Category Archives: Thriller

If You Were Me

It would seem that Sam Hepburn is good at taking a topic I’m not all that keen on and then writing a novel about it; a novel so good and so exciting you don’t know what to do, because you have to hold on to the book to keep reading, but at the same time you could really do with holding on tight to your chair. Or something. You know.

Sam Hepburn, If You Were Me

If You Were Me is a gut-churning thriller, about Aliya and her family who had to flee Afghanistan in a hurry one night, only to exchange a bad situation there for a bad one in London. Her brother who was an interpreter for the British, is accused of being a terrorist, plotting to kill the man who helped them enter the country.

With the help of Dan, who came to sort out the plumbing in their decrepit flat, she starts sleuthing, desperate to clear her brother’s name. Dan is keen to assist, but he also has reasons to hide certain aspects of their investigation, to keep his family safe and intact.

It’s amazing how these two manage to find any clues at all, let alone that they are able to make something of what they discover. Very, very exciting indeed. And basically, you must remember you can’t trust anyone. Had the introduction not suggested it might end well, I’d not have believed it possible.

Aliya and Dan are two incredible heroes. Not everyone else is bad, but very nearly.

Writing someone else’s sequel

I don’t mind in the least. But at the same time I wasn’t eagerly looking forward to the next ‘Stieg Larsson’ novel, even if it means I can have more of Lisbeth Salander. Didn’t exactly feel I’d boycott the book, but nor did I visualise myself reading it.

But then I read the first interview with David Lagercrantz in Swedish magazine Vi. It was a good interview, done by one of my favourite columnists on Vi, Johan Norberg. Johan usually writes about music, which he does well, since he’s a professional musician. He’s also a good friend of David’s. It’s very Swedish, this, but for the last two decades these men have delivered and fetched their children from the same daycare. (Yeah, a lot of children were required.)

Vi interview David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Swedish title Det som inte dödar oss [literally What doesn’t kill us]) was conceived and written under the greatest secrecy, like something straight out of a Stieg Larsson novel.

When I first heard David Lagercrantz was writing the book my cynical reaction was ‘of course,’ as in my mind he belongs to a writing dynasty. Turns out he’s part of the nobility, too, which I didn’t know. But from my foreign horizon I had no idea it was David who wrote Zlatan, or any of the other books he’s responsible for. He just wasn’t important enough for me to keep track of.

For obvious reasons Son wondered who the translator of this fourth Millennium novel would be. The name George Goulding elicited more wondering, as he was totally unknown to everyone. Some digging by Son suggests he’s a pal of Christopher MacLehose, with no translating past, apart from the recent Alan Turing book, also by David Lagercrantz.

Anyway, judging by Johan’s article in Vi, David is a nice, and somewhat shy man, who prefers not to leave his home, other than for the previously mentioned school run. He has been subjected to the expected nasty tabloid articles, because in Sweden it doesn’t do to seem to be more than anyone else. (But they can’t all write Larsson novels!)

David’s only comment to Johan’s interview was that he most certainly doesn’t shave using disposable blades. So now you know.

The Girl Who Broke the Rules

Marnie Riches’ ‘Girl’ really does break rules. A lot. The first novel was exceptionally good. So is this one, as long as I can manage not to dwell on the actual murders in too much detail. They are far more gruesome than those bodies blown to bits in The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Proceed with caution. And do keep in mind that George swears a lot, comes from a rough background, and is actually still only 24 years old.

She’s the most fantastic of heroines. I’d like her to be more sensible occasionally, but then she’d not be the George McKenzie we love.

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Broke the Rules

In Amsterdam immigrant women are being murdered in a way I’d rather not describe here. And van den Bergen is unwell, he misses George, and he needs her to come and help solve this case. But she’s busy, and can’t get permission to travel, and she misses him too, and is troubled by her – lack of – feelings for her boyfriend.

As in the first book, aspects of George’s life in England have a bearing on the Amsterdam murders. It’s simply that she has a rich background to draw from, and it’s hard to work out what and who. If there’s a pervert out there, George will know him.

