Into the Fire Rachael Blok

Into the Fire is an intriguing modern take on the country house mystery; eleven guests are together for the weekend at a country house, a clutch of secrets are about to rock their world and a desperate killer is hiding amongst them. The novel opens with a bang, a helicopter crash that leaves us wondering how many of the eleven people will survive as the story cuts to twenty-four hours earlier. That got my attention but I confess it took me a while to get into this story properly after that because there’s a lot of detail to grasp about the characters, their jobs, their relationships and their past in the early chapters. Once that was negotiated the story rattles on at a fine pace. Ultimately this is an atmospheric tale, well plotted and rich in character.

Saturday, day two. Lois, Ebba and Iqbal are making sure everything is ready for the return of their guests. They hear the helicopter come into range, then something goes wrong, there a fire on board, it begins to plummet from the sky. It crashes into the lawn.

Friday, day one. Lois, Ebba and Iqbal are based at Ostle House, a country property in its own grounds just outside St. Albans. This is the headquarters of the new Archipelago group – an ethical tech company that believes in exploitation free resourcing, environmentally friendly practices and a political sense of responsibility. The guests for the weekend are Filip, Sophie, Aksel, Richard, Sarah and Marieke, they all helped to make Archipelago happen and this party is  a celebration of the launch.

The British police have been alerted to serious threats made against one of the guests, Marieke Visser, a Dutch politician who has ruffled feathers by calling for an end to modern slavery and tackling business practices. There’s a PC on the gate and DCI Maarten Jansen and his wife are staying at the house over the weekend too. This is a reunion for Maarten and Marieke, she was his boss when he worked as a policeman in Rotterdam before coming to the UK many years ago. Filip is a Dutch banker, his wife Sophie a film star, it’s clear there’s some tension in their marriage. Perhaps that has something to do with dashing Norwegian businessman Aksel Larsen. His presence seems to have an effect on the other guests and Lois and Ebba. Once everyone arrives and settles in for the night’s meal there’s an uneasy bonhomie, a frisson that something is not quite right.

But Iqbal is troubled, he has just heard from his old friend Obaidur, he hasn’t seen him since the fire at the Dhaka factory where they worked twelve years ago.  A devastating event that Iqbal narrowly escaped with his life thanks to Lois but had to recover in hospital. By the time he came out there was no sign of Obaidur or the woman he was in love with, Rajita, Iqbal believed both of them dead and reluctantly moved on. Not only did Obaidur survive but he says Rajita did too, she has had a bad time of it since the fire and is now working for a middle Eastern family in the UK and living in terrible conditions. Obaidur also says there was something suspicious about the fire and Archipelago is implicated. Iqbal is left wondering if the reputation of Archipelago isn’t built on a lie.

During the evening another threat to Marieke arrives and Maarten investigates, he is attacked. A murderer will stop at nothing to keep the sins of the past a secret.

Fast and thrilling with a serious theme at its heart.

Personal     3½*  Group         4*

Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781838931704, 1/4/21


The Lost Hours Susan Lewis

A well crafted murder mystery that puts comfortably well off, happy family the Crayces under the microscope and through the wringer. When suspicion falls on the men in the family and one of them is charged with a murder committed twenty years earlier their safe little world begins to crumble. The Lost Hours is a credible portrait of the tensions, fears and mistrust that arise in the family as love, loyalty and trust are stretched to breaking point. Lewis knows how to get readers involved in the emotional turmoil surrounding her characters and their shattered lives.

Twenty years ago:

‘That’s the trouble with girls these days, they don’t even dress decent so who can blame the poor boys for thinking something’s on offer when it isn’t.’

The chilling ignorance of a neighbour interviewed during the investigation. DCI Underwood of Kesterly police gets the call he’s been dreading. Workers on a building site in Embury Vale have found the body of a girl in an old railway shed while clearing the land for a new estate. Karen Lomax, seventeen, vanished a month ago, no sign since. Karen had been seen in the company of Timbo Jaks, a fairground worker and wide boy who the police have down as a lowlife but there’s no evidence to connect him to Karen’s disappearance. The case remains unsolved.

December 2019: the Hanley Coombes Estate, Exmoor. Annabelle ‘Annie’ Crayces seems to have the perfect life; a loving husband, David, three beautiful children and a thriving family business. Since they left London to come back of the country things have gone very well. David’s brother Henry lives in the farm house nearby with his second wife Julia, they are all quite close. Annie and David’s fourteen year old son Max is due home from school for the Christmas holidays today but he rings to say he is staying with a friend overnight and will be back tomorrow instead. Their daughter Sienna, sixteen, came home earlier in the day but she’s gone out with friends in the local town, Kesterly.

