Unholy Murder by Lynda La Plante

Unholy Murder Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 17 August 2021)

Series: Jane Tennison – Book Seven

Length: 389 pages

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

The reigning queen of British crime fiction, Lynda La Plante, returns with another clever and intriguing murder mystery, with her latest entry in the Jane Tennison series, Unholy Murder.

La Plante is a great author whose books I have featured several times over the last few years.  Best known for her work in British television, where she produced and wrote several shows and television movies, La Plante has really started to focus more on her novels recently, producing some awesome and compelling reads.  Out of all her recent works, the one I have been enjoying the most is the outstanding Jane Tennison series.  Serving as a prequel to the acclaimed Prime Suspect television series, the Jane Tennison novels follow a younger version of the show’s protagonist, the titular Jane Tennison, as she works her way up the ranks of the Metropolitan Police.  This series has so far contained several awesome and impressive novels, including Good Friday, Murder Mile, The Dirty Dozen and Blunt Force.  The latest entry in the series, Unholy Murder, contained another amazing mystery that sets the protagonist against the dangerous influence of the Catholic Church.

In 1982, Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison has recently been assigned to the Bromley CID, a quieter London beat where she can focus on her upcoming inspector’s exam.  However, her knack for attracting the most unusual and deadly murders once again surfaces when construction workers uncover a coffin at the back of a new housing development.  Based on the site of an old, deconsecrated convent, it is initially assumed that the coffin could be part of a forgotten graveyard, and the coffin is taken to the local morgue.  However, when opened, the coffin is revealed to contain the corpse of a brutally murdered nun.

With no idea who the deceased is or when they died, Tennison is initially unsure how to proceed.  With her superiors assuming that the coffin could be decades or even centuries old, there is little desire for the case to continue.  However, when Tennison is able to determine that the crime took place just before the convent shut down in the 1960s, she is given permission to investigate and attempts to find who the murdered nun is and how her death was left undiscovered for so long.

Digging into the past of the convent and its attached orphanage, Tennison and her team soon discover a sordid history or abuse, neglect and cover-ups.  Convinced that the murder may be related to these charges, the police attempt to find out more about the nuns who lived there.  However, the Catholic Church is uncooperative and all their files on the convent are missing or destroyed.  With the Pope’s historical visit to London only days away, Tennison is determined to get to the bottom of this terrible case, no matter what, Tennison follows every angle she can to get to the truth.  But with someone high up in the church’s hierarchy doing everything to cover up the crime, and with her own superior’s attempting to stop the investigation, can Tennison and her team unmask the killer, or will the secrets of the past came crashing back with unfortunate collateral damage?

This was another pretty awesome novel from La Plante, who has come up with a fantastic and captivating crime fiction story.  Unholy Murder has an impressive murder mystery to it, with the premise of a murdered, unknown nun secretly buried on the grounds of a former convent.  La Plante sets up this entire mystery perfectly, and the reader is soon invested in the plot.  There are some great aspects to the investigation, and I liked the usage of an older crime, with the protagonists forced to dive back nearly 20 years.  There are multiple potential suspects, twists and a range of interferences featured throughout the course of the investigation, and I had a wonderful time following through and trying to figure out who did it and who is trying to keep it quiet for their own reasons.  It all leads up to an intense and fast-paced conclusion, with a second killing seeming to occur, and several separate story threads coming together and adding in some intrigue and excitement.  I was really impressed with the final solutions to the story, and I appreciated the dark and cynical ending that it contained.  This was one of La Plante’s more captivating and clever mysteries and it was a lot of fun getting to the bottom of everything.

One of the more interesting aspects of the entire novel was the inclusion of the Catholic Church as a major force in the investigation.  While some of the lower-level clergy and staff are initially helpful, once the case is revealed to be a murder, potentially committed by someone working at the convent, senior church members work hard to halt the investigation and try to protect themselves and the reputation of the church.  This was a fascinating and intense part of the investigation, and it added in layers of complexities and difficulties that the protagonists are forced to overcome.  The case becomes even more complicated, with multiple allegations of abuse or brutality from the sisters at the convent coming to light.  I really appreciated the way La Plante worked this aspect into the novel, and it was fascinating to see this in a historical context as I am personally more used to hearing about these sorts of issues in the 21st century.  The impacts of the church and its members on the case are pretty fascinating, especially as it makes the solution a lot more clouded, and some resolutions a lot more controversial.  While some authors would use this to simply bash the church, La Plante paints a more complex and multifaceted story here, attempting to show that some of the clergy characters were really good people bound by rules, their oaths or the ambitions of others who abuse their roles and responsibilities for their own aims.  I felt that they author’s use and inclusion of the Catholic Church in this novel helped to make Unholy Murder a much better novel, and it ensured that the case was a lot more intense and complex.

Jane Tennison is always an interesting character to follow, especially as she is one of the few senior female investigators in the MET during this prequel series.  While this is a crime fiction series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Tennison’s personal life, and La Plante has spent a lot of time showing Tennison’s growth as a character, as well as the events that turned her into the hard-edged investigator featured in Prime Suspect.  It has been really fascinating to see Tennison claw her way up the ranks over the last few books, and it was great to see her once again take a leading role in a murder investigation.  Due to some of her prior experiences with fellow officers, Tennison has a bit of a chip on her shoulder in this book, although she manages to mostly prove that she has what it takes.  I do wish that Tennison weren’t portrayed as someone who lets her personal life interfere with the job, especially as she once again gets involved with a person connected to the murder to her own detriment.  Still, I enjoyed Tennison in this novel, and she was a great central protagonist to follow.

