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C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK)
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Lonesome Road (Miss Silver Mystery Book 3)
Lonesome Road (Miss Silver Mystery Book 3)
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Vast Improvement on Grey Mask, 2 Jan. 2015
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A couple of days ago I read the first of the Miss Silver books (Grey Mask). I found it a pleasant, light read, though it seemed to me that Miss Silver's character had not been developed at all. I resolved to read another, to see whether Miss Silver ever came into herself. I decided against the second in the series (Amazon reviews were not terribly glowing and they tended to complain that Miss Silver hardly appeared at all). I went for this book, the third. It was an excellent decision.

Miss Rachel Treherne, aged thirty-eight, has an awful burden. Her millionaire father left her his entire fortune, passing over her older sister. On his death bed he gave her unusual instructions as to what she was to do with the money. In particular, she was constantly to keep under review the question of which members of the family should benefit on her own death. She was to change her will once a year to take account of how her relations had been behaving.

Miss Treherne is a naturally generous woman. Her large country house is often occupied by her relations, most of whom are in need of money. She does her best for them, but she doesn't feel at liberty, in view of her father's death bed instructions, to give them the large sums of money that most think they deserve.

Miss Treherne becomes frightened. She has received anonymous letters threatening her life. And then, to her horror, attempts are actually made. She decides to visit Miss Silver, a retired governess who has become a private investigator. Miss Silver agrees to help. She is to be a house guest in Miss Treherne's house.

It would be wrong of me to say much more. Suffice it to say that there is no shortage of action. There seems to be evidence potentially incriminating all Miss Treherne's relations. But which, if any, is the one who is trying to kill her? We are kept guessing (usually wrongly) right to the end.

Miss Silver has come into her own in this book. I note it was written (in 1939) ten years after the first. Perhaps Patricia Wentworth needed the time to mature as a writer. I don't know, but I have no hesitation is saying that Lonesome Road is much better than Grey Mask. I will certainly read more of the Miss Silver books.

Charles


Grey Mask (Miss Silver Mystery Book 1)
Grey Mask (Miss Silver Mystery Book 1)
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3.0 out of 5 stars Delightful, 1 Jan. 2015
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How embarrassing that I had never heard of Patricia Wentworth until stumbling across this delightful book.

It is, I think, about 1928. Charles Moray has returned from his four years of foreign travel, He left England after his fiancee, Margaret Langton, cancelled their wedding a week before it was due to take place, without giving any reason. He goes to his London house, without announcing his arrival. The door is open. The servants are out. He tiptoes in and comes across a strange and disturbing scene. A man in a grey mask seems to be holding court. The men who come and go are addressed by numbers, not by names. A dastardly crime seems to be being plotted. Charles plans how to capture the crooks. But then, to his horror, he sees a woman, with a number, approach Grey Mask. She hands over a package. He can't hear what she says. But he knows, instantly, that she is Margaret Langton. His plans must be abandoned. He can't possibly go to the police. He must act alone.

But Charles is not entirely alone. He goes to a private investigator, Miss Silver. He doesn't tell her all, but Miss Silver quickly works it out. Quite how she does so (and this I suppose is the story's weakness) is never apparent. We just come across her every now and again, in her office, knitting and telling Charles all sorts of startling facts.

Miss Silver is no Miss Marple. Maybe she acquires a real character in later books (I shall certainly read them), but, in this one, she is entirely cardboard. Others, however, are great fun. Margot Standing, the eighteen year-old heiress who seems to be the criminals' target is gloriously silly and fun. Freddy, Margaret's step father, is splendidly vague and amusing. Archie, constantly misquoting Shakespeare, is almost certainly much brighter than he wants people to believe.

Anyone who enjoys light English literature from the inter-war years will love this book.