When Sienna doesn’t come home as planned later that evening Annie begins to worry. There was a road accident but David checked and fortunately she wasn’t involved in it. Eventually Sienna rings her father, telling him not to get upset, but…she’s been arrested for stealing a teddy bear from a local shop with a gang of her friends. A prank they played on the grumpy shop keeper that backfired. The police have released Sienna after taking her DNA and fingerprints, next day the family find out there’ll be no further action. But Annie makes her daughter apologise for her stupidity. The fuss blows over, Christmas comes and goes.

Then two weeks after the new year DS Natalie Rundle of Kesterly CID connects Sienna’s DNA profile to evidence in a cold case, the murder of Karen Lomax twenty years before. The familial link means that either David or his brother, Henry, or their, now dead, father, Dickie, must have killed Karen back then. The police hone in on David, they question him, initially deciding there isn’t enough evidence to charge him but soon things are revealed that seen to confirm their suspicions of him. Is David a killer, if not, what about Henry?

A tense and thought provoking tale with a twist.

Harper Collins, hardback, ISBN 9780008286934, 1/4/21

Personal read 3½*     Group 4*


Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

This is a complex novel with complex themes, it’s also one of those gothic tales that could spoiled by saying too much about the plot, so if this review seems enigmatic it’s because you will want to come to an understanding of the story for yourself. Avoiding the plot will make this sound like a dense read, it’s not, Mirrorland is strange but has an easy flow and it’s gripping. This is a dark tale, contemporary, relevant and chilling. It one for readers who like to feel a tingle of fear and for those who love a puzzle.

Mirrorland is a clever psychological thriller, a story hidden within a story, a novel full of surprises and original storytelling. Readers will have an inkling of the underlying subject matter, there are plenty of hints, but you won’t be able to second guess the plot. Mirrorland is an off-kilter read, unsettling right from the disturbing prologue to the final reveal. A tale loaded with atmosphere and foreboding, delivered with style and invention. A feat of imagination reminiscent of Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street.

  1. Catriona narrates the story of herself and identical twin sister Ellice, (Cat and El). It’s after midnight, the two young girls are huddled together walking down the street toward the dock, little ones shouldn’t be out at this time. A man stops them, asks where they’re going, and they tell him they are off to join a pirate ship. The man takes a closer look at the children and he sees the blood, Cat should have taken her jumper off. The man backs away into the darkness, telling the girls to wait there. The Finlay twins hear a ship’s horn but before they can follow its sound more people approach them. They are safe, this is the beginning of their second Life.

Now: Cat wasn’t there when her sister died, she missed a dozen calls from El’s doctor husband Ross, while at JFK airport. She heads into New York, catches the news of her sister’s disappearance in a bar –  ‘fears grow for missing Leith woman’. Her identical twin Ellice sailed her yacht from the Royal Yacht Club, Granton harbour two days ago and has been missing ever since. Cat doesn’t believe it, she is sure, in the way only an identical twin can be, that if El were dead she would feel it. Cat returns to Scotland.

Ross and El bought the old Finlay family home, 36 Westeryk Road, a few years ago. This is the first time Cat has been back to the house they call Mirrorland in twenty years. Ross is shattered but Cat is convinced he’s wrong to assume El is lost at sea. This is El all over, playing a game with them, it’s so like her. The twins had fallen out twelve years before and that was when Cat left for California. Inside the house is still disturbingly like it was when they were children. The rooms had names when the girls lived here with their mother and grandfather; the clown cafe, Kakadu jungle, princess tower, Donkshop, the girls had their own imaginary world or was there something more sinister about the house? Cat remembers her mother and her indiscriminate terrors and her grandfather’s stoicism.

As Cat settles in to her old home again the doorbell goes and she finds an envelop with her name on it on the doormat. The message is stark – LEAVE. Now Cat is even more convinced this is El playing a game. When DI Rafiq turns up Ross begs her to keep looking for El but Cat mentions the note as evidence her sister is alive but Ross says El got similar messages before she disappeared. Then Cat received another message, an email from john.smith 120594. Clue 1 – where our treasure hunts always started. While the police search for El at sea Cat is drawn into a game she hopes will lead her to her sister. The game is afoot.

A powerful piece of story telling with an unseeable but logically consistent ending.

Borough Press, hardback, ISBN 9780008361389, 1/4/21
Personal read 4*  Group  4*

Reviewed by Paul Burke