Autopsy (Kay Scarpetta 25) by Patricia Cornwell

My last Scarpetta…

😦 😦

Kay Scarpetta has returned to where she started out all those long years ago, to be Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia. The location means she’ll be handy for her other job, as advisor on the POTUS’ Doomsday committee. She is investigating the brutal murder of a woman when she receives a call informing her she’s needed in the Situation Room. There’s been an incident in a space station and two astronauts have died, the third escaping in the shuttle back to land in Russian-controlled territory.

This, I’m afraid, is a bit of a mess. Cornwell has thrown everything into it – serial killers, cutting edge technology that feels more like science fiction, politics, international skulduggery, poisoning by mystery drugs, personal problems, staffing problems, hints at corruption, etc., etc. Every topic is treated with total superficiality and it’s hard to see exactly what the connecting story is supposed to be. There are hints that somehow the woman’s murder and the space deaths may be connected, which, if true, really is a coincidence too far.

The real problem is that the story doesn’t fill the pages. All these strands are started off, and then nothing happens to move them forward until they are all resolved in a tacked-on climax which of course involves the usual peril to Scarpetta and her family. How many close shaves can these people endure? They’d be safer in a war zone than in government employment in America, apparently. Instead of plot momentum, the pages are filled with pointless detail. Scarpetta cannot walk down a corridor without us being told what colour the carpet is, what the doors are made of, what pictures hang on the wall, how loud or soft her footsteps sound, whether she’s carrying her scene case or rolling it. It can take a page to get from the entrance of a building to the elevator, and the poor reader soon learns to know that there will be another corridor to be described when Scarpetta reaches the desired floor. I don’t need to know that a basin is marble, that a car is a Tesla, that Scarpetta puts gel in her hair in the morning. Not every noun requires an adjective. And I do not need or want to know the make and qualities of every gun every gun-obsessed American owns.

Patricia Cornwell

Scarpetta herself is so tedious and self-important and this is not helped by the book being in the always annoying first-person present tense. Everyone is incompetent except for her and her immediate family and inner circle (and frankly even several of them are a bit on the crazy side). Virginia has collapsed into a morass of incompetence and corruption since she left, and she knows she’s been given the job because she’s the only one – the only person in the whole wide world and space above – who’s capable of running the department efficiently. Why is it her responsibility to investigate every crime single-handedly? Does Virginia not employ police detectives? What qualifies her to advise the space programme? Do NASA and the US military have no medics, no scientists, no procedures, no contingency planning? What would happen to America if she died? Would it simply collapse, unable to carry out any function without her?

I stuck it out for over two-thirds and was determined to finish, but it broke me. I couldn’t take one more paragraph of Scarpetta complaining about her secretary, her predecessor, her colleagues, her sister. I couldn’t take one more page of unnecessary description. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer to see if any of the story strands would ever move forward. So I skipped to the end and discovered the dénouement was even worse than I feared. My last Scarpetta. My last Cornwell.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young law student Hannah Rokeby is desperate to get taken on by the Innocence Project, a group run by charismatic attorney Rob Parekh to fight to free prisoners they believe have been wrongly convicted. Places on the project are coveted by students, since it looks good on a new lawyer’s CV. But Hannah has deeper reasons for wanting to be part of it – personal reasons. The Project is trying to free Michael Dandridge, convicted of rape and murder, but long ago Hannah’s mother was a victim of Dandridge too and Hannah feels she must ensure Dandridge stays in prison for the sake of her mother’s mental health. So she tricks her way in, but then slowly begins to discover there may be things about Dandridge’s past that don’t quite fit with what she believes…

Written in the third person past tense, we see the story unfold from Hannah’s perspective so that we know what she knows – no more and no less. In the beginning, mostly what she knows comes from an old diary her mom kept back when she knew Dandridge and his friend Tom. This diary is given to the reader in short chapters between the present day story of Hannah settling in at the project. Happily, though, McTiernan is not playing the overused “that day” game – we know pretty quickly what happened to cause Hannah’s mother to fear Dandridge for all these years, and that lets us sympathise to some extent with the lies and tricks Hannah plays to get on the project, although some of them are rather cruel and make her hard to like.

Dervla McTiernan

It’s very well written and keeps up a good pace, avoiding any mid-book flab. In fact it comes in at under 300 pages, so quite short for a contemporary crime novel, but I felt it’s the perfect length for the story. It held my interest throughout and kept me turning the pages, so a successful read from the sheer enjoyability aspect. However, my credibility meter went into the red zone at a fairly early point and by the end was screeching out overload signals. The final courtroom scene was almost farcical – any last remnants of believability disappeared into the distance, never to be seen again. I don’t want to go into the plot in any detail, since it has so many twists and turns it would be hard to avoid spoilers. But oddly, it isn’t the basic plot that has the credibility issues – all of that I could believe reasonably easily. It’s the silly way it’s played out, with unnecessary drama, people being beaten to a pulp one day and then being back to being action-man the next day, Hannah brilliantly spotting things missed by all the qualified lawyers, the evil pantomime baddies, the aforesaid courtroom scene. I felt that had McTiernan written it as a straight mystery it could have been excellent, but trying to turn it into a thriller simply took it far too far from any sense of realism.

So although I enjoyed reading it for the most part, I was left with a slight feeling of disappointment that it could have been so much better than it was. However, I believe this is something of a departure for McTiernan, and I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another of her books to see if her usual style works better for me. Meantime, if you enjoy a fast-paced mystery/thriller and aren’t as picky about credibility issues as I am, this is a well-written and entertaining read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Flemish House (Maigret 14) by Georges Simenon

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Maigret has been approached by a young woman, Anna Peeters, who wants his help. Her family is suspected of having killed another young woman, the lover of Joseph, Anna’s brother, and the mother of his child. Anna fears the local police are about to arrest them and wants Maigret to investigate separately. Since Anna has been introduced to him by an old friend, Maigret agrees, and heads to the small town of Givet on the Belgian border to look into the matter in an unofficial capacity.

