Reviews 2020-22

New Feature: Crime writers on some of their favourite films and novels. We are delighted to welcome William Boyle’s contribution, A Hypothetical Triple Feature Inspired by Shoot the Moonlight Out.

New Reviews:

Will Dean, The Last Thing to Burn 

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

Reading Will Dean’s The Last Thing to Burn (2021) is an intense, claustrophobic, visceral and terrifying experience.  Thanh Dao, Dean’s narrator, came with her sister to the UK, deceived by the false promise of jobs. Now she despairs of ever escaping from the cruel and implacable Lenn, who has imprisoned her on his remote pig farm for the last seven years. 

The horror of the story is most powerfully conveyed through mundane everyday details. At the heart of the horror is a monster is who thinks his grotesque parody of family life is a form of cosy domesticity. It is his way of establishing normality as he knows it. Thanh Dao is harshly schooled over the years to prepare dinner exactly as his mother had done – the dry chicken, over-cooked sprouts, mashed potatoes with Oxo, followed by unlocking the television cabinet so they can watch Match of the Day: 

“He sits back down on his armchair and I sit the way he likes me to sit, on the floor by his knees. By his feet… ‘It’s all right, ain’t it, this life?’ He sips his beige tea, and the fire from the stove lights one side of his face. ‘We’re warm, under decent roof, full bellies, together, not all bad, is it?’”

Any woman who belongs to Lenn is given his mother’s name. Thanh Dao’s inner refrain of “My name is not Jane” repeatedly underscores the nature of her captivity, the removal of all that originally constituted her individuality. He methodically destroys her identity, object by object.  When she disobeys one of his many rules, he not only brutally assaults her but takes from her and burns one more of the seventeen items (ID card, family photos, letters from her sister…) that she was clinging to as reminders of her real self.

The site of Thanh’s imprisonment is a bleak, run-down farmhouse in eastern England’s Fenlands, from which she can see, all around her, only miles of nothingness. Within the house, she is surveilled by seven cameras, creating tapes that Lenn reviews daily on his computer, watching for any deviations from established routines. Escape is impossible. The flat, featureless landscape of the fens facilitates constant observation. Wherever he is on the farm, Lenn can see his house. Should she try to sneak away, in any direction, she knows that he will immediately return to punish her transgression: 

“I live in an open prison surrounded by wall-less fields and fence-less fens. It’s the vastness of these flatlands that keeps me prisoner here. I am contained; incarcerated in the most open landscape of them all.”

Dean only allows us the briefest glimpses of possible escape routes, and The Last Thing to Burn holds grim despair and slender possibility in balance until the end. As horrifying details accumulate, we are compelled to read on both by the haunting power of Thanh’s narrative and by our mounting anxiety about whether escape is even remotely possible from the “hideous purgatory” of her life.

Sarah Penner, The Lost Apothecary 

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

In her debut novel, The Lost Apothecary (2021), Sarah Penner imagines an intriguing and suspenseful intersection between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. In 1791, we follow the murderous life of a late eighteenth-century apothecary; in our own time, we’re immersed in the historical investigations of a young woman who stumbles on a clue that kindles an overwhelming desire to understand the life of the mysterious apothecary. 

Penner’s apothecary, Nella Clavinger, has turned her hand to helping women in distress by providing them with the means to do away with the men who have damaged or destroyed their lives.  Nella is carrying on the arts of the apothecary passed down by her mother, but – in the aftermath of a life-shattering betrayal – she has expanded her recipe book beyond her mother’s benign remedies:

“On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.”

It is a decision that leads her into innumerable dangers and difficulties, which are vividly described both in her own narrative and in that of a twelve year-old lady’s maid, the lively, curious and strong-willed Eliza Fanning, who meets Nella when she comes to procure a poison on behalf of her mistress. The bond formed between the two is a touching and compelling one, increasing our apprehension for them as they adventure through the hazardous streets of 1790s London. 

A contemporary narrative perspective is supplied by Caroline Parcewell, a young American visiting London for the first time. It was meant to be her tenth anniversary trip but she has come on her own because, on the eve of departure, she learned that her husband had long been involved in an affair. A history student in her younger days, Caroline’s passion for understanding the past is rekindled when she on impulse joins a ‘mudlarking tour’ on her first day in the city. Almost on the point of abandoning her muddy search, she uncovers a tiny bottle that appears to be an old apothecary vial. Intrigued, she tries to discover its origins, and with every small step forward finds that her casual exploration of the past has become an irresistible quest. She feels, she says, “a strange connection with whomever last held the vial in their hands – an inherent kinship with the person whose fingerprints last impressed on the glass as mine did now,” and her obsession leads her towards the hidden and forgotten shop of ‘the lost apothecary’: “No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.”  

