Spring is in the air (well not today) and I’ve been reading some excellent books which will be published in the coming months. I know I often say this, but I’m always struck by the diversity of what constitutes crime fiction and in this lot, I went from compelling historical noir to a thriller immersed in contemporary politics.
Star of the North is the debut thriller from D B John who coauthored Hyeonseo Lee’s bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea. In 1998, an American woman disappears from a beach on a South Korean island. She is mourned by her twin sister, Jenna, who works in Washington as an East Asian expert. She’s approached by the CIA and discover that her sister may be the victim of kidnapping by North Korea. As Jenna enters the CIA training programme, tensions escalate between North Korea and the US in the twilight years of Kim Jong Ill’s regime.
The Star of the North is perfect for fans of Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim. It’s a substantial read with the recruitment of Jenna entwined with the story of Cho, a North Korean functionary and Mrs Moon trying to earn a living in the regime. John cleverly plays with the concept to twinship without ever resorting to cliché and Jenna is a rounded and believable character. Star of the North is out on the 10th May.
Julia Heaberlin’s Black Eyed Susanswas one of my favourite books of 2016. Her follow up Paper Ghosts, published on the 19th April, tells the story of a woman who befriends the man she believes kidnapped and murdered her sister and takes him on a road trip to visit spots where she believes he killed other victims. Carl was a photographer and has snapped images of these places but, because of his alleged dementia, claims he has no memory of them. Less dark than Haeberlin’s previous book, I thought Paper Ghosts to be an interesting exploration of memory and loss. Haeberlin is excellent at characterisation, even of people the reader briefly encounters, and it was a lovely read.
I read MJ Tjia’s debut, She Be Damned, last year and was impressed by both the quality of the writing and the heroine, Heloise Chancey. Part courtesan, part detective, she’s a fascinating character who returns in the sequel, A Necessary Murder, which is out in June. A killer is stalking London, a small child is murdered in a privy and another victim is killed outside Heloise’s house. It’s another sumptuous historical thriller from Tjia and I loved returning to her world.
Finally, my favourite book of the year so far, American by Day which is out next week. Derek B Miller has written a cracker of a novel featuring Sigrid Odegard who readers might remember from Miller’s award winning book, Norwegian by Nights. Sigrid travels to the US to look for her brother, Marcus, who has gone missing. His disappearance may be connected to the death of a prominent African-American academic who died after falling from a building. American by Day is written with the author’s distinctive mix of intelligence and humour. Miller shows an excellent understanding of the clash between the Norwegian and American mindset and plays on these differences with a light touch. The story of the crime is never lost but the highlight, for me, was the unfashionable US setting and the excellent characterisation.
The Silent Companions has been getting excellent reviews and I’d been looking forward to a quiet weekend to read this new novel by Laura Purcell. Elsie, newly married and recently widowed, is pregnant and travels to her late husband’s house accompanied by his cousin, to await the birth of her child. There, she discovers a grim house, the object of mistrust by the villagers, where creepy wooden figures, the silent companions of the book’s title, keep appearing. It’s part ghost story, part historical mystery and a compelling read. There’s an inevitability about Elsie’s fate that keeps you turning the pages and the historical detail creates an atmospheric background to the unfolding drama.
Sarah Hawkswood writes mediaeval mysteries featuring Sergeant Catchpoll and Undersheriff Bradecote. The books are set in the Worcestershire area, a region I don’t know very well but am discovering in Hawswood’s books. In Marked to Die, a deadly archer is picking off his victims and disappearing into the forest, alarming the residents of Droitwich who threaten to take the law into their own hands to discover the culprit. I love the level of period detail in Hawkswood’s work and the life she imbues into her characters. There’s a hint of unrealised supernatural and a sense of fun in the narrative which makes the book a great addition to the series.
The Z Murders is by J. Jefferson Farjeon author of Mystery in White which became a bestseller following its reissue by the British Library. The Z Murders has an atmospheric beginning as traveller Richard Temperley arrives into Euston station on a sleeper train and goes to the smoking room at a nearby hotel at dawn to wait for London to wake. He finds the man with whom he shared his train carriage dead in the room and a woman he briefly saw sitting by the fire has disappeared. Motivated by chivalry and a desire to discover the truth of the killing, he outwits the police and goes in search of the woman. The book has such a promising start and I absolutely loved the description of thirties London. When the chase takes them across the country through Boston in Lincolnshire and on to Whitchurch the narrative is less compelling but it’s still an interesting read.
Kate from the classic crime fiction site, Cross Examining Crime, sent me one of her vintage boxes in the post a week or so ago. She sells them on her Etsy site either as a one off gift or as part of a subscription.
