In which I embrace a life of crime

A long time ago, but right here in this particular galaxy, on this particular blog, I extolled the virtues of reading widely. This was a good and clever thought, and one that, quite correctly, prompted my even gooder and cleverer sibling to point out that for all my wise words, I very rarely read crime fiction.

In order to redress this balance she, and my good friend Holly, prescribed a literary diet of psychological thrills and physiological gore, the opening courses of which I have now consumed and will review forthwith for your blog reading pleasure and enlightenment.

In reverse order my top three recent crime reads were:


3. Ruth Dugdall, The Woman Before Me

This novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award prior to being published, and for a first novel, it’s an accomplished book. Dugdall’s main characters are a probation officer tasked with assessing prisoners’ suitability for release, and the prisoner she is assessing, currently incarcerated for killing a friend’s baby.

The idea of prison setting  means that the crime story unfolds in flashback and through diary entries and probation interviews, rather than in present narrative. Generally, this sort of overly complicated narrative structure floats my boat, and the idea of the probation officer as detective, piecing together the past after the whole investigative and judicial process is, apparently, over, is an interesting one.

I have a couple of small quibbles. The book concentrates heavily on the prisoner’s psychological state, which, although well-written, I could have lived with a bit less of. I would also have preferred to see the reveals of what actually happened in the past drip-fed more slowly through the story. There’s one big surprise held back for the ending, but, apart from that , I felt like I knew pretty much what had happened from about a third of the way through. Holding a few more plot details back might have added to the suspense in the story and pushed this book even further up my chart.


2. Michael Robotham, Shattered

Joseph O’Loughlin, the detective character in Shattered, is a psychologist who starts the story failing to dissuade a woman from throwing herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This apparent suicide sets the tone for the rest of the story. When is suicide not suicide at all?

For me this book did manage to balance the internal character exploration and the external plot. Joseph is a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer and we see his inability to apply his psychological insight to his own attitude to life, his body and his disease. We also get an, unusually well-handled, take on the traditional detective’s dysfunctional homelife. But what really keeps this story ticking along is the suicide/murder plot itself. It’s well-paced and in places it’s properly scary.

Minor criticism – perhaps the closing couple of chapters when the threat (slightly predictably) moves closer to Joseph’s personal life aren’t as well handled as the rest of the story, but overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading this one.


1. Dissolution/Dark Fire, CJ Sansom

So I’m cheating a tiny bit by having a joint number one, but these stories form part of the same series, by the same author, featuring the same lead character, so I think it’s allowed.

This is crime meets historical fiction. The setting is England under the rule of Henry VIII, which makes these book a tough sell for me. I generally avoid historical fiction set in the 16th Century as that was  my specialist subject at university, which leads to a certain tenseness about tiny historical inaccuracies.

However, I loved both these books. The period setting felt real (and feeling real is so much more important than being insanely detailed).  The stories follow a detective plot; in this case our detective is a lawyer under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell. The first novel centres around a murder at a monastery during the process of dissolution. The second entwines the killing of a child of a wealthy family with the political plot to bring down Cromwell. In both Sansom builds engaging plots around known events without completely throwing out the historical reality to accomodate the story.

These are big thick meaty books which you can dive into feeling confident that you’re going to be absorbed into a story. And there are more in the series, so the enjoyment isn’t over yet.


Overall, I seem to like crime fiction best when it’s driven by plot, rather than focussing on the psychology of the criminal mind. I also prefer my gore kept under control, but I am known to be a tad squeamish about these things. To put it bluntly I’m a fainter. I’ve fainted at blood tests, at other people getting their ears peirced, and, indeed, at child-friendly Christmas theatre productions. (Yes. All those things are genuinely true.) I don’t really want to add “reading novels” to my list of activities that are high-risk for loss of consciousness.

Come back later in the week when I’ll be getting all Lenten and talking about abstinence (unless something else interests me more in the meantime). And, as ever, comment, subscribe, follow me on twitter, or, if you prefer, just go read something.

Author: Alison May

Writer. Creative writing teacher. Freelance trainer in the voluntary sector. Anything to avoid getting a real job... Aiming to have one of the most eclectic blogs around, because being interested in just one thing suggests a serious breakdown in curiousity.

4 thoughts on “In which I embrace a life of crime”

  1. My two favourite ever (and very plot heavy) crimewriters might make you faint… Stuart MacBride and Mo Hayder. Which is a shame as Hayder’s “Walking Man” trilogy (marginally less gory) is rather fabulous. Oh and thanks for the shout out!
    I have the second Ruth Dugdall novel to read now – about euthenasia (sp?)… Be interesting to see how it compares with the first one (which I know we differ on considerably).


      1. You can borrow the new one when I’ve read it if you want – it’s again very short, but I like a short crime novel at times. Economy in words often being overlooked as a virtue these days. Am going to look up Robotham too now, as sounds an interesting premise. Am keeping an eye on this post particular in the hope that your readers will have some other recommendations! 🙂


  2. Thanks for the nice comments on the blog 🙂

    The Ruth Dugdall sounds interesting I’ll look it up – Thanks Holly! Glad you liked CJ Sansom and Michael Robotham. I’ve got books 3, 4 and 5 of CJ Sansom here for you to borrow when you’re next up – although your review has made me wonder if it’s too soon to start re-reading them! Michael Robotham has written more with the same cast of characters too although different characters take the lead in different novels. He is good and I’ve enjoyed them all but I would say ‘Shattered’ was my favourite of his, probably because of the original suicide plot.

    Will try and think of any other recommendations for Holly, although expect you’ve already read all the people I like – Karin Slaughter, Harlen Coben, Tess Gerritson etc. Did enjoy ‘The Woodcutter’ which is a stand alone by Reginald Hill (had only read his Dalziel and Pascoe novels before) although it sounds like it is similar in plot to the Ruth Dugdall (main detective character is a psychologist deciding if a prisoner is ready for parole etc).


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