Matt Wesolowski – Changeling (2019) and Beast (2020)

Preamble

As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

Reviews aren’t guaranteed to be spoiler-free, so read on with caution!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.


Review (4 out of 5)

I’m reviewing these two books together because I read them in quick succession – the library actually delivered Beast to me first, so I held out to read them in order! – and because the key points I have are common to both of them.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, both true crime and fiction, and the format of course appeals to me. I’m really interested (in my academic research) in how stories and images are repurposed and reused across different media. So this series is entirely in my wheelhouse. The books are ably written and interestingly plotted. They are not formulaic in a substantive sense – the nature of the crimes and the people who tell their stories are not repetitive across books – although they are of course formulaic within the confines of the genre they mimic. Still, having read through the first four books, I am beginning to feel the confines of the task that Wesolowski has set himself. Looking ahead to Deity (2020) and Demon (2022), and just judging on the titles alone, the final two books of the series don’t seem like they break out of this mould.

There are ostensible supernatural elements to all of the stories, and the probing of their non-supernatural explanations is part of the unfolding of each book’s six episodes: a beast in the wilderness, figures not dissimilar to Slender Man, malevolent fairy folk, a vampire. There are dysfunctional relationships amongst teenagers. There are, of course, six stories. Some other elements recur: internet games, for example, in Hydra (2018) and Beast, or the seemingly popular figure who is a malevolent and manipulative bully in Six Stories (2016) and Beast, or the questionable parents and parenting throughout each book of the series.

For genre fiction of this type, however, one can forgive some repetition; indeed, it’s a common criticism of true-crime podcasts in particular! But one of the things that began to nag at me as I read through books three and four – aside from the book covers referring to each one as “an episode of Six Stories”, which I find irritating, given that they’re each supposed to contain six episodes apiece! – is the tentative nature with which King hovers on the edges of each podcast series. The format increasingly has ‘episodes’ per se and then certain non-episodes around them, such as ‘audio logs’ from King (Changeling). Perhaps I’m being overly demanding in wanting a novel to stick quite strictly to a podcast episode format, but this seems importance given King repeatedly tells us, the ‘listener’, that his goal is not to answer questions but simply to offer up information, and so all that’s important is the six stories within each series.

Although it is a niggly and perhaps formalist point, intuitively I think it relates to the broader issue of King’s presence within the books as a character and as a storyteller.

One of the most intriguing elements of the first book, Six Stories (2016), is that we discovered in the end that Scott King, the Six Stories host, was not in fact responsible for the content that had preceded it. Someone had copied his podcast format and put out the story in his name. I would have expected this to be important in the framing narrative around the subsequent stories, but it in fact disappears from view. I think this is a shame, as it might help us key into the story around the stories.

Books two, three, and four retain King’s reticence to be visible publicly, and Changeling offers something of an explanation by exploring the tragedy of King’s past (his father’s abuse of his mother, and his own kidnap and adoption, repressed until the story unfolds), putting him front and centre. But aside from discomfort with media (and social media) attention, it’s not yet clear what the foundations are for King’s chosen metier. He wants to tell stories, feels the urge to uncover answers, but also simultaneously not to. The methods at Wesolowski’s disposal for shading in King’s character despite the tight confines of the podcast form seem somewhat limited as we go through Changeling and then Beast, where King speaks of himself as beginning to come out of the shadows. It’ll be interesting to see whether the final Act of Six Stories (if we can mix our formalist metaphors for a moment!) will manage to deliver an entry into the spotlight that feels satisfying and fully grounded in the books that preceded it.


Matt Wesolowski’s Changeling and Beast were Books 55 and 56 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.

J.M. Hall – A Spoonful of Murder (2022)

Preamble

As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.


See also

These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!

  • Richard Osman’s detective fiction (so I’m told)
  • Rosemary and Thyme
  • The Lavender Ladies Detective Agency

Review (4 out of 5)

Note this is not to be confused with the YA book of the same name by Robin Stevens (which I now absolutely want to read)! Instead, this book is about female characters in their retirement, juggling loyalties to family and friends as they investigate the death of an old colleague, sometimes against their own better judgment.

The challenges of this time of life, of ageing and slow decline, and the death of old friends, and the independence and complications of children and family life, are very well drawn. There is a real empathy and honesty in some of the descriptions of how older people can be exploited and mistreated, by unscrupulous outsiders or by their own families. Anyone with older relatives will recognise the anxieties that go with keeping them safe.

The mystery itself is a good one, with a few different threads well combined in the set-up to allow the main protagonists—a group of retired schoolteachers and friends—to pursue their own lines of inquiry. Their associated B-plots round out the picture in their reflections on motherhood and parent-child relationships. As a narrative whole, it’s well constructed and a nice easy read, notwithstanding the real emotional weight behind the characterisations.

I found it a little hard to keep the main investigating characters straight, struggling to remember which name had which biography. I think this may have been because there was a lack of impactful physical descriptions for them, so my mental pictures of them weren’t very clear, but the voices for their own sections or chapters could perhaps have been more distinct. This detracted from the asymmetrical information pictures each of them was supposed to have, from which some of the tension of good detective stories always arises.


