Cynan Jones’ The Cove is less than 100 pages long but it’s packed with intensely atmospheric prose that sucks you in from the first paragraph and doesn’t let you go.
It begins with a short prologue in which a woman stands on a shore waiting for the result of a rescue mission out in the bay. The focus then shifts to a man adrift in a kayak, having been caught in a sudden storm and struck by lightening
When he regains consciousness, he has no knowledge of how much time has elapsed or how far he is from the cove. He’s disorientated, badly injured, has no food and a minimum of water. The only equipment at his disposal is his fishing line and a frying pan.
The odds are against him but his instinct for survival is strengthened by his overwhelming love for the woman and unborn child waiting for him back on land.
The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.
Getting in Close
This is prose that is slowly, almost microscopically rendered. Cynan Jones makes us feel as if we’re in the kayak with this man, shadowing every small action that he hopes will help him to survive.
He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.
His disorientation renders him unable to focus on practicalities for any length of time. Without a clock or a watch, time has in fact ceased to have any meaning: “he thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.”
As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he contemplates the way the life beneath the waves comes “alive like a living skin“; with the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping” and a flock of jellyfish floating “like negligees.” And he reflects on his life; the father whose ashes he had taken with him in the kayak to scatter upon the water; the woman waiting for him on the shore.
Memories are triggered by small discoveries. At one point he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone, an object that reminds him of his partner who has a similar feather. The glimpses of the past and of a new future give him the strength to try and survive.
Economical But Lyrical Prose
Every word in The Cove has been carefully selected. It’s a terse economical style yet still rich in imagery, metaphors and similies. He has for example a a sense of himself as “a fly trapped the wrong side of glass” with a “memory like a dropped pack of cards.” He can recall the beginning of the journey and drifting out to sea but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”
This is a haunting novel. Though it’s more than a year since I read The Cove I still remember the atmosphere and the imagery so clearly. It’s now joined a very elite group of contemporary novels that I am certain to re-read.
If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit.
Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked with the secrecy of a role in the Royalty Protection Service. Even his wife doesn’t know about his involvement in surveillance of IRA suspects or hostage negotiations.
But his first day in a new job, as a police inspector in one of the London suburbs, is marked by a wave of attacks on police officers in the capital. Finlay learns there is a real and present danger that his cover has been blown and he could be the next target. What he doesn’t know is the identity of the assassin/s. He made enemies during his time in Northern Ireland. Could this be an IRA revenge attack for his activities in Northern Ireland. Or is there a connection to his previous involvement in ending a siege at the Iranian embassy?
Finlay’s quest to find the answers and kill the assassin/s before they get to him, makes Wicked Game a tremendous page turner.
It has a complex plot and, since this is the murky world of intelligence and counter intelligence, more than one character we’re not sure we can trust.
Finlay is a well crafted character. He’s intelligent,; thinks fast on his feet and is a good marksman. But he’s also vulnerable; caught between his love for his wife and young child and his desire to hunt down his attackers.
What lifts Wicked Game far above many other thrillers, is its strong sense of authenticity. The book is packed with fascinating details about surveillance techniques. Who knew for example that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the army officers’s cars were regularly repainted so they wouldn’t get tracked by IRA shooters.
This is a world that Matt Johnson writes about with authority. And that’s because this was his world for 25 years. He was a soldier and then a serving officer with the Metropolitan Police, a witness to acts of terrorism and attrocity.
In 1999 he was officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and discharged from the police so that he could receive treatment. He turned to writing at the encouragement of his counsellor.
Wicked Game was the result. The book was a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2012. Matt was then spotted by Orenda Books who published it under their imprint in 2015 and have also published his next two titles. Deadly Game and End Game, both featuring Robert Finlay.
I’m keen to read these next two books in the series. But first I have to catch up on all the sleep I missed because I kept reading Wicked Game way into the early hours.
Although I’m not a big fan of thrillers, this was a gripping read. I am however left with a puzzle. This is a novel that has garnered praise from many quarters – my copy of the book has testimonials and praise from some highly respected authors like David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James (Chief Inspector Roy Grace series). With that kind of commendation i’m baffled why Matt Johnson hasn’t received a lot more attention.
