Friday, December 26, 2014

"to allow those people an existence, a life" -- Escape, by Dominique Manotti

Arcadia Books,  2014
originally published as L'evasion, 2013
translated by Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz
161 pp


"If I want to try and salvage our past, there's only one thing left for me to do. Write novels."

In the little bio blurb at the front of this novel it says that Dominique Manotti's
 "gritty Euro noir novels tell the story of France's modern social evolution, for better and worse..." 
and personally, I think it's most excellent that crime fiction provides the means by which she can do this.  I was speaking to someone just the other day about how crime novels, when done well,  serve as the perfect vehicle for illuminating  a country's social, economic and political issues.  Here, in Escape, the author looks back to Italy's "Years of Lead," and to a contemporary (late 1980s) community of political refugees, now emigres in France, and one woman in particular who is prompted by the publication of a novel to seek out the truth.   There are really two major points in this novel: truth and perception,  both sides of the same coin, if you just think about this for a moment. It is an excellent book, one that will keep you fascinated as you work your way through the maze of different realities within.

In Escape, Filippo is a young prisoner in Italy whose cellmate and "only friend", Carlo, has spent hours and hours talking to him about his past as a member of the Red Brigades. Filippo is on scene doing his job in the bin room (that's garbage cans for American readers) when Carlo makes his escape. Thinking it's probably better to escape with him than to risk more time for aiding and abetting, he joins his friend in a dumpster that's being hauled out and finds himself free.  The escape has been well planned -- a car is waiting, a man and a woman are there to take Carlo away. Instead of allowing Filippo to join them, Carlo eventually hands him a bag and an address in Paris and tells him they're parting company and that Filippo should find Carlo's Paris friend, Lisa Biaggi, and tell her what happened.  Filippo feels "orphaned," and that Carlo's ditched him, but decides to go to Milan via mountain paths, through the "godforsaken landscape,"  finally reaching the city of Bologna. There, while sitting at a cafe, he reads that Carlo has been shot and killed during a bank robbery in Milan, and he also finds an earlier paper that states that Filippo, "common prisoner" was a "key accomplice in a meticulously planned jailbreak," and that he could possibly be held accountable for the two deaths that occurred during the bank robbery.  Off he goes to Paris, where Carlo's friend Lisa gets him a job and a place to live, but then wants nothing more to do with him. After a while, the tedium of being a night watchman starts getting to him, and he starts thinking: first about Lisa, who blames him for Carlo's death, and then about her friend and his landlady, Cristina, who doesn't know he exists:
"For those two women, Carlo's a prince and I'm a piece of shit. They helped me because Carlo asked them to. Fair enough. But Carlo doesn't belong to them. They don't know him. The closeness of being in jail, the breakout, the dangers, the ordeal we went through together, that's our story, Carlo's and mine, not theirs. 
Filling in Lisa's face into one of  his doodles, he thinks
 "Before Carlo died, as he set off for his final battle, he said to me, "Tell Lisa."  I've got to tell it. How? Put my trust in Carlo, listen to my memories, let his words come out. And when I have my whole story nice and tight...Those two will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men."
Night after night Filippo works on that story until it becomes not only a novel, but a bestselling one that exceeds the publishers' expectations. It's a novel that embellishes Filippo's own role vis à vis his friend Carlo and creates a "Carlo faithful to himself, more real, a Carlo he could legitimately love."  It also transforms  Filippo into a hugely public persona, a larger-than-life figure who as time goes on, will draw the attention of opposing factions, leading to some startling consequences.

This novel is very much about the nature of truth, controlling the narratives of truth, and about perception. The history behind the Years of Lead are still highly controversial, and throughout the novel the author examines how political maneuvering and collusion among different right-wing groups, the secret service and others led to terrorist acts that were blamed on  left-wing groups like the communists, the idea being that if there's enough violence and death in the streets, people will have had enough and call for more conservative elements to maintain order. Great for conservative politicians and for economic "progress," but the real facts are kept under tight control and history is rewritten, while the truth is buried.

At some point, though, the reality needs to be "salvaged." And how better than in a novel? It's a brilliant idea on Manotti's part, and I have to say that while Escape is not a conventional crime novel in any stretch of the imagination (a huge selling point for me), it's an excellent story that fuses past with present, reality with lies, politics and the personal.  It also makes me want to go read everything Manotti has written in the crime arena. Super book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, December 22, 2014

obscure darkness brought to light: A Dark Corner, by Celia Dale

Faber and Faber (Faber Finds), 2008
originally published 1971
155 pp


The best way to describe this book: stomach churning.  A Dark Corner is #4 in my ongoing project of finding and reading obscure women writers, and it is easily available in paperback from Faber, it has been reproduced as as part of the publisher's excellent Faber Finds series.  And so far, it's been the darkest and most edgy novel of the four.  Actually, I had no idea at that I was going to be so completely devastated by this novel when I first picked it up. Oh my god -- to say that this book is dark is an understatement.  I like dark as a rule, but I'd just read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Stephen Gregory's The Cormorant, both of which are beyond disturbing, so it's been darkness on darkness on darkness, which even for me is too much all at once.