This is a short one even by Maigret standards, coming in at just 132 pages, or 3 hours for the audiobook. It gives an interesting picture of a border town, looking in two directions and split between French and Belgian cultures. Simenon was Belgian by birth, although he moved to France as a young man. Here he shows how the French people in Givet look down on the Flemish residents, and because the Peeters family have done well for themselves they also meet with a lot of resentment, of the kind that suggests they are aiming above their station as members of a “lower” culture.

The Peeters themselves behave as if they think they are something special. The missing girl is a young French girl called Germaine Piedbouef and the Peeters see her as too common to marry their precious Joseph, who anyway is more or less betrothed to his cousin Marguerite. Germaine was last seen when she visited the Peeters’ house, looking for the monthly allowance that Joseph paid her for the maintenance of the child. Although no body has been found, the local police are assuming that she has been murdered and that the Peeters must have been involved, either having committed the murder as a group or at the least covering up for whichever one of them did the deed.

Book 1 of 20

Maigret is less sure – perhaps the girl has simply given up hope that Joseph will marry her and run away to Paris, or perhaps despair has caused her to take her own life. And so he wanders around Givet talking to people, drinking plenty of the local Flemish drink of choice, genever (a kind of gin, apparently), and waiting for the local police to find Germaine, dead or alive. He becomes increasingly fascinated by the Peeters family. To him Joseph seems an unremarkable, rather weak young man, but his mother, sisters and cousin Marguerite all adore him immoderately and see him as the centre of their world. Anna particularly intrigues Maigret – she seems so sure of herself, so unemotional, but determined. He realises she is the true centre of the family, the person who holds them together and gives them strength.

Gareth Armstrong

Maigret does more actual detection in this one than is sometimes the case, and as always his setting is very well portrayed, with the added interest of the mixed culture. The dynamics within the Peeters family is also shown very believably, from a time when men were seen as the most important members of a family due largely to their greater opportunities to have a career and a place in the public sphere. The ending is a little odd in that it left me wondering why Maigret decided to do what he did – vague to avoid spoilers, sorry – but it added an interesting element to his character. A good one, and as usual the excellent narration by Gareth Armstrong added to my enjoyment.

Audible UK Link

The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link

Killing Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 3) by Robert Daws

Complicated but satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan has decided to make her temporary transfer from London’s Met to the Royal Gibraltar Police permanent, but bureaucracy means that she must have a month’s break between the two jobs. She opts to spend the time looking after a friend’s small ranch across the border in Spain. The friend’s daughter is an Inspector with the Spanish police and the two young women immediately hit it off. So when cases arise in both Gibraltar and Spain, each of which seems to have a cross-border element, Tamara and Consuela find themselves putting their talents together. Meantime, Gus Broderick finds he might be connected to the victim in the Gibraltar case, so for much of the time he has to take a back seat and trust that Tamara will be able to clear his name.

This has a hugely complicated plot (not helped by the outbreak of war while I was in the middle of the book, resulting in a long gap in reading and a complete loss of concentration!), but it all comes together very satisfactorily in the end. Sullivan is very much the lead character in this one and she’s a likeable detective who plays by the rules, is intelligent, occasionally a little reckless but not too much so, and has a healthy social life and good working relationships with her colleagues. She’s developing into one of my favourite contemporary detectives. Broderick too is a professional, and he has the family life that Sullivan hasn’t yet, so between them they give a nicely rounded picture of normal life, and isn’t that refreshing in modern crime fiction! And the Gibraltar setting is great – Daws has been a regular visitor there for many years and clearly knows the place and the culture very well. I find this surviving outpost of the old British Empire fascinating, and in this one we get to see some of the tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, and also how local people work well together across the border, leaving the politicians to do the squabbling.

The Gibraltar case involves the discovery of the body of a woman, long buried beneath what was then a building site. A letter is found in her possession that suggests she knew Gus Broderick long ago, so her death in Gibraltar, far from her own home but close to his, makes him a suspect. His colleagues are never in any doubt of his innocence, but to prove it they must discover why the woman was there and what happened to her. This involves painstaking tracing of all the people who were connected to the building site at the time of her death.

The Spanish case is both more spectacular and far more complicated, and I’m wary of giving any possible spoilers so forgive some vagueness. It begins when three bodies are found drowned in a swimming pool, and it soon becomes clear this is one in a series of similar killings. But the victims don’t appear to be completely random, and it’s up to Consuela, with a good deal of unofficial assistance from Tamara, to find out the connection. The third-person narrative allows the reader access to information before the detectives, so we meet a couple of mysterious characters that we know must be involved in some way, but it’s not till the end that all the different strands come together and make sense. I felt as if I was floundering a bit halfway through and feared it was all going to be too much to pull together credibly, but Daws does a great job of showing how all the different parts are ultimately connected. 

Robert Daws

This is settling down to be a very good series. It’s not at all cosy, but it avoids a reliance on shock twists, gore and angst-ridden detectives. Swearing is kept to a minimum, professionals behave professionally, plots are complicated and intriguing but also solid and credible. It’s not obsessed with the fashionable and grossly overused subjects of the day – race, gender and identity issues – which is a boon and a blessing to personkind! And the unique setting provides an added level of interest. Each book acts perfectly as a standalone so there’s no particular need to read them in order. I do hope Daws’ acting commitments allow him to keep finding the time to write – he’s as good at each job as the other!