This novel featured an interesting group of supporting characters, including police officers, suspects, and members of the church.  The author’s great use of multiple character perspectives in this novel was perfect to highlight these various side characters, and I liked how it also helped to make some of the people connected to the case seem more suspicious or guilty.  While there were several characters I liked, I mostly want to focus on the various police characters featured within Unholy Murder, as they were a major part of the plot.  Not only do you have several recurring police characters from the prior Jane Tennison novels but there are also some great new characters who were very fun to follow.  I quite liked rookie investigator DC Boon, a young officer that Tennison has taken under her wing.  While he initially appears a bit clumsy and clueless, he really starts to grow as a character as the novel progressed, becoming a much more competent investigator.  He also becomes a lot more serious, especially once he gets personally involved in the case, and there are some deep and emotional moments that occur around him as the novel progresses.

I also deeply appreciated the inclusion of DCS Barnes, Tennison’s new boss who heads up the investigation.  Barnes has previously dealt with cases of child abuse by members of the church whose crimes were covered up by his superiors and the church, and this memory drives him throughout the novel and ensures that he takes the cases extremely seriously.  Once it becomes apparent that the murder was likely committed by a member of the clergy, and that the priest he previously attempted to bring down is now a senior figure leading the latest cover-up, he becomes a bit obsessive and refuses to accept any alternate possibilities and suspects.  It was really quite intriguing to see an anti-Church police officer in the 1980s, and I really liked the complex and compelling portrayal around him.  All these side characters add a lot to the overall story, and La Plante did an excellent job of fitting these intense personal stories into the wider murder mystery.

Unholy Murder is an excellent new novel that continues the excellent Jane Tennison series by the amazing Lynda La Plante.  Featuring a clever mystery, some great characters and a really intriguing plot hook, Unholy Murder easily grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they become deeply attached to the outcome of the story.  I had an outstanding time reading this latest book and I look forward to the next instalment of this fun series in 2022.

Quick Review – The Art of Death by David Fennell

The Art of Death Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 4 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 422 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

2021 is definitely proving to be a great year for debut novels and one of the most intriguing examples of this is the fantastic murder mystery, The Art of Death by David Fennell.

Synopsis:

Death is an art, and he is the master . . .

Three glass cabinets appear in London’s Trafalgar Square containing a gruesome art installation: the floating corpses of three homeless men. Shock turns to horror when it becomes clear that the bodies are real.

The cabinets are traced to @nonymous – an underground artist shrouded in mystery who makes a chilling promise: MORE WILL FOLLOW.

Eighteen years ago, Detective Inspector Grace Archer escaped a notorious serial killer. Now, she and her caustic DS, Harry Quinn, must hunt down another.

As more bodies appear at London landmarks and murders are livestreamed on social media, their search for @nonymous becomes a desperate race against time. But what Archer doesn’t know is that the killer is watching their every move – and he has his sights firmly set on her . . .

He is creating a masterpiece. And she will be the star of his show.

This first book from Fennell ended up being quite an enjoyable and intriguing read as this new author has come up with a compelling and dark murder mystery with some great surprises to it.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago and became quite intrigued by the plot synopsis and the extremely cool cover art by Nick Stearn.  I had a fun time getting through it, thanks to the captivating group of characters and clever mystery it contained, and this ended up being a fantastic novel to check out.

At the centre of this fantastic debut novel is a rather good mystery that revolves around a callous and inventively deranged serial killer who kidnaps and kills people in order to feature them in his art show.  The Art of Death’s story follows this case from the discovery of the first three bodies, contained in a gruesome art display in Trafalgar Square, to its epic conclusion after the police engage in a lengthy investigation.  This proved to be a complex and exciting investigation, as the police characters are constantly one step behind the brilliant and sadistic killer as he works to finish off his masterpiece.  This results in a thrilling storyline as the police are forced to rush around and try to save the potential victims once the killer starts broadcasting their upcoming deaths online.  Fennell makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to show off the various sides of this case, whether it be the police investigation or the killer’s sick plans as they kidnap several people from around London with the help of social media.  Fennell also adds an extra layer to the story when the killer starts to deliberately target and mess with the protagonist of the story in an attempt to draw them into his web.  All of this leads to a fantastic and intense conclusion, and I loved some of the twists that Fennell introduced into the story, including some misleading suspects and compelling circumstances.  I had an awesome time getting to the bottom of this dark and disturbing case and I thought that this was a great first mystery from this new author.

The best parts of this great novel were some of the distinctive and damaged characters featured throughout.  The most notable are probably the protagonist, Detective Inspector Grace Archer and the antagonist, the serial killer/artist known as @nonymous.  I thought that the character of Archer was an impressive cop protagonist, a no-nonsense, recently promoted female DI who takes the lead in the case over less capable colleagues.  Archer proves to be a great central character of this book, and I enjoyed seeing her attempt to balance this trying case with her own complex personal life and the distain of several of her colleagues who she has previously alienated with a police corruption case.  Fennell also works in a compelling angle which reveals that Archer was herself a survivor of a serial killer when she was younger, something which still haunts her to this day.  This proved to be an intriguing facet of Archer’s character and one that impacts her role in the main case, although I think that it could have been worked into the main story a little better.

I also very much enjoyed the main antagonist, @nonymous, and Fennell did a fantastic job coming up with a vile and irredeemable killer.  @nonymous is essentially an evil, murderous Banksy who stalks his prey through social media and live-streams his killings as a form of art.  I found myself really disliking this character due to his ego, his belief in his artistic “genius” and the way he ruthlessly preys on people with low esteem, especially as you see several terrible sequences from his point of view.  However, this worked well in the context of the book, as the reader cannot wait to see him fail, and it really amps up the anticipation in the story.  I also appreciated the way in which the killer becomes obsessed with the protagonist and it adds a great additional edge to their story.  I was able to predict who the killer was early in the novel, despite a couple of clever attempts from Fennell to throw the reader off the trail.  Still, the author sets the reveal up really well and final confrontation between @nonymous and the protagonists is thrilling and suspenseful.  Overall, this was an amazing use of characters, and I appreciate the complex protagonist and killer that the author created.