It was very exciting book post filled with crime fiction goodies and gorgeous coffee. The picture to the left is the box as it arrived. On the right is a shot of the box after I opened the packaging to see what mystery books I’d been sent which I couldn’t wait to read.
Skeleton in the Closet by A B Cunningham is set in a Kentucky valley where a skeleton is unearthed by two young boys. Sheriff Jess Roden investigates the killing, using his knowledge of the land and its flood patterns to calculate that the woman had been in the ground for five years. He quickly establishes the identity of the victim, who wrote a note to her mother to say she was going leaving and wouldn’t be in touch for a long time. The book was published later in Cunningham’s career and is adeptly written. By far its greatest asset is the character of the sheriff whose humanity and tenacity ensure that the killer, who comes as no surprise to the reader, is brought to account.
A more substantial read was the unfortunately titled Slay the Loose Ladies. I can see that the title was changed from Puzzle for Wantons which is no better, which is a shame as it’s a very good read. Admittedly the premise is grim, women who are intending to divorce their husbands gather at the house of rich Lorraine Playgel who invites along their errant husbands and the women begin to die. The book is humorous and dark, and the wealthy Nevada setting works perfectly.
Patrick Quentin was the pen name under which four authors wrote books featuring detective Peter Duluth. Duluth and his wife are wonderful creations and in the best tradition of husband and wife detective teams. Duluth gets more jaded in later books but here, on leave from his navy posting at the end of the Second World War, he’s a delight.
I’d never have picked up a book from either of these authors unprompted which goes to show the benefits of Kate’s excellent gift box. Do check out her Etsy site!
Reading continues for the 2018 Petrona Award judging session which is taking place in April. Here’s a summary of some of the contenders.
The Dying Game by Asa Avdic is an unusual read. Set in 2037, the Protectorate of Sweden is a dictatorship whose status isn’t recognised by the US or Western bloc countries. Anna Francis is a government official, intelligent and capable, who is sent to the remote island of Isola. Her mission is to pretend to have been murdered in front of a group of invited guests who will then be observed to see how they react. With shades of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Dying Game has an interesting premise but a confusing plot which nevertheless keeps the reader interested until the end. The translation is by Rachel Wilson-Broyles.
Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect is also set in the near future, here a paranoid Denmark. Susan Svendsen is gifted with an unusual talent: people are compelled to confide their secrets to her. This talent is magnified when she’s with her husband, the renowned composer Laban, who has a similar effect on people. After a trip to India, all of her family, including their twin children, are facing prison sentences. Susan is given the opportunity of an amnesty for their crimes, if she uses her talents to find out details of the secretive Future Committee. The Susan Effect is a very well written thriller which highlights what it feels like to be on the outside of ordinary society. The near future setting just about allows some of the slightly stranger plot points to work and this book is well worth a read. The translation is by Martin Aitken.
Antti Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died is a departure for this author whose previous books have been dark thrillers. Jack Kaunismaa is a mushroom industry entrepreneur who discovers he is dying due to prolonged exposure to toxins. He decides to investigate his wife and associates to uncover who has poisoned him, without revealing his diagnosis and comes under a barrage of assaults from those who wish him dead. The Man Who Died is a darkly humorous book which requires the reader to suspend reality for a moment, which is no bad thing.The translation is by David Hackston.
Finally, a Finnish offering with a twist on a couple of classic crime motifs. In Cruel is the Night, two couples meet in an expensive London apartment. Robert and Mikko have been friends for years but, as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that their lives and that of their wives are intertwined and beset by long-held grudges. By the end of the evening, three are dead. In a clever, contemporary take on Christie’s And Then There Were None with a dash of a locked room mystery, Karo Hämäläinen paints a portrait of wealthy lives and murderous intent. The translation is by Owen Witesman.
I love dystopian thrillers and have done ever since I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.The Feed of Nick Clark Windo’s debut refers to the virtual reality network which governs society in the near future. People have stopped talking to each other and communicate via a feed which allows family and friends long distances from each other to chat as if in the same room. One day, the feed is destroyed and Tom and Kate are forced, with their young daughter, to live in a society where no-one is able to fall asleep unwatched in case they are ‘taken’, their bodies invaded by an alien force.
The Feed is a complex but entertaining book. The ‘reality’ of the alternative world that Windo has created takes a while to get your head around but once you immerse yourself in the narrative, it’s a very rich read.