Amazon UK Link

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Built for one thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On the run after a prison-break, Tim Sunblade stops off in a cheap motel and hires himself a ten-dollar hooker. But when Virginia shows up, all lavender eyes and sinuous limbs and expensive scent, Tim sees she’s clearly used to a much classier trade. Next day he takes her along with him, telling himself he’ll drop her somewhere when he tires of her. But his fascination with her grows, to say nothing of his lust, and anyway he needs someone to help him with the big job he’s planning. Virginia has her own reasons to get away for a while and doesn’t object at all to the idea of getting rich, so Tim’s plan suits her just fine…

A noir thriller from 1953, apparently the book went out of print for many years and the difficulty of getting hold of it added to its aura as a cult classic. It’s now been back in print for a decade or so, and seems to be pleasing its new readership just as much as its reputation suggested. Noir sometimes works for me and sometimes not, so I was intrigued to give it a try at least, especially since the audiobook narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has also been highly praised.

Tim is our narrator and in true noir style we know from the beginning that his story is going to end badly. Virginia is the mystery that keeps the suspense going. Will she betray him, or will she share his downfall? The more time Tim spends with her, the more addicted to her he becomes – and it is an addiction, one he often wishes he could shake, but her looks, her sensuality, even her calculating coldness all exert a growing hold over him, so that he finds he can’t face losing her. But what of her? Is there a heart underneath her hard exterior? Does Tim mean anything to her or does she simply see him as a means to an end? Does she feel any of the lust and passion Tim feels for her, or is she just very good at her profession?

Elliott Chaze

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions – there’s not quite the level of amorality as there is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, which is way too dark for me. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. There’s a strong feeling that they are both emotionally affected by their actions too, that guilt may not be an altogether foreign emotion to either of them, which isn’t generally the case in the blackest noir, I think.

But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages. We don’t know what the tragedy will be, exactly, but there’s a kind of inexorable quality to it, as if all things are fore-ordained, and once on the path there’s no way to turn off.

You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.

The writing is great, with rather more literary qualities than a lot of pulp noir – it has more depth of characterisation and a wider focus, so that we see the world these two live in rather than being laser-focused on their lust, greed and crimes, though all those aspects are there too.

I loved it – probably my favourite noir novel, though I admit I haven’t read a lot of the genre. I also loved Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. And one last bit of praise – isn’t it a wonderful cover? Perfect for the story and the expression on the blonde’s face is exactly Virginia.

She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that.

Great book, great narration – highly recommended!

Audible UK Link (For UK Audible members, it’s included on APlus)

Maigret and the Old Lady (Maigret 33) by Georges Simenon

Beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Valentine Besson is the old lady of the title, a still charming widow who lives in a small seaside town in Normandy. She comes to Paris to ask Maigret to investigate the death of her maid, Rose Trochu. Lest we should think this is because she cares about the girl’s death, Mme Besson makes it very clear that her real concern is that she believes the poison that killed Rose was meant for herself. Coincidentally, Mme Besson’s stepson has also approached Maigret’s boss to request that Maigret should help in the investigation, since he believes it’s beyond the abilities of the local force. So Maigret finds himself off to spend a few days at the seaside, trying to unravel the complicated family dynamics that seem to underlie the murder…

Valentine’s husband had been a rich man for a while, having developed a popular skincare lotion. But he had lost most of his money on wild speculations before he died, leaving Valentine comfortably provided for, but not wealthy. He also left two sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second marriage to Valentine. Had Valentine been rich, suspicion would naturally have fallen on these three, but they would gain little financially from her death so Maigret must look for another motive, and that proves elusive.

The setting of the small seaside town is done well, with Maigret reminiscing over holidays he has spent in similar places with his wife. The plot is also interesting, with the search for a motive being the major part of the mystery – once it is solved, the rest falls into place. Simenon shows the rather careless attitude of the Besson family to Rose, with the casual assumption that she was so unimportant that no one could have deliberately intended to kill her. It’s a strange kind of snobbery that suggests one must be a certain class to even be worthy of murder, or at least to have that murder be worthy of investigation by someone of the stature of Maigret. Even Maigret spends a good deal of time with the Bessons before he bothers to visit Rose’s family, which I must say didn’t endear him to me. The Trochus are conscious and resentful of this kind of dismissal of Rose’s death as merely being a fortuitous accident that got in the way of the more important intended murder of Valentine. Simenon shows this kind of class distinction quite subtly and the only characters who really come over sympathetically are Rose’s bereaved family.

Georges Simenon

However, even more than usual Maigret spends his time going from bar to bar drinking, or sitting with the old lady drinking. Everywhere he goes the thing that seems most on his mind is whether he’ll be offered a drink or not. At one point he actually falls asleep while talking to Valentine, not altogether surprising given that he’d already put away enough alcohol that day to sink the entire French fleet. This wouldn’t have been quite so annoying had it seemed as if he was getting anywhere with the investigation, or even trying. But he really just chats to people in an aimless way and allows events to unfold until the solution becomes unavoidably obvious. He does spot one or two things the local force had missed, but he doesn’t do anything with them – I’m being vague to avoid spoilers. I felt that when the local police detective questioned whether the great man was worthy of his reputation, he had a point! I certainly wouldn’t put this case down as a success, but Maigret seemed quite satisfied with his own performance.

So I have rather mixed feelings about this one. There’s enough in it to make it interesting, but I felt Simenon was to some extent simply going through the motions, keeping Maigret wandering around drinking and doing not much else till Simenon felt he could reasonably reveal the solution and bring the book to an end.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong who as usual did a fine job.