Arthur and Nelly Didcot  live in a small but respectable house on London's Wardlow Road.  On a dark rainy evening,  Nelly is summoned to the door where she discovers a young man named Errol with a terrible cough. He's got an ad for a room in his hand, but he has mistakenly come to the wrong street, looking for Wardlow Crescent.  Nelly, though, takes pity on him and brings him in for a cup of tea and a warm up by the fire. Errol has a fever and Nelly just can't bring herself to send him on his way.  When Arthur comes home and Nelly tells them they have a house guest, Arthur's not too happy, but allows Errol to stay. Soon the temporary arrangement becomes more permanent, and Nelly's happy -- she's a shut in, she'd lost her son when he was a teen, and her affection for Errol begins to grow. Arthur also seems to get used to the arrangement, taking Errol around with him on his Sunday walks and showing him the "project" he's been working on for years in the privacy of his den that no one, not even Nelly has ever seen.  Errol returns Nelly's affection, but how he feels toward Arthur eventually becomes an entirely different story.  The dynamic between the two literally pushes Errol into the titular "dark corner" from which there may be no possible escape.

The darkness in this book, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the number of dead bodies that are literally piling up, but with what actually goes on behind closed doors in that house on Wardlow Road. A Dark Corner is a story that reveals the secrets that hide behind the facade of respectability; it also asks the question of  how a seemingly normal person who prides himself on his high moral and ethical standards can turn out to be a monster who is free to roam the city streets.  As a warning to potential readers,  this book contains a lot of racist content, but it is not done maliciously, instead reflecting a psychotic sickness lodged in the mind of a truly evil and demented person.

What happens in this novel literally made me squirm on several levels and actually left me unable to sleep after finishing it. However, the worst part of the entire novel is the message that literally  anyone might turn out to be the human monster of this book and we may not even have a clue.

definitely NOT for the faint hearted.

Monday, December 15, 2014

out today -- The Devil in Montmartre: A Mystery in fin de siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus, 2014
256 pp

arc -- my grateful thanks to the author and to the publisher for my copy

The truth of the matter is that books like The Devil in Montmartre used to be my go-to favorites for a very long time -- historical crime fiction, set in a specific time period in a specific place. I  read so many novels in that subgenre that I burned myself out after a while and had to move on to something else entirely -- in fact, I can't even remember the last time that I made an active decision to read a period crime novel.  Now after reading this one, I remember why I used to enjoy them so much.  Plus, any book with Toulouse-Lautrec as a character definitely has my vote.  Even though it's very much lighter than my normal fare, it's still quite good. 

The year is 1889, and it's only two weeks before the closing ceremonies of that year's Expedition Universelle. A year earlier, London had been in the grip of fear because of the horrific acts perpetrated by Jack the Ripper.  So when a female torso is discovered in a city sewer, the police want to catch the murderer as quickly as possible to stifle any rumors that the Ripper has crossed the channel and set up shop in Paris. The chief inspector of the Sûreté Paul Feraud, knows that he needs his best man for the job -- and that just happens to be Inspector Achille Lefebvre.  Only thirty, Lefebvre is "a new breed of detective," one who believes wholeheartedly in applying modern investigative techniques in his work. And he's going to have his work cut out for him.  But he gets lucky:  the autopsy report reveals a startling clue that points Lefebvre in a particular direction even though someone is doing his level best to put the frame on someone else, and the report of a missing woman gives him a potential lead on who the victim might be.  He has to work quickly, though -- while he's working hard to make sure he gets everything right, his rival in the police department has his own ideas about how to bring a quick end to the case, one that could definitely incite mob violence in a city where the divisions caused by the Dreyfus affair are still fresh and are still on everyone's mind.  

