Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hanging Hill, by Mo Hayder

Bantam, 2011
432 pp

I don't believe I've ever read anything by Mo Hayder in the past, although I have her Birdman and The Devil of Nanking sitting on the shelf.  Hanging HilI is Hayder's eighth book, a standalone novel that I chose based on superlative reader raves.  Then when I read the dustjacket I was even more excited - a mother who is "forced into a criminal world of extreme pornography and illegal drugs," (!) and a detective's "crippling secret...which -- if exposed -- may destroy her" (!!) .  So far, so good -- ooga chooga -- can't wait to get into it.  Without the porn, maybe, this is the sort of thing that is right up my alley. 

The story revolves around the worlds of two very different sisters: Zoe and Sally. They have been estranged for some time and their lives took divergent paths. Zoe traveled around the world on her motorcycle and went into the police force where she finds herself having to compete in a man's world.  Zoe is the tough-as-nails type, has a fellow cop as a boyfriend and pushes herself to be even tougher.  Sally married, had a daughter Millie, and lived the lifestyle of an upper middle-class, stay-at-home mom until her husband divorced her. Now she has a boyfriend named Steven, lives with her daughter in a cottage, works as a cleaner in a service, and most of her friends no longer talk to her.  The main exception is Isabelle, mom to two of Millie's friends Sophie and Nial.  Sally has to count pennies these days, so when she is offered extra work by one of her home-cleaning clients, David Goldrab, she takes him up on the opportunity.  Goldrab is rich, but money doesn't change who he really is -- a lowlife who has made his fortune in porn and other seedy dealings.   The sisters' two disparate worlds come crashing together, however, after the murder of Lorne Wood, one of Millie's friends.  Zoe is handling the case, and when suspicion falls on one of Lorne's friends, Millie and her friends come in to Zoe's office to offer what they know.   Their visit leads Zoe to think that perhaps its time to come to terms with Sally and make amends for the past -- but Sally by this time has her own set of problems, including  how to pay back 4000 pounds Millie borrowed from a nasty drug dealer, and a confrontation with Goldrab that will change her life forever.

There are four one-word descriptions on the back of this book's dustjacket:  "Terrifying," "Stunning," "Haunting," and "Disturbing."  Sadly, the best thing I can say about this novel is that it's very accessible and reader friendly.   I started this book in anticipation of experiencing all of the above adjectives throughout the hours it would take to read the book, but truthfully,  I found the entire experience to be flat.   There are way too many silly sideroad subplots here with  holes the size of the Grand Canyon, the characters are just not credible, and the bottom line is that I didn't like it.   Yet once again I'm swimming upstream of the rest of the book's readers who as a rule, seem to disagree with my opinion. If you go to a random reader review or go to Goodreads or Amazon, people LOVED this book and it was awarded with 4 and 5 stars in many/most cases.   I may give her another try some day with the two books I have, but I won't be running to pull them off of the shelf any time soon.

crime fiction from the UK

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vengeance, by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt, 2012 (August)
320 pp
arc, thank you!!!

"He tried not to think of what was below the surface, of the murk down there, the big-eyed fish nosing along, and things with claws scuttling around on the bottom, fighting in slow motion, devouring each other."

My thanks to Librarything's early reviewers program and to Henry Holt for sending this copy.  Book number five in Black's excellent Quirke novels, Vengeance continues the winning streak of beautiful writing and excellent characterizations found throughout the rest of the series.  Black gets more playful with his language and literary references, the characters continue to deepen in scope, and the mystery is a definite conundrum that will keep you guessing up until the very end.  After I was finished with this one, I put the book down and said out loud to no one in particular, "damn! Now that was one ****ing good book!"  I shouldn't have been so surprised at how very good it is, since it's another one of Black's very intensely satisfying novels.  Feel free to disagree all you want, but after reading all five novels in one fell swoop over the course of a week and a half, my conclusion is that  the Quirke series is definitely one of the best and most intelligently-written out there. 

As the novel opens, Davy Clancy is on Victor Delahaye's sailboat, Quicksilver,  after being invited to accompany Delahaye for the day.  Invite isn't the right word, actually, since Delahaye is the big boss of the firm owned jointly by both families, and Davy can't really refuse.  Davy "was not a good sailor, in fact he was secretly afraid of the sea."  Out of nowhere, Delahaye takes out a pistol wrapped in an oily rag and shoots  himself.  Frightened out of his wits, Davy takes the gun and tosses it overboard.  He has no idea how to sail the Quicksilver, and he drifts along, waiting for rescue.  The death is confirmed as a suicide, leading to one question, so beautifully voiced some time later in the thoughts of  Victor's sister Maggie:

"...why had Victor taken him out in the boat -- why him? It had been Victor's way of sending a message, of leaving a signal as to why he had done what he had done. But what message was it, and to whom did he think he was directing it?"