Audible UK Link

Streets of Gold by Margot Kinberg

On the run…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Staci McKinney is a runaway, but she has good reason. She’s just fifteen and her new stepfather has been abusing her while her mother, desperate to make her marriage work, has been turning a blind eye. So now Staci is living rough, stealing food from bins and sleeping wherever she can find a bit of shelter from the freezing Philadephia winter. On this night she’s hiding under the overpass, shivering beneath the scant shelter of a plastic garbage bag, when she sees two men dumping what looks like a bundle of blankets. Once they’ve gone, she sneaks over, the thought of a bit of extra warmth too enticing to ignore. But just as she discovers that inside the roll of blankets is the body of a man, the two men return…

This novella-length story is a thriller rather than a mystery. The reader knows from the beginning who the two men are – City Councilman Daniel Langdon and his assistant and fixer, Scott Townlee – and we know how the victim died. There’s not much to connect Danny with the crime, so he and Scott thought that once they’d dumped the body they’d be safe. But now they know this homeless girl has seen them and they’re scared. They set out to track her down and though they deliberately don’t think further than that, it’s obvious there’s only going to be one foolproof way of silencing her…

Staci is scared too. She’s a smart kid, and tough, but she’s way out of her depth. She hasn’t been on the streets long enough to learn how to keep safe, or even just warm. And now she’s seen two men who she knows must be murderers, and she knows they saw her too. She soon becomes aware that Scott and Danny are hunting for her, and they have all the resources available to a City politician to help them in the search. Staci has to try to evade them while she figures out what to do…

My usual disclaimer: the author Margot Kinberg is a friend and fellow blogger. However, as always, I’ve done my best to be honest in this review, which happily is made much easier by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the book!

This is a great example of what I’m always banging on about – that books should be the right length to suit their content. The novella length is perfect for this one – any longer and it might have begun to feel bloated and probably unrealistic. At this length, it is tight and fast-paced which gives it a real sense of tension throughout and the short time-frame makes Staci’s attempts to stay hidden very credible.

Staci is shown very believably as having a strong character, but still being vulnerable because of her age and situation. She feels she can’t do what any of the rest of us would in that situation – go to the police – because as a runaway minor they would either return her to the home she’s running from, or put her into the care system. She’s heard all kinds of horrors about what happens to kids in care, probably exaggerated but she doesn’t know that. It seems to her she’s safer on the streets, even with these men chasing her. Scott is also well-drawn as the kind of fixer we’ve become used to seeing working for politicians in fiction and in real life, clearing up their messes without much concern for the ethics of it. Danny is perhaps the weakest of the characters – a couple of times I found myself close to the credibility line over his actions, finding it hard to see his motivations, but again the shorter length and fast pace stopped this from becoming a major problem.

Margot Kinberg

One of the things I especially liked is that Kinberg shows both sides of life on the streets. Staci meets with bad people for sure, especially men who see vulnerable girls as prey. But she also meets with kindness and generosity along the way – from something as simple as a casual stranger giving her some food to those involved in the many charities offering material and emotional support to street kids. We also see a kind of camaraderie among some of the rough sleepers, especially the women, trying to look out for each other where they can. These aspects prevent the story from becoming too bleak, and seemed very realistic to me. Kinberg also makes it clear that whatever the outcome for Staci there’s not going to be a magic wand to make it all go away – her experiences will have damaged her and she’s going to need help if she’s to survive and have a future to look forward to.

A tense, absorbing story that I gulped down in one evening, keen to know how it would all work out for Staci, and if the bad guys would get their due comeuppance. And it all leads up to an ending that I found satisfyingly realistic. A very enjoyable read!

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Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache 1) by Louise Penny

Armand of Avonlea…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When a much-loved resident of the small town of Three Pines is murdered, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team are sent from the Sûreté du Quebec to investigate. Gamache is much taken by the apparently idyllic life here, so much slower than city life and with a real sense of community, but he will slowly begin to uncover the hidden secrets of some of the residents.

This is the first in what may be the one series of which I’ve read most glowing reviews in my time on the blogosphere. Several long-term fans warned me that it’s not the best of the series, which is often true of the first book in many series. A lot of time is naturally spent introducing the people who will become recurring characters, and in a book with such a strong setting, a good deal of space has to be devoted to creating that too.

I had rather mixed feelings about it, to be honest. As with so much modern crime it is far too long for its content, with so much waffling and painting of word pictures that sometimes the plot seems to have been entirely forgotten, not just by the reader but by many of the characters too. Gamache spends inordinate amounts of time sitting on benches or in cafes, eating freshly-baked muffins and mulling about life in general. The Three Pines setting reminded me of Avonlea – lots of quirky but fundamentally good-hearted people all supporting each other and being generally lovely. I’ve never actually come across a place like that and am not convinced they exist outside children’s fiction, but I see the attraction of spending some time there.

Not that everything is idyllic, of course – we get a little mild homophobia, although of course the main characters are all totally non-homophobic, non-racist, non-greedy, non-selfish and non-everything else that makes fictional people generally repugnant but (*whispers*) interesting. And there’s a murder, so obviously there’s at least one bad apple in the wholesome barrel of the town.

Louise Penny

But the murder is really just an unfortunate blip in a world where everyone loves each other devotedly, spending their time being understanding and caring, gathering together to carry out soul-cleansing rituals in the woods, and eating lavish amounts of home-made soup and fresh bread – always fresh. (I found myself wondering if there is somewhere in the wealthy Western world where people serve their guests mouldy bread? I’d have felt the freshness of the bread could be a given, just once.) Joking aside, I did find Penny’s habit of using at least one adjective per noun got a little wearing, especially when some nouns always attracted the same adjective each time, and it added to the feeling that I had at times that I was wading through a word-bog.

However, it was interesting enough as a first book for me to stick with the series for one or two more, to see if the slightly saccharin taste wears off and if the characters become less idealised. I was hoping that perhaps the later books would be shorter given that the setting has already been described in this one with as much detail as an Ordnance Survey map, but sadly I see they actually tend to get longer over time. I’m hoping that’s because the characters and stories become more complex…

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Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A Reading Diary

Day 1

Off to a mixed start! Three bodies, frozen under the snow in Gorky Park in Moscow, faces and fingertips mutilated to prevent easy identification. Bit of tension between our hero-to-be, Arkady Renko, and the boo-hiss stereotypical baddie from the KGB. The writing is messy with sentences quite often requiring more than one reading to try (or fail) to work out what the author is trying to communicate, but maybe it will improve. Or maybe it won’t.