The Art of Death is an awesome debut murder mystery from new author David Fennell which I had a fantastic time reading.  Thanks to this book’s compelling mystery and clever characters readers will quickly become engrossed in the fantastic story and will have fun seeing how the case comes to an end.  I look forward to seeing what Fennell comes up with next, especially if he reuses the intriguing protagonist introduced in his amazing debut.

Blunt Force by Lynda La Plante

Blunt Force Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback -25 August 2020)

Series: Tennison – Book Six

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

The leading lady of crime fiction, Lynda La Plante, returns with another compelling entry in her excellent Tennison series, Blunt Force.

Lynda La Plante is a talented screenwriter and author who has been a leading figure in crime fiction since the 1980s with her combination of enjoyable novels and popular television shows and movies.  Some of her notable works include Widows, which has been alternatively a novel, a television series and a film, the Trial and Retribution television series, and several other novels that have been inspired by La Plante’s various television shows, specials or films.  Perhaps her most impressive piece of fiction is the iconic British television series, Prime Suspect, which ran in the early 1990s (with follow-up seasons running in 2003 and 2006), starring Helen Mirren as the lead character, Jane Tennison.  This show was immensely popular, and in recent years La Plante has started revisiting the character by doing a series of prequel novels that follow a young Jane Tennison in the 1970s and 80s, starting with 2015’s Tennison.  Not only did Tennison inspire the Prime Suspect 1973 television series but it was also resulted in several sequel novels.  I have been rather enjoying this series over the last couple of years (check out my reviews for Good Friday, Murder Mile and The Dirty Dozen), and I was excited when I recently received my copy of the sixth book in the series, Blunt ForceBlunt Force is set in the early 1980s and continues to follow Tennison on her journey to become the respected investigator we see in the original television show.

After being unfairly kicked out of the high-profile Flying Squad, Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison’s career is on a downward trajectory.  Assigned to the sleepy police station of Gerald Road in London’s affluent Knightsbridge area, Jane must content with working petty crimes and minor offenses.  However, a good murder is always just around the corner for Jane, as a gruesome and bloody crime scene is discovered on her beat containing a brutally disembowelled body.

The victim, Charlie Foxley, was a well-known celebrity agent, representing a multitude of the richest and most influential actors, models and writers on the planet.  However, he was also a cruel and vindictive man whose ruthless business practices, sordid personal life and complicated familiar bonds leaves behind a raft of potential suspects who each had a very real reason to kill him.  In order to catch this murderer, Jane and her colleagues will need to dive into the dazzling world of show business to find out more about their victim.  But not everything is as innocent or glamorous as it first appears, and Jane must get to the bottom of Foxley’s dodgy dealings if she is to solve the case.

La Plante has once again produced an exciting and compelling crime fiction novel that explores the earlier life of her long-running protagonist.  This a particularly great read that combines a fantastic and clever murder mystery with an intriguing historical period and La Plante’s trademark examination of sexism in the London police force.  Just like the prior books in the series, Blunt Force is an extremely accessible novel and readers who are unfamiliar with the previous Tennison novels or the Prime Suspect television series can easily dive into this story without any issues.  That being said, established La Plante/Prime Suspect fans will no doubt really enjoy seeing how Jane’s character continues to evolve throughout the course of the series as well as witnessing her investigate another significant case from earlier in her career.

Blunt Force mainly revolves around the brutal murder of a celebrity agent who is found butchered in his apartment.  This leads to quite an intense and elaborate murder investigation as Tennison and her colleagues dive into the life of the deceased agent and attempt to find out who killed him.  The case goes into some very interesting directions as La Plante loads up the book with a ton of plausible misleads, multiple potential suspects with compelling motives, conflicting police politics and a whole load of misdirects.  This includes a collection of duplicitous celebrities and rival agents, shady characters who the victim had dealings with and a particularly unhinged ex-wife who is definitely hiding something.  The story follows Tennison and several of her fellow detectives as they methodically examine each new lead that comes up.  I liked the realistic and evenly paced investigation storyline, with police slowly working their way through suspects by questioning them multiple times, collecting and analysing new evidence and looking for inconsistencies in stories and claims.  The eventual solution for the murder turned out to be quite clever, and I liked how it required Tennison to dive deep into the victim’s life and profession to come up with a hidden motivation.  The author ensures there is some decent foreshadowing about who the killer is, although I did not see the eventual reveal coming, and I was quite satisfied with the result.  Overall, this was a fantastic murder mystery storyline and I had an amazing time seeing it all come together.

As with the rest of the novels in the Tennison series, La Plante uses Blunt Force to explore and critique the historical institutional sexism that existed within the Metropolitan police.  This is always a fascinating and relevant element to the story, and La Plante does a fantastic job showing both overt and more subtle examples of what Tennison has to go through as one of the few female detectives in the force at this time.  There are several notable inclusions in this novel, from Jane being unfairly dismissed from the Flying Squad, the condescension of her peers, rumours of the reasons why she left the Flying Squad being spread around the office and some new superiors doubting her ability and observations as a result.  However, one of the most noticeable elements of this is the disconnect between Jane and her colleagues over investigating elements of the motive for the murder.  Through the course of her work, Jane is able to identify the real reason Foxley is killed and wants to further investigate that, as well as attempting to help/find another potential victim.  However, her male colleagues, more concerned with the big, glamorous murder, ignore this part of the case, leaving Jane frustrated and a little disenchanted with her colleagues.  I really appreciated these scenes within Blunt Force, especially as La Plante writes them extremely well and it was a distinctive and compelling part of the story.

