Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

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

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Pietr the Latvian (Maigret 1) by Georges Simenon

Introducing the great man…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Inspector Maigret is at the Gare du Nord on the trail of a notorious conman known only as Pietr the Latvian. He only has a description to go on, but he sees a man get off the train who matches it in every respect. However things get complicated when a corpse turns up on the train, and the corpse also matches the description! Who is the man on the train? And who is the man who got off the train? As Maigret hunts down the living man, his identity seems to become ever vaguer. But Maigret is nothing if not dogged…

This is the first book in the long-running Maigret series and, like many débuts, not one of the best when looked at retrospectively. The plot is a bit messy and the solution relatively obvious. It consists mostly of Maigret hanging around in hotels and bars as he follows his quarry about Paris and the little seaside town of Fecamp, interspersed with the occasional interview. However it shows Simenon’s skill in creating the authentic sense of place that would become a hallmark of the series and provides an introduction to the character of Maigret himself – perhaps more one-dimensional than he would later become, but already with that relentless persistence that would see him through more complex investigations in his future career.

Challenge details:
Book: 97
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1930

He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.

Maigret is a bit of a superman in this one, requiring little in the way of sleep and able to battle on even when injured, possibly due to the extraordinary amount of alcohol he puts away. It’s more noir in tone, perhaps, than the later books (of which I’ve only read a couple, so am certainly no Maigret expert), as Maigret wanders through a kind of lowlife underworld full of rather sad and desperate people. His wife is referred to, but not really in the warm terms I’ve come to expect, of being Maigret’s true partner and best friend. Here she’s more of a “traditional” wife – there merely to provide food when required.

Georges Simenon

I listened to it on audio, well narrated by Gareth Armstrong. It’s part of Penguin’s re-issue of the series with new translations, and David Bellos does a fine job with it.

On the whole I felt one could see the kernel of what the series would develop into, but since these are all standalones, I’d tend to recommend newcomers to start with one of the later, better books as I did. In truth, had this been my first introduction to the great man, it may not have encouraged me to try more. But I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become, so would certainly recommend it on that basis.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

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

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

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

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Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

A real classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I’ve revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies – I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).

Apparently the series was made into a TV show. I had no idea – I wonder if it wasn’t shown on this side of the pond…

The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I’m no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.

But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain’s police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain’s detectives aren’t always wholly likeable, but they’re human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there’s always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don’t always…

The plot is excellent – I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There’s a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn’t over-emphasised; it’s just part of the job.

Ed McBain
Copyright: Getty Images

There’s also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they’re the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the ’50s!

The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.

I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir. I was intending to read this as a one-off as part of my Classics Club challenge, but I’ll certainly be revisiting the 87th Precinct again.

Book 13 of 90

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You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

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

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She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

A study of evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Fernand Ravinel is a travelling salesman, often away from the home he shares with his wife, Mireille. This makes it easy for him to spend time with his lover, Lucienne. But, in time, the pair decide this isn’t enough – that Mireille has to be got rid of. And so they set out to murder her. Their plot at first looks like it’s going to be successful, but then a strange thing happens, and gradually everything starts to go wrong… and as it does so, Fernand’s mind begins to unravel.

This book comes with a request from the authors for readers to tell nothing about the plot so as not to spoil it for other readers, so I’ve restricted my little introduction to slightly less than is given in the publisher’s blurb. In essence, the book concentrates on Ravinel’s state of mind, showing how guilt and remorse soon knock him off his emotional balance, sending him on a spiral into delusion, depression and finally threatening even his sanity. But there’s also a mystery element that stops this being a simple character study – something strange is happening and, while Ravinel in his delusional state is willing to consider a supernatural element, the reader is left looking for a rational explanation.

Narcejac and Boileau

Unsurprisingly in a man who is plotting to murder his wife, Ravinel is not a sympathetic character. He’s self-obsessed, rather cold emotionally, seeming unable to truly love either of the women in his life, and he’s something of a hypochondriac. But although this makes it pretty much impossible to empathise with him, it still leaves him as a fascinating subject for a character study. Boileau-Narcejac use his weaknesses and character flaws brilliantly to create a compelling picture of a man driven to the edge of insanity. They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.

For me, this one isn’t quite as strong as Vertigo. Mainly, this is because the solution seems pretty obvious from fairly early on which takes away some of the suspense. It still leaves it an intriguing and enjoyable read though, partly because it’s so well written and partly because it’s less clear how the story will be allowed to play out. As strange events lead Ravinel to become more disturbed, there’s a truly chilling effect – it’s easy to understand why he is so badly affected by them. Both the Boileau-Narcejac books I’ve read have been fundamentally about evil, but they seem to see weakness of character as an integral part of that evil, so that the books are less about the incidents and more about the psychological impact they have on the perpetrator.