“Vodka was liquid taxation, and the price was always rising. It was accepted that three was the lucky number on a bottle in terms of economic prudence and desired effect. It was a perfect example of primitive communism.”

Eh?

Day 2

No movement in the plot whatsoever. I say plot, but I fear one has yet to appear. We’ve had our first naked woman though, complete with nipple description! Arkady’s wife, who seems to stroll around their apartment naked despite the Arctic weather outside – who knew Muscovites had such effective heating systems in the 1980s? Impressive! And fortunate, since she and Arkady generate no heat of their own, clearly disliking each other quite a lot. Arkady meets another girl, though – a weird and quirky twenty-one-year-old, with whom our middle-aged hero is obviously destined to have sex at some point. I wonder what her nipples will be like…

Day 3

Still no identification of the corpses. Still no movement in the investigation. Arkady and his wife have split up after Arkady got into a punch-up with her lover. Arkady has been beaten up by someone whose identity we also don’t know, but despite being punched in the heart twice and kicked in the head, next day he’s fine. To summarise – three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule (because presumably we didn’t know that). To quote Chandler Bing, could I be more bored?

Day 4

Apparently I could.

* * * * *

Abandoned at 19%. Life is too short and the book is too long.

* * * * *

This was The People’s Choice winner for November. Thanks for getting it off my TBR, People! 😉

Book 11 of 12

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I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

Turn up the air-conditioning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Ex-cop and ex-soldier Jack Williams is found shot dead. The police detective in charge of the case knows Williams was a friend of PI Mike Hammer, so calls Hammer in. To Hammer, Jack was more than just a friend, though – during the war Jack saved Hammer’s life and in the process got injured so badly that he lost an arm. Hammer owes him, and swears an oath that he will find Jack’s killer before the police, and take his own deadly vengeance. So the race is on…

You have to give Spillane credit for being thorough – I don’t think there’s a single ’ism missing from this one! Sexism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and did I mention sexism? Then there’s the violence, the sex, and the guns – good grief, so many guns! The odd thing is: I quite enjoyed it! It’s kinda the pulp version of hard-boiled with all pretence at subtlety stripped out, but lurking in there somewhere there’s quite a good plot and the writing, while not as slick as I seem to remember from reading some Spillane long ago, is pretty good for the style of novel.

Hammer realises that first he needs to find out the motive before he can identify the murderer, so he starts by talking to the various people Jack has recently spent some time with. Because of the loss of his arm, Jack hadn’t been able to go back to his career in the police, but Hammer knows he was still a cop at heart, and might have got involved in trying to break up some kind of criminal enterprise. There are plenty of options – Hammer’s investigations soon take him into the criminal underbelly of New York, in amongst the gangsters, brothel keepers, drug runners and a variety of two-bit hoods (I think that’s the technical term). The men all want to beat Hammer up, or occasionally shoot him. The women single-mindedly want to get him into bed, or marry him, or both. Lord knows why! I can only assume there must have been a severe shortage of men in New York at that time. Although Spillane doesn’t mention it, I also assume there was a major heatwave in process, since half the characters spend most of their time stripping their clothes off. I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that it’s the female half. One of the women is an actual nymphomaniac, but it was fortunate that Hammer told us which one, because her behaviour wasn’t significantly different to all the other women.

Book 80 of 90

Despite all of that there’s a strange kind of moral innocence in the book. Hammer resists the blandishments of the naked women for the most part, turns out to be a bit of a romantic at heart, and although he happily shoots people, he only shoots bad ones, so that’s all right then. Apparently it’s all right with the American justice system too, since he never even gets arrested for it. I suppose it saves on costly trials and prison sentences. The racism is the standard casual stuff of the time (1947) as is the homophobia. Happily neither plays a big part in the story so I was able to tolerate it, just, as almost all crime fiction of that era, especially hard-boiled and noir, is infested with language or stereotyping that is rightly considered unacceptable today.

Mickey Spillane

I had a pretty good idea who the villain was from about halfway through, but the motive stumped me so that kept me interested. In the end, it’s all highly unlikely at best and complete tosh at worst, but that’s the joy of pulp! And the end is so over the top I found it hilarious, which I assure you it wasn’t supposed to be.

This was his first and all-in-all I enjoyed it, but would be hesitant to know who to recommend it to. I imagine many people found it pretty sleazy even at the time, and it really hasn’t improved with age. However, if you enjoy the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime and can make allowances for the ’isms, then it’s well worth a few hours of your time for the sheer entertainment value. I’d be interested to try one of his later ones to see if he gets rid of some of the rough edges in this one, or if this is typical of his style throughout his career.

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The Final Twist (Colter Shaw 3) by Jeffery Deaver

Locked and loaded…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down. But he won’t have to fight them alone. Russell, the elder brother who has been missing since their father’s death, turns up and soon the two brothers are working together and trying to rebuild their relationship between gunfights, explosions and murders.

It’s essential to switch off your credibility monitor before reading this, since I sincerely hope it’s not really possible to have all this noisy violence going on in the streets of San Francisco without the authorities ever noticing. But if you can accept the basic unbelievability of it all, then Deaver is still one of the best at this kind of all-action thriller. Colter’s father was a paranoid survivalist, though it seems his paranoia had some foundation in fact. He trained his sons in survivalist techniques from an early age, so both brothers are crack shots, expert hunters, natural strategists and tacticians, and over the years since their father’s death both have added computing skills to their endless list of talents. So despite being up against giant corporations with vast resources and armies of hitmen and women, Colter and Russell, along with some of their friends and colleagues, are able to hold their own.