An Anatomy of A Scandal is a stylish thriller from Sarah Vaughan. Married government minister, James, admits to having an affair with a much younger colleague who accuses him of a sexual assault. His wife Sophie, who has known him since their student days at Oxford, is convinced of his innocence but the prosecuting barrister, Kate, is certain he is guilty and determined to bring him to justice. As the trial approaches, the women are forced to confront their respective pasts and the actions of a charismatic man who appears to be protected by the prime minister.
An Anatomy of a Scandal is a thoughtful, well-written thriller which explores the nature of relationships and how closely we’re prepared to look at personality of those around us . As a reader who doesn’t read many courtroom based crime novels, I thought these scenes were among the best and a fascinating glimpse into the world of prosecuting sex crimes. Given the quality of the prose, I’m unsurprised that the book is riding high in the book charts.
Tony R Cox is a former journalist and he uses his experience of working on local news to great effect in A Fatal Drug. Set in 1971, ambitious Derby reporter Simon Jardine reports on a mutilated body found in a hotel. Sensing a story, he digs deeper and uncovers a drugs network that extends from the Midlands to Spain. Cox’s depiction of seventies journalism is fascinating and it makes you long for the days of strong local news. You forget that, underneath the ‘peace and love’ portrayal of seventies hallucinogens there was a vicious side to drug supply and addiction. Cox provides an authentic portrayal of a cat and mouse chase around the brothels and drug houses in the city and I can’t wait to read the next book, Vinyl Junkie.
This post is dedicated to an Australian blogging friend of mine, Bernadette from Reactions to Reading, who sadly died recently. Bernadette was hugely supportive of both my writing and blogging and her own reviews were honest and uncompromising. I’ll miss reading her thoughts on both bestselling novels and those of crime writers who don’t receive the attention they deserve.
It’s Granite Noir this weekend. Last week I reviewed the books I’ve been reading for the first two panels I’m moderating. This post rounds up the rest of the books: it’s been fascinating to read the novels of four diverse crime writers.
On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be moderating the Page and Screen panel with MJ Arlidge and Stefan Ahnhem. Both writers combine successful screenwriting careers with writing bestselling crime novels. Eighteen Below is Ahnhem’s latest thriller featuring his detective Fabian Risk. A car crashes off a quay in Helsingborg but the autopsy reveals that the victim, Peter Brise, was already dead when he hit the water.Below Eighteen is a substantial read and, in the best Scandi style, Ahnhem moves the narrative beyond the confines of the immediate investigation to incorporate Risk’s family life and the politics of the wider investigative team. A real treat for Nordic Noir fans.
Love Me Not is the seventh book in MJ Arlidge’s series featuring DI Helen Grace. A woman is killed in a hit and run accident closely followed by the shooting of a shopkeeper. Helen Grace struggles to find the common thread between the murders as a killing spree spreads through Southampton. Love Me Not cleverly takes place over the course of a single day adding high tension to this fast-paced and compelling thriller.
At my final panel on Sunday morning, I’ll be talking to Louise Voss and Torkil Damhaug aboutPsychological Noir. Louise’s latest book, The Old You, isn’t out until May but there’ll be early copies available at the festival. It’s a fascinating thriller about memory loss and deception within a marriage. Ed Naismith is diagnosed with early-onset dementia which devastates his wife of ten years, Lynn. He becomes fixated on a possible cure for his illness while his condition deteriorates and Lynn begins to wonder if her own mental health isn’t begging to suffer. The Old You is a fascinating read and full of twists and turns.
Certain Signs That You Are Dead is the fourth book in Torkil Damhaug’s Oslo Crime Files series. A patient disappears at a university hospital and retired forensic pathologist Jennifer Plåterud is called in to examine the dead man. Her son, Sigurd Woods, believes his girlfriend, Katya is having an affair and begins to follow her about the city. It’s a complex, modern story with various threads weaving through the narrative. Damhaug is excellent at keeping up the tension.
I’m off to Aberdeen at the end of this month for Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s celebration of crime fiction. Last year’s event was great fun and I’m looking forward to visiting the granite city again. If you’re nearby, I’ll be appearing alongside Jorn Lier Horst and Mari Hannah on the May the (Police) Force be with You on Friday evening. It would be lovely to see you if you can make it.
I’m also moderating four panels which I’ve been reading for over the last few weeks. It’s always great to see what others are writing and, as usual, it’s heartening to see the diversity of stories which make up the crime fiction genre. Because there are a fair few authors involved, I’ve split my reading over two blog posts, the second of which will come next week.
My moderating begins on Friday lunchtime with the Breathtaking Thrillers panel with Lilja Sigurdardottir and Catherine Ryan Howard. I reviewed Lilja’s English language debut, Snare, in a previous post in a and it’ll be fascinating to dig deeper into the world of her Reykjavik thriller.
