Murder Most Unladylike

Buy MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE by Robin Stevens

When I was younger I was a big fan of books where people my own age started their own detective agencies. My favourites were the Three Investigator books, which remained a mainstay of my reading into my teens, even when the rest of my tastes were getting decidedly more blood-soaked. I wanted to live in a junkyard and have a secret office hidden by a pile of junk. Their plots were a little safer (missing objects, etc) than the storyline of the first Wells and Wong mystery, which starts with the murder of a teacher at the Deepdean girls’ boarding school.

Hazel Wong finds the body of Miss Bell spread-eagled on the floor of the gym. She runs to get help, not least from Daisy Wells (President of the Detective Society, for which Hazel is Secretary – though really there are just the two of them anyway). When students and staffs descend on the gym, however, the body is gone. As Daisy and Hazel deduce, it can’t have been an accident (or suicide), because someone has obviously tried to cover it up. With a mysterious resignation note showing up, nobody else believes Miss Bell is even dead, let alone murdered, so it’s down to Daisy and Hazel to solve the crime on their own.

The story is set in that timeless version of quintessential England that probably didn’t even exist in the early 1930s, but it offers Robin Stevens the chance to affectionately pastiche Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. There are a few herrings so red they are practically neon as Daisy and Hazel work their way through the teaching staff, establishing who has motive and who is protected by an alibi. At one point things seem to be getting all Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone – perhaps even a couple of students – having a possible reason to want to snuff out Miss Bell.

Daisy and Hazel are a teenaged Holmes and Watson, with Hazel writing up the case and Daisy hanging over her shoulder, improving the text from off the page. They bicker, they fall out, they realise they need each other to solve the case. It’s a sparkling relationship that pushes the book onto another level. This is the first in a series and I’ll certainly be checking out the others.

Boy in the Tower

Buy BOY IN THE TOWER by Polly Ho-Yen

Strange things are afoot in South London. First it rains non-stop for weeks. Then buildings start to collapse of their own accord. And then odd blue flowers begin to grow amidst the debris. Everyone starts calling them Bluchers.

Ade only half notices this happening, despite having a splendid view of the city from the balcony of the tower block where he lives. His mum recently suffered a brutal attack near to where she worked and has become increasingly more reclusive, to the extent where Ade has to go out and buy food for them both. But he can’t ignore what’s going on when everyone else in the block decides to leave. Ade’s mum won’t leave her bed, though, so Ade stays behind with her. Except, as he soon discovers, he’s not the only one left behind.

There are all sorts of things going on here. Ade’s life hasn’t really changed all that much. He was just as lonely before the Bluchers appeared. His experience of this apocalypse comes down to missing going to school and not being able to spend time with his one friend, Gaia. His home is a place where hundreds of people are all living on top of each other, but his world is one of alienation and isolation. It takes calamity to change that.

Ade is the sort of innocent, sensitive and kind character that makes for an instantly familiar and likeable narrator, his only flaw his slight naivety. Whilst he’s never passive, it’s only towards the end of the book that his true strength emerges.

Any story about killer plants is obviously going to draw comparisons to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Even though the Bluchers aren’t walking around the place, that doesn’t make them any less menacing. Their level of sentience is left rather vague, which doesn’t help. You’d like to believe they are actually quite innocuous, only killing us all by accident. And perhaps that’s they way they like it.

Knightley & Son: K9

Buy KNIGHTLEY & SON: K9 by Rohan Gavin

Dogs have been disappearing all over London. Meanwhile something is stalking the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath each full moon, leaving grisly animal carcasses and what appear to be unbelievably large paw-prints.

Young sleuth Darkus Knightley, who has left the shadow of his famous detective father following the events of the first Knightley & Son book, is soon investigating. Unfortunately he has competition from a nosey wannabe student journalist, the police, his potential stepsister Tilly, and an uneasy alliance of despicable chaps who only want to discredit Darkus and his dad. There is of course a connection between the disappearing dogs and the beast on the Heath, but things are a lot more complicated than any of the above realised.

Obviously there’s a big element of homage to The Hound of the Baskervilles running through this book. However, despite a splash of fantasy requiring some suspension of disbelief, it’s actually a bit less silly than the Sherlock version. There’s the same zany humour as in the first book, though balanced this time by some surprisingly violent scenes in its more action-led moments.

