Misery by Stephen King

misery by stephen kingI’ve been wanting to read Misery for years but have somehow not got round to it till now (and miraculously have managed to avoid spoilers).

Paul Sheldon is an author who wakes from a car accident to find he has been ‘rescued’ by Annie Wilkes, a self-professed fan. He has horrific injuries to his legs and cannot walk. The good news is she’s a nurse and has taken care of him, up to a point. The bad news is she has told no one he is at her remote farm and she isn’t going to let him go.

Paul needs surgery and hospital treatment. Annie is more concerned with reading his latest paperback. She is devastated when she realises he has killed her favourite character from his historical romance series, Misery Chastain. She insists he has to bring Misery back – and under the circumstances he doesn’t feel he has a choice.

This is a great thriller. The writing is taut – there is none of the verbosity of later Stephen King novels (I’ve always assumed he just got too big to edit). Like a writer’s life, most of the novel takes place in one room but King makes that confinement absolutely gripping.

You can also read this as a book about creativity. It is writing that keeps Paul sane and even leads to an odd alliance with Annie. They discuss deus ex machina and the distinction between realistic and fair plot devices fiction. While writing the next instalment of Misery’s melodrama (the extracts provide some light relief), Paul describes the ‘gotta’ feeling a story can engender and his own inner conflict. Finishing the novel will mean Annie has no further use for him, but still he keeps writing, because he has gotta know how the story ends.

There is also the fraught question of the relationship between author and fan. There is the paradoxical nature of author worship – on the one hand Annie attributes almost magical powers to Paul’s ability to create, on the other she thinks she can coerce him into giving her the story she wants.

King has written about how Annie is a metaphor for his addiction – she is both nurturing and destructive, she takes away his pain, but only on her terms. Paul in turn attributes magical powers to Annie – overawed by her strength, her power over him, her apparent indestructibility.

Misery is unusual for King in that it has no supernatural elements. While Paul’s kidnapping may seem unlikely, there have, shockingly, been comparable crimes which show that such a scenario is possible. The realism means we identify with the full horror of Paul’s situation and wonder how he can possibly get free. Misery is simultaneously a book you can’t put down and a masterclass in how to write a book you can’t put down. The gotta got me.

View Misery on Goodreads

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Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

ruth rendell dark cornersI almost wish I hadn’t read Dark Corners. I went through a massive Ruth Rendell phase in the late 1990s/early 2000s (at that time the TV adaptations of her work were still running and her books were easy to pick up in charity shops as well as libraries).

What I found so special, and what influenced me, is the way she wrote about ordinary people with a dark twist. She seemed to suggest that evil wasn’t something abstract or other, but something that lurked in all of us, that pushed, we might also commit extraordinary acts.

She also had great craft. If she mentioned a dog barking on page 27, you could be sure that this was not incidental, even though you might not notice it on a first reading, that everything was there for a reason, primed. And I loved her prose. People underestimate her prose because you almost don’t notice it. It is not literary, intended to be weighed and savoured and interpreted, it’s so light and beautifully wrought that in reading it you become inseparable from the story. It’s not true that prose style doesn’t matter in commercial fiction. There are too many thriller writers whose clunky wording and tired phrasing make them unreadable for me.

Dark Corners reminds me why I stopped reading Ruth Rendell’s books over a decade ago – they started to feel too detached from reality. The turning point for me was one of the Inspector Wexford novels, The Babes in the Wood, where a woman reports her children are missing and they get a junior officer to do some desultory paperwork and leave further enquiries till the morning. The most casual watcher of 24-hour news would know that would never happen.

In Dark Corners, Carl at 23 has just got a publishing deal and inherited a house in Maida Vale. By any standards, he is extraordinarily privileged. But when he sells some slimming pills to a friend and she dies, even though he has not committed a crime, he fears publicity and this sets in chain a series of events that have profound consequences.

It’s not a bad set up, but the characters all feel strange and unconvincing. Carl (remember, he’s 23) allows himself to be blackmailed because he is afraid of the story being printed in his local paper! What person of his age reads, or even considers the existence of, their local paper? If he’d feared trolling on social media that might have been more believable, but as a struggling writer he’d be just as likely to welcome the attention. He’d be Instagramming his anguish, while his agent would be lining up interviews where he talked movingly of his remorse, while being photographed with a stack of hardbacks behind him on this bookcase.

There are other examples that seem to belong to another era. A couple of his contemporaries introduce themselves to him as ‘Mr and Mrs’ because they think it will make them seem ‘respectable’. Worse, the flawless plotting is notably absent. There’s a subplot which is equally implausible and which is not resolved by the end of the book. The trademark prose is still there (thankfully it was at least an easy read) but I found myself skimming just to get to the end.