There’s a secondary plot related to Colter’s usual work as a bounty hunter searching for missing people for whose return a reward has been offered, in this case a young woman who disappeared from the street where she had been busking. The girl and her mother are ‘illegals’, so the mother can’t go to the police for help, and the reward she can offer is tiny. But Colter makes enough money that he can take on the odd financially unrewarding job like this, just for the satisfaction of doing good. However, this bounty hunter plot plays such a small part in this final instalment that it hardly seems worth having it in there at all.

The main plot concerns corrupt businessmen, drugs, dodgy real estate deals and a bit of politics. All of that is credible enough, although stretching at the boundaries, and touches lightly on some current topics, like vote-rigging, gerrymandering, and the corruption of big money in politics. Mostly though, it’s about the action and, in America, action means guns. Occasionally bombs, grenades, knives and IEDs, even bows and arrows, but mostly guns. Since everyone wears their concealed weapon casually beneath their untucked shirt, one wonders if concealment means something different in America. However, since apparently one can be attacked several times in the course of any given day, it’s probably just as well to have one’s weapon locked and loaded at all times (although Colter assures me that locked and loaded is a terribly inaccurate description. Apparently for speed, one really wants to have one’s weapon unlocked and loaded…) Fortunately for the state of the environment Russell has contacts in a government agency who are expert in disposing of the trail of corpses that would otherwise be left to litter the streets, unnoticed by the cops who, one assumes, were all off at a team-building event over the couple of days that the Shaw brothers and their adversaries had their little war.

Jeffery Deaver

Despite my mockery, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! Given a choice between three baddies being killed and three uses of the f-word, I’ll take the killings every time! 😉 Colter is a likeable lead – if this is really to be his last appearance I’ll be quite sorry. I feel that now the running story of his father’s death has been resolved, he could easily appear again in his role as bounty hunter. Each of the books could stand alone, but I think they’re really better read in order, starting with The Never Game.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Nothing bad happens to the cat…

😦

Back when they were teenagers, sisters Callie and Leigh committed a terrible crime, although they had good justification for it. Since then, Callie has spiralled into drug addiction, partly because of this early experience, and partly from getting hooked on pain medication after an accident that has left her with all kinds of physical problems. Leigh, on the other hand, has lifted herself out of their deprived beginnings, becoming a lawyer now working in a prestigious firm. One day she is asked to defend a man who has been charged with a horrific rape. She doesn’t recognise Andrew at first, but he recognises her – and he knows what she and Callie did that night. And it soon becomes clear he’s enjoying the power this gives him over both sisters…

I’ll admit it straight away – I found the subject matter of this sordid and the graphic descriptions of rape, extreme drug abuse, violence and gore more than distasteful. The constant, casual use of the foulest of foul language didn’t help matters. By the time I finished I felt that I needed to scrub my mind out with a brillo pad to get rid of the slime. Slaughter and I are clearly not kindred spirits.

Trying to be objective, it is well written for the most part and the characterisation of the two sisters is done well, even if that meant that I disliked both of them to the point of not wishing to spend time in their company and not caring what happened to them. Andrew, the rapist client of Leigh, is a stock psychopath from central casting, caricatured way past the point of credibility. But all three of them are merely vehicles for Slaughter to use her clearly well-practised shock tactics on the reader. The plot is entirely secondary to the horrors she shows us along the way, from repeated descriptions of both child and adult rape of the most violent kind, to the lovingly detailed and very lengthy descriptions of Callie’s drug taking, including how best to inject oneself through an abscess to get the thrill of added pain, to violent beatings in which she lingers on the crushed bones, detached eyeballs, etc., etc.

Karin Slaughter

Apart from my general disgust, the real problem from a literary point of view is that it’s incredibly repetitive. We revisit the original event many, many times – not gradually learning more, we already know what happened, but just going over it again and again which, since it involves child rape, I could seriously have lived without. We are told the same things about Callie’s physical problems every time her name is mentioned, and yet, despite their apparently debilitating effects, they never stop her when she wants to beat up someone much larger than herself or climb over a fence or in some other way channel Superwoman – heroin must be a miracle drug! Slaughter incorporates Covid, so we get masking and social distancing thrown at us constantly, as if we haven’t all heard enough about that in real life already. The whole book could have been cut by at least a third simply by removing the worst of the repetitions. If she had also removed the foul language and the loving instructional handbook on how to get the most out of drug abuse, I reckon she could have lost another hundred pages. Take out the graphic descriptions of rape and violence and we’re down to novella length…

Nope, not for me, though since she has a massive following I don’t expect that will bother her too much. If you haven’t already gathered, trigger warnings for just about everything you can think of and several things you probably can’t. But, on the upside, nothing bad happens to the cat.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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Cécile is Dead (Maigret 20) by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s lapse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Cecile is DeadCécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. And worse, everyone was teasing Maigret that she kept visiting because she had a crush on him. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

Realising the aunt must already have been dead when Cécile came to see him, Maigret suspects that she knew who the murderer was and wanted to tell him directly rather than report it to the local police. He feels that if he had only taken the time to speak to her, Cécile may not have been killed. Maigret is too sensible and too experienced to blame himself for her death – he’s quite clear in his own mind that the murderer is fully responsible for that – but nevertheless his slight lapse makes him even more determined than usual to see that justice is done.