Charles


The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
Price: £8.55

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Churchill Did Make a Difference, 29 Dec. 2014
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Boris Johnson tells us, at the beginning of this charming portrait of Churchill, that he was one year-old when the great man died. Like every other child of his generation, he was brought up on endless stories of Churchill. He confesses to a feeling of pride that he and Winston were alive together for that one year. I understand that pride. I am a little older than Johnson. I was 12 when Churchill died. He was Prime Minister for the first three years of my life. There is no rational reason for my being proud of that fact. But I am, and always have been.

Churchill's death, of course, impressed me enormously. I remember it as though it were yesterday. I was alone at home in the Berkshire village where we then lived. The door bell rang. The Vicar was there. He asked if my father was in. I told him he wasn't, and that my mother was out shopping. I asked if I could help. He explained that he had just heard of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, and he didn't know whether he should lower the flag over the church to half-mast. I had no hesitation in telling him he should. I am pleased to report that he took my advice, and that my father later confirmed to me that it was obviously correct.

Then, I suppose it must have been a few days later, I was given the day off school to go to London with my mother to file past the coffin in Westminster Hall. I remember it was raining and cold. We queued for some hours. There were all sorts of people in that queue. Many of them, as one would expect, were (to my eyes) elderly. They had lived through the war. They had every reason to mourn the death of the man who had led them to victory. But there were plenty of younger people there (I was certainly not the only child). And it was not only those elderly people who were fighting back the tears. All of us were immensely moved by the passing of an undoubtedly great man. When we finally got into Westminster Hall and walked slowly past the coffin, with the guardsmen standing motionless, presenting arms, I think I felt tears coming to my own eyes. I certainly knew that I was saying goodbye to a truly great man.

As my mother and I were about to leave Westminster Hall a man walked in, through a side door. He saw us and came over to speak to us. He was an MP, and an old family friend. "You should have told me you were coming," he said, "I could have got you in without all that queuing". My instant thought, I swear this is true, is that I would have hated not to have been in the queue. Waiting in the rain for hours on end to walk past the coffin of the greatest Englishman was plainly a more fitting tribute to him than waltzing in through a side entrance with an MP would have been.

Please forgive the anecdote. I only give it in order to explain why I understand entirely where Boris Johnson is coming from. I may be a bit older than he is, but we are really the same generation when it comes to Churchill. We both lapped up stories about him throughout our childhoods. We worshipped him as the man who did more than anyone else to save our country, and the whole free world, from tyranny. And it comes as a shock to both of us to discover that there is a new generation which seems to know little or nothing about the man we were brought up to believe was greater than almost any other who ever lived.

Not only is there widespread ignorance of what Churchill did (Johnson tells us that a recent survey revealed that most British children thought Churchill was a dog used in an advertisement for an insurance company), but, inevitably, a new breed of historians has grown up which is determined to re-write history. They tell us Churchill was evil. He was a warmonger who refused to allow Britain to negotiate a settlement with Hitler which would have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Europe. And anyway, they say (slightly illogically), Churchill had no impact on events: all would have been the same if he had never been there. To them, Churchill was no more than a grossly politically incorrect member of the aristocracy who had no right to be Prime Minister in a modern democracy.

All that brings us to Johnson's purpose in writing this book. One thing he did not set out to do was to write a major biography of Churchill. As he points out, there are countless such books already written. No, what he wanted to do was to provide a new generation with a thoroughly readable account of why Churchill was so important and to answer those modern critics who say he made no difference to modern history.

It seems to me that Johnson has succeeded in both his aims. He has written a book which is extraordinarily readable (I bought it yesterday and finished reading it today). The style is glorious, as we have come to expect from the author. I see one newspaper review described it as "fizzing". I can't improve on that. It really is very difficult to put the book down. There is not a single dull page. Even the most dreary modern teenager, addicted to his portable telephone, would be bound to be gripped by the amazing story Johnson has to tell. And that teenager may even be prepared to read the book when he is told how his teachers would disapprove of him reading about a great man who spent almost every waking minute drinking alcohol and smoking cigars!

