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)

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Katherine of Aragon

Katherine thanked him, drew the curtains and huddled back into her furs. She had found Prince Henry a little disturbing. He was a handsome boy, with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir (2016)

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He claims to be himself the author of the nickname. Signor Pronto, he says, was a character in a popular farce, — a most obliging person who always turned up in the nick of time to arrange matters for everybody. The catch word of the farce was: Pronto will manage it! Some great lady was lamenting the difficulties of arranging charades at her country house party; ‘But,’ she cried, ‘I expect Mr. Lufton tomorrow and he will manage it for me.’ At which Crockett, who was present, said: ‘Oh ay! Pronto will manage it.’ After that they all called Lufton Pronto behind his back.

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy (1953)

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Gate_Of_Hay_Castle

Catrin woke and stared round in the dim light of a flickering fire. Her heart was pounding from the horror of the dream. The dream she had shared, did she but know it, with another woman; a dream she had dreamt recently, at home in Sleeper’s Castle. But she wasn’t at home. She pulled her cloak around her, shivering, confused as to where she was. Then she remembered.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine (2016)

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She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920)

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Favourite books this month: Kristin Lavransdatter, Daisy in Chains and Troy Chimneys

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Daisy in Chains I don’t read a lot of crime fiction these days and when I do it tends to be the vintage or historical sort, but one author of contemporary crime whose books I always look forward to reading is Sharon Bolton. Her latest novel, Daisy in Chains, is a standalone, which I was pleased about as although I did enjoy reading her Lacey Flint series, her standalones are usually my favourites. This one is a fascinating psychological thriller with the typically dark, twisty and suspenseful plot I have come to expect from this author.

Hamish Wolfe, once a successful surgeon, is serving a life sentence for the murder of three women. Despite being found guilty, he insists that he is innocent – and he thinks he has found the person who can get his sentence overturned. She is Maggie Rose, an eccentric blue-haired lawyer and true-crime author, who has already had several convicted murderers released on technicalities. Maggie agrees to visit Hamish in prison but insists that she needs more information before she can decide whether to take on his case.

DC Pete Weston, the man responsible for Hamish Wolfe’s arrest and imprisonment, is not happy to hear that he has been in contact with Maggie. Pete is adamant that he got the right man and that there is no question of Wolfe’s guilt…but is this what he truly believes or does he just want to stop Maggie from getting involved before she uncovers something he would prefer to keep hidden? As Maggie begins to investigate, she becomes caught in the middle between the detective and the prisoner, and it is unclear which of them, if either, can be trusted.

Being a handsome, intelligent and charismatic man, Hamish has his own fan club who send him letters declaring their love for him and who are determined to prove his innocence. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Hamish: I thought he was innocent – I wanted him to be innocent – but because Bolton never allows us to get right into the minds of any of the novel’s main characters, I couldn’t be certain. The question, of course, is that if Hamish didn’t kill the three women, who did?

It’s never easy to work out exactly what is happening in a Sharon Bolton novel. Her plots are always filled with twists and revelations which leave you questioning everything you have read up to that point – and this one is no exception. I did manage to guess one of the novel’s big twists – not immediately, but well before it was revealed – but another, near the end, came as a complete surprise to me and changed the way I thought about the whole story.

I won’t say any more about the plot or the characters because I think it’s best to know as little as possible before you start to read, but I do want to mention some of the other things I liked about this book, particularly the way in which Bolton uses so many different types of media to tell the story. There are newspaper reports, blog posts, emails, letters, interview transcripts, and even draft chapters from the new book Maggie has started writing about Hamish Wolfe! She also touches on some interesting issues, such as the reasons why a woman might be attracted to a convicted criminal, the difficulties of relationships where one partner is in prison, and the way in which overweight women are perceived by society (all three of Hamish Wolfe’s alleged victims are described as ‘fat’).

Another of the things I always love about Bolton’s books is the mood she creates – the eeriness, the feeling of isolation and the sense of danger and foreboding. There’s usually a lonely, atmospheric setting too: previous novels have been set in the Falkland Islands, the Shetlands, a remote English village and a houseboat on the River Thames. This book does have its moments, with some great scenes set in the caves of Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge, a deserted fairground and a prison on the Isle of Wight, but I didn’t find it quite as atmospheric as some of Bolton’s other novels and for this reason only, although I did enjoy Daisy in Chains, it’s not one of my favourites. I do think all of her books are excellent, though, and if you’ve never tried one before this might be a good place to start!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Little Black Lies As soon as I started to read Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton back in 2011, I knew immediately that I had found an author who would become a favourite and this was confirmed a few months later when I read another of her books, Awakening. Now writing under the name Sharon Bolton, her last four novels have been part of a series following the investigations of detective Lacey Flint – and while I have enjoyed the series, I was pleased to hear that her newest book, Little Black Lies, was going to be another standalone.