In addition to this there is also a rather intriguing subplot that deals with Tennison getting involved with the infamous Operation Countryman.  Operation Countryman was an anti-police-corruption investigation that ran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and featured members of rural police forces investigating the London police.  This investigation has been mentioned and discussed several times in the previous Tennison novels, especially in the prior book The Dirty Dozen, and it finally comes to a head in Blunt Force.  Throughout the course of this book Jane is approached and recruited by members of Operation Countryman due to her work with the Flying Squad and some of the corruption that was implied in the prior books.  This proves to be a really fascinating part of the story, especially as La Plante cleverly brings in events from previous Tennison adventures, revealing some fantastic forward planning on her part, as well as tying this storyline into some of the real-life targets of the operation.  I also liked how this tied into the rest of the narrative contained within Blunt Force, as much of the protagonist’s motivation to help remove a certain corrupt cop could be attributed to her frustrations with the main investigation.  This was a very interesting part of the story, and I look forward to seeing if La Plante features more of Operation Countryman in her future novels, perhaps showing what sort of backlash Tennison faces from her colleagues for assisting the operation take down a fellow cop.

The always impressive Lynda La Plante has once again delivered an exciting and captivating novel with Blunt Force.  This was a fantastic book that not only contains a gripping and clever murder mystery but which continues the dramatic and intriguing tale of one of La Plante’s most iconic protagonists, Jane Tennison.  This was an amazing entry in the Tennison series, and I look forward to seeing what crime the protagonist finds herself involved with next year.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Hitler's Secret Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book Four

Length: 420 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling author Rory Clements comes another captivating historical spy thriller in Hitler’s Secret, the fourth book in Clements’s excellent Tom Wilde series.

In 1941, Hitler’s Germany is at the height of its power, with England under constant bombardment, Europe under German control and the powerful Nazi army smashing aside all resistance in Soviet Russia. At this point in history, Hitler seems unbeatable, and desperate measures are needed if the Allies are to succeed.

In Cambridge, American expat and history professor Tom Wilde attempts to do his bit for the war effort and becomes an intelligence officer. While America is still officially staying out of the war, an upcoming fight with Germany is inevitable. Wilde finds himself enlisted into a top-secret mission that could change the entire course of the war.

Smuggled into Germany under a false identity, Wilde is tasked with recovering a package and delivering it safely back to England. This package is the key to undermining Hitler’s image and influence, as it reveals a terrible secret about the Führer, one that even Hitler himself was unaware of. Trapped deep behind enemy lines, Wilde must use every trick at his disposal to complete his objective and escape the deadly forces closing in on him. However, the more he learns about his mission, the more he is convinced that this is a secret that needs to stay buried, no matter the cost, and he soon must contend not only with the Nazis but with members of his own intelligence agency.

Wow, now that was a really good historical spy thriller. Clements is a fantastic author, and I have been a fan of his for a while now. Clements started writing back in 2009 with Martyr, the first book in his John Shakespeare series of Elizabethan thrillers. I read a couple of the books in this series, and quite enjoyed the fun stories that they contained, but I really started getting into Clements’s work with the Tom Wilde series. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the first book in this series, Corpus, back in 2017, and I absolutely loved the fantastic story that it contained. I ended up sticking with the story in the following years and I managed to read and review the next two books, Nucleus and Nemesis, both of which were rather good reads. I was very happy when I received my copy of Hitler’s Secret, as I thought that the plot sounded pretty cool. It did not disappoint, as Clements has come up with a fantastic and thrilling new read that might be my favourite Tom Wilde book since Corpus.

At the heart of this book lies a truly great thriller storyline, which sees the protagonist journey into Nazi Germany in order to retrieve a special package while also contending with the interests and machinations of several different groups and nations. This turned out to be a fantastic central story element, and I loved all the action, intrigue and danger that results from this mission. Wilde and his allies end up getting hunted throughout the breadth of German occupied territory by some vile and unrepentant villains, including an insane English expat who is having a fun time living in Nazi Germany (which pretty much tells you just how evil he is). Even when Wilde reaches relative safety, he must contend with being hunted by Nazi agents while also trying to avoid supposedly friendly operatives with whom he has a moral disagreement. I loved the constant hunting and running that resulted from this awesome story concept, and the characters engage in a pretty impressive game of cat and mouse. Clements makes good use of multiple character perspectives to show the various sides of this battle of spies, and it was great to see the hunters and the hunted attempt to outwit each other. It was also interesting to see the perspective of the various antagonists, especially as Clements used these scenes to show how evil they are, ensuring that the reader is determined that they fall. All of this led to an impressive and compelling thriller story that made this book extremely hard to put down.

I have to say that I liked Clements’s choice of MacGuffin for this book, which in this case was the titular secret of Hitler. I won’t go into too much detail about what this is, although the secret is revealed rather early in the story, but I did think that it proved to be a fantastic story element. Not only does Clement use this MacGuffin as an excellent centre to his story, but it was also rather interesting to see what secret the author envisions that could have potentially taken down Hitler. Clements made a unique choice regarding that, coming up with something that could have impacted Hitler’s most fanatical base of support. I thought it was quite a clever story element, and I liked how it allowed the author to come up with a couple of exciting conspiracies with multiple sides involved. I also appreciated the moral implications that the MacGuffin inspired, and it made for some great scenes where Wilde was left to choose between the war effort and what he thought was right.

I also really enjoyed Clements’s choice of setting for this book, as most of the story takes place within Nazi Germany in 1941. Clements has come up with some excellent historical settings for the Tom Wilde series in the past, and I have always liked his central setting of Cambridge in the pre-war period, as it serves as an amazing location for the series’s espionage elements. However, I think that Clements outdid himself by setting Hitler’s Secret in Nazi Germany. This proved to be an incredible and thrilling backdrop to the story, especially as Wilde is forced to navigate vast swathes of the country to get to freedom, contending with patrols, enemy agents who are actively hunting him and even a troop of Hitler Youths. Clements does an amazing job exploring what life would have been like in Germany during this period, showing off the fear and resentment of some of the citizens, the control and surveillance that the Nazis and the Gestapo had over everyone, the brainwashing of German children at school, how the country was locked down and the growing cracks as the invasion of the Soviet Union started to stall and America began entering the war. I also really liked that Clements dived into the complex relationships and rivalries amongst the Nazi high command, especially as part of that rivalry played into the overall story. I particularly appreciated the extensive look at the role of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, who achieved great power in the Nazi regime. Bormann is a little underutilised in historical fiction, so it was fascinating to see him used in this book, and he proved to be a despicable overarching villain for the story. Clements use of Nazi Germany as a setting for Hitler’s Secret was a brilliant move, and I felt that it helped take this story to the next level.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements was an outstanding fourth entry in the author’s thrilling Tom Wilde series. I loved the complex and captivating story that Clements came up with for this book, and he managed to produce an impressive historical thriller. Hitler’s Secret is a highly recommended book, and I had a wonderful and electrifying time reading it.

