18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb

The story of the Gilded Age Chicago heiress who revolutionized forensic death investigation. As the mother of forensic science, Frances Glessner Lee is the reason why homicide detectives are a thing. She is responsible for the popularity of forensic science in television shows and pop culture. Long overlooked in the history books, this extremely detailed and thoroughly researched biography will at long last tell the story of the life and contributions of this pioneering woman.

I don’t read much non-fiction these days, but when the chance to read 18 Tiny Deaths came up, I jumped at the chance. Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of crime novels, and the opportunity to see how the forensic science at the heart of them came to be was one not to be missed.

It’s a fascinating story about a fascinating woman. Born into money in 1878, Frances Glessner Lee showed a keen interest in medicine and became a driving force behind the development of forensic science.

Her use of meticulous dioramas, the 18 tiny deaths of the title, as a training aid for police officers was revolutionary. Presented not so much as a ‘solve this puzzle’, but more an exercise in observation, the miniature models were exact replicas of crime scenes, down to the blood spatter on the walls.

If anything, I wish there had been a bit more about the detail behind these dioramas, the cases involved and what happened. But that’s a minor quibble! The story of Captain Lee’s life is astonishing, and Goldfarb’s account is well-written and comprehensive.

18 Tiny Deaths is as meticulously researched and presented as Captain Lee’s dioramas. Fascinating to read, this is one for any true crime buff.

Highly recommended.

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb is published by Octopus and is out now.

Many thanks to Anne Cater and Octopus Publishing for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the copy of the book for review.

Blogging birthday

Espresso Coco was brought into this world on 30th March 2009.

Happy eleventh birthday, little blog!

Of course I actually started blogging on 14th March 2003 over at Livejournal, so I’ve been blogging for over seventeen years. My LJ has over ten thousand blog entries over that time. I made nigh-on 35 thousand comments and received over 62 and a half thousand comments.

This is all pre-Twitter, of course. A goodly proportion of those posts and comments are what would happen in a regular day on Twitter now, so it’s probably not as impressive as it sounds.

Still, 10k posts, plus the 850 or so on here make it closer to twelve thousand little nuggets of thought spilled out onto the internet.

I miss the LJ days and the sense of community there.

Wonder how long it’ll take me to get up to a thousand on espresso coco?

Will you still be here? Will it still be mainly book reviews? Or something different?

Question, for those still reading. Leave me a comment about where we met online or in real life. Was it on LJ? Twitter? or somewhere else?

I’d love to know. And thanks for sticking around.

Books of the year 2019: crime & thriller

We’ve had the list of favourite sci-fi and fantasy, now it’s the turn of crime & thrillers. Again, in no particular order, here we go!

Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Rapidly becoming one of my favourite Scottish authors, Doug Johnstone is back with Breakers. A Scottish family drama. A taut crime story. Boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks blossoming romance. Puppies.

Check, check, check and yes, check. But take those simple ingredients and put them in the hands of Doug Johnstone and what you end up with is something truly special. If Michelin did stars for books, then Breakers would be wearing its star bright and proud.

Nothing Important Happened Today – Will Carver

Hoo boy, is this dark. I thought that Will Carver’s previous book, Good Samaritans was dark (and it most definitely is), but that’s like a little ray of sunshine on a bright spring morning compared with this, Carver’s latest. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. And I read a *lot*.

Little Siberia – Antti Tuomainen

A new book by Antti Tuomainen is always exciting, and Little Siberia is no exception. Told with Tuomainen’s signature wit, Little Siberia is another slice of brilliance from the King of Helsinki Noir. He’s got a lovely flair for character, and the inhabitants of Hurmevaara are a motley bunch, beautifully drawn. But characters alone cannot make a story, so we have a splendidly twisty black comedy to tie everything together.

The July Girls – Phoebe Locke

Just stunningly good. A serial killer story with a twist, told from the point of view of Addie, a young girl caught up in a swirl of events. I’ve deliberately cut part of the blurb from Goodreads as I think this is one of those books that you want to go into knowing as little as possible, and find out for yourself what makes Addie’s story so unforgettable.

I polished off The July Girls in a couple of hours. Impossible to put down, with a truly different spin on the psychological crime thriller.

Cold Desert Sky – Rod Reynolds

Rod Reynolds proved with his first two books that he has a deft hand at conjuring up small-town Americana. Here he turns that hand to the larger canvas of ’40s Los Angeles and Las Vegas and again we’re sucked into the murky underworld of the mob. Reynolds has a real gift for place and atmosphere, and you almost feel that should you be dropped into Yates’ world, you could find your way around. Not that the California of Charlie Yates is somewhere you’d particularly want to be, not with someone as connected as Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel on the loose…

The Puppet Show (Washington Poe, #1) – M.W. Craven

I bought The Puppet Show following a load of my bookblogger friends raving about it. Serial killer, dysfunctional detective pairing, sounds right up my alleyway.

They were right. I stayed up far too late one night on holiday powering through this book more or less in a single sitting (if you ignore the break to go get some food). A proper page-turner, this one!

Washington Poe (and what a great name *that* is) is summoned back from suspension to investigate a murder in his patch of Cumbria. The victim, as with the first two, has been burned alive. But this one has something carved into his chest. Carved when the victim was very much alive.

It’s the Poe/Tilly dynamic which makes this book shine, and speaking of which…

Black Summer (Washington Poe, #2) – M.W. Craven

A celebrity chef who definitely killed his daughter, and went to prison for it. But then she turns up, quite definitely alive (if not particularly well). And it was Poe who put him in prison for the murder. Could he have been wrong?

And then she goes missing again, and the evidence all points in one direction. Washington Poe, what have you done?

*claps hands excitedly* Shenanigans afoot! I love shenanigans. Especially when they’re as clever as this!

Worst Case Scenario – Helen Fitzgerald

I must confess that after the first dozen or so pages of Worst Case Scenario I wondered if this was really the book for me. I wasn’t sure if I could cope with Mary’s in-your-face approach to life and work. Borderline alcoholic, menopausal, obsessed with her awful clients, she’s quite the character.

I pressed on and was rewarded with a deliciously dark, delightfully un-PC, often downright hilarious tale of a Glaswegian probation officer’s last days in the job. Mary Shields grew on me with every page, and I found myself watching events unravel with a horrified cover-your-eyes what-will-happen-next sense of anticipation.

Short, sharp and not at all sweet, Worst Case Scenario is a book that’ll live with you for quite some time. Recommended.

The Furies – Katie Lowe

More magic here, of the witchy variety. I was torn between putting this in the crime/thriller section or the fantasy, but it feels right on this list.

A tightly-drawn portrait of a private girls school with secret societies and a mysterious teacher. Oh, and a murder. Though the murdered girl went missing months ago…

Splendidly creepy, The Furies is a book which will keep you up long past the witching hour trying to get to the bottom of what happened at Elm Hollow Academy.

The Neighbour – Fiona Cummins

Told over the course of a few days over the long, hot, sticky summer of 2018, The Neighbour is wonderfully atmospheric, and not a little claustrophobic in places. The cast of neighbours on The Avenue are an intriguing bunch, and you’re never quite sure who to suspect, though you’ll end up questioning what you think about pretty much all of them along the way.

Loved it from the first page to the last. Very highly recommended

Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

I read a lot of crime books. Some are good, some are great. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Call Me Star Girl is tautly written, cunningly plotted and twistier than a curly wurly.

Louise Beech has crafted a beautifully dark little tale, with a creeping sense of menace that leaves you wondering if you locked the doors. You might want to go and check. You never know who might be lurking outside.

Highly recommended.

The Lost Man – Jane Harper

The Lost Man is a lovely slow burn of a mystery, leaving you with the dust of the Outback under your nails. Jane Harper has a wonderful ability to evoke the essence of a place and here she really shows off that skill to magnificent effect. You really feel the atmosphere here, the dust-soaked landscape, the incessant sun, the constant knife-edge balance between life and death.

And the death here is one of those properly splendid whodunnits. A man is found next to a remote grave, a circle etched into the sand as he’s struggled to follow the meagre shade whilst slowly dying of exposure and thirst.

Why is he here? Why is a seasoned, experienced farmer, who knows the Outback like the back of his hand, miles from the safety of his car? What has brought him to this place with none of the essential survival equipment that everyone carries by default in this unforgiving environment?


And coming up in 2020, a couple of stunners:

A Dark Matter – Doug Johnstone

Three women, grandmother, mother and daughter, investigating different strands of mysteries. Doug Johnstone with another cracker of a book. Look out for a fuller review in 2020!

Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton

Words just can’t do this justice. Put it on your list, pre-order it now, but brace yourself. You are not ready. Phenomenally good.

Books of the year 2019: sci-fi & fantasy

Ah, 2019. A great year for books. And here, in no particular order, are my favourite sci-fi and fantasy books.

Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle, #3) – Jay Kristoff

Darkdawn - Jay Kristoff

The review that I’m most proud of this year.

Go, read the books. Laugh, cry, blush at the smutty bits, and when you’re done, we can talk.

Talk about the stabby bits, the funny bits, the pirates and gladiators and assassins and cats made of shadows, of the mountain of murderers, the gods, everything.

Then we’ll go back to the books and read all about a girl called Mia. For we love her so very very much.

Thank you Jay, for giving us this, perfect ending.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Just stunningly good. Two time agents leave letters to each other up and down the time streams. Like nothing you’ll have read before.

Survivors (The Voices #3) – G.X. Todd

Defender is good. Hunted is great.

Survivors knocks it out of the park. Survivors takes us back in time to before the Voices, and we get to know a little more about how the world came to be in the state we find it in Defender. We also find out a lot more about the mysterious Pilgrim, and it was fascinating to learn his backstory. If you’ve not experienced The Voices books, get on it. Now.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

It’s an incredible concept – what if you could flip back in time a few moments to undo something you’ve said or done? What if you could keep trying, a second chance, a third? Heather Child’s second book (following the fabulous Everything About You) explores just that. Mind-bendingly brilliant.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

A mysterious murder at a magical school? Two of my very favourite things! Though we are very much not at *that* school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. And the murder is so *very* gruesome that even You Know Who might blanch at it. And yes, there’s a Chosen One.

Mixing magic with murder, this is most splendid, and highly recommended.

The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1) – Evan Winter

Fast, brutal, African-tinged epic fantasy featuring incredible swordfights, revenge, magic, demons and of course, dragons.

What’s not to like?

It’s so good. The battle scenes are incredibly well written and you feel that you’re deep in the action, dodging blades. The political skulduggery is suitably devious. The training montages are exciting and brutal, and there’s a real sense of menace and danger from the demon-inhabited underworld.

Billed as Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, The Rage of Dragons definitely has flavours of both, possibly more of the latter, but is most certainly its own concoction of epic fantasy.

Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) – Megan E. O’Keefe

Smart, slick sci-fi with brilliant characters and a cracking plot, Velocity Weapon is everything I love about science fiction. The worldbuilding is superb, spanning hundreds of years of political shenanigans and a planetbusting doomsday weapon wouldn’t be amiss in an Iain M. Banks novel.

If you like your space opera played out on the grandest, galaxy-spanning stage, with some brilliantly diverse characters and a whip-smart plot, then this book is for you.

Loved it. Ten sentient AIs out of ten. Hugely recommended.

The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

At face value The Raven Tower checks all the regular classic fantasy boxes. A son returns home from afar to take up his father’s post as ruler, only to find that his position has already been filled by his scheming uncle. A kingdom under threat. Mysterious machinations at court. Gods making alliances with mortals.

Yes, it’s a story of gods and power and what people will do to gain the latter and the price they’re willing to pay to do so. But Ann Leckie does this with such a deft hand that you’re left marvelling at how it’s all constructed. The way she plays with character and language and structure reminded me not a little of the skillful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #1) – Tamsyn Muir

This is one of my favourite books of the year. Weird, dark and often very funny, I loved it from the first page to the last.

It’s got everything – lesbian necromancers, a giant labyrinthine crumbling (possibly haunted, definitely deadly) house by the sea, swordfights, murder, blood, skeletons, locked rooms (which should *definitely* stay locked), mysterious mystics, battling Houses, daring cavaliers and a cluedo-esque whodunnit running throughout.

Hugely recommended. I can’t wait to see where the story takes us in Harrow the Ninth, which is out next year.

Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.

On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation … unless he drags her down too.

Well now. What do we have here?

A Scottish family drama? A taut crime story? Boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks blossoming romance? Puppies?

Check, check, check and yes, check. But take those simple ingredients and put them in the hands of Doug Johnstone and what you end up with is something truly special. If Michelin did stars for books, then Breakers would be wearing its star bright and proud.

Johnstone does characters and place exceptionally well, as evidenced in his previous book, Fault Lines. But here, his starkly contrasting aspects of Edinburgh are done so well. I love a book with a sense of place, and Breakers leaves you feeling that you could walk its streets (though you might want to avoid the estate that Tyler lives on) from the descriptions on the page.

The story bounces around Edinburgh, from the rough estates where Tyler and his family live to the more well-to-do suburbs where they go on the prowl for houses to break into.

Which is where Barry does something spectacularly stupid, even for him. And crime lord Deke Holt is on the hunt. It’s not going to end well…

And the characters! Tyler, young carer to his drug-addict mum and devoted older brother to his little sister Bean, forced into an impossible situation by his thuggish brother Barry. Forced to make some hard choices to survive, and to protect his beloved Bean.

Short, sharp and decidedly not sweet, Breakers is one of those books that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Hugely recommended.

Breakers by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Thanks as ever to Karen Sullivan for the copy of Doug’s book to review.

The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William.

William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

A new book by Claire North is always a welcome event. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but can rest assured that it’ll be different and thought-provoking.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is exactly that. Starting with a horrific, brutal event, we’re drawn into the life of Dr William Abbey and his quest to stay one step ahead of his pursuer, the shadow of a young boy murdered by white colonists in Natal. Abbey was present at the lynching, and cursed by the boy’s mother. Langa never stops, undeterred by mountain range or ocean, by desert or forest. He is utterly relentless.

As Langa grows closer, Abbey discovers that he can see the truth in people’s hearts. Close enough, and Abbey finds himself unable to stop himself from blurting those truths out to any and everyone who’ll listen.

If Langa catches up with Abbey, someone he loves will die, and the chase will begin again.

North does not spare us of the brutality of war or colonialism. Some sections of the book are hard to stomach, deliberately so. Man’s inhumanity to man is writ large across the pages of this book as Abbey travels from continent to continent.

Abbey finds himself at the attention of The Nineteen, a shadowy organisation who promise him salvation from his curse. He just needs to do a few little jobs for them first – go here and find out those truths, go there and find out some more. Always travelling, always moving, always pursued.

North’s writing is, as always, wonderful and easy to lose yourself in. In part I wanted to finish the book to find out what happens, but on another level I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere, the astonishing cast of characters that she conjures forth throughout the book.

If I had any criticism, it would be that the pace, relentless as it is for our titular William Abbey, flags ever so slightly around the halfway mark. But it recovers as we approach the final act, leading to an ending which…

Well, I’ll have to leave that to you, dear reader. Will Abbey find absolution for his sins? Will he escape his pursuer?

I’m not sure my words are doing this book justice – for a more thorough review I’d like to direct you to David at BlueBookBalloon who is far better than I am at putting such things in the perspective they deserve.

In short, The Pursuit of William Abbey is a work of an astonishing imagination. A Claire North book is always worth investigating, and if you do get this one, I’d love to hear what you think.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book to review, and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me onto the blog tour.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Red and Blue are two operatives on opposing sides of the Time War. Each determined that their side should be victorious, each travelling up and down the braids of time to make a subtle change here, or a little tweak there to encourage the desired outcome. Blue works for Garden, at one end of the time stream. Red is an agent of The Commandant, at the other. Each working for their own side, trying to foil the other.

So far, so sci-fi. But this is so much more. It is, at heart, a series of letters between the two agents. Letters written in the seeds of a plant, nurtured over hundreds of years. In the flow of a lava field, in the feathers of a goose, in knots tied in a sample of cloth, the missives grow increasingly abstract and lyrical.

Letters which start as taunts, which turn into mutual admiration, and ultimately into love letters the like of which have rarely been seen. The word poetic fails to do justice to the missives of these star- and time-crossed lovers.

Victoria Schwab (another of my favourite authors) summed up this book perfectly.

Holy shit this was good.

V.E. Schwab

It’s more than good. It’s astonishing. You should read it.

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is out now.

Huge thanks to @runalongwomble and @bluebookballoon for bringing this book to my attention