Appearing alongside her is Catherine Ryan Howard who I met in a recent trip to Dublin. It was a fascinating city to visit not least as I’d just read Howard’s latestbook, The Liar’s Girl. In this tightly-plotted thriller, Alison Smith, after a decade living in the Netherlands returns to Ireland to face her former boyfriend who is serving a sentence for multiple murders. Following a recent copy-cat killing, he states he has some news on the murderer that he is only prepared to reveal to her.The Liar’s Girl is very well written and unsettling thriller set around Dublin’s canals which explores the assumptions we make about those accused of heinous crimes.
On the Saturday, I’ll be interviewing Lucy Atkins, Sarah Stovell and Louise Hutcheseon about their books. It’s rare in a panel that themes intertwine seamlessly but all three authors have a written books that explore the world of authors and the truthfulness of particular narratives. In The Night Visitor, professor Olivia Sweetman publishes a bestseller, a book based on a Victorian diary found by Vivian Tester in a house where she is working as a housekeeper. Vivian’s role has been kept hidden from Olivia’s publisher and readers, but has created a dependent relationship that Olivia is determined to break. It’s a fascinating, page-turning read with the narrative alternating between London, Sussex and the South of France.
Exquisite by Sarah Stovell also documents a destructive relationship, here between bestselling author Bo Luxton and Alice Dark, an aspiring writer recovering from a fractured childhood. The women are drawn together after meeting on a writing retreat led by Bo but soon their views on what their relationship entails begin to diverge wildly. The unsettling Exquisite cleverly portrays an intoxicating relationship where secrets and power struggles hint at darker forces at work.
The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson is a short, exquisitely written book about the deception that Lewis Carson undertakes when, as a publishing assistant, he steals a young woman’s novel after she is found strangled on Peckham Rye. Hutcheson is excellent at deceiving the reader and it’s an intelligent and satisfying book.
I hope to see some readers of Crimepices at Granite Noir. Do come up and say hello if you’re there. I’ll be posting lots of pictures on my Facebook page.
A recent e-mail by new digital publisher, Sapere Books, alerted me to the fact they’re now publishing Linda Stratmann’s three books in the Mina Scarletti series. I had Mr Scarletti’s Ghost on my bookshelf and I rescued it this week to read. Spirit mediums are all the rage in 1871 Brighton, preying on the bereaved and vulnerable. A Miss Eustace claims to produce apparitions of the dead and ensnares Mina Scarletti’s widowed mother along with many of her friends, gaining financially from the seances. Mina is determined to expose Miss Eustace but comes up against devotees of the medium whose respectability in Brighton society is hard to break. Only by enlisting a band of family and friends can she expose the fraud.
Mr Scarletti’s Ghost is a clever and well written mystery with a wide-scale deception rather than murder at its heart. Particularly strong is the character of Mina Scarletti, disfigured by sclerosis of the spine but with a spirited character. I’m sure she will carry the series through many books and I look forward to reading more by Stratmann. This new digital edition is out on the 5th February.
The other book I’ve read over the last week isn’t out until May but, if you enjoy a thriller with a Cornish setting this one’s for you. Cliff House is Amanda Jenning’s fourth book and centres on a clifftop house which holds an enduring fascination for Tamsyn Tresize. She’s drawn to Edie, the daughter of the glamorous family who spend their time between London and the house, bringing a whiff of glamour and dissipation. Tamsyn’s mother, who cleans the house, warns against her getting too close to the family but both she and her brother, Jago are pulled into the destructive circle with tragic consequences.
Jennings cleverly sets most of the book in 1986, a time when bored teenagers drift into friendships just to while away the time. She touches on class divisions and local suspicion of outsiders along with destructive family forces. It’s atmospheric thriller which will delight her readers and if you haven’t read her books before, now’s the time.
I was hoping to publish this post in time for the 6th January, marking Epiphany by summarising four books I read over the holiday period. These are in addition to the Scandi novels which were the topic of my previous post. However life intervened so, a day late, here are some of my recommendations if you’re looking for a good read.
The Birdwatcher was rightly acclaimed on its publication in 2016 and I’m sorry it took me so long to read it (the curse of the TBR pile). Sergeant William South is a birdwatcher and policeman who avoids murder cases. However, when a fellow bird enthusiast is killed, his attempts to assist in the investigation reveal murderous secrets in the Kent landscape. I loved the mix of strong setting and unusual plot. No-one is quite who they seem and South’s back story adds poignancy to the plot. It has an interesting ending (no spoilers) and the lead detective DS Alexandra Cupidi has her own series in Salt Lane coming this year. I also read this over Christmas and it’s a little early to review yet, but I promise you it’s a good one. For those who hadn’t read William Shaw before, he really is an excellent writer.