The Devil in Montmartre is set in the Paris of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, where the whirling skirts of can-can dancers mesmerize the customers of the Moulin Rouge, where the small boîtes serve as meeting places for professionals and street people alike, a place where art and artists flourish. The author easily captures this atmosphere and the beautiful parks with their gardens visited by tourists from America and England; in contrast to the beauty and excitement of the city, he also takes his readers into dirty back streets and alleys and out into areas controlled by the city's criminals, places that most visitors to the city never see. It's also very obvious that the author put in a LOT of time on research, especially in the area of police work and contemporary investigative methods.  Putting that together with his character construction,  it's impossible to believe that this is his first mystery novel. And anyone who's ever read what I write here knows that I'm not averse to saying exactly what I think, so that's high praise.  Trust me -- I've read enough first novels to feel qualified to judge. On the other hand, and this is probably more on my end rather than his since it isn't all that obvious, I figured out the who quite early into the story. I wasn't overly keen on the romantic parts either, but that's a personal thing and an area where I tend to find myself in the minority.   However, I will say that the book made for fun reading. 

Hopefully there will be a sequel some day, but in the meantime, The Devil in Montmartre should especially appeal to fans of historical crime fiction or historical fiction in general. It's lighter than my normal crime preferences, but there is definitely  a good central mystery to be solved, and even though a headless torso may make some people maybe want to think twice about picking up the book, the violence is not anywhere near graphic nor is it overused or used gratuitously in any way. That in itself is commendable these days.  I think Mr. Inbinder has done a fine job here with his first book. I hope it's the first of many. 

another one from the vault: They Rang Up the Police, by Joanna Cannan

Rue Morgue Press, 1999
154 pp
originally published 1939


"The bother about detective stories is that they're not the least like life."

They Rang Up the Police is Book #3 in my ongoing quest to read books by obscure women crime writers -- both novels and authors that have been either forgotten or never heard of in the first place.  In the case of all of three, it's been the latter for me. So far I've been batting a thousand in my choices: first with Dorothy Bowers and more recently, Marjorie Alan, and now with They Rang Up the Police, which is a most unusual mystery novel published in 1939.

Marley Grange in rural Oxfordshire is the home of the Cathcarts. Unlike the older families living nearby, the Cathcarts do not have roots in the area, but rather had  "made their money," a fact that sets them apart in the local class scheme.  Living at Marley Grange are Mrs. Grace Cathcart and her daughters,  Nancy, Sheila and Delia.  There was a Mr. Cathcart at one time, but old Humphrey is "at rest now," a situation that Mrs. Cathcart prefers, since there is
"... no stamping in the dressing room, no snores, no clearing of a smoker's throat, no arguments about the number of blankets, no sounds, no movement, no will but her own."
The sisters are all homely spinsters, the youngest 38, and Delia, the eldest at 43 is "the most worldly of the Cathcarts, and is referred to as "the man of the family."  Sheila is "the highbrow," while Nancy is lovingly known as "our home bird," the sort of woman who would rather stay home and sew.  It is a harmonious household,  so it seems, and Grace has worked hard to bring up her daughters "to be as courteous and considerate to each other as they were to strangers."  The sisters address each other as "darling," and Delia carefully watches over her siblings and runs the household capably, taking care of every problem down to dealing with the servants.  She also hunts and breaks in horses.

As the heat ratchets up in the summer, Delia has taken to sleeping outside in a secluded area of the yard next to the house in a small camp bed.  One night she goes to her "mannish" bedroom, puts on her "serviceable striped silk pajamas and a woolen dressing gown," and heads on outside for a good night's rest.  The next morning, Delia has disappeared. The rest of the family is in a dither, and after Nancy drives around the country lanes to look for her, they decide to call around to see if anyone's seen her. When that proves to be futile, "they rang up the police." Then they make a strange discovery: Delia's suitcase is missing, along with a blue-flowered dress, her hat, and a pair of shoes.  The police, represented at first by local Superintendent Dawes, sees a love affair in the disappearance; the rest of the women quickly shut that idea down.  After Dawes, described as "common," and  an "ordinary policeman" by Nancy, bids them goodbye, Mrs. Cathcart decides they'll just have to find Delia themselves. In calling around to Delia's acquaintances, they discover that another local resident is missing --  a Captain Willoughby of Lane End Farm, a horse-riding friend of Delia's.  Could there be a connection?  Grace has had enough -- and she pulls some family strings and gets the attention of someone at Scotland Yard.  Inspector Guy Northeast, whose career literally hinges on solving this case, is called in to get to the bottom of Delia's disappearance.

While my description of the story in  They Rang Up the Police may make this book sound like yet another novel in the English country murder mystery tradition, it is really anything but. Yes, there's a grand house with servants, stables, and a tennis court, and yes, there are a number of clever red herrings built into the story to keep the reader guessing.  However, the hedges that keep Marley Grange out of public view off of the main road also hide something else that is more sinister (okay, I know this word is way overused, but it fits) than what's normally found in the standard, garden-variety, traditional-genre tropes.  Unfortunately, the gut punch comes at the very end of the book, so I can't really go there.

