Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Now here's something extremely cool

Just an FYI: this isn't a post about the book in the photo.

 I've been reading a lot of books lately that have me seriously unsatisfied and seriously rethinking this whole reading business.  Today one of my online friends brought a very cool link to my attention. I clicked on it and was blown away.  Everyone but me probably knows about it, but it's called "Furrowed Middlebrow", and it deals with "lesser-known British women writers 1910-1960."  The link I put here took me right to "the mystery list," and I was just floored.   If you're interested in this sort of thing, I highly encourage you click on over there and start reading. I plan to spend a LOT of time there.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

from the top: Reykjavik Nights, by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, 2014
originally published as Reykjavíkurnætur, 2012
translated by Victoria Cribb
294 pp

hardcover (read earlier this month)

As a rule, I'm generally not fond of surprises, but last month when I opened an email from Amazon UK and discovered that Arnaldur Indridason had another Erlendur novel out, I almost figuratively fell out of my chair.  After Strange Shores I figured "this is it - another one of my favorite series has come to an end," and went into figurative mourning. Now I am happy to report that Erlendur is back -- albeit as a young patrolman on the night shift -- in a prequel to the entire series.  A little online searching also reveals that there are two regular series novels left untranslated & unpublished (the two preceding Jar City) and one more prequel called The Match  set in 1972, two years before the setting of Reykjavik Nights.  I have to wonder  why we're getting the second  prequel before the first, meaning, who made that decision -- but the fact that there is possible potential for three more Erlendur novels to come out in translation makes me a little hopeful for the future. Obviously I am a huge fan -- no, that's not quite it  -- I actually love this series. 

On his regular shift one night, young patrolman Erlendur receives a report that takes him to the scene of the drowning  of a homeless man who went by the name Hannibal.  Since it didn't seem to investigators that there had been any foul play, CID assumed that Hannibal's death was an accident, and the case goes cold. After all, the man was known to be a tramp, CID  "had other fish to fry," and basically "no one seemed interested." Erlendur, however, had known Hannibal prior to his death, having crossed paths with him now and then, and just shortly before Hannibal's death, had listened to Hannibal when he'd claimed that someone had set fire to the cellar where he was living. Like everyone else, Erlendur didn't believe him.  Now, a year later, while Hannibal is just a name on a file tucked away somewhere in police archives Erlendur can't forget him. Flying under the radar of his superiors, he decides he has to find out what really happened to this lost soul  that night.   But Hannibal's case is just one of two cold cases Erlendur can't forget.  The case of a missing wife from the proverbial other side of the tracks in one of Iceland's better neighborhoods haunts him as well.

People who dismiss crime fiction and sneer at "genre" fiction in general obviously haven't read Indridason. Aside from his ability as a crime novelist who creates intriguing plots and characters who grow and develop throughout a long-running series, he is also an incredibly strong writer.  As just one example to highlight his talent in this area, there is a brief scene that caught my eye  in this book where Erlendur wonders why he's so "fixated on the fate of some poor tramp:"
"Whatever it was, something about Hannibal's sad story had captured Erlendur's imagination. His fate, yes, but also his dogged determination to withdraw from human society. Where had this need come from? What had caused it? Erlendur sympathised with his loneliness and mental anguish, and yet there was some element of his character -- the uncompromising fact of his existence -- that was also strangely alluring.  The way he had set himself against life and stood, alone and untouchable, beyond all help."
 Now, I ask you how often do you run across writing like this in your standard crime fiction novel? Rarely.

The very best element of Reykjavik Nights, however,  is not found in the crimes, in the idea that true evil doesn't discriminate between the best and worst neighborhoods in any city, in the social issues, or even in Erlendur's clandestine investigations.  It lies with Erlendur Sveinsson himself.  Even though he's very young and hasn't yet started on the career path as a detective ending up with the dream team of colleagues Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg,  the Erlendur whom readers know from the regular series novels is all anchored right here -- the loner, the traditionalist, the seeker of lost souls. Since I know how things are going to turn out for him later, I found myself, for example, actually upset when he started dating future ex-wife Halldora, because well, as everyone knows, that's just not going to turn out well.  It hit me while reading this book just how very much I've ended up investing in Erlendur over several years -- that may sound kind of stupid since he's a fictional character, but I suppose it  means that Indridason has created a character whose life I actually cared about. I can't honestly say that about most the characters in most crime fiction novels I read. 