Readers of this blog will know that Fred Vargas is one of my favourite writers but I’ve been a little disappointed in her most recent books. The Accordionist features her three evangelist characters who play less of a role than in previous books in this series. At the centre is an accordionist, Clement, sought by police for a number of murders. Ex-special investigator, Louis Kehlweiler is asked to help prove Clement’s innocence but isn’t helped by the accused’s learning disabilities and dark secrets in his past. It was an easy story written in Vargas’s trademark style and full of Parisian menace.
Fatal Evidence is a biography of Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, a surgeon and chemist at Guy’s Hospital who was a pioneer of forensic techniques in the nineteenth century. The book describes many of fascinating cases that Taylor investigated and the level of detail that Barrell gives us never threatens to overwhelm the portrayal of a complex individual. It’s a fascinating period. Poison was easily accessible and, until Taylor’s forensic work, its presence difficult to prove post-mortem. Poison is unfairly considered a woman’s weapon. As Fatal Evidence shows, all sections of society were using it: fathers, lovers, spouses, children, professionals. Barrell also describes the influence of Taylor on a succession of crime writers, from Dickens to Sayers. It’s fascinating read and, if you read one non-fiction book this year, Fatal Evidence should be it.
That’s it. Happy new year agin to everyone and look out for some posts on more of my nordic noir reading and also books I’ve been devouring in advance of Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s festive of crime fiction coming in February,
Christmas has been an excellent time to catch up on my Nordic Noir reading. We seem to have had a record year for submissions to the Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction and, as well as old favourites, I’ve been trying to catch up new writers to see what they have to offer.
At 467 pages, The Anthill Murders is Hans Olav Lahlum’s longest book yet. Lahlum’s books are distinguished by his classic-crime style plots and the unusual relationship between criminal investigator Kolborn Kristiansen and Patricia, his intelligent, paralysed assistant. The subject matter is unusual for Lahlum. There is a serial killer at large attacking women on the streets on Norway, thereby giving the narrative a wider canvas than Lahlum’s previous books. Nevertheless, I found the plotting to be very tight and, also, without giving too much away, with a nod to Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. This is probably Lahlum’s best book yet and is translated by Kari Dickson.
The White City by Karolina Ramqvist is the English language debut by a writer whose sparse and moving prose provided a much needed bite of reality over the Christmas period. It’s the story of a woman whose partner, involved in a series of shady dealings, has disappeared. Left with her baby, Dream, in a house that authorities are intending to take from her, Karin tries to track down her husband’s associates to claim his share of any remaining assets. It’s a very short but powerful read and an interesting insight into the partners of those involved in organised crime. I thought the book beautiful written and I hope more from Ramqvist is published here in the future. White City is translated by Saskia Vogel.
Hakan Nesser is one of my favourite writers and he never fails to disappoint. The Darkest Day is the first novel in a new five-part series Inspector Barbarotti. In a small Swedish town, a family are gathering to celebrate two generations of birthdays. When two members of the family go missing in apparently unconnected events, Barbarotti has to dig deep into family tensions to solve the crimes. The Darkest Day is an unusual book. It’s written in Nesser’s characteristic intelligent style but the resolutely Swedish setting and unusual plot lines are a departure. Although it took me a while to get into the story, it’s a clever and disturbing book. The translation is by Sarah Death.
Snare is the much anticipated English language debut by Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurdardottir. Sonia is a single mother blackmailed into smuggling drugs through Keflavik airport by associates threatening to harm her son if she doesn’t comply with their instructions. A customs officer, Bragi, beings to notice the smart young woman travelling regularly through the airport. Snare is a taut thriller with strong characterisation and some frank sex scenes. It’s good to read a book with a realistic lesbian character. The translation is by Quentin Bates.
I’ve had Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito on my shelf for a while and I’m sorry I took so long to get around to reading it as it’s a compelling book. Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a classroom killing which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other friends killed is a shooting massacre. We see the events leading up to both the killing and the trial through her eyes only, including her take on how her legal team handle her defence. Giolito effectively pulls the reader into the story with a single narrator and there are no easy answers as to motives behind the killings. An excellent translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles serves to highlight the occasional childishness of Maja’s justifications for her actions.
Have you read any good Scandinavian crime fiction over the festive period? I’d love to hear some of your recommendations.
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