Aside from the cringeworthy, nails-scraping-a-chalkboard Cathcarts, Cannan has populated her novel with some very bizarre characters one doesn't normally find in a book like this one. My favorite is Gerda Willoughby, a would-be artist, philosopher, self-proclaimed member of the intelligentsia whom the Inspector refers to as "Yet another Ancient Mariner," and "quite tiresome enough to drive a man from home without the incentive of an affair with another woman." In modern parlance, she's a total flake, and her antics are laughworthy but also sad because of how they reflect her sense of alienation among the people in this society. There's a socialist chauffeur, his boss who is a grumpy old curmudgeon, a drunken veterinarian who hides secrets of his own, and the list of suspects goes on.  Cannan also has a winner in her Inspector Guy Northeast, a farm boy who did not want to be a farmer, but who instead had dreams of being a Mountie in the RCMP.   After leaving home, he finds a supporter in an aunt who encourages him to follow his dream of being a policeman. After some minor successes, he finds himself on the promotion track and achieves the rank of inspector at Scotland Yard.  However, he bungles an otherwise open-and-shut case so he's on the receiving end of all of the cases that his superiors at the Yard find too dull to take on themselves, and his career is definitely at risk by the time he takes up the case at Marley Grange. At times in this case he displays a definite nostalgia for farming, mostly because as a farmer no one is around to tell him what to do. He has to deal with the likes of the local policemen who can't fathom that anyone of the upper crust might possibly be involved, that the answer to the strangeness of any of the female characters is due to "sex repression," and that more likely than not, it's going to be a member of one of the working classes who is guilty.  Once again, class difference is a major theme that runs throughout the entire book.

Without giving anything away, it is ultimately the psychology behind the crime which, along with the unusual character makeup,  makes this book extremely readworthy and sets it apart from the work of Ms. Cannan's more well-known and more popular contemporaries.  When all is said and done, all of the zaniness leading up to the ending fades away into a heartbreaking sense of sadness that left me feeling sympathetic rather than antagonistic toward the offender, something that rarely happens, but in this case just feels right.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Holmes is dead and darkness falls" -- Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 2014
304 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

The first word that came to my mind after finishing Moriarty was this: "clever." 

If you've read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, then you know from Watson's account  "The Final Problem" that  Holmes and his arch-rival Professor James Moriarty toppled over into the falls, marking the end of the world's greatest detective and the world's most sinister criminal.  You also know that it was just a clever ploy on the part of Holmes so that he could flush out Moriarty's remaining network of evildoers.  Back in London, though, the bad guys didn't know that part of the story, so you'd think they would be having a field day.  But they're not. Moriarty's death left a big vacuum just begging to be filled, and sadly for the criminals in town, the new crime boss is  even more ruthless than Moriarty ever was. The criminals in this book are far nastier than any Conan-Doyle has ever dreamed up; there is a no-holds-barred attitude in this story when portraying just how evil and downright sadistic this new criminal contingent actually can be. Sadism, murder, and torture are just a few of their erstwhile talents, and their reputation has already spread quickly through the streets of  London and the criminal underworld as well. 

Our narrator offers his name right away. He is Frederick Chase, a senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency out of New York. Chase was actually at Reichenbach five days after things went down.  After taking the reader quickly through the main events of the story, he then says that the story that he "must" tell begins on the fifth day after the deaths of Holmes and Moriarty.  It is on that day that a man has been fished out of  Reichenbach Brook, and the day that Chase first meets Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones. Jones is a major devotee of Sherlock Holmes and has been since he helped the great detective with events in the story that came to be known as "The Sign of Four," and before Chase could say anything, Jones offers a brief demonstration of the deductive powers he's learned by studying Holmes' methods.  He deduces that Chase is a Pinkerton's agent and that only one week earlier, he'd "set off for England in the hope of tracking down Professor James Moriarty."  Needless to say, this demonstration and the fact that Chase needs British police assistance in his task is the start of a friendship as well as a cooperative effort -- with no Holmes to safeguard the streets of London, the two find themselves up against a group of criminals now under the aegis of their new and cruel  master. 

