A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

A Shot in the Dark Cover.jpg

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

From Lynne Truss, one of England’s most creative minds, comes A Shot in the Dark, a hilarious take on the historical murder mystery that sets three fantastic and exaggerated police characters against a sinister and surprising criminal mastermind.

Brighton, 1957.  Following a terrible massacre that saw the death of every member of two rival gangs some years before, the city of Brighton is now clear of all crime.  At least, that’s what Inspector Steine believes, and, as he is the famous and inspirational police detective whose actions allowed the eradication of these vicious gangs, that’s what the rest of the Brighton Constabulary believe as well.  Unfortunately for everyone, Inspector Steine is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Despite all the evidence, he simply refuses to believe the theory of his long suffering ‘bagman’ Sergeant Brunswick that a mysterious third crime boss organised the massacre and is currently running crime in Brighton.

So when the young, keen and exceedingly annoying Constable Twitten arrives in Brighton and starts investigating a series of burglaries, Steine is particularly aggrieved.  Despite Steine’s insistence that Brighton’s criminal element is no more, Twitten seems determined to find criminal activity – and he does.  The opening night of a new controversial play is unfortunately ruined when the opinionated and unpleasant film critic that Twitten is sitting next to is shot in the head.  Finally a crime that even Steine can’t ignore.

Who could have wanted the critic dead?  Is his death due to the multiple plays and productions that his reviews have destroyed?  Or is it perhaps related to a bank robbery that the critic witnessed many years ago, and that Steine failed to solve.  As Twitten and Brunswick start their investigation and Steine provides his own special brand of ‘help’, a second body is found.  As the case continues, Brighton’s newest constable is about to uncover a dark secret about his city and the sinister figure manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Truss is a highly talented writer, author and radio personality who has produced a huge range of different works, including the non-fiction book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Truss has also created several other fictional and non-fictional books, as well as a number of popular radio series.  A Shot in the Dark is Truss’s fifth fiction novel and is the first book in her Constable Twitten Mystery series.

One of the most interesting features of A Shot in the Dark is that it is actually a novelisation of Truss’s popular radio comedy drama series, Inspector Steine, which ran between 2007 and 2013 and starred the inimitable Michael Fenton-Stevens.  This is a great introduction to the franchise that will have a massive amount of appeal both to fans of the radio show and people who are unfamiliar with this great comedy series.  Rather than being a simple write-up of one of the Inspector Steine episodes, A Shot in the Dark is a combination of several different episodes, containing plot elements from various seasons of the show’s run.  In particular, it contains components borrowed from the series one episodes While the Sun Shines, Separate Tales and The Deep Blue Sea, the series two episode The Entertainer, and the series three episode While the Sun Shines.  As a result of this combination, people unfamiliar with this series get to experience several of the radio show’s best stories and plot points in their first outing.  On the other hand, fans of the radio series get a completely new adventure that re-imagines Constable Twitten’s early days at Brighton.  Storylines listeners may be familiar with have been altered in some new and substantial ways to create a fun and excellent combination of some key stories in the series.

In the original Inspector Steine series, Truss created some amazing characters who are not only terrific by themselves but who played off each other extremely well.  The author has done an amazing job transplanting these characters into a completely different format.  The three main characters are Inspector Steine, Constable Twitten and Sergeant Brunswick.  Inspector Steine is your classic self-important senior management figure who thinks they are so much smarter than they actually are.  Steine is extremely self-absorbed and very easily manipulated, but ultimately well meaning, given he is completely convinced that all the crime in Brighton was erased years ago as a result of his brilliant actions.  Twitten, on the other hand, is actually as smart as he thinks and has no trouble letting everyone he meets know it.  His clever investigative work is capable of solving the crime, but his cleverdick attitude ensures that no-one, especially Inspector Steine, will actually listen to him.  Sergeant Brunswick plays straight man to both of his colleagues, and seems to be the middle ground between these two extreme personalities.  However, while he is a competent investigator, he is also easily manipulated, and fails to see that his brilliant plans to go undercover on every case are hampered by the fact that all of Brighton’s criminals already know who his is.  These three are all extreme examples of some of the classic police characters.  In a normal piece of crime fiction, these three characters work well together (think Endeavour for example), but in A Shot in the Dark they bring out the worst in each other and combine together for great comedic value.