A Song of Thyme and Willow reminded me a little of A S Byatt’s Booker-prize winning novel Possession.
Byatt’s plot is based on a pair of young scholars who stumble upon a secret love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. The narrative alternates between the present day and the Victorian era, using ‘original’ material in the form of letters, journals, and poems.
There’s an artistic mystery at the heart of Carol Strachan’s novel too though this time the focus is on the world of the stage rather than the page.
Two musicians, both trying to cope with a crisis in their career, combine forces to solve the mystery of a leading opera singer who disappeared decades earlier.
Steven Bennett’s career as a bassoon player came to an abrupt end when he was mugged as he made his way home from a concert. Singer Alice Wade began suffering serious vocal problems in the midst of yet another failed relationship. She fears she may never sing again.
Interposed with their narratives is that of the missing opera star Isabel Grey. She was once a regular at Covent Garden and much in demand on the international opera circuit. But she began struggling in a new production and when the reviews came out, they were less than flattering. One night she simply disappeared.
The plot works reasonably well although I thought Steven Bennett wasn’t all that essential to the narrative. In fact he disappeared for much of the central part of the book. I suspect he was there just to provide some romance interest. It did mean the book could end on a note of hope and optimism but I didn’t especially need that element – the revelation about Isabel Grey was strong enough the carry the book on its own.
The most convincing aspect of this novel however is the insight it gives into the world of operatic singers. It’s a world Carole Strachan knows intimately having worked at the prestigious Welsh College of Music and Drama for ten years. And it shows through the vocal strain experienced by Isabel Grey as she is called upon to undertake technically challenging roles in quick succession. The connection between the singer’s voice and their state of mind also comes through strongly.
As a specialist tells Alice:
Unlike an orchestral player, a singers instrument can’t be packed away when they’re done performing – real care has to be taken to keep it in peak performance and that demands emotional well-being as well as physical health,
At times I thought the novel overdid the information. I would have been happy with shorter libretto extracts but then I’m not an opera aficionado so I didn’t appreciate the context as much as a true fan would. This didn’t mar the overall enjoyment of the book however and I’ve gained some new insights and greater appreciation of a singer’s world.
A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carole Strachan: Endnotes
A Song of Thyme and Willow was published by Cinnamon Press in 2019.
Carole Strachan was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. She is now Executive Director of a contemporary opera company. Her first published novel The Truth in Masquerade is also situated in the operatic world,
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy…”
Mari opened her eyes. Down on her knees, she saw shapes forming in the dark. There came that fluttering sound again. At the little window, day was close; the wind’s thin breath a cloud on the glass. A flutter, like fingers leafing through pages. She got up to look. Against the cold glass, a butterfly beat a muted prayer for escape. Her pupils got darker, helping her penetrate the grey. When she was a little girl they’d say butterflies were just leaves reincarnated. She’d mulled it over then, her mood lifted on a fancy of fortunes befalling a girl in a world where one small leaf can bloom all colours, sprout wings, up sticks and up up away into the sunset. She shivered.
The noise had awoken Nanw, who stretched out lazily. Mari went over and chattered to her softly to keep her calm. The sea was breathing in the distance, dark against the growing light, and seagulls were being flung across the air like litter. The butterfly nagged gently like an old flame. Should she let it outside, it was sure to die, weak and failing as it already was from a winter in the cottage. But it was desperate to be let go. Nanw sat up, enchanted by the ragged wings. Mari caught it at the corner of the glass, cupping her hands around it as though she were receiving communion. She nudged open the sash with her elbow, the wings pulsing weakly on her palm. She stretched her arms out and a gust snatched the insect away across the garden. Now you could hear the ringing of wind in the rigging of boats below. Fear crept through her. She banged the window shut and drew the loose folds of her nightie around her. She gazed into the gloom, the butterfly’s powder a gold dust on her fingertips.
“Amen,” she whispered.
Nanw was mimicking her by leaning against her cage’s grid, arms clutched round her body. The weak light glowed silver in Mari’s hair, and ruby across the dark face of the monkey.