I picked this up because it was Ruth Rendell’s last book but it is not one I’d recommend. Because there are so may, it’s hard to have a favourite. The standalone suspense, the Wexford series, the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine, all have their own character. That’s how I want to remember her.

View Dark Corners on Goodreads

Read more: I haven’t picked a favourite but here’s a good list to start an argument –  Top 10 Ruth Rendell Novels from Dead Good Books



To Catch a Rabbit by Helen Cadbury, narrated by Jonathan Keeble

to catch a rabbit helen cadburyBy sad coincidence, I only discovered Helen Cadbury last week. I loved To Catch a Rabbit and as soon as I finished it I went online to see what else she had written. I learnt that she had died just a few days earlier aged 52.

To Catch a Rabbit is the first in a crime series featuring Sean Denton. Sean is a police community support officer (PCSO) in Doncaster. Two boys lead him to a woman’s body in a caravan. She appears to have been a prostitute, possibly trafficked. The officer in charge seems to want the investigation shut down, but Sean is determined to find out more about her life and how she died.

Meanwhile, Karen Friedman lives in an affluent home but an unhappy marriage in York. She finds sanctuary in her work for a refugee charity. However the disappearance of her brother throws her into confusion and grief.

It is so refreshing to see a working-class character at the centre of a novel. Crime fiction may do better than other genres, but even then they are more likely to be committing the crime than solving it. Sean Denton is not a high flier. He doesn’t drive an eccentric car (or any car at all). He struggles financially and has a complex family background. However, he is observant and focused and able to empathise with people in his community. He has a strong sense of his own beliefs and identity.

It is also good to see a realistic depiction of police work which focuses on the civilians and lower ranks. Just as the woman in the caravan is marginalised, so are many of the police workforce. You get a real sense of the palace intrigue within the force, distinctions of class, hierarchy and power, as well as camaraderie and humour. There is a large cast of characters but they are so vivid that I had no trouble keeping track of them.

Karen’s world is very different but equally sharply observed. Karen goes through a range of emotions in both her personal and work life and her dilemmas feel very real. The two stories are skilfully woven together, criss-crossing the contrasting landscapes of contemporary Yorkshire.

To Catch a Rabbit is a crime novel but it is also a book about big issues, told through unforgettable characters.
I listened to the audio version of To Catch a Rabbit. The excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble meant I was immediately immersed in the story.

View To Catch a Rabbit on Goodreads

Read more: Helen Cadbury obituary in the Yorkshire Post




Spook Street by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb 4)

spook street mick herronWhat happens to spies when they get old? This is the intriguing question posed by Spook Street. Former senior spy David Cartwright is showing the early signs of dementia. He wanders round his village in his pyjamas, convinced that the flickering streetlights are a code, and that the local shopkeeper’s small talk is an interrogation. What might he reveal in his confusion?

His grandson, River Cartwright, is one of the misfit spies exiled to Slough House under Jackson Lamb (the so-called Slow Horses). He is concerned about his grandfather and wants to take care of him before the Service move to ‘take care of him’ in another sense.

At first I found it hard to orient myself in the present day, particularly as this was my introduction to Slough House. I’m a big fan of John le Carré and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was back in the world of Smiley. The grotty building, the sluggish central heating, the air of ennui, the animal terminology (stoats and horses rather than moles) – Even the cadence of the prose echoes le Carré. It’s only the references to technology that hurtle you back to the present day.

But this is more than Smiley with iPods. I soon warmed (if that’s the right word) to the Slow Horses. They are flawed but clever, unlikeable to varying degrees (likeability is, in my view, a much-overrated quality in a fictional character) but always interesting.

One way Spook Street differs from le Carré is that no one here seems to much believe in anything. In Smiley’s world, people are motivated at times by principle, even if they’re not the principles they’re supposed to have. Here the ambitious are motivated by their own power and status, while the employees at Slough House seem to have enough to do just to make it through the day.

A lot of contemporary spy fiction, and crime in general, seems to be high in concept and low in substance. Fast food for the eyeball, with clockwork characters marching through the obligatory twists. This is the opposite. The plot is the plot, and is probably best not examined too closely, but the prose is rich and satisfying and funny in the darkness and bleak in the light. There are complex, grown up characters and a world in Slough House that may owe a debt to le Carré but clearly has a life of its own. A world that lives and breathes and which you are sure is still there when you have stopped reading. I’ll definitely be back.

I received a copy of Spook Street from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Spook Street on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my crime novel Recognition on Kindle

A child’s evidence convicted him – what if she was wrong?