While the three police characters are excellently used and a whole lot of fun by themselves, special mention needs to be given to the brilliant antagonist of this story.  Whiles fans of the radio series will not be surprised about their identity, I will try to avoid revealing too much in order not to ruin the surprise for any new readers.  That being said, this character is an excellent villain who is able to manipulate the three police characters in some suitably comedic ways.  The various and often quite unsubtle ways in which this villain manoeuvres the protagonists in A Shot in the Dark is absolutely hilarious, especially when their ridiculous plots actually work.  New readers will have a fantastic time finding out who this character is and how they’ve gotten away with their crimes, while fans of the radio series will love seeing this outstanding antagonist in all their criminal glory once again.

A Shot in the Dark contains a fantastic story that expertly combines a clever murder mystery with hilarious comedy elements.  As mentioned above, due to main characters’ various shortcomings and the devious nature of the villain, this is not your standard criminal investigation.  The protagonists have to deal with some absurd situations as well as various unusual plans to stop them solving the case.  That being said, the police do perform an investigation and the truth of the various crimes are eventually uncovered, although again without the standard solution crime fiction readers would be used to.  The crime elements are compelling and there is a really interesting mystery contained within this book, with some imaginative twists leading up to the conclusion.  In addition, the two murders are connected together in some clever ways, and the overarching conspiracy about Brighton is particularly intriguing.  While the book contains some gripping mystery elements, it is a comedy at heart; there are some really amazing comedy elements, including some great sequences that really cracked me up.  In addition to the shenanigans of the main characters, there are a range of other eccentric characters throughout the book that provide some fun moments of comic relief with their antics.  These elements come together perfectly, and it is incredibly fun watching all attempts at a serious investigation get disrupted in various silly ways.

Truss set the Inspector Steine series within Brighton in the early 1950s.  While this would already be an interesting setting, the author has amped this up by using elements from the classic crime novel and movie, Brighton Rock.  Truss has stated that her series is based on captions at the start of the 1948 movie which declared that Brighton went from a crime hub between the two World Wars to an area completely free of criminals and corruption by the 1950s.  While many people would be somewhat suspicious of such a statement, the Inspector Steine series is based on the idea that a member of the police actually believed this and acted accordingly.  As a result, the whole city has, on the surface, a wholesome family atmosphere.  That makes the crime hiding underneath a lot more fun to see, especially as the criminals really don’t need to do too much to disguise their activities, secure in Steine’s blissful ignorance.  In addition, fans of the crime classic may be interested to know that there are a number of elements from Brighton Rock that play a key part in the story.  As both the book and the movie exist within the Inspector Steine universe, Inspector Steine actually blames the events of this book on Graham Greene, the original author of Brighton Rock (a sentiment shared by Truss).  In addition, various characters within A Shot in the Dark are obsessed with the events of the classic crime book, and many locations from the Brighton Rock book and movie become major plot settings in the story.  In particular, there are several sequences based around one certain murder from the movie that results in some very entertaining scenes.  Overall, this is a great setting for this excellent comedy-mystery hybrid, which also has some fantastic tie-ins to a classic post-war crime novel.

Lynne Truss delivers an extremely fun and very entertaining adaption of her popular Inspector Steine radio series with A Shot in the Dark.  Featuring all of the exceptional characters that were a standout feature of the original series, A Shot in the Dark is an excellent piece of comedy that also contains some intriguing mystery elements and a unique settings with ties to the crime classic Brighton Rock.  This five-star book comes highly recommended and is guaranteed to leave you laughing for hours.  I am already looking forward to the next Constable Twitten Mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Special thanks need to be given to my partner, Alex, who, on top of her usual editorial expertise for my reviews, happens to be a geek for BBC Radio 4 comedies and was able to help me properly analyse A Shot in the Dark without spoiling the identity of Brighton’s greatest criminal mastermind.

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

The House on Half Moon Street Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

Prepare yourself for an extraordinary tale of love, life and murder in Victorian London, all with a unique twist that will make this book one of the most talked-about pieces of historical fiction this year.

In London, in 1880, Leo Stanhope is a bright young man living the city life.  He is employed as an assistant to a London coroner and is in love with Maria, a high-class prostitute.  However, Leo also has a big secret: he was actually born Charlotte.  Born a woman, but knowing deep inside that he was a man, he ran away as a teenager and has been living as Leo ever since.  Only a few trusted people know this, and Leo fears the day he’ll be discovered.