Personally, I think this book works best for people who've already read the entire series (at least the ones that have been translated), although it can most definitely be read as a standalone. It's much more simplistic  than the other novels, and I'm inclined to believe that the author did that on purpose to keep the  focus on Erlendur himself, rather than on the crimes.  I appreciated the obviously slower pace for that very reason. 

I bought my copy in the UK; I'm looking at Amazon and I see that as of right now,  it's not slated for American publication by Minotaur until April of 2015 (9781250048424) . That's so long from now, but trust me -- if you can't pick it up sooner, it will definitely be worth the wait! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

back to my old tbr pile with Angelica's Smile, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2014
originally published as Il sorriso di Angelica, 2010
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
293 pp


"The game cositts o' doin' a most damage y'can do to the apposing couple, who'd be the avversary, bu' also trying' a proteck y'r own partner from danger." --- Catarella, 226. 

It is so nice to finally get back to my original big giant pile of crime fiction novels  that have just been sitting here stagnating for what seems like forever. And what a way to start, with one of my all-time favorite crime novelists, Andrea Camilleri.  Angelica's Smile is seventeenth in Camilleri's Montalbano series, with what seems to be four still yet to be translated into English.   As usual with these books, the focus in this story isn't so much on the crime or the crime solving,  but instead on Montalbano and the people surrounding him. This one is a little more on the personal side, with less reference to the social, economic and political issues that Camilleri usually brings to his work.

Our beloved inspector is now just two years short of sixty, and as in the last few books, he continues to muse about aging and growing older throughout the novel. He's still with long-time girlfriend Livia, and as the story opens, she is at Marinella with him for a few days.  As he's worrying about someone named Carlo she mentioned while talking in her sleep, and getting more upset by the moment, he is called to the scene of an odd burglary.  The couple that was robbed had been at their seaside home, where they'd awakened at six a.m. only to discover that they'd been "knocked out with some sort of gas," while the burglars "had the run of the place."  It was their anniversary, and they were entertaining each other at the time, so neither person heard any sort of break in.  Among a long list of valuables taken from the seaside house, the thieves stole their car and then proceeded to rob their regular residence. The only people who knew that the couple were going to be away were fifteen of their friends. As things turn out, there had been another burglary, "an exact duplicate," just three days earlier - and it isn't too long before the same thing happens again. When Montalbano is called out on yet another, he meets the titular and beautiful Angelica, the victim and also the "spitting image" of a woman he used to lust over as a teen in  Dore's illustrations of Ludovico Ariosto's 1516 work Orlando Furiosio, a  "poem about war and love and the romantic ideal of chivalry."  After seeing her for the first time, he's immediately swept off his feet -- and definitely attracted.

But even while he's mentally and physically lusting after his Angelica, as well as playing the role of her rescuer, there is still a number of crimes to solve -- including a murder -- and as an added distraction, the mastermind of the crimes is taunting the police, and then there's Livia, of course.

While it's pretty funny to see Montalbano as a loopy, lovesick puppy completely smitten by this reincarnation of  his teenage fantasies,  and while Camilleri continues his long-standing tradition of inserting colorful characters into the mix, let me offer a word of warning here as far as the crime solving goes. I made the huge mistake of going to Sartarelli's notes in the back re the poem Orlando Furioso (a natural inclination),  and twigged the entire plot all at once. Not the why of it, mind you, but trust me - if you read carefully, it's all there metaphorically speaking.  I figured out much more than I should have at an early stage, and ended up being disappointed, and that's not an adjective I generally use when it comes to this series of books.   And then there's this: I'm wondering if the author is getting a little tired -- this book just didn't seem to have the same oomph as his earlier Montalbano adventures that have been so lively up to this point. Still, it's a fun read, and in that vein I have to say that I probably haven't had so many good laughs with any other crime fiction series as I have with this one.  Like I've said before, you don't read Camilleri's novels for the crime -- it's all about the characters.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The White Van, by Patrick Hoffman

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014
242 pp

hardcover - from the publisher, thank you!