The answer, as Quirke is about to discover, is not one to be revealed quickly or easily.  The Delahayes are a formidable clan -- rich and powerful, but as with most families in Black's novels, filled with secrets.  The wealthy Clancys have their secrets as well, but the Clancy side of the business is viewed with disdain by the Delahayes, who consider the Clancys their inferiors.   When a second death occurs, the mystery only deepens.

is the most current installment of the Quirke series as well as the newest chapter in Black's ongoing dark story about Dublin in the 1950s.  Throughout all of the novels, Quirke is the main vehicle Black uses to explore this city where life was pretty much dictated by the bonds tying together  the church, big money, and politics; it's also a place of many secrets and a lot of guilt.   Quirke's  job as a pathologist working in a hospital morgue  brings with it a certain amount of curiosity; as he says in the first novel Christine Falls, "Dealing with the dead, you sometimes find yourself wondering about the lives they led." 

I absolutely love this series -- Black's forte is in his creation of a particular place in a particular time as well as characterization.  In Vengeance, he has crafted a nearly perfect mystery but also leaves the question of justice for readers to ponder, as well as the relationships of parents and their children and the legacy each generation leaves for the next. It's one of the most chilling reads he's produced yet.

This one is my favorite of the five with Elegy for April  a very close second.  I would highly recommend beginning with Christine Falls before picking up the rest of the Quirke novels, because it lays the foundation for all that's going to come next.  Seriously, considering this is a series novel, it just doesn't get better than this. Not at all.

Macmillan Audio also has Vengeance available as an audiobook, read by John Keating.  You can click the  streampad bar below to listen to a sample. 

crime fiction from Ireland

A Quirke Quadruplet

“You think you’ve seen the worst of the world, but the world and its wicked ways can always surprise you.”

I recently received an ARC of Benjamin Black's newest novel Vengeance (published in the US in August and reviewed in my next post)  and started reading it, but I was so confused!  I had no clue as to who these people are and their backstories, and it drove me a little crazy.   Some years back I had read his Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, but hundreds of books in between later, my recollection of what had happened in those novels was totally nil.  So to do Vengeance justice, I grabbed the four Quirke novels I already have and decided to read them in one lump. But before I get to this Quirke-y quadruplet, here's my take on the author and the series.

John Banville, aka Benjamin Black

the author
 In his more literary life, Black is really John Banville, whose The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and whose new novel, Ancient Light, is sitting on a shelf here waiting to be read for posting on the literary side of my reading journal.   Benjamin Black likes crime novels, although the ones he writes are a bit heavier on the more noirish, existentialist side.   This came as no surprise when I did a little research on Benjamin Black and discovered that  "the impetus for Black" followed after author John Banville was introduced to the roman durs of Georges Simenon -- not the Maigret series, which he calls "slapdash" --  but rather the more "hard novels,"  which Banville states are "superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction."  At the same time, his crime books also contain elements that appeal to readers of more literary-type fiction, including lots of vivid imagery and in the later novels,  literary references for the reader to ponder.    These are not your average crime-series novels, but each installment seems to be part of one big, ongoing story.

the series
 The Quirke novels offer a look at Dublin in the 1950s, where life was pretty much dictated by the bonds tying together  the church, big money, and politics; it's also a place of many secrets and a lot of guilt.  They also address the question of evil in its various forms.   The main character, Quirke, is a pathologist, working in the darker environs of a hospital, which is perfect for him.  He is physically  "built like a bus," and can usually be found wearing his nearly-talismanic black suit, reminding his daughter of  "the blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning.”  When not working, Quirke can be found hanging out  in some pub or another trying not to drink but usually finding his resolve failing.  He's a solitary sort, and doesn't feel like he truly belongs anywhere.  Brought up as an orphan and then moved to a terrible industrial school before being taken in by the Griffin family,   Dublin is "His city, and yet not;"  as he notes, "no matter how many years he might live here there would also be a part of him that was alien."  Alienation is just one theme that carries through all of these books.  Quirke's  job also brings with it a certain amount of curiosity; as he says in the first novel Christine Falls, "Dealing with the dead, you sometimes find yourself wondering about the lives they led."  His need to know how they ended up in his morgue (or what happened to the missing in one case)  often lands him in situations where he finds himself in the role of investigator -- not officially and  usually reluctantly.   He works with Inspector Hackett, who needs Quirke for his ability to get access to those in "high places." Hackett,  though, is not a stupid man -- his experience has taught him how to cut through the crap.  Dublin is not "his city" as it is Quirke's -- Hackett  is biding his time, waiting for  retirement so that he can move back to the country and escape the "soiled associations" of the city. In the meantime, the two realize that outside of working very well together, they really actually know very little of each other, suiting them both just fine.

