Wednesday, October 25, 2017

returning to the present with Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl

Orenda Books, 2017
originally published as Kvinnen i plast, 2010
translated by Don Bartlett
265 pp


It's not all that often any more that I pick up a Scandinavian crime novel by an unknown-to-me author, and it's certainly way out of character for me to read a book that is seventh in a series without having devoured the other books beforehand. I'm actually quite OCD about series order, but I thought I'd take a chance with this book after  being offered a chance to read it by the publisher (thank you!!) and so not knowing what I was about to get myself into, I spent most of yesterday reading this book.  The first thing I did after finishing it was to pick up a Kindle edition of the author's first book in the series, Lethal Investments, because of what happens at the end of Faithless.  While I obviously can't say exactly what that might be, I felt this need to go back and see why the author would choose to end things in the way he did here, and I figured that it must have something to do with all of the things I'd missed by not reading the previous novels.  The first three books have been translated, as has book #5, so I have a bit of catching up to do. 

What drew me into this story wasn't so much the actual crimes and crime solving here (although I have to admit that I do like when the cops figure things out before I do)  but rather the dilemmas faced by a couple of the main characters that play a huge role in how this story plays out.  While there are a few different crimes under investigation here, the biggest one opens the novel with the arrest of a woman, Veronika Undset, whom the police have under surveillance because of her connections to a known criminal they are watching -- a "teflon" crook, meaning that nothing has ever stuck with this guy, so he's able to continue his operations.  While searching Undset's bag, Detective Frankie Frolich finds a quantity of heroin hidden in her lighter, but she is eventually released.   It's not long afterwards that Frankie is invited to the birthday party of an old friend he has not seen for years and gets the surprise of his life not only when he sees Veronika there, but when the friend introduces her as his fiancée.   He gets an even bigger shock when later Veronika turns up dead.  Because of his past history with her fiancé, he tries to get himself taken off of the case but is refused, and while he knows that no good is going to come of his involvement, he has no choice but to stay involved.   

What comes shining through in this book, and very nicely so, is the old cliché that the world is a very small place, and that it really is impossible to escape one's own history.  It can be buried, maybe, but it's always there, and it definitely has an influence on the present. While  this idea is reflected in several characters in this novel, it is best exemplified in Frank's role in the murder investigation.   While he tries to remain professional, he comes to realize that the past is not really past -- and the choices he makes throughout the case may not exactly be limited to his role as a police officer.  And while his own  demons certainly play a role in the police investigation, he is also portrayed as being very human as he tries to keep them under control.  The same is true of his colleague Lena, whose own circumstances lead her to make some very bad decisions.   There's much, much more, of course -- the disappearance of a young woman recently arrived in Norway, a horrendous, unsolved murder from the past -- but for me it's all about the people and the author does it right.

Faithless moves toward the dark end of the crime fiction spectrum in a hurry, as we watch how people deal with not only their own inner anxieties but also how forces that just may be out of the reach of human control have to the potential to play a role in unleashing the darker aspects of human nature.  I have to hand it to this author -- I have had enough of thriller-type crime novels to last me a lifetime, but in this book, he has put his writing energy into getting into his characters' heads, which is very much appreciated on my end. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

*back to business once again: Force and Fraud, A Tale of the Bush, by Ellen Davitt

kindle edition
Clan Destine Press, 2015
originally serialized 1865 in The Australian Journal
244 pp

"Yes, there they were: Force and Fraud, contending with each other -- the two crimes, which so often unite in the destruction of mankind, now striving for the mastery." 

High marks for this book, which has a dual significance:  since it is most likely that it is the first work of crime fiction written in Australia, that also makes it the first work of crime fiction written by an Australian woman.

Author Ellen Davitt (1812-1879) neé Heseltine, was born in Yorkshire. According to Kate Watson in her Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880, Davitt, who would later become Anthony Trollope's sister-in-law, "spent her early life in the United Kingdom."  She married her husband Arthur in 1845; by 1847 the two were in Ireland where Arthur served as an "inspector of schools" and Ellen taught drawing for three years at Dublin's Irish National Board's Model School for Girls. They emigrated to Melbourne, arriving in 1854, where Arthur had been appointed as the principal of the Model and Normal Schools and Ellen took a job as the "Superintendent of the female pupils and trainees." Arthur died in 1860 while Ellen went on to take several different positions in schools in Victoria. Watson notes that Ellen Davit was a "progressive, proto-feminist figure" who
"refused the role of a conventionally subservient woman, confined to the domestic sphere." (160) 
There is a full biography of Ellen Davitt  at Design and Art Australia Online for readers who want to know more about the author.

Force and Fraud first appeared in Volume 1, issue #1 of The Australian Journal: A Weekly Record of Amusing and Instructive Literature, Science and the Arts.  Lucy Sussex, in her book Women Writers and Detectives notes that from the Journal's beginnings, it had a "crime bent," which is obvious by some of the titles listed here in another article by Sussex; its founding editor was also an ex-policeman.  Watson says that Force and Fraud was "pioneering in its status as the first murder mystery in Australia, and the first 'whodunit'," but sadly, Davitt is yet another woman crime writer who has faded into obscurity.  The good news is that, as Derek Parker notes at The culture concept circle, Davitt's "importance to the modern day crime novel" has been recognized by Sisters in Crime Australia, who have "created the annual Davitt Awards to honour Ellen Davitt and foster home grown crime writing talent."