Set on the streets of San Francisco, The White Van opens to something I've not yet seen in my crime-fiction reading history.  Sitting in a local bar in the city's Tenderloin district one night, a 31 year-old woman named Emily Rosario meets a Russian man who charms her with whiskey and the promise of crack. She allows him to take her to a South Side Ramada Inn, where after the crack pipe comes out, he tells her that he and his wife (who have another room in the same place) are in town to make some money.  With the promise of two hundred dollars a day, he adds that they'd like her help in their plans. Emily, who had been thinking about leaving her cheating bruiser of a boyfriend and needed the money to do so, agrees, and she's treated to more drugs, pills this time. In a drug-filled haze for several days, she finally is told what she needs to do -- nothing terrible, just a little case of "identity theft."   As it turns out though, still out of her head drugged out, she's put into a van with a few other Russian people, and they head to a bank.  She gets step-by-step instructions on what to do via an earpiece in her head, and told not to worry -- that someone on the inside is in on it.  But as in most sure things, something goes terribly wrong and it's not the Russians who get their hands on the money.  

Enter policeman Leo Elias, a member of the gang task force. His life is spiraling out of control due to gambling and some very poor financial choices he's made, and it's so bad that his house is being foreclosed on and he hasn't yet told his wife.  His idea is that since the bank hasn't yet recovered the stolen $800 thousand-plus dollars, maybe he can get his hands on it using good old-fashioned police work and solve his monetary problems that way; but again, things just don't go as planned, and things take a definite turn for the worse. In the meantime, he's not the only one looking for the money.

from sfgate.com
 What follows is pure action -- the stuff of thriller novels to be sure.  Sandwiched in between all of the drug sellers, drug addicts, crooked cops, mobsters, etc. are the backstories of the main players showing how they all came to be here and what's motivating them to do what they're doing.

If the point of this book is that sometimes the people who are supposed to protect you can be just as bad as the people they're supposed to protect you against, well, it came through loud and clear. Or maybe it's that people in desperate circumstances will do whatever it takes to get out of them.  Or maybe it's just a book about the turmoil of life on the streets of San Francisco.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I had zero connection to any of the characters in this book, where normally I can at least try to empathize with people drawn into circumstances beyond their control.

The White Van seems to be made for people who prefer plot-driven, nonstop action thrillers; I discovered after reading for a while that I'm just not the right audience for this book.  However, if you look at the reviews that have been posted about this novel, I seem to be in the minority of opinion  once again -- it's getting some good press and high marks from readers. I'd say if you're a big thriller reader, this might just be a book to look into.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

for TLC book tours: The Summer of Long Knives, by Jim Snowden

booktrope, 2013
319 pp

paperback, sent by the publisher, thanks!

Another book by an indie publisher and author (who just happened to get his degree at University of Washington and lives in Seattle, the best city in America).  The premise of The Summer of Long Knives is a good one. It's 1936, and police Kommisar Rolf Wundt of Munich is ready to walk away from the Nazis and from Germany, taking his wife Klara with him. Wundt had earlier solved the case of the serial killer known as the Dresden Vampire, and he's a good cop. There's just one more case left for him to solve before he flees, that of a murdered little German girl found at a farmhouse belonging to the family Epp. But, just like in the real world, things do not always go as planned.

Even though Wundt and his team at the police department are on to a strong lead from photographic evidence they'd culled together, the case suddenly comes to a halt when the decision is made by higher powers to make Heydrick and Himmler  "the new lords and masters at KRIPO," effectively putting the SS in charge of German police forces. Under their watch, Jewish scapegoats are brought in for "questioning" in the case, then executed for the murder of the little girl. Wundt knows that these boys didn't do it, but with the SS in control, he's beaten, and what can he do? As he's getting ready to pack up and leave, he's going through some old files and comes across one from some years earlier that is linked to the little girl's murder, a file he'd never seen before, put there just for him.   Suddenly, his plans for leaving are put on hold as he realizes that he must solve this crime, not just for justice but for his own personal redemption. With the SS breathing down his neck, it's going to be difficult, and his investigation just may mean the end of his plans for freedom.