J.M. Hall’s A Spoonful of Murder was Book 52 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.

Lucy Foley – The Hunting Party (2018)

Preamble

As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future

The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.


See also

These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!


Review (4 out of 5)

I actually read this after I read The Guest List (2020), and I was struck by some of the characters’ similarity, e.g. both novels have a pair of unusually troubled characters, one male and one female, staying at the remote accommodation and responsible for managing the events and operations there. But, fortunately, Foley varies the plots sufficiently that it works! I found it more interesting to explore the nascent relationship between those two figures, as represented in The Hunting Party, than the married couple of The Guest List, as I think it added something to the depth of the plotting.

Aside from the similarities in some of the character types, the pace and structure of both Guest List and Hunting Party are also similar, but they work effectively for the genre. Foley isn’t doing anything particularly ground-breaking here in either novel, but they’re accomplished mystery/crime stories.

I thought the location of this story worked in a more convincing way to the one in The Guest List. The B-plot/red herring (depending on your POV) was interesting and played well with the setting without taking up too much narrative space. Some of the more minor twists weren’t very surprising, but I was caught by the reveal of the killer, perhaps because I had knowledge of the ending of The Guest List and so mentally had it as a template!


Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party was Book 29 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.

Will Carver – Good Samaritans (2018)

Preamble

As I read and write and think a lot about detective and crime fiction, I’m starting to put together quick, bite-size reviews of the books in these genres. Sadly, capacity is too limited to cover all the films and TV series I watch too, but these might be added in the future.

The ‘see also’ section below gives you a hint of the story, its themes, and its style, and is spoiler-free, but reviews themselves aren’t guaranteed to be thus!

If you’re interested in reading my academic work about detective and crime fiction (free PDFs available), check it out here.

A wooden puppet held in someone’s closed fist. Image by Marco Bianchetti from Unsplash.

See also

These lists capture other detective/crime stories and characters that I thought of as I was reading this piece. I won’t explain why, to avoid spoilers, but they’re associations and not ‘if you liked this, then you’ll love…’ recommendations!

  • The Fall (TV Series)
  • ‘Cold Comfort’ episode of Inside No. 9 (TV series)
  • My Sister the Serial Killer
  • The Mothers (novel by Sarah J Naughton, not Brit Bennett)
  • Lucy Foley’s novelistic style
  • Crash (the Cronenberg film, not the Haggis)

Review (4 out of 5)

One thing I love most about this genre is its ready accessibility in all libraries, from physical ‘New Release’ shelves through to collections of classics on the Libby app. That’s where I found Will Carver’s Good Samaritans. Its zazzy yellow cover with a dangling wooden puppet is eye-catching, and the two front quotes promise “crime thriller and domestic noir” and “darker than Fight Club“, so okay!

I haven’t read any of Will Carver’s novels before, but he has two series of crime/mystery novels, and this book is the first in the Detective Sergeant Pace series. Genre-wise, the book is definitely crime rather than detective fiction, though. In fact, I was ambivalent about the detective’s inclusion at all.

Good Samaritans follows a set of characters – murders, victims, investigators, and witnesses – through the week leading up to a specific murder and the week thereafter. We alternate perspectives and first- and third-person narration as we move chronologically through the weeks, with shared pre-occupations and neuroses binding the characters beyond their factual interactions in the world. Carver’s plotting allows us plenty of suspense about who dies, when, how, and at whose hands, as all of our characters are desperate for connection and (to a greater or lesser degree) repulsed by themselves. The artificial constraint of following a week either side of a murder means that there is a nice build up of tension to the central death, but a little bit of a rush afterwards to wrap up the plot and rebuild to the final conclusion.

I found the characters’ fixation on wanting to talk more compelling and interesting than the other shared fixation Carver gives them, on cleanliness and feelings of being dirty. This latter underpins the promise on the cover – ‘One crossed wire, three dead bodies, six bottles of bleach’ – but as descriptors of the heart of the novel, they’re a bit misleading (there are more than three dead bodies, for one thing!).

This muddled focus contributed to my ambivalence about DS Pace as he appears in the novel. On the one hand, it seems necessary to have him given that there are multiple murders to solve, and he introduces some element of pressure. His presence (and poor policing efforts) also assist with some of the parallelism in the novel, foreshadowing a second potentially destructive relationship between a killer and an investigator. Otherwise, Maeve’s character cannot really connect to the rest of the cast. However, a tauter and less thematically laboured book could have been produced by leaving him out, or introducing him only at the very end.

Those little niggles aside, Carver does interesting things with some of the typical materials of the genre – a tortured detective, multiple dead women left in fields, and small but disastrous nudges that unhinge precarious people – so Good Samaritans is certainly worth a read!


Aside – In a British-set crime fiction piece, you shouldn’t really call a detective ‘Pace’ without having some intention of including some police misconduct! (The PACE Act 1984 governs police powers.) We get a tiny smidgen of that here, and maybe this is a theme for later novels, but it would be such a fantastic little niche reference, it’s a shame to see it go wasted.


Will Carver’s Good Samaritans was Book 46 of my 2022 reading adventure. You can see the whole thread for 2022, and look back to 2021, on Twitter.