What about the other aim? Johnson succeeds again. There will be those who quarrel, on reasonable grounds, with his "fiasco factor" and Churchill factor" assessments (he gives points for each in relation to the mistakes Churchill is said to have made). But that isn't important. His main, and best, point is that, without Churchill, we would have caved in in 1940. And, if we had done so, we would have become a puppet in Hitler's hand. Here Johnson takes on those modern historians who reckon we would have been better off doing a deal with Hitler than winning the war.

This needs to be taken in two parts. First, did Churchill make any difference? Second, if he did, was his influence malign?

Johnson's argument that Churchill did make a difference is, it seems to me, almost unanswerable. There was, as France crumbled in 1940, a strong movement in British politics in favour of negotiation with Hitler. It is well known that Halifax and Chamberlain were both inclined to negotiate. It looked very much as though the war cabinet would support them. It was only Churchill's insistence on calling a full cabinet meeting and his impassioned speech to that meeting which led Halifax to back down. I agree with Johnson that, if Churchill had not been there, the probability must be that Britain would have opened negotiations with Hitler in the Summer of 1940. He did make a profound difference to history.

But would we have been better off making a pact with Hitler? This is where I part company with the revisionists in a big way. They, even speaking with hindsight, with full knowledge of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, say Churchill was wrong to fight. Hitler, they contend, would have allowed a neutral Britain to remain free while he embarked on conquering the whole of the continent and overthrowing Russia. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in the war would have lived. And then, when Hitler ruled all of the continent, he would have been happy for Britain to govern herself. I am with Johnson on that. It is first rate poppycock. If we had not had Churchill and Halifax had given in to Hitler Britain would for ever have been a puppet state of the Third Reich.

There may be arguments as to whether things would have been different if Churchill had been removed in 1941, once the decision to fight had been made and before America joined the war. It is certainly possible, I accept, that Churchill's influence was not vital then (though we would have been deprived of some glorious oratory). But I am convinced that Johnson is right to say that the free world owes its salvation to Churchill's stand in 1940.

I do hope this book will reach its target audience, those youngsters who know almost nothing about Churchill. But I also have no hesitation in commending it to people as ancient as I am.

Charles

P.S. I hate to ruin a good story, but Nicholas Soames's anecdote, recorded towards the end of the book, about the Ministry of Defence cleaner is not quite true. I have studied the 1945 resignation honours list. No Dames of the British Empire were appointed in that list.


The House of Stairs
The House of Stairs
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Barbara Vine at her best - on a par with Ruth Rendell, 27 Dec. 2014
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When Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine her aim is to be more "literary" than she is when she writes under her own name. To that extent only, this novel is autobiographical. The narrator, Elizabeth Vetch, writes successful novels of which she greatly disapproves. All she really wants to write is a scholarly analysis of Henry James. But she needs an income, so she keeps writing books her readers want to read rather than the learned treatise which is all she dreams of.

My own view is that Ruth Rendell is just as good a writer as Barbara Vine (sometimes rather better). But I can understand her yearning to be seen as a "literary" author and I reckon she has found the way to achieve that aim. The characters in Barbara Vine novels do tend to be more complicated than those in Ruth Rendell's. The plots are darker. More time is spent on description, less on action. The literary critics are satisfied but, because she writes so well, her readers are also satisfied (almost as much as they are by the Ruth Rendell novels).

I very much enjoyed this book. There are wonderful descriptions of metropolitan life in the 1960s, Cossette, in particular, is a glorious and entirely genuine character. She is middle aged. Before her husband dies she leads a relatively conventional life in a large house in North London. But, in widowhood, she breaks away from convention. she buys a house, "the House of Stairs", in Notting Hill Gate and soon fills it with all sorts of young people who, on the whole, are only there because they can live off their hostess's untiring generosity. She provides food and drink on a large scale. She takes her guests out for lavish dinners in smart restaurants. She is entirely happy as they sit in her drawing room smoking drugs and indulging in obvious foreplay before finding the nearest bedroom to consummate their relationships. Perhaps not on quite the same scale, I remember people like that in London in the sixties (when I was a teenager).