The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

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Publishers: Zaffre

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

Prepare to have your fear of the dark reignited in this suspenseful and creative new novel from one of the best horror/thriller writers in the business, which takes the reader on one hell of an adventure.

The world is full of many secrets, cover-ups and mysteries, all of which have been hidden from the public by the academic elite.  At least, that’s what Nolan Moore would have you believe.  Nolan is an amateur archaeologist and former screenwriter whose web series, The Anomaly Files, attempts to uncover weird things from history.  Derided by the experts, The Anomaly Files has a devoted following of conspiracy theorists which Nolan hopes to turn into a television deal, and his latest episode might just be the break that he needs.

Following clues left by an explorer in 1909, Nolan and his production team travel to the Grand Canyon, hoping to find a hidden cave that may contain evidence of an ancient civilisation unrecorded in history.  For once, Nolan appears to be right, as the team manage to find the opening to a cave high up in a remote part of the canyon.  Exploring, they find a cave system filled with mysterious items and artefacts unlike anything ever discovered in this area before.  Their elation at this unique archaeological breakthrough is quickly quashed when they find themselves trapped within the cave, cut off from the outside world.

As their lights start to fade and their supplies begin to dwindle, Nolan and the team hold out hope for a rescue.  However, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong.  Something alive is entombed with them and there is far more to this cave than they could have ever imagined.  As the team try to survive an increasingly desperate situation, Nolan must uncover the secrets of the structure they find themselves trapped in before they all die in darkness.

Michael Rutger is actually a pseudonym for bestselling author Michael Marshall, who has also written as Michael Marshall Smith.  Rutger has been writing since 1994 and is known for his intriguing science fiction novels, which often have a strong horror/thriller element to them.  The author is probably best known for his creepy 2002 release The Straw Men, which spawned two sequels, but his bibliography is littered with a number of other powerful and terrifying novels.  Fans of Rutger’s previous work will no doubt enjoy the quick reference to The Straw Men contained within The Anomaly, and it will be interesting to see if Rutger goes back to that series in the future.  I chose to listen to The Anomaly on audiobook.  The audiobook is narrated by Brandon Williams, and, at just under 10 hours in length, it doesn’t take too long to get to the heart of this great story.

One of the most enjoyable things about The Anomaly is the tense atmosphere that Rutger instils with his skilled writing and terrifying creative elements.  The reader really gets a sense of the desperation and despair slowly creeping up on the characters as the story progresses, even if they attempt to keep a brave face with each other.  With a limited and dwindling number of lights being held by the characters, Rutger is able to create quite a few opportunities for his protagonists to be forced to crawl around in the dark in this hostile environment.  The oppressive darkness takes a real shape during the book and at times has a near physical sense to it as the characters deal with it in different ways.  I felt that the story contained a well-balanced combination of action, exploration, archaeological and scientific exposition, despair-filled periods of rest, several gruesome and traumatic scenes and a surprising amount of humour from the characters.  However, even as the characters crack jokes at each other, you can feel the darkness surrounding them and you are constantly wondering what is going to happen next.

Special mention needs to go to Rutger’s creation of The Anomaly Files webcast show that was a major feature of the book’s early plot and the main plot reason that this group of characters are in this situation.  The author spends significant time describing the creation and filming process behind this show, and it’s intriguing how similar it sounds to some real-life conspiracy theory shows or broadcasts.  This accurate portrayal of a web show adds a lot of realism to the story, especially as it becomes clear that the characters are in over their heads and are different from the usual group of leading experts or military types you’d usually find in this type of novel.

I am not going to go into too much detail about the mystery of the cave as I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  Trying to figure out what exactly is behind the events affecting the protagonists is a big part of the experience, and too many details could potentially ruin the book’s impact.  Suffice to say, this central mystery is a very unique and creative idea from Rutger that is made up of a variety of different elements.  It was very intriguing to see the full extent of this central idea be revealed to the protagonists as the story progresses and readers will be astounded by what Rutger has come up with.  This mystery is made up of an interesting mixture of aspects from a number of different genres, and the author combines them together into one very intriguing conclusion with some massive implications.  I really enjoyed this exploration into the weird, and some of the things that harassed the protagonists as a result of the central mystery element worked very well with the tense nature of the story.

One of the defining features of The Anomaly is the strong focus on the characters entering the cave.  The readers grow to really care for these characters, and quite a lot of time is spent exploring their past and showing them as people who don’t deserve to be trapped in this terrible situation.  Most of the book’s focus is on the protagonist and narrator Nolan Moore, who is the cynical host of The Anomaly Files.  Nolan is a great central protagonist to have tell this story, as he is an observant character who has witty and at times piercing insights into his fellow characters while also providing the reader with his detailed examinations of the locations around him.  Despite coming off as a bit arrogant at the start of the book, the character’s brutal honesty about himself, as well as the exploration of certain parts of his past, does a lot to humanise him to the reader and make him into a character you can really care about.  This humanisation is furthered by his attempts to save his team and the extreme guilt that he feels for having brought his team into this place.