Little Black Lies is set on the Falkland Islands, the British territory in the South Atlantic which is still the subject of dispute between Britain and Argentina. The events of the novel take place over one week in November 1994. The Falklands War which took place twelve years earlier is still fresh in people’s minds, but as the story opens the islanders have something new to worry about: the fate of a little boy who has disappeared on the islands – the third missing child in three years.

The novel is divided into three sections narrated by three different characters, each of whom may or may not be involved in the disappearances of the boys. The first of these narrators, Catrin Quinn, is someone who understands exactly what it is like to lose a child. Still trying to come to terms with the recent deaths of her two young sons in a car accident, Catrin is seeking solace in her conservation work and in plotting revenge on her former best friend, Rachel Grimwood, the woman she blames for the tragedy.

Next we hear from Catrin’s ex-lover, Callum Murray, a British soldier who took part in the Falklands War of 1982. Callum is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is experiencing worrying lapses in his memory. Finally, Rachel has a chance to tell her side of the story – and unsurprisingly, her version of events is very different from Catrin’s.

Three different narrators and, as I’ve come to expect from Sharon Bolton, all three are flawed and all three are unreliable. The author delves deeply into the lives of each character, but although we get to know them very well over the course of the novel we can never be quite sure whether they’re being completely honest with the reader or with themselves. As I read, I suspected first Catrin, then Callum, then Rachel – and then I changed my mind – and then I changed it again. There are plot twists, there are surprises and there are revelations (one of them coming at the end of the very last page) and every time I thought I knew where the story was going, I was proved wrong.

I have praised the plot and the characters, but the setting also deserves a mention. The Falkland Islands are hardly a popular choice of setting for crime novels (with a population of fewer than 3,000 people, most of whom live in the capital, Stanley, violent crime is almost unheard of on the islands) but the fact that I’d never read a book set there before is one of the reasons I loved Little Black Lies so much. The landscape is beautifully described and the sense of isolation creates a wonderful, eerie atmosphere. This book is dark, powerful and emotional…and probably my favourite by Sharon Bolton so far.

I received a copy of Little Black Lies for review via NetGalley.

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

A Dark and Twisted Tide This is the fourth book in the Lacey Flint series by Sharon (formerly S.J.) Bolton and I’ve been looking forward to it since finishing the third one more than a year ago!

Having been involved in three very traumatic cases in a short space of time (which you can read about in Now You See Me, Dead Scared and Like This, For Ever) Lacey is now living alone on a houseboat in Deptford Creek, just off the River Thames, and trying to come to terms with her recent experiences. She has also abandoned her career as a detective to become a uniformed police officer again, hoping that her new position patrolling the river with the Marine Unit will be less stressful. While out swimming in the Thames early one morning (not something to be recommended!) she discovers a dead body floating in the river, wrapped in a white linen shroud. It seems that Lacey’s plans for a more peaceful life have been thwarted already…

I wish I could discuss the plot in more detail as it was fascinating, but if I say any more I’ll be giving too much away and spoiling the mystery for future readers. Instead I’ll mention the setting and the atmosphere, which were both as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from Sharon Bolton’s novels. The story is set almost entirely on the Thames and I loved the descriptions of the creeks and waterways, the derelict pumping station and the marina where Lacey’s boat is moored. I didn’t find this book quite as creepy as some of Bolton’s others, but there were a few scenes involving crabs that weren’t very pleasant!

If you’re new to this series you could start here if you wanted to (it’s a complete novel, with a beginning, middle and end), but my recommendation would be to begin with Now You See Me and read the series in order so that you can watch Lacey’s character develop book by book. She’s such a complex and secretive person that although you learn a little bit more about her in each novel you’re always left with the feeling that there’s still a lot more to learn. I particularly enjoy reading about her trips to Durham to visit the prisoner Toc, possibly the only person who really knows and understands Lacey and her troubled past.

Of course, Lacey is not the only interesting character in the series – another is Detective Inspector Dana Tulloch. I’ve never liked Dana much before and her treatment of Lacey in the previous book really annoyed me, but I found myself warming to her at last. In this book, she and her partner Helen make the decision to have a child and I’ll be interested to see how that storyline continues in the next book – assuming there is going to be a next book! I was disappointed, though, that Mark Joesbury doesn’t have a big role to play this time – although he does have a very good reason for his absence.

This is not my favourite book in the series – that would still be the third one, Like This, For Ever – but I did enjoy reading this dark and twisted tale.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review.