With considerable dexterity, Penner combines history and melodrama, lost romance, betrayal, murder, recipes for deadly tinctures and supernatural spells. The Lost Apothecary weaves its elements into a consistently gripping story, entertaining and surprising us throughout.

William Boyle, Shoot the Moonlight Out 

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

William Boyle is wonderfully skilled in creating vivid, memorable characters. In Shoot the Moonlight Out (2021), as in his earlier novels, he draws us into the encounters – whether quirky friendships, unexpected love or ill-conceived criminal transgressions – that upend the lives of those inhabiting their small corner of Brooklyn. It is a part of the city that Doyle knows intimately and that itself seems synonymous with the scarred lives of the characters who live there:

“The moon has settled over the neighbourhood like the fluorescent entrance to a tunnel-of-love carnival ride, spilling its light on the blacktop, on the hoods of cars and the Virgin Mary statues in weed-strewn front yards, on all the damaged windows and doors, on the cracks in the sidewalks and all the cracked hearts, on the rooftops, on the order and disorder, on all that’s hidden and all that’s out in the open.”

The course of people’s lives can be catastrophically disturbed by the most seemingly casual and thoughtless acts of violence. In Shoot the Moonlight Out, relationships and events have all been affected in one way or another by an accident that took place five years previously, when a boy heedlessly threw a rock at a passing car, causing the death of the young woman driving it.  

The woman’s father, Jack, has never recovered: “she’s gone. Jack’s world stops.” But his isolation and grief begin to shift when he gets caught up in the lives of an ill-assorted cast of characters: amongst others, an aspiring novelist, Lily, who has just started a local writing group in St Mary’s Church; Max Berry, a sleazy ‘investment counsellor’ who runs a neighbourhood Ponzi scheme; Francesca, a young woman who dreams of being a filmmaker; Charlie French, a sadistic mobster; and ultimately Bobby Santavasco, the boy who accidentally killed Jack’s daughter. Characters are brought together in unexpected ways, as seemingly random acts collide and the damage done by the haphazardly thrown stone ripples out over the years.

Boyle’s characters are always a mixture of good and bad. Each has borne losses and disappointments, had misconceptions, made calamitous misjudgements. The stumbling decisions and actions of the characters themselves and their uncertainty about how to carry on with their damaged lives makes them intensely sympathetic. As they get to know one another, making overtures of friendship or stepping back in uncertainty, their movements all become part of a whole in which the larger ironies shadow their fumbling efforts to achieve justice and simply to survive. Out of their tangled crimes, loves and losses, Boyle crafts an intricate plot that is ultimately life-affirming and redemptive. 

Lily reflects on the strange collisions of circumstance:  “The world has been hard, is hard now and only getting harder. Lily thinks of Bobby throwing that rock. If he hadn’t thrown it, he wouldn’t have killed Amelia and maybe he wouldn’t have killed Max either. Maybe none of this would have happened…The future is a story she hasn’t written yet, wilder and more unpredictable than she could’ve anticipated.”  

Like Boyle’s 2020 novel, A Friend is a Gift you Give Yourself (also reviewed on Crimeculture), Shoot the Moonlight Out is one of our favourite reads of the year. Highly recommended.

See more of Crimeculture’s recent reviews below.

Melanie Golding, The Replacement

Part psychological thriller, part police procedural and part dark fairy tale, The Replacement (2021) continues the police procedural framework of Golding’s debut novel, the hugely successful Little Darlings (2020), and similarly draws on powerful folk myths… Golding’s central protagonist is the strong-willed, intuitive DS Joanna Harper, whose own life has been shaped by the disturbing fluidity of human relationships. Read our review of The Replacement.

Liz Nugent, Our Little Cruelties

In Our Little Cruelties (2020), Liz Nugent again demonstrates her extraordinary ability to bring to life characters who both repel and fascinate us. One of the most darkly noir of contemporary crime writers, she excels in the creation of tense, gripping dramas about people imprisoned in their own obsessions and their catastrophic errors of judgement. Read our review of Our Little Cruelties.

Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice

Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice (2021) is an ebullient and superbly entertaining take on the Golden Age detective novel.This is the second book in his ‘Thursday Murder Club’ series, which inventively updates the formula of country village atmosphere and loveable, eccentric characters. Read our review of The Man Who Died Twice.

Lisa Jewell, The Night She Disappeared 

Lisa Jewell’s The Night She Disappeared  draws us in with an absorbing, beautifully crafted story that holds us in suspense throughout. As in Jewell’s other novels, our attention is compelled not only by the intricate plotting but by characters so richly created and memorable that they stay in the reader’s mind long after the final pages. Read our review of The Night She Disappeared.