While Nolan is a great central character, Rutger also spends a significant amount of time focusing on the side characters, who in some ways are just as important as Nolan to the book’s overall story.  My absolute favourite of these characters had to be The Anomaly Files British producer, Ken, who spends the entire time quipping, swearing and generally making the most sarcastic comments he can, no matter how dire the situation gets.  Most of the book’s humour comes from Ken’s dialogue, as he makes it clear he’ll be joking and insulting the world right up till his death.  While this sort of character seems an odd choice for a thriller/horror novel, I felt his sarcastic attitude and comments fit the tense tone perfectly as he encapsulates a lot of feelings a normal person would have in that situation.  Ken is also one of those characters you can’t help but love and who you really, really hope will survive all the terrible stuff happening around them.

Molly the assistant producer and Pierre the cameraman also get a significant amount of focus in the book and are really good side characters.  Molly goes from being the most calm and collected character at the start of the book to the person most affected by the darkness and atmosphere of the cave.  Watching her try and work through her issues is quite inspiring, and there is even a descent exploration of the root of these deeper issues.  Not much of Pierre’s backstory is shown; however, the reader gets a good sense of his character throughout the book, and Nolan’s changing opinion and growing admiration for him mirrors the reader’s thoughts on him.  Other main characters include the ambitious reporter, Gemma, and Feather, the new age hippy who acts as a representative of the show’s sponsor.  Both of these characters get some decent exploration in the book, as well as some great scenes that make them stand out in their own ways.

I really enjoyed the audiobook version of The Anomaly.  I would definitely recommend it for anyone interested in finding out more about this compelling story.  I felt that having this book read out to me helped expand on the story’s tension and dark atmosphere, and it was a fantastic way to enjoy this amazing story.  Brandon Williams’s narration of the audiobook is excellent, and his voices for the characters are a highlight of this format.  Williams does a great job capturing the book’s point-of-view character, Nolan, very well, and the audience gets a real sense of the character’s cynical nature and inner thoughts through the terrific narration.  I absolutely loved the voice that Williams created for Ken, as he gives the character a very distinctive English accent that fits Ken’s sarcastic personality perfectly.  The accent is just wonderful and actually reminded me a lot of Matt Ryan’s voice for John Constantine in some of the modern television shows, especially when he swears (‘bollocks’, for example, is used multiple times).  The rest of the voices that Williams creates work well for the other characters and allow the readers to distinguish between them, although the less said about the ‘South African’ accent for minor character Dylan, the better.

With a powerfully intense atmosphere, The Anomaly is an exceptional horror/thriller from bestselling author Michael Rutger.  This is an amazing book, and readers will have a lot of fun trying to unravel the book’s central mystery, while desperately hoping their favourite characters survive this chilling adventure.  Addictive and terrifying in equal measures, this is an outstanding book that comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a weird, thrilling or horror based read.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Murder Mile by Lynda La Plante

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Publisher: Zaffre

Publication Date – 23 August 2018

 

One of English crime fiction’s most distinctive voices, Lynda La Plante, returns with her iconic female detective, Jane Tennison, for another dark and shocking case.

In February 1979, recently promoted Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison has been posted to Peckham CID, one of the toughest beats in all of London.  Previously known as the Golden Mile due to its well-to-do shopping areas, the area is now in decline, a fact not helped by the garbage strikes besetting the entire city, ensuring that the entire area is covered rubbish and filth.

When the body of a young woman is found in the heart of Peckham, Jane and her team must investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.  But when another body is found nearby, the possibility of a serial killer raises all sorts of problems.  The media scrutinise the case and rename the area Murder Mile.  Even worse, the second victim’s son is well connected, and several important people want the matter dealt with quickly.

As more bodies are uncovered, Tennison must use all of her investigative ability to uncover this dark murderer, while also dealing with the police force’s inherent sexism and disregard for her talent that she has dealt with her entire career.  Can Tennison catch this killer, or will they find a terrible and unexpected way to win?

Lynda La Plante is a talented author and screenwriter responsible for several hit British crime series and movies.  She achieved early success with the 1983 television series, Widows, which has been adapted into a major motion picture set to be released in November this year.  Other successful shows that La Plante has created include Trial and Retribution and Above Suspicion, with nearly all of her books having been either adapted into screenplays or inspired by one of her televisions shows.  Murder Mile is the fourth book in her Jane Tennison series, which serves as a prequel series to one of La Plante’s most successful and iconic shows, Prime Suspect, which features Helen Mirren as an older Jane Tennison.  The first book in this prequel series, Tennison, also served as the basis for the short-lived prequel television series Prime Suspect 1973.

Murder Mile features a dark and disturbing mystery that serves as the central focus of this book.  The protagonist must investigate a series of murders spread out among the dilapidated Peckham area. La Plante has created an intriguing and compelling investigation storyline as Tennison and her team follow a series of promising leads across Peckham and the rest of London, finding clues in a variety of places, as well as several other bodies.  While the majority of the book leading up the conclusion of the story and the solution of the mystery is captivating in its own right, the best part of the book has to be its chilling conclusion.  Not only is the revealed antagonist a despicable creature, but the way in which they attempt to manipulate Jane and the rest of the police characters is just plain creepy.  The conclusion of the story and the ultimate reveal of the antagonist’s last actions are particularly shocking in their execution and extent.  Worse, both the reader and the protagonist can see that the villain is planning something, but you just cannot predict the terrible lengths they will go to win and spite the police.  This memorable conclusion serves as the perfect end to this dark and powerful story and represents some excellent writing from La Plante.

This story is set in 1970s London, and the author does a fantastic job bringing this iconic city to life during a period of economic downturn.  There is a certain gloom around the city, especially in Peckham, where the majority of the book’s investigation takes place.  The plot of Murder Mile is set during the infamous Winter of Discontent, a period of strikes and financial uncertainty that hit the country during 1978 and 1979.  There are several discussions about the situation from the characters and it is interesting to see a fictional perspective of this part of England’s recent history.  In addition, some of the physical effects of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ have some significant impacts on the case.  During January and February 1979, the waste collectors of London were on strike, resulting in a build-up of rubbish throughout the city.  As a result, many of the scenes set in the city feature streets strewn with garbage and littered with filth and rats.  La Plante also examines the parks that were filled with rubbish by London authorities as a stopgap measure for this situation.  This becomes particularly important in the story, as the police discover a dismembered body in one of these parks as the murderer attempted to utilise the situation for their own ends.  The author has also cleverly highlighted the police techniques and technologies that would have been available during the time.  Overall, La Plante has made full use of this chaotic period in Murder Mile, and readers will enjoy her vivid descriptions of these events.

