Saturday, 16 November 2013

Steps to Heaven by Wendy Cartmell

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

I came to this book with mixed feelings. On the one hand I like crime stories, but on the other I’m not particularly drawn to army settings or army life. Maybe it’s because we see so much in the national news about the army in Afghanistan, which can be quite overwhelming and, although I have every sympathy with soldiers and their lot, I’m not particularly drawn to that kind of lifestyle.

However, as soon as I started to read I was so drawn into the story that I didn’t even register until I was quite some way through the book, that the author was the narrator and she was telling the story, rather than the characters showing the reader what was happening. I’m not a lover of the omniscient point of view because I feel it puts a space between the story and the reader, so it is a tribute to the author that she was writing in this style but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

Her descriptive powers are impressive, whether that be descriptions of the character, setting, or army life. I felt as if I was there, walking the army camps with her, or maybe I should say, with her characters.

The story is set mainly at Aldershot Garrison and centres round the return of a soldier from Afghanistan who murders his wife, and child and then commits suicide. The investigation throws up similar crimes at other garrisons and the growing belief that these are not simply murder, suicides, but something a lot darker, involving the church and possible cults. I will say no more as I don’t want to include spoilers.

Her main character, Tom Crane, an army investigator, is particularly well drawn. His mix of exasperation with army protocols while being very much steeped in those protocols himself, came over very well. I did feel the pent up anger that he exhibited most of the way through the book was at times overdone. For example, when he vented that anger on his wife, treating her in a very macho way and demeaning her role, I lost sympathy with him and positively disliked him. However, bringing these feelings to the fore with the reader is the mark of a good writer. But I would have preferred a less brutal way of treating his wife, although he did redeem himself by the end of the book.

The story was well plotted with believable characters and it kept the element of mystery to the forefront. I must say I did have my suspicions about one character, although I wasn’t absolutely certain until the end. However, as a crime reader and writer I think I am pretty good at detecting the red herrings and misdirection that is all part and parcel of a good crime novel, and I doubt whether most readers would actually guess correctly.

The ending was action packed and exciting, although I couldn’t help thinking that with a different point of view – perhaps Tom Crane’s – the element of suspense could have been ratcheted to a higher level.

In the main, however, this was a well written, absorbing book with enough mystery and action to satisfy most readers of crime fiction.

Chris Longmuir

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