This one has quite a complicated plot for a Maigret novel, with several suspects and possible motives. Mostly it’s set in the apartment block in Bourg-la-Reine that Cécile and her aunt lived in – a block that the aunt also owned. For it turns out that she was a rich old woman, but miserly, always convinced that her relatives were scrounging from her. She was also unpleasant, treating poor Cécile like an unpaid servant, being unwilling to assist her nephew even though he was out of a job and his wife was about to have a baby, and so on. She played her many relatives off against each other, hinting to each that they would be the one to inherit when she died. But these aren’t the only suspects – rumour has it that she kept large sums of money in the apartment since she didn’t trust banks, so anyone may have decided to break in, kill her and steal the money. However, the apartment has a concierge who controls entry to the building, so that if this was what happened, it must have been one of the other tenants, or the concierge herself.

Later in the book, Maigret finds himself being accompanied on his investigations by a visiting American criminologist, Spencer Oates, who has been given the opportunity to study the great man’s method. But Maigret, as he has said in other books, doesn’t have what he thinks of as “a method” – he simply speaks to the people involved, learns as much as he can about the victim, studies the location and the timings, thinks himself into the mind of the murderer, and uses his intelligence and experience to work out what must have happened. So he uses Oates as a kind of sounding board as he develops his theory, thus allowing the reader to follow his thinking too.

There’s a sub-plot about a man, one of the tenants, who has previously been jailed for his inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Some aspects of this might jar with modern readers, as girls are shown both as vulnerable and predatory. Although it’s an unfashionable viewpoint now, I find this much more realistic than the idea that girls remain innocent angels until the day they are legally adult, so I felt this was an accurate if unflattering portrayal of adolescent girls, and also that Simenon gave a contrast in Maigret and the ex-prisoner of the response of the good man and the bad – one resisting temptation, the other preying on vulnerability.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and as always he did an excellent job of creating distinctive voices for Maigret and all the other characters.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Overall, I think this is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, and the themes and characterisation have more depth. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity and his happy home life always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir. Highly recommended.

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The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

Murder in Harlem…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Conjure-Man DiesIt’s a late evening in Harlem, in the early 1930s, and a little group of people are waiting to see Frimbo, a conjure-man with extraordinary powers to see the future and even to change it, or so the locals believe. But while Jinx Jenkins is sitting in Frimbo’s dark consulting room, Frimbo seems to lose the thread of what he’s saying and then goes silent. Jinx turns the single light on him, only to discover he is dead. But how did he die? And how could anyone have killed him without Jinx seeing it? Sergeant Perry Dart and his friend Dr Archer will have to find their way through a maze of motives and superstition to get to the truth…

Well, this is just fabulous fun! There’s a real Golden Age style mystery at the heart of it, complete with clues, motives, a closed list of suspects, and so on. But the setting makes it entirely unique. Fisher gives a vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem, bringing to life a cast of exclusively black characters from all walks of life, from the highly educated Dr Archer to the new arrival from Africa, Frimbo, to the local flyboys hustling to survive in a Depression-era America that hasn’t yet moved far from the post-Civil War era. Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with.

….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”

I don’t want to over-analyse it because ultimately it’s all about entertainment. However, there’s a kind of feeling that the inhabitants of Harlem deal with the inherent disadvantage of being black in America by cutting themselves off from the wider culture, and living their own lives by their own social code as much as they can. There’s also what seems like an early glimpse of what has become a more deliberate thing now – black “owning” of white racist terminology and negative stereotyping, and the conversion of those negatives into a positive, assertive black culture. There is a lot of language in the book we (white people) would now consider racist, but it reminded me of the rap artists of today – the sting taken out of the words because they are being used by black characters.

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I loved the voodoo aspects of the plot, with the less educated characters willing to believe that Frimbo really had supernatural powers, and turning to him for help with all kinds of problems – money, love, abusive spouses. But Dr Archer’s scientific knowledge is a counter-balance to this, with him usually able to work out how the conjure-man performed his tricks.

The language is wonderful, both in the descriptive passages and in the dialogue, full of layers of dialect according to the social class of the speaker. The humour mostly comes from the pairing of Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, firm friends though they squabble and insult each other all the time. Bubber in particular is very “suprastitious” and has a fund of lore passed down from his grandmammy.

….“A human skull!” repeated Bubber. “Yes, ma’am. Blottin’ out the moon. You know what that is?”
….“What?” said the older woman.
….“That’s death on the moon. It’s a moonsign and it’s never been known to fail.”
….“And it means death?”
….“Worse ’n that, ma’am. It means three deaths. Whoever see death on the moon” – he paused, drew breath, and went on in an impressive lower tone – “gonna see death three times!”
….“My soul and body!” said the lady.
….But Jinx saw fit to summon logic. “Mean you go’n’ see two more folks dead?”
….“Gonna stare ’em in the face.”
….“Then somebody ought to poke yo’ eyes out in self-defence.”

Rudolph Fisher
Rudolph Fisher

Rudolph Fisher was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance and had the distinction of being the first black American author to write a mystery novel, then remaining the only one to have done so until several decades later. Sadly he died a young man just a few years after publishing this, his only mystery novel, though he had also published a non-mystery novel which apparently features my favourite characters Jinx and Bubber, The Walls of Jericho. Happily I see HarperCollins have re-issued it too this year.

I’m glad I decided to swap this one onto my Classics Club list, because it feels very much at home there. As an added bonus, the book contains a substantial short story, John Archer’s Nose, also starring Dart and Archer and also excellent. Give yourself a treat – this one gets my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club – Harlem.

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Guilty secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The SurvivorsWhen Keiran Elliot returns to the small beachside town of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania, he brings along the grief and guilt that have never left him since a tragic incident there several years before when he was still a teenager. Keiran and his partner, Mia, who also grew up in the town, have returned to visit Keiran’s parents – Brian, now suffering from dementia and about to be moved into a care home, and Verity, still also struggling with the after-effects of that incident. No sooner are they home than another tragedy rocks the town, when the body of a young woman is found on the beach. As the investigation into her death proceeds, memories of those earlier events are stirred up among the townsfolk, and old secrets begin to be revealed.

