Notes from my bookshelf #6: First One Missing – Tammy Cohen

  • Thrilled to be invited to write this post as part of the Tammy Cohen blog tour and thanks to Sarah Harwood for sending me a copy to review.

I love a good psychological thriller, whether it involves a crime or not, and having recently read Tammy Cohen’s The Broken, I was really looking forward to reading her new novel, First One Missing.

Published yesterday (2 July 2015) by Doubleday, the novel tells the story of four grieving families who are living through every parent’s worst nightmare: the murder of their child. The plot follows the police investigation upon the discovery of another body of a young girl on Hampstead Heath, as told through the eyes of not only Family Liaison Officer Leanne Miller, but also the other forgotten victims of such crimes – the families – as they try to support each other in getting on with their lives.

This is not just a police procedural narrative. Cohen expertly provides a raw, naked insight into familial grief, whether a parent or sibling. The story is told from a number of characters’ points of view, all distinctive from each other, showing how a split-second twist of fate can ripple in numerous directions.

Weaving through the entire narrative is the anti-hero in Jason. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but he is painted so clearly as the suspect initially that I began to worry that there would be no Big Twist, as I have come to expect from such novels. As it turns out, I was not disappointed and I never did guess how it would end.

It is a tense, unpredictable, sometimes uncomfortable read and I couldn’t put it down from page 1. If you’ve never read any of Tammy Cohen’s novels, I urge you to as both this and The Broken – a taut, unnerving psychological drTammy Cohen blog tour posterama involving two couples and what can happen when your best friends divorce – will not disappoint (as I’m sure is the case with the other novels she has written).

As this review is part of a blog tour, I (and you too, I hope – see the attached poster for more details) will be reading the other reviews with interest, but I’m sure I will not be alone in saying that this is a must-read. If you’re going somewhere nice on your summer holidays, make sure you’ve got this one packed in your suitcase.

So what will I be reading next? Tammy Cohen was recently asked about her favourite crime reads and she had the following recommendations. There are two on her list that I have not read yet, so I’ll be packing them in my suitcase, along with Bitter Fruits by Alice Clarke-Platts (also published yesterday by Penguin), a fellow ex-Curtis Brown student and good friend of mine. Look out for my review of Alice’s debut novel in the next few weeks.

My 5 Favourite Crime Books – Tammy Cohen

What is a crime book? Is Jane Eyre a crime book? Bleak House? The Great Gatsby? If all it takes to be a crime book is for a crime to happen, practically every book on my shelves could qualify. So to avoid overloading my brain with too much choice, I’m going to narrow it down to the books where the crime, or the lead up to the crime or its aftermath, is the central focus. Here then are my five crime book choices:

  1. The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

A time-travelling serial killer? Oh puh-lease. I put off reading this book for ages because of my innate resistance to anything sci-fi and the huge leap of faith this novel demands, but Beukes totally pulls it off. This is a dazzling, stomach-churning book with one of the creepiest villains at its dark, twisted heart.

  1. You – Caroline Kepnes

Told from the point of view of an obsessed stalker, this book fizzes with wit and energy and puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of finding themselves a little bit in love with a seriously messed up, homicidal bookseller.

  1. Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Gripping, compulsive, brilliantly written. I tore through this book in a fever, desperate to find out why the respected, middle aged scientist protagonist had ended up in the Old Bailey, and was ridiculously thrilled when my fan-girl tweet was included on the inside cover of the paperback.

  1. Broken Harbour – Tana French

French’s haunting, atmospheric thriller masterfully unpicks the events leading up to the deaths of the Spain family in a falling-apart house on an abandoned, half-built executive housing estate in post-building-boom Ireland.

  1. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

I love it when a book completely wrong-foots you, as this one does, switching from what looks to be a fairly run-of-the-mill kidnapping to something far more subversive. But what really won me over was Lemaitre’s detective hero, Commandant Camille Verhoeven – a stunning creation, psychologically complicated, intellectually brilliant and only 4ft 11ins tall.”