The author is on his game when he is focused on the crime segments of this novel as well as during his depictions of Wundt's frustration at the SS takeover of the criminal investigation agency of the police. The book starts out very nicely with the discovery of the body, leading to Wundt's investigation, and police work  that leads Wundt in a positive direction toward the possible identity of the little girl's killer.  When he turns to psychiatrist-wife Klara, who helps with profiling the killer, it's an added plus.  But around the crime, I had a lot of issues with the writing. Sometimes the SS people, most especially in their "interrogation" with the Jewish suspect in the girl's murder,  came across as truly stereotypical Nazis you might see on television. Then there are Wundt's inner musings. For example, there's one scene where Wundt is musing about Marlene Dietrich and her "magical reversal of power," her "indifference to men," and holding her up as the standard of German womanhood. Huh? Another example: on seeing his boss's naked torso at his raquet club, there's this:
"Rolf had never known just how much hair covered Helmut's body. Tufts of it sprouted from his nipples and their environs, and from the ridges of his shoulder blades, like swamp ferns. He'd need to have them waxed if he wanted to join the SS. From what Rolf had seen in the films, they had a smooth skin fetish." 
Huh?  These sorts of things pop up all throughout the novel (including a brief discourse on Bentham's panopticon which seems out of place), and to say that they're jarring is an understatement. The author also, from time to time, uses expressions that seem more at home in our current world than in Nazi Germany, pulling me out of the time frame.

Overall,  the author can write crime scenes well, and he's good at, as the back cover blurb notes, "telling stories about people who find that the rules they've lived by are turning against them." That theme comes through loud and clear in Summer of Long Knives.  However, I didn't really enjoy the periodic lapsing into moments I've noted above  that left me wondering about their relevance.  I read literary fiction all of the time so I get what he's trying to do here, but less would have been so much more in this novel, which started out so promisingly well. But once again, I'm probably being nitpicky --  I'm looking at reader reviews and they almost all seem to love this book, 4 & 5 stars pretty much across the board, making me realize just how tough of an audience I really am.

Once again, my thanks to the good people at TLC book tours, and if you'd like to read what other readers thought about this novel, you can follow them here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Lovesey rides again with The Stone Wife

Soho Crime, 2014
355 pp

arc, from the publisher (thank you!)

I have an entire room devoted to crime from the UK, and several shelves right in the center of that room hold volumes of Peter Lovesey's work. I first discovered his books when I found an old Penguin edition of Wobble to Death at a used book store, and from there I made a point of collecting every mystery/crime novel he's ever written. The Stone Wife is the fourteenth Diamond entry, and while it may not be as lively as some of Lovesey's previous novels, it's still a good light read. 

The story begins in an auction house where there's a bidding war going on. The fact that a couple of the bids are coming by phone is somewhat surprising, because normally the auction sale consisted of the "disposal of old bits brought in to the Bath office for valuation, many of them bric-a-brac or tat."  Obviously, there's something of value that's being auctioned off in lot 129, and whatever it is must be worth quite valuable.  The bidding started at five hundred pounds, rising  to an amazing twenty-four thousand when suddenly,  three masked men with guns come in, determined to take lot 129 for themselves.  This draws the ire of the winner of the bid, who becomes irate when the masked men start to cart off his prize, and in the process of trying to take it back he gets shot and killed.  The would-be thieves flee, leaving very little in the way of clues behind.  When lot 129 is uncovered, it turns out to be a medieval carving of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Wife of Bath," one of the pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales.  The dead man is identified as John Gildersleeve, a professor of Medieval English Literature. As Diamond and his team start to delve into his past, questions begin to surface, but the biggest one is this: was the shooting of this man a random act perpetrated by thieves, or had someone set up  some "Byzantine" plot culminating in Gildersleeve's murder?  While Ingeborg goes undercover to see if she can track the source of the guns, the rest of the team get busy trying to figure out exactly what happened by focusing on Gildersleeve himself. 

As with many of the Diamond novels, The Stone Wife reaches into Bath's historical and archaeological past; since Chaucer figures prominently in this novel there is also some discussion about the author's life, history, and works as well. The plot is not at all complicated and very easy to read -- this is definitely crime light, in a good way that brings out some of Diamond's little trademark eccentricities while he and the team solve a most baffling case with a wide array of potential suspects.   There are also a few scenes that draw the reader to the plight of modern development  impinging on historical or natural landscapes, and the powerlessness of locals who try to stop it.  On the other hand, the liveliness that exists between Diamond and the other members of his crime-solving team just isn't there this time as it has been in the past and I missed it.  Another point: there was much more going on than I felt necessary in terms of Ingeborg's undercover work -- imho, that part took up more space and reader attention than it really needed to, and sort of drew away from the main thrust of the story.    