When Maria is found dead, Leo finds himself accused of her murder.  With his life falling down around him, Leo starts his own investigation into the case.  But what does Maria’s death have to do with another corpse found drowned in the river, and how do Maria’s rich employers and an infamous London abortionist fit into the case?  Leo will risk everything to find Maria’s killers, even if that means revealing his biggest secret.

This is an outstanding debut from author Alex Reeve, who has created a fabulous addition to the historical crime genre.  The House on Half Moon Street has massive potential to expand out into a fantastic and iconic new series.

Without a doubt, the most distinctive and memorable part of The House on Half Moon Street is the main character, Leo Stanhope, who is a transgender man.  The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that Reeve has done a great job of writing this character and has produced an appropriate and non-controversial description of a transgender person.  There is a lengthy examination of the protagonist’s views about his identity, which includes descriptions of his childhood, memories of how he has always felt this way and internal monologues on how uncomfortable he felt behaving as a woman.  Reeve also does a fantastic job of portraying Leo’s fears and frustrations at the way he has to live and the way some characters, such as members of his family, treat him.  Overall, this is an emotional and insightful examination of a transgender character in a historical setting, and Reeve has chosen an excellent protagonist for his novel.

The focus on a transgender main character and gender issues works well with Reeve’s great use of the Victorian setting, as he explores how transgender people lived in historical times.  As described in the book, transgender individuals were not treated well within Victorian England.  In one scene Leo describes how someone who was living in a similar situation to himself had recently been discovered by the authorities and institutionalised as a result.  The views and responses of the people who discover his secret also reflect the attitudes of the time, although there are some obvious parallels with some modern opinions, resulting in thought-provoking social commentary.  There are also some interesting descriptions of the techniques, tools and clothing that the protagonist uses to hide his female characteristics and make himself appear more masculine.  Due to differences in technology and social expectations, these techniques are obviously different from modern alternatives and represent some interesting hypotheses from Reeve.

There are also some amazing descriptions of Victorian London, which serves as a great backdrop for this story.  Not only does the dingy Victorian setting help to highlight Leo’s dark emotional state throughout the book; it is also the perfect background for a murder mystery that revolves around the murky criminal underworld.

On top of the compelling protagonist and the wonderful use of setting, those who read The House on Half Moon Street will also be treated to a top-notch murder mystery that also delves into the criminal and policing elements of 1880s London.  The investigation into the deaths is an intense experience that takes the protagonist through a series of different suspects and clues, creating an intriguing and complex case.  The emotional impact of the case on Leo is plainly obvious due to superb story narration, and this proves to be engaging to the reader, who becomes invested in solving the case.  The final solution to the book’s mystery is very clever, and the readers will love how the case comes to its conclusion.

Historical fiction buffs will also enjoy the examination of law and order during the era, as Reeve examines several police institutions, including the work of the coroner during the time.  The protagonist also encounters some of the city’s criminal elements, and there are some surprising crimes that are covered within the book.  Reeve’s use of a transgender protagonist once again comes into play during the character’s investigations, and the reader will be drawn into the scenes where Leo attempts to hide his previous life from the police and criminals.

The House on Half Moon Street is a phenomenal new book that takes a deep and sensitive look at transgender issues in Victorian London whilst also making use of a dark and detailed historical setting and a first-rate overarching murder mystery.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 8 February 2018

 

A classic and complex murder mystery in a English manor combines with ingenious elements from fantastic genres to create one of the best new releases of 2018.  Reading like the outrageous combination of Groundhog Day, Inception, Downton Abby and Sherlock Holmes written by Agatha Christie, The Seven Deaths of Eveyln Hardcastle is the triumph debut from outstanding new author Stuart Turton.

In a turn-of-the-century country manor, Blackheath, a group of distinguished family guests have gathered for the first time since a terrible incident many years ago.  Before the end of the weekend’s masquerade, a terrible crime will be committed.  A young woman will be killed, and no one will realise that her death was the result of murder.

Inserted into the middle of all this chaos is Aiden Charles, who awakens with no memory of who he really is.  Aiden thinks at first that he is a cowardly doctor with amnesia until a man wearing a plague mask reveals that nothing is as it seems.  Aiden is an outsider, inhabiting and controlling the body of the doctor through unknown means.  The plague doctor reveals that Aiden has been trapped within the manor and is being forced to repeatedly relive the same day again and again, awakening each morning in a different host and living the entire day in their body.