The book ends not so much on a cliffhanger as a sharp poke to read the next book in the series. Some untied bows are unravelled at the last moment, but the characters are quite penned in by their development during the course of this book. Knightley Snr slips into a convenient catatonic state (again) partway through the story, a contrivance to allow Darkus to come to the fore once more. But he would do that anyway, having overtaken his dad in sleuthing abilities. Plus the truth is, the stories are always more interesting when he isn’t around, when Darkus is more or less alone, in danger, and can’t rely on dad showing up with the car to save the day.

The Imaginary

Buy THE IMAGINARY by A F Harrold

Rudger may be imaginary but his friendship with Amanda Shuffleup is entirely real. That she first meets him in a cupboard is irrelevant. That her mum can’t see or hear him doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Together Amanda and Rudger get up to all the things normal friends get up to, like fending off aliens in the back garden or exploring a cavern under the stairs.

But then Mr Bunting starts sniffing around. Despite appearing middle aged, Mr Bunting still has an imaginary friend. He can see everyone else’s too. Which is handy for him, seeing as he eats them. Or, more accurately, drinks them. He’s not really middle aged, of course. Like a demonic Dorian Gray, Mr Bunting has been prolonging his life by lapping up the fruits of the imaginations of children for a century.

Amanda knows she has to keep away from Mr Bunting so that he doesn’t swallow Rudger too, but when fleeing from his clutches she ends up running in front of a car and being knocked into a coma. This is the story of what Rudger does next, alone, and with nobody to believe in him.

A F Harrold’s Fizzlebert Stump (The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (And Joined the Library)) was like a slightly zanier Roald Dahl. The Imaginary is zanier still, especially when Rudger finds out what other lonely imaginary friends get up to when they’re left on their own. However, the story remains rooted in a real, believable world visited by darkness and tinged by sadness but which is made all the nicer to live in thanks to the imaginations of its inhabitants.

It also has a perfect ending, for reasons I couldn’t explain without spoiling it. So I won’t do either.

The grown-up in me can see this is a book about the power of imagination, the importance of libraries, and about how growing up invariably involves saying a few final goodbyes (even if you don’t realise they were the last ones until afterwards). But at the same time the little boy in me can see this book as a vindication – Jimmy really did exist, and he really did live somewhere near Grandma (and whilst Jimmy’s best friend Ponk probably was imaginary, he was obviously a product of Jimmy’s imagination rather than mine).

Publication day!

Today my first children’s novel was published.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of Samuel and Catherine, two children orphaned by the Plague in 1666. When the Great Fire of London breaks out they become involved in a plot to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when the gang of thieves discovers a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, it is split over what to do with him. The book is a fast-paced historical adventure aimed at readers 9 to 12.

I first had the idea for The Thieves of Pudding Lane in 2004, so it really has taken a decade to make it to the bookshelves! The concept came to me whilst watching a documentary about the Great Fire. When one of the historians mentioned that the richest people in London left a lot of their most expensive belongings behind, I wondered whether anyone had taken advantage of the opportunity to help themselves. The title came to me instantly.

I didn’t spend 10 years writing it, of course. I made my first attempt back then, but it ran aground pretty quickly. After a few chapters I realised it wasn’t working. Maybe the idea wasn’t that good after all, I thought. I had this thought several times over the next few years, and gave up on several drafts. Each time I went off for another year or so and worked on many other ideas, and even published three non-fiction books in the meantime.

But the idea just wouldn’t go away. In 2011 I thought I would give it one last shot, finally get it out of my system once and for all. And now it’s been published.

Really, though, the seeds for The Thieves of Pudding Lane were sown when I was the age of my intended readers. When I was that age I loved disaster movies (secretly I still do). My favourites were The Poseidon Adventure (about a cruise ship that is turned upside down by a massive wave) and The Towering Inferno (about a massive fire that breaks out in a skyscraper). They’re entirely made up, of course, whereas my book is based on a real-life disaster of epic proportions.

You can buy The Thieves of Pudding Lane (RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-0318-1) through all good bookshops or online retailers, including Amazon.

Knightley and Son

Darkus Knightley is the oddball son of an oddball father. Knightley Snr has been in a catatonic state since Darkus was nine years old and, now thirteen, Darkus only really knows his dad through reading the copious notes he left behind. Alan Knightley was a maverick detective, you see, on the trail of a mysterious and sinister criminal group known only as the Combination. In his coma he is unable to prevent his young son from absorbing all the information he has collected about them.