Many of the other characters, even Bell, about whom the book is really written, are just as credible. Perhaps the only one who is not believable is the narrator herself. That is not apparent at the start of the novel. But, by the end, most readers will be totally bemused by her behaviour. I must not say more about that, but I do think it a slight weakness in the story.

The opening pages describe the narrator seeing someone she is sure is Bell on a pavement in Shepherd's Bush. She, the narrator, jumps out of her taxi in the hope of following Bell. Gradually we work out that Bell is a woman who, fourteen years previously, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. She has now been released. Then we go back to before the court case. We are introduced to Cossette and others. We learn something of their strange (to 21st century eyes) lives. And so the story continues, sometimes in the present time and sometimes in the past. What did Bell do? We think we know, but then we are not sure. The suspense is kept up to the end.

This is almost as good as a Ruth Rendell novel. I recommend it with no hesitation.

Charles


Damage (Dick Francis Novel)
Damage (Dick Francis Novel)
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Page Turner from Francis, 27 Dec. 2014
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This really is a splendid read. The old formula never ceases to work.

Our hero, Jeff Hinkley, is not a jockey this time, but an investigator working for the BHA (British Horseracing Authority). When all but three of the horses tested for drugs at the Cheltenham Festival are found to have the same illegal drug in their bodies it is plain that something dreadful has happened. The BHA receives a demand for £5M. Jeff is called in to investigate. The first of the barmy decisions of those in authority is made: the police are not to be informed. Jeff is only permitted to tell one other investigator what is going on. The two of them are told to find the culprit and save the BHA. Further attacks on racing are made when the BHA offers only £20,000 to the anonymous villain. Inevitably, after what happens at the Grand National, the police have to be told, but they aren't in the slightest bit interested. Jeff's brother in-law, a leading QC, explains that the police are unlikely to be interested in a crime of this sort. Though people are being injured, at least one horse has died and the whole of British racing is in peril, our wise QC tells us that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can hardly be expected to investigate and prosecute that sort of crime. Jeff is left on his own to rescue racing from disaster.

Of course, the police are not only not prepared to do anything about this major crime, but they also, at one point, accuse Jeff of another crime of which we know he is not guilty (that is a requirement in every Francis novel). And Jeff, this is inevitable, becomes the villain's personal target.

The crime is not unbelievable. It could be done. But I do think it a slight shame that Francis persists in the incredible storyline of assuring us that the police refuse to take major crime seriously. It would be possible for his heroes to solve these crimes without introducing that fantastic element to the plots.

But, despite its obvious failings, this really is a novel which is fun to read. There is action on every page. The reader is desperate to know what dastardly attack on a race meeting will come next. And, of course, we all guess like mad (wrongly) at the identity of the villain.

Over the years we have all got used to the incredible parts of these stories. They don't really matter that much. As I said at the beginning, the formula works. Roll on the next one.

Charles


The Tipping Point
The Tipping Point
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly fast moving thriller, 23 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: The Tipping Point (Kindle Edition)
David Evans is one of the best neurosurgeons in America, perhaps the very best. But even he is astounded when he is asked, in total secrecy, to operate on the President.

Dr Evans tells the story, and we know from the outset that he is writing it on death row. Why is he there? What happened?

The President has a deadly brain tumour. Surgery, if performed by an expert may give him a little longer to live. In particular, it may save his speech which will, without urgent surgery, be destroyed. Very few people know the truth. David Evans is brought into that small circle. It is quite a feather in his cap.

But then disaster strikes. Evans's young daughter, Julia, is kidnapped. A sinister man, "Mr White", meets Evans and explains what he must do if he is ever to see his daughter alive again. He must ensure that the President does not survive surgery.

There is only one person Evans dares to tell. Kate Robson, his late wife's sister and a secret service agent charged with protecting the President's wife is his only hope. The clock ticks away. The time for the operation gets closer and closer. Will Kate find Julia in time? What will Evans do if she does not?

I will tell you no more. What I can say is that, if you enjoy fast moving thrillers, you will love this book. It is written in a sort of breathless prose reminiscent of that used by narrators in 1950s and 1960s American television series. And there is not a dull page throughout.

I rather hope there will be a sequel. But we must wait and see.

Charles


Young Bond: Shoot to Kill
Young Bond: Shoot to Kill
Price: £6.49

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal, but Wonderful, 15 Dec. 2014
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Charlie Higson has a worthy successor in Steve Cole.

I admit to having been slightly depressed when Higson decided to end the Young Bond series when James was expelled from Eton. It seemed to me that the Fettes years and beyond could provide material for more splendid adventures. But Higson had clearly concluded that enough was enough. It seemed the stories were at an end.

But I discovered that a new author had been found to continue the series. At first, in my cautious way, I assumed that Cole would be no good. I decided not to buy Shoot to Kill. Curiosity then got the better of me (and I also saw some good reviews here and in real newspapers). I bought the book.

I am so glad i did. Cole, sensibly (bearing in mind his target readership), has based his young Bond on the films, rather than the Fleming books. This is a story which has all the surrealism of a Bond film. We start with the preposterous idea that, before he goes to Fettes, James is sent to Dartington Hall, a progressive school with no uniforms, no punishments, no organised sports and no real requirement to take part in any lessons. It all gets even weirder when, on James's arrival, he discovers he is to join three other pupils on a trip to Hollywood, travelling in an airship, so that he and his new friends can be analysed by a world-famous educationalist who runs various progressive schools throughout the world. But nothing is straight forward in Bond's life. Another Dartington pupil, a girl, is infuriated that the new boy is to go on the trip, rather than her. She takes extreme steps to prevent that happening: James comes close to being murdered.

It's not giving too much away to say that the girl's efforts fail. James joins the airship and heads for the west coast of America. The trip is being funded by an American film mogul. He has various sinister employees. He also has a positively psychopathic son. One of the Dartington pupils happens to have come across a film reel which, when projected onto a sheet at Dartington, seems to show someone being tortured. It soon becomes clear that there are people who will stop at nothing to get that film reel back.

I have said enough about the plot. All I can properly say now is that the book is packed with action and has a finale which one can easily imagine in a Bond film. There are also some gloriously humorous moments. This is a novel which will go down very well with teenage boys, but it will also appeal to many older readers who have a fondness for the Bond films.

I just have a sneaking feeling that James will feel more at home at Fettes than he can have done at Dartington. Roll on the next book.

Charles

P.S. Honesty requires me to reveal that the clever twist came as no surprise to me at all, but others may not spot it coming and, even if they do, it will not ruin the story.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 28, 2014 1:20 PM GMT


Blood Family
Blood Family
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not a Misery Tale - and all the Better for that., 13 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: Blood Family (Kindle Edition)
As I started to read this novel I feared I was embarking on one of those awful misery stories which are so unaccountably popular these days. But I had no need to worry. There are many dark moments in the story, but there is also humour and there are wonderfully moving episodes which will bring tears to many an eye.

Eddie is, as the story begins, a seven year-old boy who has spent four years imprisoned in a horribly sordid flat with his mother, Lucy, and a thug of the worst order called Bryce Harris. Harris goes out. Lucy and Eddie are not allowed to leave the flat. They are required to stay in behind locked doors and instructed never to allow anyone in. When Harris returns to the flat he assaults Lucy, treating her as a punch bag. But, rather cleverly, he resists the temptation to beat the boy.

A neighbour realises that a child is imprisoned in the flat. She writes to the Social Services. They ignore her early letters but, eventually, notice is taken. The police raid the flat, sensibly waiting for Harris to be out. Eddie and his mother are rescued. And so we start to follow Eddie's life away from Harris.

By a remarkable stroke of luck a previous tenant of the flat had left thirty video tapes of an old Canadian children's television programme featuring a man called Mr Perkins. Eddie and his mother watched them avidly, whenever Harris was away. Mr Perkins provided Eddie with endless information about the outside world. When Eddie escapes his dreadful ordeal he is not nearly as damaged as one would expect. All the credit for that must be given to Mr Perkins.

But life is not all perfect for Eddie. Those horrific four years have left their mark on him. Anne Fine takes us through the next ten or so years of his life in a beautifully sensitive way. It would be quite wrong of me to tell you how things work out in the end. But, on the journey, we laugh and cry with Eddie. We come across several fully formed characters, real people with virtues and faults, who play their part in making Eddie what he finally becomes.

The book was a delightful read, and has the enormous advantage, these days, of not being too long.

I recommend it.

Charles


No Man's Nightingale: (A Wexford Case)
No Man's Nightingale: (A Wexford Case)
Price: £3.49

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rendell does it again - not brilliant but fun, 11 Dec. 2014
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Ruth Rendell is stuck with having retired Wexford. She probably regrets that. He is a very popular character, deservedly. She has therefore decided (this is not the first book in which she has done so) to bring him back as the retired policeman who is called in to help his former junior officer (a remarkably stupid though very well dressed man called Mike Burden) to solve major crimes. The artificiality of all that doesn't really matter. We Wexford fans are simply delighted that he goes on.

This is not a bad story. It starts with the murder of the female Vicar. Burden is in charge of the investigation. He jumps to all sorts of ludicrous conclusions. He allows his prejudices to take control, with the inevitable result that he pursues obviously innocent people. But Wexford comes to the rescue.

This novel is a bit slap dash. Portraying Burden as being almost certifiable in his refusal to pay any attention to the evidence strikes me as being slightly silly. Then, a little way into the story, Lady Rendell invents a new criminal offence called "unlawful killing". It apparently comes lower than murder and manslaughter in the rankings of crime. But the fact that it doesn't actually exist as a crime doesn't ruin the story: it is just a bit irritating.

This is a rather good yarn. Overlook Burden's idiocy and Lady Rendell's ignorance of the law and you will be bound to enjoy the story.

Charles
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 28, 2014 1:22 PM GMT


The Escape (John Puller Series Book 3)
The Escape (John Puller Series Book 3)
Price: £7.19

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Yarn, 5 Dec. 2014
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David Baldacci is a highly accomplished writer of splendidly escapist stories. His latest novel is a wonderfully easy and enjoyable read.

This is a John Puller story. For those of you who haven't met Puller I should explain that he is a military policeman, packed with integrity, whose father, suffering now from dementia, was a heroic general and whose brother (another senior officer), rather mysteriously, is serving a life sentence for treason. John Puller has, until recently, refused to be commissioned. But he is now an officer (though at the lowest rank).

In previous stories there have been many mentions of Puller's brother and his prison sentence. But we have never been told what it was the brother was alleged to have done, neither has there been any indication of whether the brother was really guilty. At last, thank goodness, Baldacci is prepared to answer our questions.

The story starts with Puller's brother's extraordinary escape from a high security prison from which no one has ever escaped before. The body of an unidentified man is found in his cell. A major search is started.

Slightly unbelievably, John Puller is brought in to track down his brother. He starts by assuming that the escape demonstrates his brother's guilt (the logic of that is not immediately apparent to the reader), But then things start to happen (lots more dead bodies) which lead him to doubt his first assumption.

I must tell you no more. But what I can tell you is that this is a jolly good yarn. No, it won't last long. Baldacci is not a great author. But he tells a good tale and he grips the reader.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read and an escape from reality.

Charles


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