There is only one way Aiden can earn his freedom: solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the estranged daughter of the manor’s owners.  If Aiden can solve the murder by the end of his eighth day, he will be able to leave.  If he fails to solve the murder his memory will be erased and the cycle will start again.

Using the abilities and connections of his eight very different hosts, Aiden must navigate the halls of Blackheath and the various guests who have arrived for the party.  However, Blackheath has a dark history of murder and betrayal that still casts a shadow to this day.  Every one of its inhabitants has a secret, and many of the guests would willingly kill to protect theirs.

Aiden is also forced to overcome several unnatural problems associated with his circumstances.  While the bodies he inhabits all hold the means to solving the crime, he is forced to balance the varied personalities of his hosts, each of which causes him to act or think in a very different way.  The longer he remains trapped in Blackheath, the more powerful the personalities are.

It also soon becomes apparent that Aiden is not as alone as he thought.  Two other people like him have also been trapped in Blackheath, but only one of them can solve the murder and earn their freedom.  One of his competitors appears to be trying to help him, but Aiden may not be able to trust the mysterious Anna, even though her name is the only thing from his past life that he can remember.  The third competitor has taken on the persona of a murderous footman and has no qualms about killing all of Aiden’s hosts to remove him from the competition.  Can Aiden solve an unsolvable crime before all his hosts are killed, or will he be trapped forever within Blackheath?

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fantastic read that features a unique and imaginative combination of genres.  The basis of the story is a complicated murder mystery placed within the setting of a British manor house.  However, there is a certain and mysterious fantastic element that makes the narrator relive the day over and over again within a new host.  The murder mystery, the manor house setting and the time travelling body swapping, combine together perfectly into a tremendously addictive narrative.

At the heart of the story is an intense and compelling mystery that quickly becomes the main draw for the reader.  Solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle requires the protagonist to discover and expose every single secret and lie within the manor.  The sheer amount of details and enigmas that Turton has included with the book are so immense that it takes nearly eight different perspectives of the same sequence of events to get them all together.  Even then, the reader will be amazed by every single twist and turn that it takes to get to the final reveals.  The time travel and body  switching elements of the plot cleverly tie in and enhance the book’s mystery elements.  These elements allow the reader to see multiple versions of the same event, provide a wide variety of different perspectives on the clues, and pull together different testimonies from the same characters as they are questioned by the various hosts.

In addition to enhancing the murder mystery elements, the time travel and body switching aspects of the novel also help to increase the pacing and suspense throughout the book.  The transition between the main character’s various hosts is not as linear as it first appears.  Not only does the narrator switch to his next host once a day is over, he can also switch back to a previous host when he one of his hosts is knocked out, falls asleep or is killed.  This allows the reader to flip through these hosts when a lot of action is occurring, especially when the narrator’s various hosts are targeted in quick succession.  Additional suspense is also introduced due to many of the incidents within the story being out of sync with the narrator.  Various events have been put into place by either future hosts of the narrator or by characters from different points of the book’s timeline.  As a result, the reader has no idea why some events are happening, especially at the start of the book, and it is cool when the various causes of these events are revealed throughout the later parts of the book.

An appealing part of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the eight unique hosts for the main character to possess.  Each of these hosts has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is intriguing watching the main character try and work out what they are.  They also have their own distinctive personalities that affect the main character in different and subtle ways.  The hosts also have their own way of dealing with people or situations, and this affects how the main character reacts and goes about his investigation.  It is intriguing to see how he changes from host to host.  In addition, there is no certainty about who the main character’s future hosts are going to be.  While there are hints, the reader doesn’t know until the narrator wakes up in the body, so the reader can’t help but examine the other characters with whom the narrator interacts in case they are a future host.  There are also some interesting scenes in which the narrator attempts to find and interact with a future version of himself.  Turton’s use of multiple hosts for his narrator is an important and distinctive part of this book that cleverly adds additional mystery to the narrative while also providing suspense and a changing array of personalities and challenges for the protagonist.

Representing a masterful combination of crime fiction and otherworldly attributes, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is pure enthrallment that is guaranteed to transfix all eyes to its pages.  As one of the best releases of 2018, I cannot recommend this book enough.

My Rating:

Five Stars