As one character in Death in Summer says about Quirke: "He thinks a good man can set the world to right, all the while not seeing that the last thing folks want is the world to be as it should be."   The dichotomy between reality "as it presented itself" and another, entirely different and hidden reality is also an ongoing theme,  the "veiled and deceptive nature of things,"  which Quirke tries to penetrate to find the truth. But Quirke sometimes just doesn't get it ... he often glosses over things people say, not realizing that there may be something vitally important in their words, but then again, he's only human, not some kind of detective super hero.  

While trying to find articles about Benjamin Black, I found one about Black's A Death in Summer  I bookmarked it because of this statement which sort of summarizes what you need to know about Quirke and where he falls within already-established crime fiction favorites:

"The quirks of Quirke are reassuringly familiar. He is known only by his surname (Dexter's Morse), is an alcoholic chainsmoker (Rankin's Rebus), loves poetry (PD James's Dalgleish), has a difficult relationship with a daughter (Mankell's Wallander) and has difficulty in sustaining relationships (everyone's everyone). Even the fact that, although a pathologist, his involvement in cases goes well beyond the dissection of the body nods to the convention of the forensic investigator popularised by Silent Witness and Waking the Dead on television and Patricia Cornwell in print."
Now that his books have become so popular, there's also a TV series in the works for the BBC.  Hopefully Americans won't have to wait forever to get a glimpse.

Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, Elegy for April and A Death in Summer (hazy, I know, but what do you expect from an iphone!)

the first four books
So now  it's time for me to turn to the first four books of this series and my brief summaries and my briefer thoughts under each one.   In general, it seems like once Black got past Christine Falls with its most worrisome scenes moving Quirke from Dublin to Boston (which just didn't work for me although I did get what was going on and why Black played things that way), the books just got better. As you read each book, you realize that each one reveals a little more intense scrutiny of 1950s Dublin, of which Black/Banville notes  "it was a hard time, a hard city, and a dark place to live."  The characters never stop developing, either -- just as much as Dublin becomes more of a reality, so too do these people.  Overall, this is a truly great series of novels, very rich in atmosphere and people;  the literary-quality writing is heads above much of what you'll find on current crime fiction shelves in the bookstores.

Picador, 2008
369 pp

Christine Falls is the Quirke series opener, and it begins one night after a hospital party when Quirke has had a little too much to drink.  He comes down to his office to discover  his brother-in-law, obstetrician Malachy (Mal) Griffin writing in the file belonging to a newly-arrived corpse named Christine Falls. But since his head is a little fuzzy, he's not really sure what he's seeing at the time.  Later when he goes back to figure things out, he realizes that Mal has actually been altering the file -- Quirke's autopsy reveals that Christine died while giving birth whereas Mal's alterations show that a pulmonary embolism was to blame.  Questioning Mal, he's told that he's better off leaving things alone, but Quirke, whose signature curiosity gets the better of him, tries to piece together Christine's story.  Officially he keeps quiet because he's not sure how it all links back to Mal, but Quirke just can't help delving into Christine's life, which may not have been such a smart idea.  He finds himself being followed; a woman who gives him a little insight into Christine Falls ends up dead, tied to a chair, yet he still doesn't get the message.  As he states:

"In his world, the world he inhabited up in the light, people did not have their fingernails broken or the soft undersides of their arms scorched with cigarettes; the people whom he knew were not bludgeoned to death in their own kitchens."

Quirke isn't naive, but what he doesn't realize just yet is that he's come up against a very powerful group of men who will do what they have to in order to keep Christine's story from being uncovered.  Quirke's search for the truth reveals a host of problems, from poverty to the interlocking of power held by the Catholic church and the wealthier members of the highest ranks of Dublin society, who are not-so-coincidentally respected and powerful members of the Church.  These are men whose long arms reach into every facet of the city's power structure, including the press,  and  will not have that perfect apple cart of a status quo upset by anyone.  

While not my favorite book in the series, the novel introduces its readers to Quirke, and to Dublin in the 1950s, and for the most part, I liked it.  The first half or so of the novel is just about perfect in terms of setting the tone and atmosphere as well as cluing the reader about the power scene,  but once the narrative moves to Boston it turns more to the side of personal melodrama that doesn't play so well and really sort of derails things before they come back around to what's going on in Dublin.   However, Christine Falls lays the groundwork for changes in Quirke's personal life; what happens in this book will become the basis for the rest of the series, so I definitely recommend it and reading it first before any of Black's other novels.  While the author does recap the basics in the other four novels, reading them is not the same without building from this one.