This comes in handy, however, when the Combination launch their masterplan and, perhaps not coincidentally, the elder Knightley suddenly awakes. A strange self-help book is having a bizarre effect on an apparently random selection of individuals, causing them to have hallucinations after reading it, and then driving them to do wild, crazy and illegal things. Alan Knightley is sure the truth can be found in the evidence he gathered before falling into his coma, but unfortunately the Combination gets to his notes first. Fortunately, however, all is not lost, because Darkus Knightley has something of a photographic memory.

I loved the Three Investigators mysteries when I was around the age this cracking yarn is aimed at. So much so, in fact, that adult crime fiction has failed to make much of an impact on me – I miss the trailer hidden in the junkyard, the English chauffeur Worthington, and the epilogues in which logical genius Jupiter Jones sat down to explain how he solved the case to none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Reading this story reminded me a lot of reading the Three Investigators books. Darkus is quite a similar character to Jupe, and the adult characters here are (with the odd exception) similarly encumbrances to the mystery being solved. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is another clear influence. Darkus is rational, precocious, antisocial and sometimes rather knowingly superior. But he’s also quite charismatic with it; precisely the kind of character to carry this kind of tale.

It works just fine the way it is as a standalone novel, but I hope Rohan Gavin goes on to turn it into a series, perhaps with Knightley Snr taking more of a backseat (or having another prolonged snooze). The story works best when Darkus is alone and surviving (and succeeding) by his own wits.

One Day in Oradour

Oradour is the village that appears at the beginning of the first episode of The World at War documentary series. It also appears at the end of the last episode, bookending the series with a symbol that shows the war was not really about glory or sacrifice or changing the world one way or the other, those are just the more acceptable colours draped over senseless carnage.

In June 1944, only a few days after the Allies landed in Normandy, the SS blocked all the ways in and out of the picturesque rural village of Oradour and divided its 650 inhabitants into several groups. Five groups of men were taken to various barns. The women and children were herded into the church. The SS then proceeded to massacre almost everyone, notionally because Oradour was a Resistance hideout. They left the village a ghost town, and one that survives largely untouched to this day – after the war Charles de Gaulle insisted it be left as testament to what happened.

Helen Watts’ Carnegie-nominated novel tells the story of that day in Oradour from the perspective of Alfred, a little boy who managed to survive. He drifts through this nightmare, like the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. He has no story arc because this is not a book where characters learn or develop and everything gets tied up neatly at the end. For most of its length, as soon as the Germans arrive, this novel is a documentary, walking through events and imagining how the victims felt.

Perhaps necessarily this is a fictionalised account. Few people from the town survived. Most of those who did had fled before the killing began. The story has been put together from those few survivors, and the few men who were brought to account after the war, who together could confirm that the SS were ordered to only shoot their victims in the legs so that they would still be alive when set on fire, amongst other horrors inflicted that afternoon.

Most of the names have been changed, amalgamating several survivors into Alfred and several perpetrators into one cruel SS commander, Gustav Dietrich. Seven-year-old Alfred could be a curious scamp from just about any children’s book, but Dietrich suffers from this fictionalisation, with some cod psychology about father issues cribbed on to make him seem a bit more understandable.

This book is aimed at 11 and 12 year olds, who have probably seen enough movies to be inured to violence. But this novel reins things back. Gunfire and explosions bring terror, not excitement. Watts starts by focusing on making her version of Oradour seem very real, so that when she starts reporting, in an often cold, observational manner, what happened there, it all seems quite scarily real too.

Devil’s Rock

For 11-year-old Zaki, this year’s family holiday is turning out to be more than a bit of a damp squib. His mum is off working in Switzerland rather than spending time with her kids, and Zaki’s older brother Michael is now 15 and far too cool to want to go exploring in a rowing boat from the family’s yacht. So when Zaki spies a cave beneath Devil’s Rock at low tide, he has to investigate on his own. But curiosity almost kills this cat.

In the darkness Zaki finds a child’s skeleton and a strange bracelet, but the next thing he knows, the tide has risen and cut off his only way out. A mysterious girl seems to appear out of nowhere to rescue him, only to make him promise he never even tell anyone he was in the cave, let alone that she saved his life. But Zaki was curious enough to head into a cave on his own, and everything about this girl arouses his curiosity even more. Plus strange things start to happen when Zaki slips the bracelet on, not least the bird of prey that flies out of a poster on his first day at high school.