In addition to the general descriptions of 1970s England, one of the key features of La Plante’s latest book is an examination of the inherent sexism in the London police force.  Jane as a Detective Sergeant must continue to fight to gain respect from her co-workers.  In Murder Mile she is constantly talked down to by her superiors, deals with disrespectful comments from the rank-and-file police, and must also deal with having her authority undercut by colleagues she considers to be her friends as they step in quickly to defend her.  It is infuriating to see how senior police ignore Tennison’s detective work and observations, especially as she is right most of the time.  This sexism also requires Tennison to act in a more maverick way, as her frustrations force her to work outside the main police investigation in order to prove herself – a decision that will have significant impacts on her life and career.

While the portrayal of sexism mentioned above has been used in all of the books of the Jane Tennison series, in Murder Mile La Plante has chosen to also focus on police homophobia and how it affects the investigation.  The police homophobia is quite prevalent throughout the series, especially when one of the suspects is revealed to be gay.  The police response to this is extreme, as several of the characters are quite hostile to this suspect and his relatives, alienating potentially helpful people in the investigation.  In addition, there is the stupid assumption that all homosexual males were automatically paedophiles, and this sends the investigation into several biased directions.  Tennison and several of the other characters attempt to change the minds of their colleagues, often without much success.  In addition, one of the more approachable and capable members of the police team is revealed to be homosexual in this book, which serves as a good counterpoint to the more old school and homophobic cops.  Overall, this is an intense and important part of the story, and it is intriguing to see how these old biases would likely have affected cases in the past.

Crime legend Lynda La Plante returns in fantastic form with Murder Mile, an exciting continuation of her Prime Suspect prequel series.  Featuring some deep and powerful examinations of the 1970s London police force, this absorbing mystery takes its readers to the edge of darkness and beyond.  Featuring an incredibly dark and unforgettable ending, Murder Mile is another exceptional release from La Plante and a highly recommend piece of crime fiction.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 May 2018

World Publication Date – 8 March 2018

 

Ballista is back, baby!  One of the best writers of Roman historical fiction, Harry Sidebottom, brings back his original protagonist for an incredibly gripping and action-packed novel that perfectly combines the thriller and historical fiction genres.

In Rome, in 265 AD, Marcus Clodius Ballista, former Dux Ripae of Rome and loyal friend of Emperor Gallienus, enters the Mausoleum of Hadrian to meet with an informant who wishes to talk to him about a plot to kill the emperor and usurp his throne.  But the meeting is a trap, the informant is murdered, and Ballista is forced to jump into the River Tiber to escape the horde of assassins sent to kill him.

Washed up outside of the city and pursued by killers, Ballista only has 24 hours until Gallienus is murdered.  With the conspirators still unknown to him, Ballista has no idea who he can trust and who can help him, but he must find a way to warn the emperor of the plot against him.  If he fails, not only will his friend will be assassinated but Ballista’s family will also die in the ensuing takeover.

Now alone, unarmed, and with no money, bodyguards or friends around him, Ballista must find a way to re-enter the city and transverse the entirety of Rome to get to the emperor’s side.  But the city is now a very dangerous place for him.  The city watch are fully mobilised and ordered to arrest Ballista at all costs.  In addition, mobs of disguised killers are searching for him everywhere, and they have no intention to taking him in alive.

As Ballista makes his way through the streets of Rome, he must find a way to avoid all the people searching for him while also overcoming the other dangers that lurk throughout the city.  Will Ballista be able to save his friend and his family, or will his final defeat take place in the heart of the empire he has spent his whole life protecting?

Harry Sidebottom is a renowned British historian and veteran author of Roman historical fiction, having previously written two best-selling series, Warrior of Rome and Throne of the CaesarsThe Last Hour is the 10th book from Sidebottom and a spinoff off from his Warrior of Rome series, featuring his original protagonist, Ballista.  Ballista is a heavily fictionalized version of a famous Roman prefect, and served as the main character of Sidebottom’s first six books.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sidebottom’s works, as his debut novel, Fire in the East, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction that I ever read, and featured one of the best accounts of a siege that I have ever read.  His second book, King of Kings, was also one of the first books that I ever reviewed, and was a fantastic sequel that featured great story elements, set in an interesting and underused period of Roman history.  Sidebottom’s latest book, The Last Hour, is an amazing hybrid of the thriller and historical fiction genres, featuring an intense, high-stakes journey through the ancient city of Rome.

The thriller aspects of this book are exhilarating.  The protagonist is aware of a devastating assassination that is about to be committed and has only a limited time to reach and save the target.  Sidebottom incorporates a ticking clock element to the story, as Ballista is constantly aware of the passing of time and how short a period he has to complete his objective to save not only his friend but his entire family as well.  Needless to say, the author takes this story right down to the wire, and the reader has no idea whether Ballista will succeed or not; readers who are familiar with the previous books in the series will recall that King of Kings ended with Ballista and the previous emperor being both betrayed and captured by the enemy.  The story gains a significant amount of intensity as the protagonist has no idea of who he can trust, nor who is aligned against him.  Sidebottom also goes out of his way to ensure that the readers are in the dark about who the main conspirators are, even towards the end of the story.  This intrigue is compounded as Sidebottom gives his audience a tantalising view of the antagonists meeting while also frustrating the readers by ensuring that these characters use codenames when talking to each other.  As a result, the reader is intently drawn into the story by both the protagonist’s mad dash through the city and the immense desire to work out who the conspirators are and what their full plan is.