Henry Holt, 2008
290 pp.
hardcover ed.

With Quirke's life now in a bit more of a muddle after the revelations made in Christine Falls,  he is making more of an attempt to stay off the drink, but he always needs that one more -- but "of course, it would not be just the one."  But it's over tea that he meets with Billy Hunt, an old schoolmate he hasn't seen in years.  Billy's wife Deirdre was found in the waters of Sandycove Bay, seemingly a victim of suicide, and he asks Quirke to forego an autopsy, claiming that he can't stand thinking of her "sliced up," wanting to preserve his memories of her before she died.   By law, Quirke is required to do a postmortem, but agrees to see what he can do for Billy.  Back in the morgue he lifts the plastic sheet covering Deirdre, a hairdresser who also went by the professional name of Laura Swan, and while he's trying to picture what may have happened to her, he comes across a small puncture mark on the inner side of one of her arms.   While struggling over what course of action he should take now, his better judgment warns him to "stay on dry land," but
"he knew he would dive, headfirst, into the depths. Something in him yearned for the darkness there."

Conducting an unofficial autopsy anyway, Quirke realizes that this was no suicide and begins his own investigation.  Offered to readers from an omniscient, third-person pov that frequently switches, as Quirke sets to work trying to figure out exactly what's happened, and as his daughter Phoebe becomes caught up in her story in her own way,  Deirdre's story is revealed, little by little via flashbacks, interspersed with action in the present.  The Silver Swan reveals a nightmarish view from below, so to speak, in various forms of darkness that envelop seemingly ordinary people in the city.

There are some incredible characterizations here beyond the main players of this series: Dr. Kreutz, a "spiritual healer" who, along with Leslie White, slowly begin to erode Deirdre's sense of freedom; Billy Hunt, Deirdre's husband, and Deirdre herself, who wants to rise above her origins and make something of herself but who makes some very bad decisions.   But what really sucks you in is the whole nightmarish scene of what people are capable of -- and Deirdre's story takes you down into an abyss among some of the worst. 

Definitely recommended, but let me say something here.  Black's focus is not so much on plotting the perfect crime or following the success or failure of the police investigations in this book, or for that matter in any of his books -- it's largely on the characters who inhabit the streets of Dublin and the forces around them that lead them to act as they do.  If you would keep that in mind as you read, it will make the experience that much better. 

Henry Holt, 2010
293 pp
hardcover ed.

We start moving into deeper, blacker  territory here with Elegy for April, a trend that continues through the two novels following this one. This book also happens to be one of my favorites in the series.   

The book appropriately begins in the fog, which hangs over the story throughout -- and finds Quirke at the House of St. John of the Cross, a "refuge for addicts of all kinds, for shattered souls and petrifying livers," where he'd checked in after a six-month drinking binge  he could barely remember.   For Quirke, "stopping drinking had been easy; what was difficult was the daily, unblurred confrontation with a self he heartily wished to avoid."  During his daughter Phoebe's last visit before Quirke checks himself out, she tells him that one of her friends, young  Dr. April Latimer, has seemingly left without telling anyone and that she's concerned. None of their  group of mutual friends have heard from April in a week.  At first Quirke tells Phoebe that a week is not so long a time, but he does promise to make some calls.   Phoebe, however, remains concerned, especially when she and another friend go into April's flat and find what may be blood in the bathroom.  Not too long after Quirke releases himself from rehab, he, Phoebe and Hackett make their way to April's home, where they discover blood on the floorboards.  They decide to go and visit April's family, but they find themselves up against the epitome of Dublin's "fiercely-Catholic" powerful, the Latimers.  April's Uncle Bill is no less than the Minister of Health; her mother Celia a widow of a well-respected GPO war  hero, a powerful socialite, known for her good works and for having the ear of "many at the pinnacle of power in society;" April's brother is a powerful physician known to be "concerned with keeping condoms out and maternity hospitals full."  After they go to the family with their concerns, Quirke and Hackett both realize that the family is starting to distance themselves from April while simultaneously closing ranks.    That doesn't mean, however, that Quirke will stand down from his enquiries.

Elegy for April  is the best of the novels among the first three.  Not only is the central mystery intriguing, but the fog that begins in the first chapter immediately establishes a very real sense of the claustrophobia that pervades Dublin at the time, and also conjures a murkiness that lingers through the mystery of April's disappearance.   Throughout the story there are "lingering ghosts," that reflect not only the hold of the past, but the "poison of the past" as well, something Quirke knows very well. Racism is added to the ongoing list of the city's ills, Quirke may or may not have a found a girlfriend, and Phoebe is becoming more fully developed as a character.   And while the post-dénouement action might seem a bit contrived, it works in a clumsy sort of way.   All of that is really sort of secondary though, because in this novel, it's the  literary quality of the writing and the depth to which Black dives into character psyche  that stand out above everything else.   I was so taken by and wrapped up both areas that sometimes I forgot I was reading a crime novel.