As always, Jane Harper’s greatest strength is in her settings, each one different but always sharing a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. Evelyn Bay is one of those small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business and where every small incident is worthy of note. In summer the town is crowded with tourists, there for the ocean. But when the story begins the season has just finished and the only people left are the year-round residents, most of whom have known each other all their lives.

Although there is a mystery – more than one, in fact – at the heart of the book, the major theme is how grief and guilt can impact both individuals and a community. I’ll hold my hands up and say this is not a theme I’m fond of – it appears in a lot of contemporary crime fiction and, even when its as well done as it is in this one, it changes the focus away from the detection and solving of the crime, which is primarily what I read crime fiction for, and makes the tone gloomy and depressing rather than intriguing and entertaining. I don’t think this novel is “fair play” – the solution seems to come out of nowhere, and frankly there could have been any number of equally credible solutions on the information available to the reader. Written in the third person, it’s told mainly from Keiran’s perspective, so the reader knows no more than he about what the police may have uncovered. Again this makes it feel less like a mystery novel and more like an exploration of the impact of a crime on the people affected by it. So from that point of view, I found it all rather unsatisfying.

However, the quality of Harper’s writing and her excellent characterisation keep it very readable. After a very slow start, with far too much of the “what happened that day long ago” faux suspense stuff for my liking, Harper finally reveals what did happen that day and then happily the pace picks up. She gives a very believable depiction of how quickly gossip and suspicion spread through a small community, and how social media allows people to make anonymous allegations that can lead to a lot of hurt. She also shows how the pressure of being known by everyone can add to feelings of guilt or make suspicion feel overwhelming – there’s no escape to the welcome anonymity that can be found in big cities. Harper doesn’t rely on unbelievable twists – every character behaves in ways that feel psychologically in tune with the personality she creates for them, which means that the solution, even if it does all happen a little too conveniently, is entirely credible and feels emotionally true.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I struggled to get into it in the beginning, but once I did I found it quite absorbing. Keiran, Mia and their baby daughter make a kind of triple character – together they are more than the sum of their parts, so to speak. The town takes on its own persona, as does the ocean which has given so much to the townspeople but has also been the source of tragedy over the years. And there’s a kind of coming of age aspect to it, too, as Keiran finds himself, now an adult and a father, reassessing his own youth and his understanding of his family and friends. For me, there’s too much emphasis on the role of grief and not enough actual mystery-solving for it to have become a favourite, but that’s a subjective viewpoint – it’s very good at what it’s setting out to be.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Silence by Susan Allott

Strength of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The SilenceIn 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. His long-troubled relationship with his wife is reaching breaking point, because he thinks she believes the police’s suspicions. Isla has always been closer to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…

The book is told in the third person throughout. The 1967 strand forms the bulk of the book, is told in past tense, and mostly centres on Mandy’s life in the few months running up to her disappearance, with occasional sections showing us Isla’s rather fragmentary child’s-eye memories of Mandy and her own family. Unusually for the time, Isla’s mother worked outside the home, so Mandy often looked after Isla, watching her while she swam off the beach at the back of their properties, giving her snacks, chatting to her, and generally being a kind of aunt figure to her. As Isla’s memories of her slowly revive she realises how much she loved Mandy, who gave her a kind of emotional sanctuary at a time when her parents’ fraught relationship was making her home life unhappy.

Isla also begins to remember Mandy’s husband Steve, and how all the local children were a bit afraid of him, though Isla had forgotten why in the intervening years. As the story unfolds, we discover that Steve was with the police, and part of his job was to remove Aboriginal children from their families as part of the government policy to break their links with their communities and ‘merge’ them into white society. Steve, though, is finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the children benefit from this policy – he knows they often end up in children’s homes rather than loving adoptive families. While for most it’s an invisible problem or not a problem at all, some people, like Steve and also Isla’s father, are beginning to question the cruel racism that underlies the forced removals.

The later strand in 1997 doesn’t take up so much space, and as so often happens in dual timeline books, I mostly felt it was a distraction from the main story, although it’s equally well written. It’s written in present tense, and mainly focuses on Isla as she gradually begins to discover what happened back in 1967. Isla is a recovering alcoholic, a trait she has inherited from her dad who, however, is decidedly unrecovered. We gradually learn how his alcoholism has affected the family over the years.

So, dual timeline, parts in present tense, two alcoholics, and a trendy “worthy” subject – by rights I should have hated this. But I didn’t! The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. There are no anachronisms in either of the time periods, and she doesn’t preach or belabour the message. She makes the correct assumption that most people didn’t think they were doing wrong back then, or didn’t think at all. They’re not monsters even if to our modern eyes the acts they committed may seem monstrous. She also avoids giving too many descriptions of drunkenness and hangovers – just enough to remind us of Isla’s underlying struggle with her addiction.

Susan Allott
Susan Allott

All that makes it good, but what made it great for me is the character of Mandy. She’s not perfect and makes some foolish choices, but never with bad intent. She reminded me, oddly, of the character of Ida in Brighton Rock, not that the stories have any similarities at all. But both women are kind, open-hearted, generous souls, slow to judge, quick to comfort, who attract the troubled and damaged and then become snarled in their problems. They each have a sense of impending tragedy in their stories, too, since society judges harshly and treats cruelly those who give love and comfort too freely – especially women, especially back then. I loved her – an excellent creation who makes it hard to believe she came from the pen of a début novelist.

The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the characterisation. Allott shows you don’t need twelve sudden twists at the end or an “I did not see that coming” moment – she proves that even if there is a sense of inevitability there can still be true suspense. I cared deeply about what Mandy’s fate would be, but never felt like rushing to the last page to find out – I savoured every step of the journey. Highly recommended, and Allott has leapt straight onto my list of must-read authors. I hope she’s working hard on her next book…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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