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The Red Hill by David Penny

the red hill david pennyMy prelaunch tension means I have been struggling to read fiction lately but The Red Hill turned out to be just the immersive experience I needed.

It is the first in a planned ten-part series which covers the decade leading up to the fall of Granada to Isabel and Fernando (or Isabella and Ferdinand) in 1492. Thomas Berrington is an Englishman with a complex backstory, some of which is revealed in this book. He is an accomplished surgeon, equally in demand on the battlefield and at court. When the Sultan asks him to investigate a series of murders, he would rather continue with his surgical work, but how do you refuse a man who can have you decapitated on a whim? He enlists his friend Jorge, a eunuch from the harem.

The Red Hill gives you a vivid sense of the culture of Moorish Andalucia. It takes in everything from medicine to religion to the intrigues of the harem. There is great chemistry between the serious and thoughtful Thomas and the handsome, playful Jorge, and there are a number of colourful minor characters. I have spent some time in Granada and it was particularly enjoyable to revisit familiar locations through their eyes and to imagine the Alhambra as it would have been at that time.

You get a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the Moorish world. But always in the background is the threat from Spain, reports of battles on an ever-shifting border. Our knowledge that this is a world which will soon end, knowledge which of course the protagonists don’t have (though some see the possibility) gives the book an added poignancy.

The Red Hill ends pleasingly as it both wraps up the plot and sends Thomas’ life in a new direction, setting things up for the rest of the series. Occasionally I felt that Berrington’s thoughts were over-explained, or the dialogue a bit wordy, especially as the tension was building towards the end. However this is a small price to pay for such an enjoyable and engaging story. When I finished this book I immediately bought the next two in the series, which says it all.

View The Red Hill on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with David Penny on the Self Publishing Journeys podcast.

Research by Philip Kerr

researchJohn Houston is a prodigiously productive thriller writer. Now his wife has been shot at their luxury apartment in Monaco and he is on the run. It sounds like the plot of one of his thrillers. His atelier – the group of ghostwriters who write his thrillers to his specification – meet to discuss the implications. One of them, Don Irvine, is convinced John will contact him for help. Meanwhile the Monaco police are pursing their own lines of enquiry.

This is a very clever book. It gives you a thriller while also deconstructing the thriller genre. As each character considers his next step (and they are all ‘he’, we’re definitely talking male gaze here), they see it through the prism of a crime novel. There are also literary references littered throughout the story as the characters indulge in intellectual one-upmanship (and I mean ‘man’). The workings of the publishing industry are laid bare.

The characters are all deliciously obnoxious. If you want your protagonists to be heroes or role models or friends, then this is not the book for you. Houston is vulgar and boorish. The ghostwriters are affluent by most people’s standards (Irvine owns comfortable properties in Putney and Fowey) but see themselves as hard done by in comparison to Houston. He flaunts all the clichés of excessive wealth – fast cars, luxury homes, an absurdly large watch…

But while Houston mocks his readers for their low literacy levels and addiction to predictable plotting, and views his books as ‘product’, he also researches them impeccably and is fastidious in his editing of the ghosts. There is both mockery of Houston’s factory approach and a respect for the craft. You could argue this ambiguity extends to his readers too – he is, after all, giving them what they want.

I had a couple of reservations. I felt the plot relied overly on the naivety of one of the characters. I kept expecting a further twist that didn’t come. Having said that, the end was thought-provoking. The book also needed a decent edit. There are a few clunky repetitions which could easily have been smoothed away. (Houston would have been on it.) Given that the cover screams ‘international bestseller’ I’m sure the budget could have taken it.

Overall, though, it’s a funny and well-paced thriller, especially if you’re interested in the history of crime fiction as a form.

Stalker on the Fens by Joy Ellis

stalkerHelen Brook, friend of DI Nikki Galena, is trapped in a basement after a horrific traffic pile-up leads to the collapse of several buildings. She survives but is convinced that there was a man in there with her, and that he confessed to a murder, thinking that she too would die. Her friends are unsure whether this is a hallucination or a traumatic flashback, but now she is sure she is being stalked.

Meanwhile Galena’s deputy and friend, DS Joseph Easter, is in contact with an informant about criminal gangs on a local estate. It seems trouble is brewing…

This is the fifth book in the DI Nikki Galena series but the first one I’ve read. It both worked as a standalone and got me interested in the backstories of the characters.

It has all the key ingredients of a good police procedural – a strong ensemble cast, a vivid sense of place, a good plot and complex, flawed characters with tangled histories and relationships.

I really enjoyed the story and it kept me guessing. While the main mystery was nicely resolved the gang subplot cleverly provides both an ending and a dramatic jumping-off point for the next book.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.