  Definitely recommended -- and, as with all of the Quirke novels, they should be read in order to get the most out of them.

Henry Holt, 2011
308 pp
hardcover ed.

It was a drowsy day in summer, a perfect day for a death:

"When word got about that Richard Jewell had been found with the greater part of his head blown off and clutching a shotgun in his bloodless hands, few outside the family circle and few inside it, either, considered his demise a cause for sorrow."

Thus begins A Death in Summer, the fourth novel of this series.  As Richard "Diamond Dick" Jewell lays there in his own gore in his beautiful estate called Brooklands,  Quirke and Hackett, the two  "Connoisseurs of death," arrive on the scene.  Jewell runs the Daily Clarion, Dublin's top-selling newspaper, and while the death looks like a suicide the press isn't going to run it as such, since suicides were never reported in the newspapers.   Quirke, who had met Jewell some time earlier at a charity function,  doesn't believe it's a suicide anyway.  When talking to Françoise Jewell, Richard's widow, and his sister Denise (Dannie), he is stymied by their seeming lack of care and wonders "who are these two women really and what was going on here?"  That's but one question on his mind as he and Hackett begin their investigation.  They will once again mix in the Olympic realm of the moneyed classes who are very adept at hushing up any hint of scandal and quite skilled at keeping secrets, as the investigation takes Quirke back to Françoise (more than once)  and to Jewell's business rival, Carlton Sumner.  One of the leads will also  take Quirke to the orphanage where he spent a short amount of time before being taken to an industrial school;  although he's there to inquire after someone who may hold some information, he also wonders if he isn't there to "knead" some of his old wounds.   But what he learns may just be the key to unlocking the whole sordid business.

Aside from the portrait of the powerful in Dublin, Black also takes a look at the deep vein of anti-Semitism that flourishes there.  Jews are another group of people who find alienation in the city; many of them won't use their real names and opt for one that is less ethnic.  Even though the latest Lord Mayor, Briscoe, is Jewish, there are still a lot of people who are victims of prejudice; David Sinclair, Phoebe's new boyfriend, is one of them.   There are several subplots that eventually come together at the end, and there are enough diversions to keep any mystery reader well occupied. 

While Black continues to amaze me here with his imagery and his gift for language, and especially with his characters, this book just takes forever to get anywhere.  Normally I don't mind the slow pace in Black's novels, but this one sort of dragged in several spots.  When the action picks back up again, however, it turns that out the slow interludes can be forgiven because of the most evil and haunting nature of the crime, which ultimately has Hackett making the proverbial deal with the devil to gain any sort of justice:

"It's the times, Dr. Quirke, and the place. We haven't grown up yet, here on this tight little island. But we do what we can, you and I. That's all we can do."

highly recommended -- as are all the novels in this series.  They are simply superb. 

crime fiction from Ireland

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Shadow Man, by Mark Murphy

Langdon Street Press, 2012
348 pp
(copy sent to me by the publisher -- thanks!)

A few weeks ago I got an email from Ashley at Langdon Street Press asking if I would care to read and review Mark Murphy's first novel The Shadow Man. My ARC reading schedule and the stacks of books already waiting for me said no, but I was intrigued because the novel was set in Savannah, one of my favorite places in the US -- except in the summer when people from out of town absolutely melt from the heat.   The book is a thriller/suspense novel with more than a hint of the supernatural edging around the action of story in the form of dreams and Native American raven lore. Although I'm not really a huge fan of the mix of supernatural and crime,  the book has a really evil bad guy, a story that never lets up and a hapless victim caught up in a situation well beyond his control.   With the disbelief factor ruled in, and despite a couple of picky-reader plot-element issues,  I liked the creeping tension I felt while reading The Shadow Man; considering that this is Murphy's first novel, I think he did a fine job, and I wish him success.