The chill had crept up Mari’s spine so she fetched a cardigan and hooked it over her shoulders. She let the cat into the bedroom to keep Nanw company while she had her breakfast.
The cottage was nestled on a remote road above the sea, surrounded by crooked trees. Opposite the low doorway, across the road, was an old stile marking the way down to the beach. The three small rooms were filled with clutter. Mari’s treasures choked the narrow kitchen passage, and vintage clothes hung along each wall. Papers were piled all anyhow, while the thick walls were so badly affected by damp that she had to keep a fire going in the bedroom. She went barefoot along the lino to the kitchen and lowered an egg on a spoon into a saucepan of water. She dried the spoon on her nightie, thrusting it into some cranny of an old wireless needing technical TLC after Nanw broke the aerial in a fit of temper. Mari listened to the radio’s far-off voices as she made herself a cup of tea. She left the teabag steaming on the sink.
She waited for the egg to rap out in Morse code that it was ready, and she sat down to eat at that early hour. Mari finished her egg, leaving the shell rocking on the table.
In the bedroom she put on two pairs of socks, and pushed her petticoat into the top of her trousers. Tying her money bag around her waist, she hid it under rolls of jumper. She threw some nuts over to Nanw who set to cracking them, eager for the next one even before she’d had the first. Years ago, the monkey would have gone with her mistress: she had been good for business. But times had changed; one nip and a customer would play hell. Mari crouched to say goodbye, stroking her little black hands, while Nanw tried to filch the bracelets chiming around Mari’s wrists. The cat half-woke and whipped her tail in envy.
“Stay here now, sweetie; the cat’ll keep you company.”
Mari stood up, letting go of the hands which curled back around the bars. Nanw turned her big eyes on her. Mari shut the door and went into the front room. She rummaged among the teddies in the toy chest and found a deep leather box. She held it tight against her breast like a child and carried it out carefully to the car, locking the door behind her.
Squalls stifled the sound of the engine starting up. The clock’s staccato said quarter to five. Dry leaves and rubbish were being blown about the garden. From her cell, Nanw saw the car depart, and she glanced out into the garden at a small colourful leaf clutching at blades of grass. The cat began to purr.
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis, translation from Welsh by Gwen Davies. Published September 2019 by Honno. This extract is published with the permission of the author and publisher. My review of the novel is here.
First came Tartan Noir – a gritty form of crime fiction said to be particular to Scotland and Scottish writers but which borrows from American crime writes of the second half the twentieth century. Then Nordic Noir was born, taking us into bleak landscapes, dark moods and moral complexity with authors like Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson and Arnaldur Indriðason. There’s even Irish Noir which covers a broad range of crime writing by Irish authors, from historical crime fiction set in Belfast to modern procedurals engaging with first world problems and psychological thrillers.
Even if you subscribe to the view held by a number of authors and critics that these terms are meaningless and little more than marketing gimmicks, the reality is that they sell books. And in doing so they’ve helped raise the profile of many authors.
But so far there’s no sign of Welsh noir. In fact about Welsh crime writing in general there’s been hardly a peep.
And yet there’s a growing number of crime fiction authors based in Wales or who choose to set their work in the country.
Why haven’t you heard of them?
Partly I suspect because many of these authors have associations with small, independent publishers who don’t have as much sway with the purchasing teams in large bookstore chains. Nor do they have the kinds of budgets necessary for national ( UK-wide) promotion. Even trying to get attention within Wales is tough when the so called national newspaper of Wales The Western Mail, pays scant attention to arts coverage and still less to book reviews.
But there is a group of writers resolved to change how Welsh crime fiction and non fiction is perceived.
Crime Cymru was formed in 2017 to promote Welsh crime fiction with a mission to challenge the perceived belief that that ‘nobody who wants to be read sets their books in Wales’.
Crime Cymru started with just three members: Alis Hawkins, Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. But it’s grown to become a consortium of more than 25 authors. Some were born in Wales. Others have chosen to settle here. Some members live in the UK or further afield in North America but chose to set their work in Wales. What unites them is their feeling that Welsh crime fiction has a unique dimension that deserves more attention.