In addition to its electrifying thriller elements, The Last Hour also features an incredible exploration of ancient Rome and the range of people the protagonist encounters during his time in the city.  Sidebottom is determined to highlight several different groups of people that were a factor in the city, including the city watch, the Praetorian guards, the emperor’s Germanic bodyguards and the frumentarii, who served as the emperor’s secret police.  Each of these groups is an essential part of the emperor’s security and has a significant role to play in this novel, and the readers will be intrigued by Sidebottom’s descriptions of each of them.  Ballista also encounters a range of other Roman citizens, from simple shopkeepers and men of the street to members of the city’s criminal underground, cults of Egyptian priests, hidden Christians and even drunk Roman nobles looking to assault people they meet on the street.  Each of these adds to the rich tapestry of the historical city that Sidebottom has woven into existence.  This tapestry is further enhanced by Sidebottom’s determination to provide detailed examinations of several of ancient Rome’s buildings and locations.  These range from historically significant locations, like the coliseum, the Praetorian camp and the emperor’s palace, to more mundane locations that were a unique feature of the city of Rome, such as massive bathhouses and large apartment-style buildings.  All these historical elements serve as terrific background for this extraordinary thriller based story.

Readers of this book are also in for an action-packed treat as the protagonist rampages through ancient Rome, continuously fighting off either the people hunting him or the regular citizens of Rome attacking him for their own reasons.  As a result, The Last Hour is filled with innumerable action sequences that are guaranteed to amuse and delight all the action fanatics out there.  Readers will be gifted with sequences that include a crazy fight and flight across the rooftops of the city, and a down-and-dirty fight in the steamy and mechanical workings of a bathhouse.  There is also a siege on the roof of one of the city’s monuments and a large pitched battle in the streets of Rome.  These fight scenes are great fun and increase in intensity throughout the book as the protagonist’s countdown goes on.

Harry Sidebottom has once again produced an incredible, fast-paced and exceedingly exciting action novel that combines the very best elements of a first-rate thriller with all the research and detail of an excellent historical fiction novel.  A truly unique and utterly entertaining piece of literature, The Last Hour once again shows why Sidebottom is one of the very best authors writing about ancient Rome.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Nucleus by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 March 2018

World Publication Date – 25 January 2018

 

In June 1939, war is on the horizon.  While many in England still hope to avoid another conflict with the Germans, it is becoming clearer that war may be unavoidable.  Nazi Germany is aggressively moving throughout Europe, while back in England the IRA has embarked on a new bombing campaign.

While the world watches and waits, many governments have turned their focus towards a dangerous new arms race.  Advances in nuclear fission have allowed scientists to envision a potentially game-changing weapon: an atomic bomb.  Many believe that the research at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory will lead to the creation of the first bomb, and the laboratory is now the subject of intense scrutiny.

While holidaying in America, Cambridge professor Tom Wilde is summoned to the White House to meet President Roosevelt.  The president requests that Wilde use his position to spy on the research at Cavendish and report their progress to the Americans.  Upon his return to Cambridge, Wilde begins to suspects that Nazi spies may have infiltrated the laboratory when one of the Cavendish researchers is brutally murdered.  As he investigates further, he learns that the murder may be connected to a wealthy family with Nazi sympathies and the famous movie star sister of one of his colleagues.  Wilde is forced into a web of spies and assassins as he tries to discover what terrible plans the Nazis have for Cavendish.  What does his long-lost cousin have to do with this plot, and how do these attacks tie into a kidnapped child that Wilde’s girlfriend, Lydia, is searching for in Germany?

Nucleus is a pulse-pounding thriller that combines mysterious events and spycraft with a dark historical background and a grounding in nuclear physics.  This is the second book in Clements’ Tom Wilde series, and the follow-up novel to his 2017 bestseller, Corpus, which was a stunning historical thriller that featured a plot against the royal family.

Clements has a lot of experience with historical thrillers, having previously examined espionage during the Elizabethan era in his acclaimed John Shakespeare series.  In Nucleus, Clements combines several intriguing storylines into one compelling plot that will draw the reader into the book’s many mysteries.  With a series of hidden adversaries, twisting character loyalties and several shocking conclusions, Clements tells a first-rate thriller that combines well with his story’s historical setting and locations.

Clements uses his latest book to once again explore the period of calm immediately before World War II.  Clements does a masterful job of depicting the dread and apprehension filling England as the whole country found itself drawing closer and closer to war.  This bleak and foreboding historical period is the perfect setting for Clements’ thriller, especially as the characters realise the major repercussions their actions could have on the world.

The historical locations used throughout Nucleus are an essential part of the book and add a lot to the story.  Clements once again returns to the Cambridge backdrop that was one of the defining features of Corpus.  The academic background is used less during this book, but the reader is compensated by being able to see the famous Cavendish Laboratory.  There is also a harrowing journey into Nazi Germany for one of the characters, Lydia, which Clements uses to full effect, highlighting the terror many German citizens felt during that time and their attempts to flee the country before it was too late.  Another highlight of the scenes set in Nazi Germany was the interesting focus on some of the groups attempting to get refugees out of the country, such as the Quakers and the staff at the British Embassy.  The reader also experiences Lydia’s palpable dread as she comes into direct contact with the dark mechanisms of the Nazi machine, and these scenes contain an amazing and appropriate level of suspense.

Due to it being a major plot point for Nucleus, Clements spends a significant amount of time focusing on the state of nuclear science in the 1930s.  Clements does a good job of explaining the science in some detail without it getting too complicated.  As a result, the reader receives a basic understanding of nuclear science of the time, at least enough to appreciate what the spies and nuclear physicist characters within the book are up to and are attempting to achieve.  This is a good balance to have and it allows the reader to experience the fascinating early history of nuclear fission and the early arms race for the atomic bomb.

By infusing his excellent storytelling with a dark historical period, Clements once again delivers with an exhilarating historical thriller.  Featuring a gritty and captivating storyline and making full use of its excellent historical setting, Nucleus is guaranteed to blow you away.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars