You Die Next by Stephanie Marland: The latest Starke & Bell thriller is a tale of obsession that may leave the reader feeling a little obsessed, too.

If you have not read Stephanie Marland’s My Little Eye, you shouldn’t read this post, because I don’t know how much I might let slip, and while you probably can enjoy this book without having read it — you won’t appreciate it the way you should. Also, you should reconsider your life choices from the last year or so, because My Little Eye was one of the best things that was published in 2018.

You Die NextYou Die Next

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #2

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Hachette Book Group, 2019
Read: April 18 – 22, 2019

The tunnel would be pitch-black without the safety lights, but even with them Dom, Parekh and Timber have to tread carefully, using their torch beams to scan the rails for signs of blood. Back on platform five, the CSIs are working their magic. Once Dom’s established the route taken by Thomas Lee, they’ll start work on the tunnel as well. They need to move fast, find leads as to what the hell happened here. This has to be one of the most bizarre crime scenes that Dom’s attended.

Given the crime scenes we know Dom’s seen? That’s saying something.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how Marland was going to proceed with Starke and Bell. Sure, teaming up the amateur and the Police Detective once is believable, but how do you do it again without it coming across as contrived? It’s not as if DI Bell can call her up, “Say, Clementine…I’ve got this real puzzler of a case that’s got me stumped, you think you and your pals can take a crack at it?” without violating so many rules and regulations that he wouldn’t have a job long enough to arrest anyone. Marland makes the smart choice — she put them in each other’s rearview mirrors.

Starke’s off on her next research project, lamenting the notoriety that she earned (and enjoyed) after the events of My Little Eye, dealing with university politics, deadlines, and continuing to research her father’s death with the True Crime online group. She’s currently studying thrill-seekers and voyeurs, the genesis of their obsession and what feeds it. A fan of her work (for lack of a better term), keeps trying to get her to look into Urban Explorers. She finally gives in, just to get him off her case about it (she hopes), and watches a video he insists she watch. While doing so she sees two things — first, that he’s probably right, they’d make good subjects for her research; and second, she’s pretty sure she sees a murder. Which settles things — Clementine Stark dives into the world of Urban Explorers in general and those on the video in particular.

Bell’s working various cases, trying to decide what to do with his DS post-My Little Eye, and worried about the internal investigation about that case that went so wrong before the last book that still wreaks havoc on almost every relationship in his life. He’s called out to the scene of a car striking and killing a pedestrian — not really his kind of case, if not for the fact that the pedestrian probably would’ve been killed by the stab wounds all over him if the car hadn’t sped his death along. Meanwhile, as I said, the look into Operation Atlantis continues and the strain on his relationship with his sister is such that it’s at the breaking point, and Bell’s ex is pushing him for information on the investigation into the operation. Bell’s close to putting things together, and when he does, this ugly situation is probably only going to look worse for everyone.

It’s on the back-of-the-book blurb, so I feel I can say this without giving away too much — Bell’s pedestrian is one of the Urban Explorers that Starke’s looking into. So again, they’re working the same case, but don’t know it — and are approaching it from very different angles. But Starke also observes some of the people involved in that Operation Atlantis raid that went so horribly wrong, clearly plotting and planning about what to do about Bell — how to exploit him at the very least. Whatever went wrong between them, Starke’s not going to let anything happen to Bell if she can help it. So, again, the two are working the same case from different angles. There’s another thing they will have in common, too — but I’m not going to get into it beyond saying it exists. But let’s just say there are really three mysteries being investigated in this book, and both Starke and Bell have a stake in all three, but aren’t really working together on any of them.

That sounds confusing, maybe like a little narrative overkill, too. But it’s not, Marland weaves these six storylines together perfectly — actually, there are more than six, but they can be boiled down to six without losing much, if I tried to diagram it exactly, I’d end up with something looking like one of those cork-boards covered in newspaper clippings, note cards and photos tied together with strings between connections that were so popular on TV a few years ago. (and that Starke has in her apartment, come to think of it). I lost my point there — Marland artfully weaves/juggles the various stories into a cohesive whole in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader and keeps the reader engaged with all the various mysteries, plot advances, character moments, etc. It’s a real feat that she pulls off with aplomb.

I’m going to be haunted by the conclusion for a while. It reminds me of something I read in December 2017, and frankly, haven’t shaken yet (I’ll not mention the title, because doing so might tell you more about the conclusion than I want to). It’s the only way this book really could end — and I’m not complaining about it at all — but it’s going to linger longer than most do in the back of my mind.

I want to talk about some of the supporting characters — and Bell’s DS and DC, in particular, really deserve more attention than I’m paying them. But I’m going to skip that this time. I just don’t have enough time to do them justice. While Starke and Bell are fascinating, complex characters that any reader will enjoy digging into, the same is true for the people around them. They’re pretty well fleshed out, and you can easily imagine that Marland has plans for their future use. Any of the secondary or tertiary characters in this series could become very important in future events and should probably be paid attention to by readers (which is easy, because even the one who might as well be named Lecherous Scumbag is a character you can enjoy reading).

I’ve managed to only use the word “obsession” once so far — which is surprising. Not only is it the focus of Starke’s research, obsession can be used in some way to talk about every story, every idea, every character in You Die Next.. The person hunting down Urban Explorers is clearly obsessed with whatever their motivation is. Bell’s obsession over whatever investigation he’s pursuing has damaged romantic relationships, his relationship with his sister, and even his career. Starke’s obsessions with her work, Bell, her father’s death, this possible murder she saw, and . . . well, really — what isn’t she obsessed with? This book is permeated with notions of, examples of, and the repercussions of obsession.

In both concept and execution, Marland tried to accomplish a lot in My Little Eye and succeeded. You Died Next strikes me as more ambitious than its predecessor, making it harder to pull off — the bar was set pretty high and she moved it up. I’m not sure Marland was as successful with this novel as she was with My Little Eye, but I can’t point at any part of this book and say “this could be better here.” I think my hesitancy about this book comes from so much of the conclusion of this novel pointing to the third installment. My Little Eye told a story, with the potential for more. You Die Next told a story, but kept the resolution to much of it dangling. If we didn’t get You Die Next, for whatever reason, My Little Eye could stand on its own. Without Starke & Bell #3, You Die Next is the novel equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut”/Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum without the “Two Bits”/Tum-tum.

And by not as successful, I think I’m saying this is more of a 4.25-4.35 than a clear 4.5.

I may not be the biggest fan of every choice that Marland made for these two in this book, but they were honest choices entirely consistent with the characters — and will lead to a whole lot of exciting narrative possibilities in Starke & Bell #3 (and beyond, if there is a beyond). Either of these characters could anchor a pretty decent series on their own, together they make a special kind of magic. Their continued interaction may not do them a lot of good, but it will prove destructive to more than one criminal in London — and a whole lot of fun for readers. You Die Next brings the two characters together in a way that highlights their strengths (and weaknesses), pitting them against a cold and clever killer and a criminal conspiracy (or two) more widespread and powerful than they yet realize. I haven’t read a whole lot this year that I’d call a must, but this is. Stop wasting your time on my stuff and get this in front of your eyes.

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4 1/2 Stars

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My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2018

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I looked at just what I’d read in 2018. After going through that list, I had 15 more candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was hard, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad — most were great (I can think of maybe 5 I could’ve missed). But these are the crème de la crème.

Man, I wanted to write the crème de la crime there. But I’m better than that.

Not all of these were published in 2018 — but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

Now that I’m done with this, I can focus on 2019.

(in alphabetical order by author)

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven

My original post
A book with some of the darkest moments I came across last year — and some of the brightest, too. The mystery was great, the character moments (not just between the protagonists) were better — great rounded, human, characters. Even after I saw where Craven was going with things, I refused to believe it — and only gave up when I had no other choice. Two (at least) fantastic reveals in this book, very compelling writing and fantastic characters. What more do you want? Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are two of my favorite new characters and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

5 Stars

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day

My original post
I could pretty much copy and paste that above paragraph for this one. It never gets as dark as The Puppet Show, but the depravity displayed is bad enough to unsettle any reader. What makes this story compelling isn’t really the crime, it’s the way the crime impacts the people near it — those who lost a family member (I don’t want to say loved one) and those who are close to the suspects. Yakky and Doc Slidesmith are characters I hope to see again soon, and I want to bask in Day’s prose even more.

5 Stars

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

My original post
The story of a little girl being surrounded by death and destruction, with both looming and threatening her all the time, and her discovering how to be brave. The story of a man trying to be a good father — or just a father. The story of survival. A story of revenge. A story about all kinds of violence. Wonderfully told.

4 Stars

WreckedWrecked

by Joe Ide

My original post
Not as entertaining as IQ, but it works as a novel in ways the previous two didn’t. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it, but it’s there. Wrecked is a clear step in evolution for Isaiah, Dodson, and probably Ide. It definitely demonstrates that the three are here to stay as long as Ide wants, and that these characters aren’t satisfied with being inner-city Sherlock/Watson, but they’re going places beyond that. Some good laughs, some good scares, some real “I can’t believe Ide ‘let’ them do that to Isaiah” moments — a great read.

5 Stars

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
I put off reading this for reasons I really don’t understand and haven’t forgiven myself for yet. But the important thing is that I read it — it took me a chapter or two to really get into it, but once I did, I was in hook, like and sinker. In my original post I said this is “a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.” I also said, “Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.” There are a couple of books that could compete for that line, but I’m not sure they’d win.

5 Stars

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland

My original post
Fantastic, fantastic premise. Great hook. Another great pair of protagonists (although most of their work is independent of each other). A True Crime blogger and a DI racing to uncover a serial killer, while battling dark secrets, dark pasts, and outside pressures that threaten to derail them at every turn. Marland surprised me more often and in more ways than just about any author this year. I was floored by some of them, too. A great puzzle, a great mish-mash of amateur detective and police procedural.

4 1/2 Stars

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

My original post
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I said yes to this Book Tour request. I’m not sure I could have — no offense to Mr. Marrs, but I don’t think I’d heard of him before. He’s definitely on my radar now. This was brutal, devastating, shocking, and just about every other adjective reviewers (professional and otherwise) overuse when describing a thriller. Marrs did so many things I didn’t think he would do. He didn’t do a lot that I thought he would (and seemed to mock the idea that he’d so some of what I wanted him to do). I spent a lot of time while reading this book not liking him very much, but so grateful I was getting to read the book. I’m still upset by some of it, but in awe of the experience.

5 Stars

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick

My original post
Sam Batford, undercover cop, is back in a sequel that shows real growth from a very impressive debut. Batford is in incredibly murky ethical and legal waters — and that’s not counting what his undercover op is. Any misstep could ruin his career, end his life, land him in prison — or all three. Actually, those options hold true even if he doesn’t make any missteps. There are so many balls in the air with this one that it’d be easy to lose track of one or more. But Patrick doesn’t seem to struggle with that at all — and he writes in such a way that a reader doesn’t either. That’s a gift not to be overlooked. I liked the overall story more than it’s predecessor and think that Patrick’s writing was better here. This is a series — and a character — that you really need to get to know.

4 1/2 Stars (I remember liking it more than that…I’m sure I had a reason at the time)

Exit MusicExit Music

by Ian Rankin

My original post
I’ve spent enough time with John Rebus over the last couple of years that I knew one of the books had to end p here, I just wasn’t sure which one. Exit Music ended up on the Top 10 not so much for the main mysteries (although they put the book in contention), but for all rest of the things that the novel was about — Rebus’ moving on (not knowing how to or to where), Siobhan moving on (and not sure she wants to), and the dozen or so little things surrounding the two of them and their work. Even Big Ger was kind of moving on here — and that’s just strange to read about. Exit Music would’ve been a great way to say farewell to John Rebus, I’m just glad it wasn’t that.

5 Stars

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)

My original post
If not for Kirby Baxter (above), I could say this was the most fun I had with a Mystery novel this year (not to take anything away from the sequels on that front). This is just the right mix of high school hijinks, teen drama, quirky characters and writing with panache. Zoe and Digby are a great combo of smarts, recklessness and responsibility as they work their way through puzzles surrounding missing kids, drug dealing doctors, and some strange cult-like group. You can feel the chemistry between them — like Remington Steele and Laura Holt, David Addison and Maddy Hays, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Freeman’s Watson. Throw in their friends and frenemies and you’ve got a recipe for fun and suspense. I listened to this on audiobook (and bought the paperback for my daughter before I got to the end, I should add) and McInerney’s narration was perfect — she captured the spirit of the book and made the characters come alive.

4 Stars

My Little Eye by Stephanie Marland

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #1

eARC, 351 pg.
Trapeze Books, 2018

Read: March 9 – 12, 2018

They say I was dead for three thousand and six seconds. They say that when I woke I was different, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that my world became a different place once every one of those precious seconds had expired.

No matter how gripping the prologue might have been, when those’re the first words you get from a character’s POV, you sit up and pay attention.

The Lover is a serial killer just beginning to plague London, and a semi-distracted DI Dominic Bell with his team are making little progress in apprehending him (he’s trying his level best not to be distracted by the press and the brass won’t let him leave his last operation in the dust). Given that the Lover’s technique is improving as the time between kills is decreasing, the pressure is mounting for Bell and the police. One group dissatisfied with their achievements are the members of True Crime London — a group of True Crime aficionados from (duh) London. Some of them have decided to take matters into their own hands so they’ll investigate these crimes themselves — some for the thrill, some to show up the Police, some to draw attention to the fact that the Police are understaffed and underfunded. Clementine has her own reasons — she’s spent some time studying these people as part of her doctoral work in psychology; she hopes to get a better understanding of online communities through this group and she has a theory about “crowd-sourcing justice” she’d like to establish.

We meet both groups (through Dom’s POV and Catherine’s) as they begin to look into the third victim of The Lover. The race is on (even if only one group realizes there’s a race) to find and put a stop to The Lover. I wouldn’t mind more time getting to know the individuals in the respective teams as this goes along — we do get to know some of the people involved in the investigation a bit, but this book focuses on Dom, Clementine and their hunts — everyone else doesn’t matter as much. I could talk a little more about the context for Dom, Clementine and the hunt for the killer — but you don’t want to know more until you get into this book.

The killer? We learn exactly as much as we need to in order that we know that the right guy has been taken care. He is not the most interesting character in the novel — I guess he might be, but Marland didn’t give us enough detail. This is such a great change from serial killer novels that dwell on the obsessions/fetishes/compulsions/methods of the killer, that seem to relish the opportunity to revel in the depravity. Marland shows us enough to be disturbed and utterly sickened by him, to believe that he’s capable of the heinous acts he’s guilty of — and no more. I’m not saying everyone has to write a serial killer this way, but I love that approach.

The protagonists are far more interesting — possibly more damaged even — than the killer. They are wonderfully flawed characters and repeatedly — and I do mean repeatedly — do things that readers will not want them to — because it’s unwise, stupid, dangerous, unethical, immoral, or all of the above. And as much as I was saying “No, no, don’t do that,” I was relishing them do that because it meant great things for the book. At times it’s almost like Marland wants you to not like Dom or Clementine, maybe even actively dislike them. Set that aside, because you will like them, because they are the protagonists hunting for a serial killer; because despite themselves they are likeable characters; and because they’re so well written, with so many layers, and nuances that it’s impossible for Marland to fully explore them and you want to know more. Both are in the middle of professional and personal crises as the book opens — and all of those crises are going to get worse before we leave them (yeah, Dom’s professional life is in worse shape than Clementine’s and Clementine’s been in crisis since just before those 3,006 seconds, so they’re not exactly parallel).

Sometimes the police investigation and the True Crime London’s investigation dig up the same information at about the same time, but on the whole the two follow very different approaches — one more methodical, careful and predictable. The other is haphazard, reckless and (at times) criminal. But both get results, and for the reader, we get a full-orbed view of the investigation which is almost as engrossing as the protagonists carrying it out.

The book is able to say a lot about online communities, True Crime (and some of those who love it as a genre), public acts of grief, criminal investigations and the media — and even a little about memory. All while telling a great story.

While I enjoyed the whole thing, the last quarter of the book was full of surprises that kept me leaning forward in my chair and completely glued to my screen as the plot raced from shock to shock to reveal to [redacted]. There’s a reveal that took me utterly by surprise, but made sense when you stopped and thought about it. There’s another reveal at the end that seemed fitting but wasn’t what you expected — and it followed an event that I never would’ve predicted. Oh, and that last sentence? I can’t tell you how many times I swiped my Kindle screen trying to get what comes next, unwilling to believe that was it.

I was a fan (almost instantaneously) of Marland’s alter ego’s Lori Anderson and that series. My Little Eye has made me a fan of the author — Broadribb, Marland, whatever names she’s publishing under, it’s an instabuy. This book got its hooks into me straightaway and didn’t let go, I resented work and family as they distracted me (however good or pressing the reason) from Clementine and Dom’s quests. I can confidently say that I’ve not read a mystery novel like this one — and that’s not easy this many decades into my love of the genre. I have no idea how Marland’s going to follow this one up — there’s no way that book 2 is a repeat of My Little Eye, but beyond that? No clue what she’ll be able to do. I don’t care — I just want to read it soon.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Orion Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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4 1/2 Stars