On a dark night somewhere deep in the Florida swamps, a man  in a boat is busy feeding the alligators with the cut-up body of a woman.  The woman was his victim, and now he needs to dispose of the evidence of his crime.  Deep in the swamp with its  Spanish-moss covered trees and palmettos all around him, there is no one but the man -- or so he thinks.  He becomes aware of a huge flock of ravens, numbering in the thousands, all staring at him.  He's a bit unnerved -- although he takes no stock in it himself, he knows that the Seminoles here believe in "Spirit guides and communion with nature, being one with Mother Earth, all of that garbage." As the man, known only as Q, returns to his jeep , the ravens go crazy with their "caws and screes," and go flying off, their wings "blotting out the stars in the sky."  And so begins The Shadow Man.  There's a touch of otherworldliness at work here in this story of an innocent doctor falling victim to a serial killer whose MO involves setting up others to take the blame for his crimes.  As another man pursues the justice that has eluded him for some time, he will also cross paths with the doctor, and they will join forces in an effort to put a stop to the mysterious killer who has caused havoc and tragedy in both of their lives.  Hopefully they can do this before anyone else gets hurt. 

The target of this serial killer is Dr. Malcolm King, a surgeon who lives an ordinary life with his wife and daughter in Savannah. As the novel opens, he's just returned from a conference in Miami, happy to be home again. But it's only a couple of days later that his nightmare begins.  A policeman comes to his door to question him about  the death and evisceration of a neighbor's dog, making a remark about Malcolm being a surgeon and knowing anatomy pretty well.  Then someone breaks into his house.  Later,  people who Malcolm knows or with whom he has a connection start dying, and the  evidence left behind at each crime scene seems to implicates him in the deaths.   Although one of his best friends is in the police department, Mal senses that it's only a matter of time before the cops come to pick him up, and after a warning, he feels it's in his and his family's best interests if he takes off.  As he's leaving he runs into another victim of the serial killer, Billy Littlebear, who has been trying to find the guy who's been tormenting Malcolm for his own reasons.   Together they try to clear Mal's name, but the question is -- will they be able to do so before the killer strikes again?  As you are reading and start to become uneasy over the elaborate preparations the murderer has taken to put Malcolm in the frame, a mystery unfurls, one that underlies a great deal of the action: why is Mal targeted specifically?

The book is a good ride, building reader tension as Malcolm is slowly being framed for one terrible incident after the other.  It should be a be a big draw for readers who like the boom-boom-boom action of car chases, police evasions and explosions. As far as setting, the author aptly provides a little of Savannah's history to offer a very nice feel for this lovely place, and doesn't limit himself to just city limits -- he moves his action outward  to nearby areas as well.  My picky-audience issues  with this book are with plot details in a couple of places that just didn't sit right (for example, the scene where Malcolm rushes home, fearing that the killer is there and NOT informing the cops who show up only much later), and dialogue that once in a while doesn't ring true and doesn't fit  (would a serial killer really say "I'm the serial killer?").  IMHO,  it's very careful attention to little details like this one that move an author's work to the next level of  reading intensity.   At the same time,  first novels are often the most difficult -- and a lot of first-work writers make these types of errors in crime writing.  A word about the ending -- since the author has chosen to interweave the serial killings with Native American lore and supernatural elements, it turns out to have been quite appropriate, although  I'm a bit puzzled as to why Murphy felt he needed to go the supernatural route, because the story of the murders and setting Malcolm up to take the fall would have been good on their own without it. 

I think that The  Shadow Man will definitely appeal to readers of action-packed thrillers; it also may be a good choice  for readers who like standalone serial-killer novels and don't mind a little brush with the supernatural here and there.  While the mix isn't really something I do very often and is out of my crime-reading comfort zone,  I do have to admit that poor Malcolm's plight had my stomach in knots for a while and that finding out the whys behind the frame-up was very satisfying. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB Classics, 2012
originally published 1963
245 pp

My favorite fiction is the edgy, gritty kind where some poor guy, for some reason or another,  gets drawn into a hopelessly screwed-up situation and finds that it just keeps getting worse, despite everything he does to try to escape.   These kinds of stories start off innocuously enough, but within just a very short time my tension starts to build, joined by a restlessness and a quickly-growing sensitivity to the fear and paranoia emanating from  the hapless character. When that level of unease stays with me the entire time I've got the book in my hands,  I'm positively elated.  This feeling is precisely what I look for when I pick up a crime novel, and this is exactly what I got in Dorothy B. Hughes' The Expendable Man.  What happens in this novel is nothing less than one man's nightmare played out over the course of a few days of his life; between the lines Hughes pens her own insights into issues pertinent to the time & place of this novel's setting.