Megan Abbott, The Turnout

Megan Abbott’s The Turnout is a mesmerising novel, wonderfully written and vividly imagined. At once brutal and delicate, it takes place in the world of a decaying, secret-laden ballet school. Some of Abbott’s most remarkable earlier crime novels have also explored, to stunning effect, the obsessive, competitive lives of teenage girls who commit themselves to intensely demanding physical disciplines – the cheerleaders of Dare Me, the gymnasts of You Will Know Me. Read our review of The Turnout.    

Aaron Philip Clark, Under Color of Law

Aaron Philip Clark’s Under Color of Law is a gripping, sharply observed, fast-moving journey through the dark and treacherous world of the LAPD. It is written as the first-person, present tense narrative of Detective Trevor ‘Finn’ Finnegan, a young black cop who daily confronts the kind of horrors “that strip a person bare and leave them hollow”.  Read our review of Under Color of Law.

Stuart Neville, The House of Ashes (2021)

The House of Ashes is a stunning novel, brutal, disturbing and completely riveting. It’s a crime novel but also a deeply affecting ghost story, the ghosts of children appearing to those who can see them, shadowy witnesses to the violence suffered: “A deeper darkness took her for some time, her slumber haunted by broken dreams of broken children between walls and beneath floors…” Read our review of The House of Ashes.

Catriona Ward, The Last House on Needless Street (2021)

Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a surreal and fascinating novel. In the opening chapters, it would seem to be about a serial killer, Ted Bannerman, hunted by Dee, a young woman who is convinced he killed her sister when she was six. Ted has locked himself away in a run down, sinister place on the edge of a forest, where memories “lie around the house, in drifts as deep as snow.” Ward’s novel very skilfully creates a dark mixture of child murder and gothic horror, drawing us into a world that is haunted, disturbing and disorienting. Read our review of The Last House on Needless Street.

Caitlin Mullen, Please See Us (2021)

Mullen’s protagonists, Lily and Clara, are very unlike one another, but both struggling to build new lives for themselves. They are brought together under the extreme pressure of violent events, desperate to work out what has been happening and terrified that they may themselves become victims. Lily reflects, “I was so tired of being afraid. And yet, it seemed that was all this summer was: learning all of the ways that dread could creep into my days.” Read our review of Please See Us.

Inga Vesper, The Long Long Afternoon (2021)

Inga Vesper’s The Long Long Afternoon is a beautifully atmospheric and wholly absorbing crime novel, set in 1950s Santa Monica. Vesper’s title conjures up the placid, unbroken calm of a Californian idyll – a sun-drenched suburban life, where affluent housewives display their domestic accomplishments, their blue pools, their May-green lawns.  But – as any reader of Chandler will suspect – we will inevitably discover that underneath this claustrophobic, carefully constructed surface there are hidden lies, transgressions and bloodstains on the kitchen floor. Read our review of The Long Long Afternoon.

Jessica Barry, Don’t Turn Around, 2021

“Wasn’t living under the constant threat of danger just a part of being a woman in this world?”  Jessica Barry’s Don’t Turn Around is a gripping, swiftly paced female road novel. Her evocative prose propels us into the lives of two strong, determined women, thrown together on a nightmarish journey, facing dangers that neither of them anticipated.  Read our review of Don’t Turn Around.

Throughout 2020, Crimeculture reviewed a selection of the outstanding crime novels we enjoyed during the lockdown.

Crimeculture’s Lockdown Favourites

Jane Harper, The Survivors, 2020

Jane Harper’s The Survivors is an engrossing, suspenseful novel, with strong characters and an intensely realised landscape. It takes place in the tiny, isolated Tasmanian town of Evelyn Bay, sparsely populated except during the tourist season, when holidaymakers outnumber the town’s inhabitants. 
Read our review of The Survivors

Agnes Ravatn, The Seven Doors, 2020

Agnes Ravatn’s psychological thriller, The Seven Doors, is a haunting and disturbing exploration of guilt and deception – and of an obstinate determination to expose hidden truths. Ravatn’s subtle, mesmerizing prose draws us into a complex skein of family secrets.
Read our review of The Seven Doors…

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother (2019)

Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother (published as La Daronne in France) was one of the unexpected delights of this year’s reading. It began to receive widespread recognition when Cayre – a criminal lawyer as well as a screenwriter and director – won both the European Crime Fiction Prizeand the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction. Read our review of The Godmother…

Read reviews of more of our Lockdown Favourites:

Gabriel Bergmoser, The Hunted

Camilla Läckberg, The Golden Cage

Louise Candlish, The Other Passenger

Dreda Say Mitchell, Spare Room

Thomas Mullen, Midnight Atlanta

Rone Tempest, The Last Western

Lucy Atkins, Magpie Lane

William Boyle, A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself

Michael Farris Smith, Blackwood

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer

Adrian McKinley, The Chain

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home

Don Winslow, The Border

S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland