A rare excursion for me today into the world of crime fiction, and it’s a real pleasure to introduce you to the books of Jan Newton. Her latest, Rather To Be Pitied, is published today by Honno Press, available as an e-book and paperback, and I must thank the publishers for my advance reading e-copy. But this is the second in the DS Julie Kite series, and it seemed only fair to also read the first, Remember No More – not compulsory, but I thought it would be good to understand some of the back story and get to know the characters. The first book totally hooked me – one sitting, finished at 1am – so I thought I’d share my thoughts on both books today.
DS Julie Kite’s husband’s new job takes her away from urban Manchester to a new life in tranquil mid-Wales. On her first day, Julie is thrust unexpectedly into the centre of a murder investigation in a remote farming community. At the same time, Stephen Collins is set free from HMP Strangeways. He immediately makes his way back to mid-Wales, the scene of his heinous crime, in order to confront those who had a hand in his incarceration. The twists and turns of the investigation into the death of a solicitor force DS Kite to confront her own demons alongside those of her community.
I was particularly drawn to this book by its mid-Wales setting – but was really delighted to find that I also very much enjoyed the twists and turns of the story and the quality of the writing. The author has a particular gift for characterisation, whether the individual members of the police team or the many and diverse characters who cross their path.
Julie herself is perfectly drawn – a new DS transplanted from the crime-ridden streets of Manchester to a totally unfamiliar and rather alien rural environment, coping with the suspicion and opposition of the tight-knit team and the community, while wrestling with her move to a new home in the wilds and the challenges of her shaky marriage.
I very much liked the police team – the understandable spikiness of Morgan, DI Kite and the way he takes his new DS under his wing, and (like Julie) I was totally fascinated by the forensic interventions of Maggie Greenhalgh. A villain seeking vengeance might not be too unusual a theme, but the red herrings and false trails come thick and fast, and I thought the procedural side of the investigation was exceptionally well handled and really engaging to read.
The setting is quite perfectly drawn – from the book’s very striking panoramic opening, the wild countryside with its isolated farms almost becomes another character, and the author’s rich descriptions bring it vividly to life. It’s not a part of Wales I know well, but the author clearly does – when I worked in Cardiff, I went on many training courses in the Metropole at Llandrindod Wells, and I enjoyed my return visit. The area’s historical past wasn’t familiar to me, and I really liked the way its uncovering added unexpected depth to the story.
The book’s Welshness is quite wonderful – as well as capturing the nuances of dialogue (this is a book you read with a Welsh accent), who could possibly resist Nerys’ bara brith dripping in butter, and I loved Julie (coming from “away”, as she does) wrestling with both entering a community where everyone knows each other and the unfamiliar and tongue-twisting place names.
But as well as the vivid setting and strong characters, it’s quite a story – and so well told, the threads satisfyingly tangled, the story’s twists unexpected and original. And although there’s the occasional gruesomeness you’d expect from such a story, I enjoyed the moments of lightness and humour too – a quite perfect balance.
So after so enjoying that one, I was rather looking forward to the next book – Rather To Be Pitied, published today (21st March)…
‘You can find out so much more about some people after they’re dead than when they were alive. There’s nowhere to hide anything, is there, on a slab?’
Newly promoted DS Julie Kite has been in sleepy mid-Wales for mere months when she’s faced with her second murder case. A man’s body has been found by school kids trekking the Monk’s Trod. The trail takes her back north to her parents in Manchester and to a housing estate in Blackpool. It’s not a simple case – a young mother has disappeared, but so has her son and her next door neighbour’s wife. And the husband of the landlady of the B&B where the girl was staying. When an exserviceman farmhand with PTSD attempts to take his own life the case gets more complex still.
After so enjoying Remember No More, I was very much looking forward to spending more time with DS Julie Kite – there’s no need to have read the first book to enjoy this one, but as with any crime fiction series it was good to have that initial understanding of the dynamics of the team and some familiarity with the background and setting.
While Julie might just have been expecting lost dogs and a little petty crime when she moved to the wilds of mid-Wales, there’s instead the discovery of another body – and this is a fascinating read filled with intrigue and false trails, the intricacies of a police investigation, and a distinct focus on the importance of forensics in uncovering the facts. Add in a llama farm, suspicious neighbours, an uncovered cess pit, an unusual way of providing evidence about what actually happened, together with a few people behaving so badly that it makes you gasp, and this was a story that kept me reading into the early hours yet again.
The setting is just wonderful, described in fine detail but also in a way that draws you into that inhospitable environment above the Elan reservoirs, where visiting “neighbours” means an exhausting uphill slog across muddy fields – not something townie Julie’s used to.
I enjoyed seeing her in her home environment too – her husband’s newly discovered passion for vegan cooking, her continuing suspicion that the past might not quite be laid to rest, her exchanges with Cam the horse and their enigmatic landlord, her phone conversations with her friend still involved in high-octane city policing. Her excursions to the north of England added extra interest – her relationship with her family, the sharp contrast between the urban and the empty roads she’s now getting used to.
The characters are just superb – the police team themselves ( I love DI Kite, his relationship with Julie – and his human frailties), Maggie’s forensic interventions and her trademark Yorkshire gruffness, and the many complex individuals who are part of the story.
I enjoyed the story’s pacing too – there’s a really nice balance between the necessary meticulous steadiness of the investigation, the behind the scenes moments, the police interviews with their carefully crafted parry and thrust, and those moments of real breakneck action and drama that make your heart beat considerably faster. As always with the best of crime fiction, you’re sometimes convinced that you’ve cracked it way before the team – but then something unexpected comes in from left field, you’re thrown off course again, and you have absolutely no idea where it’s all going.
I highly recommend this one – but why not spoil yourself as I did, and read them both? I might not read crime fiction very often, but if it was all like this I might do so more often – I’m delighted to have discovered the books of Jan Newton.
If the idea of Welsh crime piques your interest, you might like to take a look at the Crime Cymru website – having enjoyed the books of both Jan Newton and Cheryl Rees-Price (you’ll find my review of her first book The Silent Quarry here), I certainly plan to take a closer look at some of the other excellent crime authors I may have missed.
About the author
Jan Newton grew up in Manchester and Derbyshire and spent almost twenty years in the Chilterns before moving to mid Wales in 2005. She has worked as a bilingual secretary in a German chemical company, as an accountant in a BMW garage and a GP practice and as a Teaching Assistant in the Welsh stream of a primary school, but now she has finally been able to return to her first love, writing.
She graduated from Swansea University with a Masters degree in Creative Writing in 2015 and has won the Allen Raine Short Story Competition, the WI’s Lady Denman Cup competition, the Lancashire and North West Magazine’s prize for humorous short stories and the Oriel Davies Gallery’s prize for nature writing.