I trust I’ve been vague enough to suit the authors and if you’re now wondering what on earth this review is going on about, I can only suggest you read the book! It has also been made into a film more than once, but the consensus seems to favour the 1955 Clouzot version, Les Diaboliques, which I am now looking forward to watching…

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Book 12 of 90

Testimony by Scott Turow

Much more than a legal thriller…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.

Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.

We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.

Scott Turow

Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

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

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

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

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Maigret and the Tall Woman (Maigret 38) by Georges Simenon

The mystery of the missing corpse…

😀 😀 😀 😀

maigret-and-the-tall-womanOn a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…

It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.

Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…

Maigret's unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfevres, Paris.
Maigret’s unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfèvres, Paris.

However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.

Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret...
Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret…

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.

(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)

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

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder by Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain

Danger alert: Jessica Fletcher’s in town…

😀 😀 😀 😀

design-for-murderDuring a catwalk show in New York’s Fashion Week, a young model collapses and dies. Rowena Roth had been an unpleasant girl, arrogant and rude, so few people other than her mother could truthfully say they grieved for her loss. It seems like one of those tragic things that happen sometimes – perhaps a heart condition that she had never been aware of. But then a second model is found dead. The question is: are the deaths connected? Fortunately for the NYPD, Jessica Fletcher is in town, ready to offer them as much advice as they can take…

I love the TV series of Murder, She Wrote. It’s my go-to cosy for winter afternoons, and I’ve been known to binge-watch several shows one after the other. This is largely because I think Angela Lansbury is fab in the role, plus the style of the show means that, despite the phenomenal murder rate, nothing distasteful ever really happens, and Cabot Cove still looks like a wonderful spot to spend some time. Would the books work as well without Lansbury’s presence?

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 1…

The story is told in the first person (past tense) from Jessica’s perspective, so we get to see the thoughts inside her head. Jessica is all sweetness and charm on the outside, and full of some rather waspish thoughts on the inside. I kinda liked that – I always assumed on the TV show that, behind that ultra-friendly exterior, an astute and clear-sighted brain must be ticking away. Like Miss Marple (from whom she’s clearly directly descended), Jessica must be an ‘expert in wickedness’ if she’s to see through the façade the villain erects to cover his/her crimes. I found I could easily imagine Angela Lansbury speaking her lines, and the marvellous facial expressions she would have used to convey the unspoken thoughts.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2…

I was rather disappointed that the book was set in New York rather than Cabot Cove. But Seth and Mort both appear during phone conversations, so I didn’t have to do without my two favourite men completely. The description of Fashion Week felt thoroughly researched – though given, of course, that Murder, She Wrote spin of cosiness that means it doesn’t feel quite authentic to real life. The plot covers the lengths to which young girls will go to succeed in the cut-throat world of modelling, touching on subjects like extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. The jealousies are shown too, but it’s all done with a light touch. And, of course, we don’t care about the murder victims, so no dismal grief or angst to contend with.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3…

Jessica is just as irresistible to men as she is in the show – this time it’s Detective Aaron Kopecky who’s badly smitten by her charms. Got to admit, this was the one bit of the book that I found tedious – Kopecky’s admiration became repetitive and his attempts to woo Jessica by dangling information about the case in front of her became laboured and annoying in the end. But it wasn’t enough of an issue to spoil the book for me overall.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4…

The plot is quite interesting, and stays more or less within the bounds of credibility. Jessica is at the show because of her friendship with the designer’s mother – she and her son both hail from Cabot Cove originally. And it’s not long before Jessica is nosing around amongst the models, publicity people, cosmetic surgeons, et al, coming up with stunning insights long before poor Detective Kopecky is even close. I don’t think it could really count as fair-play, though maybe that’s just sour grapes because I didn’t work out the solution. But it’s well written – a nice cosy, with the genuine feeling of the show and enough contact with the familiar characters to prevent me missing the Cabot Cove setting too much. I’ll cheerfully read more of these, and recommend it not just to fans of the show, but to cosy lovers in general. Good fun!

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group.

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Past Tense (Joel Williams 3) by Margot Kinberg

The sins of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

past tenseWhen the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…

This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.

As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.

margot-kinberg
Margot Kinberg

The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…

In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!

NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀

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Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

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

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