Dr. Hugh Densmore is an intern at UCLA, and he's left the city to be with his family for his sister's upcoming wedding in Phoenix.   In his mother's borrowed car, he's making his way through the desert highway and notices a hitchhiker along the side of the road. Normally, he "knew better" than to stop for hitchhikers, but this time it's different -- leaving the young, teenaged  girl at the side of the road just wasn't something his conscience isn't going to  allow him to do:
"He had sisters a young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift."
Although his growing uneasiness on the drive leads him to make plans to leave her at the border before crossing the state line into Arizona,  that idea backfires and he takes her on into Phoenix. He drops her off at the bus station and she's gone.  But the day after she makes a surprise visit to his hotel room,  he hears an announcement on the radio about an unidentified girl.  Grabbing the newspaper, he discovers that the body of a young girl has been found in a nearby Scottsdale canal.  He quickly discards any idea of helping the police identify her,  but later an anonymous tip sends the cops directly to him -- as a suspect.  He hides the situation from his family and tells the police the bare outlines of his story,  but he's just certain that they're going to pin the girl's murder on him.  They delay an arrest, but growing ever more paranoid that it's going to happen at any moment,  he spills everything to Ellen, a family friend in town for the wedding. Densmore now has no choice but to try to prove his innocence.  He has to show that he played no part in the girl's murder before they take lock him away for good:  "because of circumstance," he has been tagged as the "sacrificial goat,"  and he knows it.  But time is ticking and no one but Ellen believes him. 

A  taut, thoroughly convincing and highly atmospheric novel, The Expendable Man is a classic "wrongly-accused-man" story with a bit of a twist that adds an extra layer of reader tension when it dawns on you exactly what's going on.  Hughes is superb at plotting and pace; her descriptions of the Arizona desert are spot on.  For example, in describing a ride through the desert night, she writes:
"The moon was high and white; each fence post, each clump of cactus was as distinctly outlined as by the sun. The mountains were moon-gray against the deep night sky. A dog barked from a distant house, the only reminder that they were not on a distant planet."
The atmosphere she creates with phrases like these also reflect Densmore's own isolation throughout the story.  Her characters and dialogue are all believable as well, but beyond the normal components of this kind of fiction,  Hughes also incorporates people from different walks of life into her story, all the while  scrutinizing American attitudes regarding race, socio-economic status and crime in the early 1960s.

The Expendable Man
is among the best books I've read all year, and I can't recommend it enough.  Sure, the wrongly-accused-man thing has been done before and for many modern readers used to the gimmicky serial killer type reads that top the charts today,  it might come across as a little tame or outdated.  But this book goes well beyond just another novel of crime fiction, spilling into the realm where empathy takes over:  the reader remains trapped in Densmore's nightmare just as much as he is, up until the final sentence. That's how much power Hughes has over her audience.  And I loved every second of it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Blood-Red Rivers, by Jean-Christophe Grangé

(read in May)

The Harvill Press, 1999 (UK)
originally published as Les Rivières Pourpres, 1998
translated by Ian Monk
328 pp

I had never heard of this book before, but one day I was looking for a foreign film to watch on Netflix and came across a movie called "The Crimson Rivers."  I started watching it, and as the opening credits flashed by, I realized that the movie was based on a novel of French crime fiction called Les Rivières Pourpres.  I put the movie on pause, asked Mr. Iphone for a translated version -- and there it was in the form of Blood-Red Rivers. I switched the movie to something else, and thanks to the miracles of modern technology, the book was at my house within the week.  So I finished the novel on the last day of May,  turned on Netflix again, and got a huge surprise -- the movie had been radically changed from the book -- which is why I always read the novel before seeing the film.   For me the book fell into the edge of the "okay" range, because it started out strongly and promised a lot, only to flatten out disappointingly when the big reveal comes because of the incredibly farfetched story behind the events in the novel. 

Pierre Niémans is a police superintendent in Paris who, as the novel begins, is one of the officers overseeing the 1400 policemen who are tasked with keeping order at the Saragossa v. Arsenal soccer match.   The cops are preparing for the post-game riot, and they are not disappointed.  Niémans also has his hands full as he watches two men gang up on another and kill him, throwing his body over a bridge where it causes a massive car pile-up.   He follows them, catches up and while under attack by one, beats him senseless with his gun. The damage is so severe that Niemans' boss wants him out of town before all hell breaks loose. He is sent to Guernon, a fictional town in the  Grenoble police jurisdiction,  where a man had been discovered completely naked, mutilated, and stuck in a rock wall.  As the investigation gets under way, and another death is discovered,  the scene switches to  policeman Karim Abdouf, from the Lot area, who is sent out to investigate a robbery at a local school where it appears that nothing's been stolen. He is also sent to a cemetery where a child's tomb has been desecrated -- a deed for which the local skinheads might or might not  be responsible.  Abdouf soon discovers that his two bizarre cases are actually linked -- and eventually his cases link up with the one Niémans is investigating.  