Very cliffhangery sort of cliffhanger at the end. There will be a third book. I’d rather not speculate on how Marnie will kill her victims in that one.

(Buy the ebook here.)

Work Experience

In the end I imagine it was only chair Jane Sandell and me who had read Andy Mulligan’s new novel Liquidator.* And that’s because it’s not out yet, but they did make an exception at the book festival and keen fans could buy a very early copy there on Sunday afternoon.

Andy Mulligan, Liquidator

I was relieved to hear that Jane had had to read the book in one sitting, as I’d had the same feeling myself and wanted to know I wasn’t wrong. (Not that I usually am, obviously, and as you know, Andy writes Very Good Books.)

It’s all about work experience when you’re at secondary school, and how things can go a little wrong. Andy reckons he was lucky to be made redundant in the 1980s, which meant he ended up travelling to India to work, and then to train as a teacher, before starting to write. The man harvests his characters in the schools where he works or has worked. With the right children in the right school you have a lot of fun.

He grew up in south London, had Enid Blyton values, went to a boys’ grammar school, and so on. His father wanted a ‘real boy’ but thanks to a great teacher who encouraged him, Andy always sat in his room writing stories.

Jane reminded us of his shot to fame as the author of the book that was kicked off the Blue Peter book award shortlist for p 65. That little spat gave him more publicity than winning the award would have done.

In case people in the audience didn’t know what work experience is, Andy explained it. I suspect we have all done it, in some form or other, but these days it’s harder than ever to get something worthwhile to do. As a teacher he always hopes that his pupils will come back having been allowed to land the plane or wield the scalpel in the operating theatre, being inspired in what they could do when they are older.

Liquidator took Andy two and a half years to write, and he said his lovely publisher David Fickling was very critical at times, and told Andy to ‘make him cry,’ meaning he hadn’t yet. What Andy wanted to achieve was real jeopardy for his characters, not the Blyton style risk that ten-year-olds want.

Ribblestrop is a mishmash of several schools (which for obvious reasons can’t be named); ones with troubled pupils, and because of them, troubled teachers too.

Andy Mulligan

Asked how he knew what a rubbish dump in the Philippines was like, he explained he’d taken his public school pupils on a school trip to one, so that they would know and understand life better. And he’s very shocked that pupils don’t ever read newspapers these days.

Andy writes books covering lots of genres, but can’t see himself writing fantasy, so had to say no to the child who suggested he put a nice dragon into Trash. You’re allowed to stretch reality and you can break a few rules. But no dragons.

The next book has already reached the first draft stage, and is about a dog that wants to be a cat. (Someone in the audience said she has one like that.) He sees himself only as a children’s books author, and has never dabbled with adult books. Andy is comfortable where he is, and especially so with age group 11 to 16.

*Patience! There will be a review here soon.

The Lost and the Blind

Declan Burke writes thrillers like he does crime novels, seemingly just taking what’s around him, turning it into the most exciting of novels. Not every author can put him or herself into a book and get away with it. Less still their child, but what’s a thriller without your small girl’s Barbie?

Declan Burke, The Lost and the Blind

In The Lost and the Blind we have the separated Irish journalist Tom, who makes ends meet by reviewing films. Tom is hired by a wealthy American who wants him to ghostwrite a book about the killing of some young children during WWII, something which eventually causes Tom to run for his life in the company of a lovely female; his six-year-old daughter Emily.

Tom is a nice, peace-loving man, but he is no fool. On the other hand, as it’s his turn to have his daughter, and he needs to make sure he is a good dad so he stands a chance of getting custody of Emily, he can’t go off on the usual macho hunts for bad guys. As in some of Declan’s crime novels, I was enjoying reading a thriller which does all the right things, but with rather less bloodshed than you tend to expect.

Although that only works up to a point. Just warning you.

This is an interesting mix of ordinary Irish life from the days of the country’s economic collapse, and flashbacks to WWII in neutral Eire, featuring German soldiers and the IRA, as well as an English spy.

And none of it went in the direction I would have guessed, had I been capable of guessing. Very, very good.

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)


Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant


I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’


Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.