The character of Jones, who had been portrayed by Watson as rather incompetent in "The Sign of Four," and again as a"laughing stock" in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," is by far the most interesting of them all here.  While recuperating from a case of rickets after his work in that case, he had "dedicated the year of his hiatus to the betterment of his career as a detective." He had been "beaten" by Holmes twice, and so vowed to "make himself the equal of the world's most famous consulting detective." His home office is more like a shrine, where he's "read everything that Mr. Holmes has written," and has "studied his methods and replicated his experiments,"  making "Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life."  According to Jones' wife, who doesn't have the same feelings for Holmes, Jones actually believes that he is Holmes' "equal."  So obviously, he has something to prove here, and it made me wonder if perhaps he's gone a little off the rails mentally. He literally becomes a walking pastiche of the great detective, a trait that ultimately will do him little in the way of favors. 

 Given that the man wants to be Holmes, it's no surprise whatsoever that  there are a number of Holmesian tropes in play here, and it's also not surprising that the author has fun with them.   There's one particular scene that I quite liked and thought worked very well.  All of the detectives who had ever worked with Holmes come together in one room for a meeting, some praising Holmes while lamenting his demise; others who are ready to "embrace his going as an opportunity" for the detectives to "achieve results" on their "own two feet." What all agree on, though, is that at least they won't find themselves "caricatured" by Watson any more.  

As good as those scenes are, and surprising as some parts may be, it takes a while for this story to get off the ground actionwise since the reader is being introduced to the main players and we get a replay of Reichenbach Falls.  Then there are some moments of tedious description here and there (do we really need to know what was in the stew?) and sometimes the story just sort of plods along with exposition.   However, if you're not a Holmes purist looking for any sort of Conan-Doyle style of perfection,  Moriarty turns out to be a fun - not great - just fun read with a surprising scene toward the end leading to a finish that I won't divulge. I've seen some reviews that say it was contrived -- and maybe there's something to that, but hey - it was still a fun book. 

I read this book through the generosity of the publisher and through TLC book tours, and you can follow what others have to say as it makes its way through several readers by clicking here.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

may she rest in peace: PD James has passed away at the age of 94

I've just read that P.D. James, who has entertained me for many, many years, has passed away.  You can read more here, but I will just say that not only have I enjoyed each and every Dalgliesh novel she's ever written, but I had just last week finished watching the dramatization of her Death Comes to Pemberley on Masterpiece Mystery.

rest in peace - and thank you

Monday, November 24, 2014

another really obscure writer: Marjorie Alan -- Dark Prophecy

MS Mill, 1945
originally published in England as Masked Murder
188 pages


Talk about obscure -- while researching this author, all I could find on her is the following:

real name: Doris Marjorie Bumpus
born: 1905
number of books: eight, published between 1945 and 1956 

One would think that a crime writer with eight novels under her belt would be more widely known, but I've scoured the internet and have come up with absolutely nothing other than what I've written here, absolutely bupkus on Bumpus. If anyone at all has any information about this author, please share -- I would love to know more.

I found my copy of Dark Prophecy online -- a true 1945 edition with a little tiny blurb about the printing just before page one --
"This book is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all government regulations controlling the use of paper and other materials."
-- a product of the War Production Board of the time, which 
"directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.[2] It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper[3]and plastics."
 So much for the history (although I do think it's kind of cool). Dark Prophecy, as I learned at the mysteryfile blog, falls under a subgenre I've never heard of called "Had I But Known." In fact, the review posted  there by William F. Deeck, says
Had I but known, I wouldn’t have begun the book. But unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey."
Well, I'm not so quick to shrug it off (I mean, seriously...what the hell kind of review is that?)  but Dark Prophecy reads like an English country-house murder mystery with a little hint of romance thrown in.  The main character of this story is Valerie Beech, formerly of Abbott's Rest, but now living in a bedsit in London. It seems that Valerie's father was up to his eyeballs in debt and sort of never told anyone; when he died, Valerie discovered that the family home had been mortgaged.  To try to cover the debt, she sold what furnishings she could, but  that didn't even come close to what the old man had owed. Now Valerie's a "hard-up business girl" in the city, so when she receives an invitation to a weekend house party at Wayfarers, the estate next to Abbott's Rest, she decides after some hedging back and forth to attend.  Wayfarers is the home of Frank and Carol Logan; Frank was once Valerie's fiancé until Carol stole him away. Because of Valerie's shame at losing Abbott's Rest and because of the marriage between Carol and Frank, she hasn't been back to that part of the country in a very long time, but she decides to go despite all of the past history.  The minute she gets on the train at Paddington she realizes "in a clear, definite premonitory flash," that she probably shouldn't go, but she does anyway.  Even though she's a bit uncomfortable at first, things go well for a while until hostess Carol receives a death threat in the mail. But even a death threat won't stop the festivities -- Carol has planned a lavish costume party. She dresses like a bride, wearing a black mask, and outfits Valerie in a "Moorish costume" with "wide mauve trousers and a yashmak," another word for a face-covering veil.  It seems like everyone is having a good time and Carol decides to play a trick on one of her male guests. She asks Valerie to exchange costumes with her -- and while Valerie is reluctant, she decides to play along with the gag.  While she's waiting for a signal to come downstairs and rejoin the party in her new garb, someone takes the opportunity to get rid of Carol in the room next door. Enter Inspector Ferris, who is a friend of one of the guests, and who has his work cut out for him with a large cast of potential killers -- and first on everyone's list, of course, is Valerie.