Notes from my bookshelf #5: The Girl in the Red Coat

Yes, followers, the book review returns. This one is slightly different, however. As an ex-Curtis Brown writing course student myself, I always feel obliged to read all of the offerings from my fellow students who have been lucky enough to secure publishing contracts. I admit that this is a bittersweet pursuit, swinging between feelings of hope that if they can, maybe I can too, through to pangs of envy that they got there first, dammit. So I came at The Girl in the Red Coat determined to read it as a show of solidarity more than because I wanted to read a good yarn, as is usually my motivation.

I expected a story loosely based on Red Riding Hood about a lost girl. What I wasn’t expecting was to be completely captivated and haunted by the story in equal measures, and totally caught up in the mother’s suffering and the daughter’s determined spirit.

Similar to other offerings from ex-CB students (such as The Miniaturist, for instance), it is a beautifully written book, which is testament to the team at Curtis Brown and the course tutors who helped us to fine-tune our ideas into workable manuscripts. But this novel goes beyond beautifully crafted syntax and imagery. It is rich with layers of mystery and cleverly dotted with all things red. Carmel is a constructed as the kind of daughter we would all want to have, independent and strong despite the situation in which she finds herself. The mother had me crying on more than one occasion and I empathised with her sense of loss and helplessness.

Parallel to this is Carmel’s “special gift” and why she was chosen by her captor, with the different strands of plot knitting together to form a narrative constructed like a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, as though they are talking just to each other, the bond never broken.

I read it in two days, couldn’t put it down until I had found out what had happened and there are very few books of late that I have connected with so strongly. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Notes from my Bookshelf #1: Two Very Different Takes on the Crime Genre

I recently read two very different crime novels in quick succession and, although very different in every respect (apart from the presence of a corpse or two), I loved them both, which got me to thinking about how broad the crime genre is.

One was my first foray into the investigative world of Bryant and May with “Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood” by Christopher Fowler. This was not something I would’ve chosen to read initially, but I was looking for a thriller for my mum as a Christmas present and came across it, then decided to read it myself as I was intrigued by not only the fact that the detectives themselves are elderly, but also by the context of the London theatre scene and Punch and Judy.

Basically, the story revolves around the murder of a theatre company owner’s infant son one night at a party to celebrate the opening night of the company’s new production. All of the main players are reluctantly in attendance; however, the murder is committed behind a locked door with no obvious way in or out, and is somehow connected to the presence of a Punch and Judy puppet. As the investigation unfolds and the bodies stack up, apparently mirroring the narrative of the play itself, it begins to look like the puppets themselves may be committing the murders as there is no other explanation.

Not only does the book look in-depth into the history of the theatre and Punch and Judy, it keeps you guessing until the last page – I am usually pretty good at sussing out the perpetrator by about halfway, but with this one I couldn’t figure it out.

The characters are interesting, multi-dimensional and quirky in many respects, especially Bryant and May who are unlike any other detectives I have encountered. Additionally, as this was my first read of a Bryant and May novel, I was expecting to struggle to get to know the characters and their back story, but this novel could easily stand alone from the rest of the series. Having said that, I will certainly be reading more.

At the other end of the scale is “Sorry” by Zoran Drvenkar. The story unfolds around a group of friends who decide to open an agency that rights the wrongs of their clients. However, when a serial killer hires them, they find themselves involved in a series of murders from which they cannot extricate themselves. The book is written from a number of the characters’ viewpoints and, once you get into the narrative style, it is full of shocks and surprises.

And there are plenty of shocks; in fact, often the narrative is very disturbing and graphic, but you find yourself unable to stop reading until the end. This novel has a very different feel to the Bryant and May story: it is more gripping, edgy and brutal, with all sorts of twists and turns to the plot in a “race to catch the killer” kind of way, whereas the Bryant and May is a safer, gentler and more intellectual whodunnit, and more comparable to a good Miss Marples mystery.

However, albeit very different takes on the crime genre, I absolutely loved both books and would recommend them highly to anyone looking for a cracking thriller.