“We believe that Wales is under sold: by publishers, by booksellers, even by authors and readers,” said Alis. “And we’re determined to change that. Crime Cymru authors are proud to set our fiction in Wales. We don’t feel the need to move our characters to London, or to make up fictitious cities to police.”
In support of their objective of promoting Wales and Welsh crime writing, Crime Cymru members have carried their message direct to readers via appearances at a number of literary festivals and a Coffee and Crime Weekend partnership with the county library service in the capital city of Cardiff. They’ve even taken the battle across the border, to Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s premier crime fiction festival.
Future plans include the establishment of a crime writing competition in line with another of the group’s other objectives – to help nurture new writing talent.
“You could argue that until now we’ve been our own worst enemies: falling into a trap of assuming that anything coming from Wales is somehow less noteworthy than the output from England or Scotland,” said Alis. “It’s time we changed this attitude. We’re determined that Crime Cymru will play a real and tangible part, alongside higher education and cultural bodies, in raising the profile of Welsh writing in general and crime fiction in particular. “
Alis herself is suiting her actions to Crime Cymru’s words this May. To celebrate National Crime Reading Month and to publicise both Crime Cymru and the publication of the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Alis – supported by local Crime Cymru members – will be visiting every independent bookshop in Wales – 32 at the last count.
The Crime Cymru authors cover a wide variety of styles and interests. They range from Cathy Ace whose Cait Morgan Mysteries feature a globetrotting sleuth who is a professor of criminal psychology to Philip Gwynne Jones who writes thrillers from his home in Venice. I’ve read a few of the group’s members although I wasn’t aware that Crime Cymru’s existence at the time.
My reviews are via these links:
Thorne Moore: A Time for Silence
Following shortly will be my review of None So Blind, the first book in Alis Hawkins’ series featuring a coroner in nineteenth century Wales.
Learn more about Crime Cymru and its authors via their website http://crime.cymru. You can also follow on Twitter @CRIMECYMRU
Emma Kavanagh comes from South Wales – the one in the UK, not the upstart “New” South Wales which is on the other side of the world. She is a former police and military psychologist who provides training to police and branches of the armed forces across the UK and Europe. Given her background it’s not surprising that To Catch A Killer is a psychological crime thriller. It features a woman police sergeant newly back in post after a fire at her home from which she was lucky to emerge alive, although with facial disfiguration. Now she is on the trail of the killer of an attractive, well-dressed woman found with her throat slashed in a London park.
This is a very fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns and a central figure who is struggling to deal with the trauma of the fire. I hadn’t come across Emma Kavanagh’s work previously but on the evidence of just this novel, she is a name to watch for the future.
I’m also dipping into The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosely (fascinating once you get over the yucky bits) and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by J Mark G Williams. I’ve tried about half a dozen books on mindfulness in recent months and this one is the best so far. Very clear, very practical, with a commendable absence of hippy drippy stuff.
What did you recently finish reading?
This is a short but very compelling story of an elderly illustrator asked to look after his rather precocious four-year-old grandson for a few days.
Don’t imagine however this is a warm, family bonding kind of story. The relationship between these two people is one based on a battle for control. Grand-dad needs physical and mental space in which to work and complete his latest commission with a publisher is breathing down his neck. The boy just wants to play. In their tussle, the old man begins to question his abilities as an artist.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Always a tough question. This month it’s even more challenging because I’m preparing for an extended holiday which involves multiple long flights. I’m not keen to use up my luggage allowance with hefty books so am planning to take a maximum of 4 paperbacks that I’ll be happy to discard mid trip. I should add that I’ve also been making sure I have plenty of e-books available….
I need variety. Maybe one crime novel, maybe one ‘classic’ although some of those on my owned-but-unread shelves are rather bulky. I have six days to make up my mind. Based on previous experience the selections are going to change multiple times before the case is zipped for the last time.
How do you decide what books to take with you on a trip? Any recommendations for a strategy to help me make decisions.
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?