While the book's publication date is 1945, there's very little in the way of clues as to when the action in this novel actually takes place. My assumption is that it's set during the 1940s, however, I may be wrong here. There's pretty much nothing here that touches on World War II: the men at the house are all young, none of them have any wartime or post war-involvement  issues, and the war isn't even brought up anywhere.  While Valerie is obviously from an upper middle-class background and Wayfarers is filled with people who seem to be quite well off (at least one guest is an artist whose wife lives in London while he paints in the country), the only hint of any class issues is Valerie's father's financial problems that have set her apart from her former neighbors and sent her to London to work.

 Getting back to Deeck's review, I find it to be pretty harsh, considering that by his words " . . . unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey, " he probably never actually read it. True, the wording of the book will make you work a little harder while reading (but it's not nearly as stilted, for example, as something by John Dickson Carr), and true, the story takes pretty much forever after the murder to get to the solution. It's also a little too much romance for my taste, but to her credit, it's less simpering-heroine-type stuff than I expected.   When all is said and done, however,  Alan reveals that basic human nature doesn't really change underneath the veneer of  the well-kept lawns, the at-home tennis courts, and the Rolls Royces of the rich.

If  you can find a copy, and if you're a diehard classic British mystery fan or a fan of country-house murders  looking for another author to read, I'd say give it a try. I  plan on trying to hunt down some of her other works to add to my library of obscure women crime/mystery writers.  The fact that Alan is such an enigma actually appeals to me and makes me want to read more of her books.  Definitely not a novel for those who want a quick read.

Friday, November 14, 2014

pure vintage: Postscript to Poison, by Dorothy Bowers

Rue Morgue Press, 2005
originally published 1938
190 pp


Originally published in 1938,  Postscript to Poison is the first of only five books by British author Dorothy Bowers, who died only ten years later after a battle with tuberculosis.  Bowers had wanted to "make creative literary work" her career, but found herself the owner of  “a fairly regular spate of rejection slips from various editors”  instead.  She also read a great deal, and discovered an "intermittent" attraction to detective fiction, selecting "only ...the best." She eventually started writing mystery novels herself which ultimately led to her being inducted to the detection club in 1948, but her novels soon went out of print.   Thanks to Rue Morgue Press, her works live on and are widely available.  Sadly, she's been overlooked or forgotten at mainstream crime fiction/mystery  info sites like, an oversight which, imho, needs to be corrected. I've already ordered her second book in this series, Shadows Before, which I'm definitely looking forward to reading after having finished Postscript to Poison, so obviously it means that I enjoyed this one enough to merit another.

When the epigraph in the first chapter of a novel has to do with Lady Macbeth, it's definitely notice worthy. Good old Lady Macbeth -- that ambitious,  ruthless and very powerful woman -- could almost be an alter ego to the matriarch in this family drama. I say almost -- unlike Lady Macbeth, Cornelia Lackland is an elderly widow and she dies by the end of chapter two. It's only after her death that the full scale of her tyranny is revealed, which brings to light just how much everyone at Lacklands hates her, and with what I'd say is good reason. She probably would have made a good murderer had she not been a victim.

Before Mrs. Lackland dies, however, there is some monkey business at work in the town of Minsterbridge. Her physician, Dr. Faithful, has received a couple of nasty poison pen letters accusing him of poisoning his patient, and decides to turn them over to the police. While Mrs. Lackland had been ill, she'd recently been making a very good recovery, and was healthy enough to have been excited about the coming visit with her solicitor Mr. Rennie. But even though the good doctor has given her a good prognosis, he is called out to Lacklands one night only to find her dead.  He refuses to give a certificate of death, and calls for the coroner, ultimately leading to the involvement of Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe of Scotland Yard, who quickly discovers how very much the old lady was hated by just about everyone in the household and that she had a rather shady past.  He has to sort through not only this mess, but also has to find whoever may be responsible when a second death occurs.

the detection club  from
Postscript to Poison has its moments, but the author keeps the best one,  the revelation of the murderer, a secret up until the very end. There are so many people who qualify as suspects, all with motives, means and opportunity,  keeping the reader involved until all is said and done. With such a large cast of possibles, the red herrings can't help but multiply, so things are never dull.

Even though it's the 1930s, some Victorian attitudes still prevail in this novel, for example, with the use of the term "hysteria."  Our intrepid detective from New Scotland Yard has a "natural man's horror of hysteria," and is surprised when Mrs. Lackland's companion, Emily Bullen, doesn't live up to his expectations.   The same character is also described by the inspector as "a crafty, hysterical, harmful, but ultimately stupid type."  There are more uses of this word scattered through the book, but you get the idea.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how much of herself the author may have put into Bullen's description when she says
"She has all the traits of the disappointed spinster that has to face a future of starved affections and economic insecurity." 
According to Bowers'  bio at Rue Morgue Press,
"Like her sister and many of her Oxford friends, she never married. If there was ever a man in her life it was an aspect of her existence that she chose not to share with her friends. "
Furthermore, in a article from The Independent about forgotten authors, Christopher Fowler notes that
"Bowers struggled for years to find a job as history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling crossword puzzles." 
Then again, I could be totally wrong here, but these are a definitely a couple of interesting and possibly noteworthy parallels!

Postscript to Poison is definitely a yes for anyone interested in golden-age mysteries, in 1930s British crime,  and for anyone like myself who is or has become interested in rather obscure women writers of past decades.  It does have that sort of language that is pretty typical of golden-age mystery works which may seem sort of weighty for a modern reader, but the story does flow pretty well and the characters are all very well established.  It's also a fun whodunit loaded with clues that will satisfy any armchair detective for a few hours. Watch the epigraphs, too!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

noir at its finest: Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes

Prion, 2001
153 pp


"My soul. Cut from such shoddy goods. Faded and patched and shabby." 

There's a lot of talk about "noir" these days -- Nordic noir, Tartan noir, you-name it noir, which personally I don't always agree with. For me, there's only one noir, and Build My Gallows High is a perfect example of the genre.  Geoffrey Homes is the pseudonym used by Daniel Mainwaring, who, aside from his novel-writing talent also enjoyed a productive career as a screenwriter. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for the 1947 film version of this novel called "Out of the Past," which starred Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, and Rhonda Fleming.  The book is chock full of betrayals, double crosses and murder making for a hell of a good straight crime read,  but it can certainly also stand on its literary merits.

PI Peter "Red" Markham and his partner Jack Fisher have taken on their last case together.  They are called to the home of Whit Sterling, who hired them to find his missing girl, Mumsie McGonigle and the fifty-six thousand dollars she ran away with.  The case takes Markham to Mexico, where he locates Mumsie who swears she never took the cash -- only enough to get by on.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, Red falls hard for Mumsie.  He still has to report to Sterling, though, so the two of them return to California, where Markham gives his client the news that he couldn't find her. When he thinks he's in the clear, the two of them move to a little cabin up near Lake Tahoe, planning to stay there "until the snow flies," then move on to Reno so that Red can open an office there. As plans go it's a good one, but that particular future just isn't in the cards.   Flash forward ten years into the future and Red Markham has become Red Bailey. He's left the PI business behind for a gas station that he owns in little Bridgeport, California, and has an entirely new life.   He spends his time off fishing, and has fallen for a much-younger little blonde named Ann.  But underneath his quiet life in this quiet town, Red is just biding his time waiting for his past to catch up with him, which it does in the form of a summons to Reno. From there, Bailey is sent to New York to do a job, and he has no choice but to comply.  It's only after he gets there that he realizes that he's been duped -- and that there may be  no way out.

from wikipedia

Past the initial setup, Build My Gallows High is the story of how Red tries to find a way out the trap that has been very carefully set for him. From the present it moves in and out of the past, making its way back to Red's current situation as he tries to take control of things and clear himself.   It's extremely well crafted -- double crosses and betrayals abound as the figurative noose around Bailey's neck gets tighter with each turn of events.   If the novel rested entirely on its plot, it would be a very good read, but there's much  more to it than simply story.  For example, there is such a keen sense of place here as the author moves back and forth contrasting hard, edgy New York -- its streets filled with young hooligans, cabbies who ply their trade and know when to keep their mouths shut, crooked cops, gangsters and corrupt women who have no qualms about killing -- with the natural beauty of small Bridgeport, with its flowing streams, quiet fishing spots, tree-lined mountains and people living a good life.

What I find the most interesting about this book, though, is not so much the action, but rather the focus on the characters. Without the time or space to go into them all, the standouts begin with Bailey, who's just been waiting for the day the past comes knocking on his door to reclaim him and who knows that the decisions he's made in the past will circle back to haunt him some day.  He is the poster boy for "if only," thinking about how to get out of his present dilemma so that he and Ann might just be free to start the new life both of them really want, but that he's constantly deferring because he lives in this constant state of purgatory.  Then there's Caldwell, the local Bridgeport game keeper, who is in love with Ann and has dreams of the two of them together in his cabin in the woods -- he also makes a decision that may come  to haunt him as well -- but it's a moral one he feels he must make.  Ann is a quiet beauty, blonde, small, willing to please and trying to do what's right by everyone, but there's a very strong-willed woman underneath her quiet veneer.  She is contrasted with the two femme fatales of this book -- Mumsie and another woman named Meta Carson (in New York), both seductive and charming, but each as deadly as the other.

Build My Gallows High is such a fine example of true noir goodness that it's easy to recommend it to anyone who is into the genre but hasn't had the good fortune of reading this book yet. The only flaw I could discern is the tedious, often repetitive conversations among the same gangsters over and over again, but aside from that, it's close to perfect.  It is as dark as dark can be, and reveals that present and future are both inextricably bound by the choices we make. The more I stop and think about it, the more it grows on me, and the more in love with this book I become.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Norton, 2014
323 pp

"... something malign is coming nearer and nearer. And in this house at the end of a promontory, I’m trapped."

Rustication begins with an absolute teaser.  The author, presumably since the initials at the end of the Foreword are given as CP, has discovered a document that had "lain unnoticed for many years" in Thurchester's county records office, one that "casts light" on a now-forgotten murder.  Inside this journal he had found a "number of anonymous letters" that had some bearing on that case, and he is intrigued by the testimony of a police officer who admitted that while investigating the murder and going through these letters, there was one where he'd only been allowed to  read part of. The rest of the novel is this recently-unearthed journal kept by seventeen year-old Richard Shenstone, and what follows is  a dark, twisty and ultimately satisfying story which takes place 1863-1864 on the southern English coast. It begins with young Master Shenstone's surprise homecoming after having  been tossed out of Cambridge University. In the parlance of the day, Richard has been "rusticated," meaning  he was "sent down or expelled temporarily," a word that, according to the Kings Language Academy,
"derives from the Latin word rus, countryside, to indicate that a student has been sent back to his or her family in the country..."
Richard is not expected home so soon, and when he arrives, he finds that no one is happy to see him. He finds his mother and his sister Euphemia (Effie) living in near poverty in the gloomy, dilapidated Herriard House, situated on the marshes overlooking the sea. He's amazed to find it in such a low state, since the two women have been living there "for weeks."  Even worse, neither of them wants to talk about his now-dead father, whose funeral he'd missed while away at Cambridge.  Richard himself isn't exactly forthcoming about why he's come home so early, but as the story progresses, it seems that his homecoming is just the tip of an  iceberg of secrets.  Then again,  it isn't just Richard who is holding his cards close to his chest.  While his mother waffles back and forth between him leaving and staying,  he gets out into "society" with his family in the small town of Stratton Peverel, where he discovers this charming little place is just teeming with tension. Underneath the jealousies, rivalries, alliances, even more secrets and worse -- someone is sending letters around that make the term "poison pen" seem tame and slashing local farm stock. Richard, who spends his  nights smoking opium and wandering about the countryside,  fills his journal with his observations (and his sexual fantasies)  and  because he really wants answers to what exactly is going on both at home and in the village, it isn't long until he starts digging up secrets that some people would rather remain hidden. Trying to be a decent sort of chap, he wants to set right a few things,  but only too late does he discover that in  trying to do so he may have fallen into a trap.

Palliser has always been a personal favorite. Some time ago I read and re-read his The Quincunx,  which was my launching point into the world of  Victorian sensation writers such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Just FYI, the term "sensation novel" refers to works of the period that deal in a very large way with family scandals, crimes, sex and all sorts of lurid things not spoken of in polite society. Palliser has in  many ways has recreated the same sort of atmospheric creepiness here in Rustication with the isolated, gloomy house filled with secrets, a few characters who are prone to delusions, the undercurrent of sexual and other tensions that run through day-to-day village life, the portrayal of women jockeying for position among their own and the higher classes, and the reproduction of the hand-written threatening letters.   He also gives us a somewhat  unreliable narrator in Richard Shenstone, now cut off from Cambridge and slowly heading toward another "severance," providing  all the makings of a mysterious melodrama that kept me from putting the book down for longer than absolutely necessary.  It may start a little slow, but keep reading -- you will not be disappointed.

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.

 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.


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.