CHRIS LONGMUIR REVIEWED

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Reviewed here:  Nightwatcher, A Salt Splashed Cradle, Ghost Train (and other stories), Obsession (and other stories)

Chris’s award winning Dead Wood is not yet available as an ebook.

NIGHT WATCHER

I’ll admit I picked this up primarily because of its Dundee setting. (I spent some of my childhood there so looked forward to seeing how the place would be described). I’m not a crime thriller aficionado and I was initially surprised by it. The word that kept running read this through my brain as I read on, was ‘domestic’. Not in a bad way, just because I kept thinking ‘if Jane Austen wrote crime fiction this might be the sort of thing she’d write. While there is the dark outsider, the stalker, the Nightwatcher of the title; the main action seems to revolve around a much more domestic picture and this seems to me to offer some of the strength of the novel. We are being shown that fear, caused by misuse of power, is at least as devastating when carried out on a domestic level as that caused by the ‘mad’ outsider. And since we all face fear on that domestic level, it’s a clever move adding a sort of reality to the story. My ‘domestic’ does not mean ‘mundane’ it simply means that the story revolves more around the daily lives, hopes and fears of a bunch of people who you might meet in any department store (where a lot of the novel is set). The detail of description of place and ‘costume’ also puts me in mind of something more domestic. It would perhaps be ‘mundane’ without the fear factor but the fear factor is the core of the novel.

The Nightwatcher himself is motivated by ‘evil’ and ‘the voice of God’ but the characters in this novel are more influenced by a more domestic version of evil, the power-struggles inherent in relationships, specifically in marital and extra marital relationships. I found both Nicole and Julie to be ‘nippy sweeties’ and Longmuir is brave in presenting no obvious hero/heroine to drive the story. Even her ‘anti-hero’ remains out of sight for most of the novel, lurking in the background as the personification of unseen fear. Most if not all of her characters are flawed (in the way that real people are) and while one might see Julie as the central protagonist on a redemptive journey, I’m not sure if that’s not stretching the point towards an unnecessary level of analysis.

For me, unused to plot driven stories, I found the ‘set up’ somewhat slow burn, but this was Longmuir’s method, reminiscent of that old Agatha Christie speciality, setting up everyone as a potential suspect. Once one got to the point in the novel where you were wondering who’s going to die next, and who’s doing all the killing, the pace really sparked up. And of course in the ending, nothing is as it seemed and there was always just one more twist. The ending would surely send crime/thriller readers towards Dead Wood, the ‘sequel’ which won the Dundee Book Prize in 2009, to find out what happens next. I’m guessing they won’t be disappointed. Reviewed by Cally Phillips

A tight, gripping tale from an expert in the genre.

Another book which proves that Chris Longmuir, who wrote the prize-winning Dead Wood, knows the ingredients you need for a tense, satisfying crime novel and can put them together in a way that keeps multiplying the cliff-hangers and keeps you asking what will happen next. The story is set in an atmospherically-conveyed Dundee, the people and their contacts are created with those little touches of `ordinary’ behaviour that enhance their reality. Behind them all, creeping through the book’s shadows, there’s an anonymous figure determined to complete the `missions’ set by the voice he hears in his head. He’s introduced in the opening paragraphs as, already responsible for at least one murder, he arrives in the city with his next victim already chosen and an absolute certainty that he’s doing the right thing.

Cleverly, though, some of the `normal’, ordinary people who make up the small cast of central characters, are equally driven – by power, lust, revenge – and equally capable (or so it seems) of extreme actions to achieve their aims. Although there are clearly goodies and baddies, trust is in short supply. In their cases, there’s no inner voice urging them to destroy the lives of others, but their motives and impulses are potentially just as deadly. Love is transactional, infidelity is the norm and Longmuir keeps the focus tightly on them as the night watcher observes them from his shadows. The resolution is delayed up to the final pages with not just one twist, but two.

It’s a very enjoyable read from a writer who knows what she’s doing. Reviewed by Bill Kirton

Another Excellent Thriller from Chris

I enjoyed Dead Wood, but I have to say – I think I’ve enjoyed Night Watcher even more – finding myself looking forward to that time of day when I can get back to my Kindle! This is a complex and very well crafted tale, beautifully put together –full of a sense of foreboding, with expertly drawn, fully realised characters in a setting I know well – Dundee – but a city which here can become suddenly full of menace. There are many unexpected twists and turns in this tale but it is never less than entertaining – and always chilling in the best possible sense! You won’t be disappointed. Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

Not for the timid! ‘Night Watcher’ is a roller coaster of a read that keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next.The setting of Dundee is a convincing backdrop to the action and the city has a character of its own that lends to the overall creepy atmosphere. Looking forward to the next one! Reviewed by Myra Duffy.

Nightwatcher reading

Dead Wood trailer

A SALT SPLASHED CRADLE 

I knew Chris Longmuir as a writer of dark crime novels, the first of which, Dead Wood won the Dundee International prize and was an instant sell-out. She followed this with the equally tense Night Watcher so I was not sure what to expect from a historical novel. I need not have worried for from its evocative title to its satisfying ending A Salt Splashed Cradle keeps the reader totally absorbed in the lives of its characters.

This historical romance is set in the north-east of Scotland in a 19th century fishing community and it is clear the author knows her stuff and has done her research into both the place and time. Yet it is research which sits lightly and doesn’t ‘show off’ and we are transported back in time to experience the customs and way of life of the people who lived and worked there, dependent on the sea.

The characters, especially the refreshingly non-stereotypical heroine Belle, are authentically multi-layered and come across as real people whose lives we care about. Belle is an outsider who marries into the community and faces the difficulties of all outsiders; especially one who isn’t certain she wants to belong. Belle’s husband, Jimmie, wants to save enough money to buy his own boat but to do so he must go with the whalers, leaving Belle – beautiful, discontented and ostracized by her mother-in-law and the community – behind for months at a time. Add to the mix the Laird’s son Lachlan, who knows he can never command his father’s respect or affection, and who is strongly attracted to Belle, despite (or perhaps because of) her lowly origins and we have the makings of an explosive storyline.

Chris Longmuir explores several themes in this novel including class barriers at a time when people were expected to know – and keep to – their place and the perennial insider/outsider problem and what happens when a community turns against someone. She also writes of many kinds of love: between men and women; parents and children. It is a hard life for the people who live and die, hope and love in this community and their lives are ruled by the sea, which gives and which takes. In A Salt Splashed Cradle, Chris Longmuir shows she is a spell-binding story teller. Reviewed by Mary Smith

Authentic Life and Love in 1830s Scotland

I’m more used to reading Chris Longmuir’s excellent crime fiction, so this departure intrigued me. This novel did not disappoint. From the first page, the reader is transported to a Scottish fishing village in the 1830s. With a strong cast of characters, A Salt Splashed Cradle tells a fascinating tale about the detailed everyday life of the fishing community and the impact on that community by the arrival of beautiful, incomer Belle. Although married to one of the young fishermen, Belle is not immune to the attentions of the local Laird’s son. Belle is an unusually well rounded character, neither wholly good nor completely bad, and the story of her difficulties in being accepted into her new family ensures an absorbing read. Reviewed by Romy Gemmell

Romance and Darkness Chris Longmuir’s books so far have been mysterious, suspenseful stories concerned with some of the darker depths of human nature. So it’s surprising to learn that this latest (although it was apparently written before the others) is a romance. But fans won’t be disappointed. Yes, it’s a romance but the murkier motives and actions are still in evidence.

It’s set in a fishing community on Scotland’s north-east coast in the 19th century and the author’s familiarity with the setting and her research into the customs and attitudes of the time give it genuine authenticity. She’s recreated a time and place in which men and women have their roles, their own moralities and a fierce strength born of living lives dependent on both the sea’s bounty and its cruelties. She writes of its rhythms, of how men and women alike respond to its voice and its demands, and of the hard lives they live beside it.

The characters are varied and complex, none more so than Belle, the dangerous woman at the narrative’s centre. This is no straightforward, old-style heroine. She has strengths, weaknesses, needs and a beguiling mixture of sexual magnetism and insecurity. She belongs to this community and yet is apart from it and, as the threads of the story weave around her, her stature grows and she learns, among other things, how to say no.

A Salt Splashed Cradle carries more than one love story as well as others from which love is missing. Ms Longmuir’s control of her material is as sure here as it is in her dark modern novels and she makes you care about what happens to her people. Reviewed by Bill Kirton

Salt Splashed Cradle reading

GHOST TRAIN and other stories 

As another reviewer said, these aren’t horror stories of the vampire, slasher, gore-fest type and, as a result, they lever themselves more insidiously into your consciousness. Even though you know that’s the genre you’re reading, Longmuir lulls you into accepting the normality of what she’s describing. Her characters are normal, relatively `ordinary’ people in mostly familiar contexts, but as you get to know them, they or the contexts warp, twist, take us further and further into what becomes a nightmare for them, and/or for us. My own favourite here is Brainpower, but they’re all good, scary reads. Reviewed by Bill Kirton

OBSESSION AND OTHER STORIES

I should say up front that I’ve known Chris for a number of years and have admired her work for the same length of time. I don’t always review books by people I know personally – quite the opposite – but I’m not keen on reviewing books I don’t like – which is one of the reasons why the ethos of the IEBR site appeals to me so much: reflective reviews of books we have genuinely enjoyed, whether we know the writers or not.

I first became aware of Chris as a fellow writer when she won a prize for which I myself had been shortlisted a couple of years earlier: the Dundee Book Prize. Chris won the major prize with a dark and disturbing piece of crime fiction called Dead Wood.

One would have anticipated that the prize and subsequent publication of Dead Woodmight lead to a long term relationship with a publisher –  but inexplicable delays followed. Unsurpisingly, when eBook publishing became a viable option, Chris led the way, a self confessed ‘techno-geek who builds computers in her spare time’, very comfortable with the digital world and happy to help her colleagues. It never fails to amuse me that it tends to be middle aged and older writers who have turned out to be ‘early adopters’ while so many younger writers run a little scared of the changes that are upon us.

Chris, as an ex social worker, knows of what she writes, not just when it comes to her darker themes of murder, obsession and criminal behaviour, but also when she examines human relationships in all their fascinating manifestations.  The title story in this collection is a claustrophobic, uncomfortable and terrifying evocation of a stalker and what is going on in his mind. ‘It was his kingdom, the park. And the bandstand was his throne room. No-one knew about the space underneath that he had made his private territory.’ This, according to the author’s introduction, gave birth to Chris’s next novel Night Watcher, also available as an eBook, a riveting but equally uncomfortable read. In Zofia’s Footsteps is another dark tale with a nasty and quite possibly supernatural twist, set among a group of migrant fruit pickers in contemporary Scotland: ‘The sun beat down making the poly tunnels feel like hothouses and stifling her with the smell of strawberries.’ Not a Bad Person, about the destructive effects of heroin addiction, has a terrible denouement, beautifully written but heart-in-mouth horrifying. These are not just tales about the dark side of humanity, but well crafted short stories. Chris knows her genre well and handles it with expertise – never too much information, always just enough.

Of the remaining three stories in this collection, I enjoyed Ghost of Christmas Past best, perhaps because it alleviated the horror of the first three: it’s a gentle but again slightly spooky tale about old age, loneliness and loss.

eBooks have seen the resurrection of the short story. Over the last decade it had become ever harder to place anything except perhaps the literary and experimental. With a few notable exceptions, the magazines which once published popular short stories have elected to jettison them. I’m not sure why this happened, or what ‘focus group’ suggested it would be a good thing. But the demise of the short story (much like the demise of the mid-list in longer fiction) was somehow blamed on readers and writers, rather than the publishers who had decided not to provide outlets. But stories are perfect for a commute or a bed-time read – as Kindle and Nook owners have discovered –  and this little collection is no exception. (Although I wouldn’t recommend these as bed time reading if you live alone!) Obsession will also give you a taster of what to expect in Night Watcher, which is a fine piece of work. I await Chris’s next novel with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, which I’m sure she’d appreciate – although it still amazes me that such a lovely, cheerful person can weave such thoroughly disturbing tales. I enjoyed Dead Wood very much, but I felt that with Night Watcher, Chris had really hit her stride. It’ll be fascinating to see what comes next. Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

Chris also appears at the Festival in Short Stories (Aug 19) and Writers’ Pieces (Aug 14)

Visit Chris Longmuir’s Festival Page  and her Chris’s Amazon Author Page (buying links)

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