Up until just past the midway point of this book, I was actually enjoying this story -- there's certainly a great deal of atmosphere, the two main characters were really flawed (perhaps a little too much, though -- I didn't really care for Niémans all that much; his career washout was his own doing)  and the trail followed by Abdouf that links him to Niémans is well plotted and eerily mysterious. There are plenty of red herrings to keep you occupied and some dead ends that are frustrating but only add to the mystery of the story.  And then we come down to the part of the novel where the whodunnit and the motive ( neither of which I will  reveal) start to become clearer, and suddenly I'm on the edge of hurling the book across the room because of its level of sheer incredulity.  

While I didn't come away from Blood-Red Rivers with a satisified feeling, other readers have given it 4- and 5-star ratings and awesome reviews.  Once again, I find that I'm a tough audience -- the plot behind all of the action was just so silly I couldn't wrap my head around it, but I did like it up to that point so I can't totally discount the entire novel.  If you don't mind a farfetched motive that strains credibility at times, go for it -- it ends up as more of a "thriller" type novel  than a serious novel of crime fiction.

crime fiction from France

Black Skies, by Arnaldur Indridason

Harvill Secker, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Svörtuloft, 2009
translated by Victoria Cribb
330 pp
(American release date??)

Black Skies is book number ten in the series that normally features Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson and his team from the Reykjavik police -- number eight to be translated into English --  set during the same time period as his previous novel Outrage.  Erlendur is still away on his jaunt "out east" in the area where he grew up.  While Outrage focused on the talents and inner demons belonging to Elinborg, Black Skies puts Sigurdur Óli in the limelight.  Once again Indridason delivers; even without Erlendur (who I really wish would come back -- enough of his being gone!) the novel is just as captivating, set just a few years prior to Iceland's financial crisis at a time when everyone is mortgaged up to the hilt or in debt up to their ears because of the easy credit to be had. 

On the same Monday morning that the discovery of a body sparks the murder investigation from Outrage, Sigurdur Óli receives a call from his friend Patrekur.  They meet later, accompanied by Patrekur's wife's brother-in-law, Hermann, who reveals that he and his wife were victims in a blackmail scheme.  It seems that some time back, Hermann and his wife became members of a club of swingers (the wife-swapping kind), and a like-minded couple, Ebbi and Lina, took photos of their sexual escapades, and are now threatening to post those pictures and spread them all over the internet unless Hermann coughs up the cash.  But aside from the money, which Hermann doesn't have, the career of Patrekur's wife Súsanna might be at stake -- she's an assistant to a cabinet minister and has plans of her own in the political arena.  Patrekur wants Sigurdur Óli to "sort these people out,"... "before things turn nasty."   Too late: Sigurdur Óli arrives at Lina and Ebbi's home at the same time she's being beaten by a guy with a baseball bat, who escapes.  Trying to save Patrekur and Susanna a great deal of embarrassing publicity, he doesn't tell his colleagues all he knows, keeping his friends' involvement a secret from the other cops working on the case. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands, working around the police investigation to try to find out exactly who is behind Lina's savage beating and ultimate death.  His investigation will take him into the murky world of banking and credit, ultimately exposing many of the flaws in the system that will later cause Iceland's economy to tank.  

But trying to solve Lina's beating and keeping his friends' names out of the newspapers are not the only things on Sigurdur Óli's plate: aside from the "Black Skies" that portend Iceland's coming financial woes, he has his own darkness to deal with: he and his wife Bergthora have split and his father's been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Another figure under the black skies is Andrés, an alcoholic down-and-outer who comes to Sigurdur Óli about a man who ruined his life and set him on his present path.  This is a storyline that has appeared in another book in the series (I just can't remember which one but the bells went off in my head) -- he's known to the police already, but this time, Andrés has some small bits of evidence to offer and Sigurdur Óli tries to make some sense of his sad story, which continues throughout the novel.

I have loved all of the Indridason series novels, and this one is no exception.  If you're a regular Indridason follower, I don't have to say how well written these books are, with very real and human characters populating the pages.  Black Skies is no exception, and as always, the author explores many of Iceland's social issues via his storylines, along with a running theme of how parents have the power/responsibility to shape their childrens' future one way or the other.  Between his previous novel Outrage and the current one, he also does something very few authors have done -- he allows the supporting cast its day, allowing readers to become  more  deeply involved in the lives of his characters -- especially here, as Sigurdur Óli comes to terms with factors that may be lurking behind his rather arrogant sense of self.

Super book -- I heartily recommend it, but do NOT let this be your first exposure to Indridason's series.  Start at the beginning and make your way forward so that you can capture the author's excellent characterizations.  A definite no-miss for Scandinavian crime fiction fans.  Sadly, I'm not sure when this book is going to be released in the U.S., but I bought mine through so it is easily available.

 crime fiction from Iceland