Considering its significance in the history of crime fiction writing, hopefully more mystery/crime readers will become aware of Force and Fraud, which as I said earlier, deserves very high marks. It is not your ordinary whodunit by any stretch -- while the story progresses, it moves from the bush to small towns to the city of Melbourne, and there's even a brief bit at sea as a ship makes its through a treacherous reef.  These parts of Australia of the time are represented well here; the sense of place is so strong that I could picture it in my mind while reading. The actual story revolves around a young woman, Flora McAlpin, whose father ("a relic of the feudal ages")  is murdered and whose fiancé Herbert Lindsey  is jailed for the crime. He, of course, protests his innocence,  but the weight of the evidence is so strong against him that even he gets the picture.   However, while Lindsey awaits trial in jail, we are made privy to the machinations of the true culprit, suspected by no one.  He's a pretty nasty piece of work and it's pretty obvious from the beginning that he's got a hand in it all, but watching everything unravel is the best part of the book.  There's also a bit of a literary angle going on here, captured in one scene in particular where  Mr. Stewart the jail chaplain opens a book "by chance," after deciding that Lindsey, "the delicately minded young man" could "never have committed murder."  The book happens to be Thomas Hood's poems about Eugene Aram; the point made is as he realizes that "all murderers had not been branded ruffians," something worth remembering as the story progresses to its end.  One more thing that I feel strongly about in this novel is the characterizations, which are unbelievably  realistic and move from lower to upper classes and everything in between.

While not all crime readers will immediately run to pick up a copy of Force and Fraud, I particularly enjoyed this one and once I'd started, was reluctant to put it down.  It's a book I can certainly recommend, especially to readers who are interested in the history of crime writing and to others who like me, are heavily  into older crime novels.  It's certainly worth checking out and the bottom line here is that it's also a lot of fun.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Wine of Angels, by Phil Rickman

Pan Books, 1999
629 pp


"It was the depressing side of country life; they all seemed to know their Pattern and the Pattern didn't change."  -- 326

 This old 1999 copy has been with me through several  moves (along with many of the other books in this series), and has sat quietly on its shelf since the last move eleven years ago.  Recently, though, The Wine of Angels came up in an online group discussion and I figured it was time to brush off the accumulated dust and give it another read.  It's also in keeping with the season -- not just Fall, mind you, but that spooky time of year leading up to Halloween.  Not that this book is overpowered by what I call the woo-woo factor, but there are plenty of mystical moments that helped me decide to read it as part of the Halloween book list. It is set in a small British village, but there's nothing at all cozy about this one. Other than the secrets that are hidden behind closed village doors, it's about as far from St. Mary Mead as one can get.

Wine of Angels is the series opener featuring Merrily Watkins, who has just received her first real assignment as a newly-ordained Anglican vicar.  While visiting the village of Ledwardine, Herefordshire,  deciding whether or not to "go for it," she arrives just in time to witness a strange ritual under an old apple tree known as "The Apple Tree Man."  It is supposed to be a traditional "wassailing," but one of the villagers (an "incomer," there only about a year and a half)  takes it upon herself to add rifles to the mix, citing a reference in a book about collected folk customs.  One of the long-time villagers contests that decision, saying that since it's not a local tradition, what they're doing may end up causing "offence" to the orchard itself, but rifles are fired anyway and Merrily stands by as one of the men blows off his own head.  If that's not an attention-worthy opening to a novel, I don't know what is. 

That event will return to the story later, but in the meantime, the struggle between modern and traditional takes center stage in this mystery.  Merrily ends up accepting the job in Ledwardine, but not everyone is happy about her presence there.  Her male predecessor had been there for decades, so it's not surprising that some of the villagers would be unhappy about her appointment.  But that's not the worst of it -- it seems that there is to be a Ledwardine cider festival, and one of the residents decides he's going to put on a play to solve the mystery of the centuries-old death of a local vicar, Wil Williams, who was accused of practicing witchcraft.  There are some in the village who do not want things to come out in the open, and Merrily gets stuck in the middle of a growing controversy.  In the meantime, perhaps the incomers should have paid more attention to Lucy Devenish and her warning about causing "offence" to the orchard, especially when a local girl goes missing after last being seen there.

from Tudor Stuff

Since The Wine of Angels is the first in a series, the author spends a lot of time on the people who live in Ledwardine, most especially  Merrily and her fifteen year-old daughter Jane. And while there is a lot going on in the mystical sphere here, in his review at  The Agony Column  Rick Kleffel  notes that  the interaction between  Jane and Merrily  "grounds the novel in the real world," and I'd say that's a perfect way to describe it:  not only does Merrily have to concern herself with the doubts involved in her own belief, the antagonism of some of the villagers toward her position, and a recurrent nightmare that adds to her stress, but she also worries about Jane, who is trying to find her own way after yet another move in her life.   And, like most mystery novels that are set in small villages, there are secrets that remain hidden until something forces them to float to the surface, which happens more than once in this book, leading to as Kleffel says, a story with "layers" that are peeled away to uncover "something more mysterious." 

It's fun, it's intelligent, and it's not just another point A to point B mystery story with a tired plot that's been done over and over again; combined with the people in this book  and the struggle between modernity and tradition, The Wine of Angels  makes for a very, very good read.  I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed this novel and I went scurrying back to the shelf to grab the next one, Midwinter of the Spirit for more.  Recommended, for sure.