If you haven't read the Diamond novels before, you could still read The Stone Wife as a standalone, but you'll have a much better grasp of the intrepid Inspector if you start from the beginning of the series. This is a good novel for readers of crime light -- not that there's anything light about a murder, but there's no major character angst, no gratuitous violence or sex, and it really is a good old-fashioned murder mystery that you can just curl up and escape with for a few hours. While it's not my normal thing, I will always make time to catch up on what Peter Diamond and his crew are up to.  Recommended, especially for those who like their crime and crimesolvers on the the tame side. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

back to the north: Spring Tide, by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

Hesperus/Nova, 2014
originally published as Springfloden, 2012
473 pp

paperback, copy for review - thank you, Shannon!

I have to offer kudos to the authors for their opening chapter -- I think they designed the first few pages totally for shock value and it worked.  There is one of the most god-awful crimes going on in that chapter, and seriously, I couldn't help but to be drawn in just to see who could have committed such a terrible deed. Eventually all is made clear, but in the meantime, a number of other things are going on that the reader must work through before getting to the big reveal.  On the whole, it's not a bad book -- there are a number of twists and turns throughout the story that keep things interesting and then there's that need to figure out who could have committed such an atrocious opening crime and why that kept me reading -- but on the flip side, there are definitely issues that keep it from being a much better book.

The story begins in 1987 on the west coast of Sweden, on a night of a spring tide.  While the tide is out, three people bury a woman in the exposed sand, leaving only her head exposed, knowing that within fifteen minutes, the waves would be rolling back in with the high tide that would raise the water level about 50 centimeters. They do the deed, not knowing that there is someone else on the beach watching them. As the tide starts to come back in, we are told that not only is this poor woman pregnant, but that her water has broken.  Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 2011, young Olivia Rönning, a police-college student, is just about to start her summer holidays.  One of her instructors has a file of cold cases in his hand, and offers them a "voluntary" summer project: they are to choose one case, make an analysis of the investigation, and see if they can find anything that have been done differently - "a little exercise in how cold cases can be tackled." Olivia chooses one that her father, now deceased, had worked on as a DCI in the national crime squad.  As it just so happens, it's the murder of the pregnant woman that occurred in 1987 in Hasslevikarna, on the island of Nordkoster. Olivia really gets into this murder study, mainly because the woman's identity had never been established  - and comes up with all kinds of ideas.  The first thing she does is to look for the original investigating officer, Tom Stilton, only to find out that no one seems to know where he is. Later she will discover his whereabouts and they will team up, but first, she decides to go to Hasslevikarna herself and find out what she can there.

While Olivia is off playing girl detective, the streets of Stockholm are in a bit of turmoil. Some very nasty people are attacking the homeless on the streets, beating them up,  filming the violence on their cell phones and then sending the video to a website called Trashkick.  The police haven't seemed very interested in getting to the bottom of things, but when a woman is killed, one roughsleeping man in particular decides he needs to find out who did this, only to find out that the problem is even worse than he'd imagined.  Then there's a storyline regarding a minerals magnate who maintains his interests through some pretty unsavory methods, but who will do anything to save himself and his fortune when someone from the past pops up, threatening to reveal a shared secret.  The book encompasses all of these plotlines, along with running social commentary,  mainly on the lack of a safety net for the not-so-fortunate in Stockholm.

from hem.bredband.net

So - while I enjoyed the basic whodunit solving of the story as well as  some surprising twists that kept cropping up that appealed to my need to play armchair detective,  I think the authors were a little overambitious here.  If the story had been reined in a little more, more tightly controlled with a lot of extraneous stuff edited out,  it would have made for much better reading.  Second, I just couldn't help noticing the number of  coincidences that play a huge role throughout the book, some of them just too fluky to be credible. Then there's main character Olivia -- while she becomes embroiled in this particular cold case for her own reasons, sometimes she comes across as a less-serious heroine than one would expect. It's almost as if the authors felt they needed a young-adult component to reach a wider reading audience.  Teaming her up with the inwardly-tormented Stilton was a great idea, but even there, he's definitely the one in control. And finally, while I think crime fiction is an excellent venue for exploring social issues, it has to be done in moderation and in the context of the story to come off in a very good way -- here, it's just a little overdone for my personal taste.

So far, from what I can tell, reader reviews have been positive, with a number of people eager for Spring Tide to branch out into a series.   If that happens, I would likely give a second book a read -- while the Börjlinds may be seasoned television scriptwriters, this is their first attempt at novel writing, and they wouldn't be the only newbie novelists who were a little overambitious initially but who came back stronger in their next attempt.