When the plot is driven by curiosity rather than danger this is quite a slow paced adventure story. At least in the first half of the book, Zaki spends many of the key scenes alone. It only properly takes off when he gains a partner in crime, Anusha, who might not be as curious as he is, but who just seems less passive than the rest of the characters in the book. Even then, the mystery central to the plot is not so much solved as simply revealed by having the characters read all the answers in a book.

This is quite an old fashioned yarn. Indeed, aside from a few specific references to the modern world, it could just as easily have been published in that interwar golden age of boys’-own stories that start with exploring and end with magic. It’s ultimately a story about Indian/Sir Lankan folklore transplanted (quite literally) to rural Devon, which makes for a rather unique twist. The book appears to be out of print now, but is still readily available as an ebook.

Shiverton Hall

Despite never having applied for one, 14-year-old Arthur Bannister receives a scholarship to Shiverton Hall, a creaky Gothic boarding school that belongs in another age. Hogwarts it ain’t. Shiverton Hall’s dark history involved it being inherited by a young boy who may or may not have done away with his parents before succumbing to a curse that saw him die whilst regurgitating his own intestines. Later, but before becoming a school, the place served as a lunatic asylum too.

Arthur isn’t quite sure whether to believe the fevered stories of his terrified new schoolmates, but when curly-haired dolls and armless (though certainly not harmless) clowns in bowler hats start haunting the dormitories at night, he realises there is something decidedly wicked going on at Shiverton Hall. And it all has something to do with imaginary friends returning to visit their now-teenage creators, urging them to jump to their deaths from a high height…

Emerald Fennell is clearly a big horror fan. The doll reminded me of the horror movie Child’s Play, and the clown reminded me of Stephen King’s It. There is psychological and body horror aplenty, and this would have been far too scary for me at 10 years old. The story goes into some pretty dark places, especially when some of the more horrific twists are incongruously realistic, but it all comes together to deliver the message about standing up for yourself and others at the end.

The Great Fire of London

Today, 347 years ago, was the day a terrible blaze on several London streets turned into a major disaster that would consume the entire city. The fire had broken out the previous night in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The long hot summer of 1666 had left this wooden metropolis bone-dry, its wells almost empty, but whilst these were factors why the fire proved unstoppable, the reason it spread so far was the easterly gale that started blowing on the evening of the 1st and didn’t stop blowing until the 5th – the day, uncoincidentally, that the fire finally burnt itself out.

For much of Sunday 2nd, the fire was an exciting spectacle watched from the apparent safety of balconies several streets away, an amusing piece of gossip – heads would surely roll once the incompetence of those failing to extinguish the fire after several hours was revealed publicly! By the evening of the 2nd, the fire was no longer an entertainment. Those on the ground found throwing water at the flames ineffective. The wind blew so hard that it carried burning embers across streets so that new fires would break out behind the volunteer firefighters, forcing them to retreat.


From Wikipedia

The fire burned so hot that dry wooden surfaces facing the heat began to spontaneously combust, even without help from the wind. As all these separate fires grew, they were absorbed into a single burgeoning inferno, a wall of fire that spread west into the heart of London. Nothing could be done to stop it. They even tried blowing up buildings in its path and removing the rubble so that the flames couldn’t spread, but those flames were now so large – several times taller than a man – that the fire was even able to cross the River Fleet without much difficulty.

Night on the 2nd threw the true extent of the fire into terrible relief. By sunrise on the 3rd, civil order had broken down, the amateur firefighters had abandoned their attempts to get the conflagration under control, and tens of thousands of people were attempting to flee the city. By the evening of the 5th, over 80 per cent of them would be homeless.

The action of my forthcoming children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane (Bloomsbury, October 2014), takes place almost entirely on the 2nd, but I have used a little creative licence and accelerated the spread of the fire slightly. Much of the final act of the story would probably have been more likely to take place on the 3rd, but I couldn’t exactly have my characters hanging around an extra day.

Though some 13,000 houses were destroyed by the Great Fire of London, the area the inferno consumed is actually only a handful of stops on the modern Circle Line. It took quite a long time to spread as far as it did, and almost everyone had plenty of time to get out of the way. As it was, only 6 deaths were officially attributed to the disaster, though I suspect it was much higher. Then as now, London was a world city, home to countless transients and indigents. They died in one of the worst fires in history – of course it didn’t leave many bodies to count.