A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Nesser the G File

This recommendation comes from Norman at Crime Scraps Review.

I found deciding on one book to recommend to dear Maxine a difficult task, but after several weeks’ prevarication I have selected The G File by Hakan Nesser, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. The G File is a very long book weighing in at 601 pages in my hardback version, but that wouldn’t have put off Maxine; she was a lady who read Trollope for relaxation; Anthony [1815-1882] not Joanna [1943-].

Hakan Nesser is an author who creates memorable characters and manages to include in his dark plots about violent acts a smattering of wit and humour. I feel that if one likes an author it improves your enjoyment of his or her books. Maxine and I were lucky enough to meet and chat with the charming Hakan at CrimeFest 2009 in Bristol, so I am fairly certain that she would have devoured The G File with the same enthusiasm as I did. 

This is a 'photo of Maxine Clarke and Håkan Nesser

This is a ‘photo of Maxine Clarke and Håkan Nesser

 

The G File is the tenth and last book in the Van Veeteren  series, one of the fewdetective series I have read in the correct order. The story begins back in 1987 when private detective Maarten Verlangen, a drunken ex-policeman struggling to survive financially, is hired by a beautiful American woman, Barbara Hennan, to follow her husband and report on his activities. She gives him no idea of her reasons, but Verlangen knows her husband Jaan G. Hennan from his time in the police.
 
Trustor had wanted a sort of detective who could investigate irregularities using somewhat unorthodox methods- and what could possibly be more appropriate in the circumstances than a police officer who had been sacked-or rather, ‘had chosen to leave the force rather than be hanged in a public place. A gentlemen’s agreement.
 
 The pathetic failure Verlangen is contrasted from the start with the successful Jaan G Hennan, who seems to have it all. 
 
And ten times more desirable. No, not ten times. Ten thousand times. Why on earth would anybody want to be unfaithful if they had a woman like Barbara? Incomprehensible.
 
A dozen years previously when Verlangen had been a functioning policeman he had been one of the team who had put Jaan G Hennan in prison for two years  six months for drug dealing. 

Verlangen spends his time drinking and watching Jaan G. Hennan and when instructed by Barbara not to let him out of his sight one evening he follows him to the Columbine restaurant, and they both have a meal. Jaan G. Hennan joins a shocked Verlangen at his table, introduces himself and they drink together, Verlangen getting very drunk. And as Henman drops him off at his hotel he thinks….
 
On the whole Hennan had behaved reasonably , and the reason his wife wanted him to be kept under observation was more enveloped in mystery than ever.
 
When Jaan G. Hennan returns home he discovers that his wife Barbara has fallen from the high diving board into their swimming pool which happens to be empty. Murder, manslaughter, accident? Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who also knows Jaan G Hennan from their schooldays, is convinced that G was behind his wife’s death, but G has Verlangen and others as a cast iron alibi.

G is a man with a very dark past; he was the school bully and his casual brutality lead to the suicide of another pupil. A few years later G had treated a girl friend of Van Veeteren very badly. Van Veeteren had persistent feelings of guilt for not standing up to G at school.

When further investigations of the Hennans’ finances reveal a large life insurance policy taken out on Barbara Hennan, Van Veeteren is distraught at the inevitable outcome, the result of a Northern European liberal justice system.
 
…the accursed G had been able to sit back and relax, and wait for the inevitable outcome- a not guilty verdict and one point two million guilders.
 
The narrative jumps forward 15 years to 2002 [the book dates from 2003. English readers have had a long wait for this series to reach us] when Van Veeteren is retired from the police, running Krantze’s Antiquarian bookshop and settled into a less stressful new life.

A young woman comes to see Van Veeteren, sent by his former colleague Munster. She is Maarten Verlangen’s daughter. She tells Van Veeteren that her father continued to drink excessively, brooding  about G and the death of Barbara Hennan. Now the private detective has disappeared leaving an A4 sheet of lined paper from a spiral bound pad on his kitchen table.

Written on it were  “14.42” and “G. Bloody Hell”.

The former Chief Inspector Van Veeteren begins a search for Verlangen.
 
They had eaten turbot, if he remembered rightly, and drunk a bottle of Sauternes…..That was before the antiquarian bookshop. Before Ulrike. Before Erich’s death.
It wasn’t even a decade ago, he thought. But nevertheless my life has changed fundamentally. I’d never have believed it at that time.
Bausen cleared his throat, and Van Veeteren came back down to earth.
 
The G File is a well constructed detailed police procedural. There are few plot pyrotechnics, it does not need them, and while veteran crime aficionados might be able to guess the solution to the killing of Barbara Hennan, the writing [and translation by Laurie Thompson] are of such a high quality that 600 pages soon whiz past. The G File is all about compelling characters, thinking about life’s mysteries, the creation of a dark brooding atmosphere, and the question: how does a liberal justice system deal with really bad people?

The G File is a worthy finale of this series, and I am sure Maxine would have agreed with me that Van Veeteren deserves a place alongside Morse, Maigret, and Rebus in the panoply of great police detectives.
 
There was no point in speculating on that as well, of course, and he soon grew tired of trying to find alternative ways through the swamp that was life. His own path and turned out the way it did, and if he thought about it at all nowadays, it was with gratitude. Despite everything

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

 

SwimmingInTheDarkThis recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

It’s very difficult to think of books to recommend to someone as well-read as Maxine was. But here goes… The book I’ve decided I would recommend to Maxine if I could is Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman has dreams that go far beyond her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ home in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s a very promising student, passionate about learning, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has high hopes for her. Then things begin to go wrong. Serena loses interest in school. She begins to skip class and when she is there, pays little attention to what’s going on. Klein begins to be concerned about Serena and alerts the school’s counselor.

It comes out that Serena has a very dysfunctional family situation, so she gets little support at home. What’s more, her family has little use for the authorities, and her mother deeply resents what she sees as interference from social service representatives.

Then, Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns what’s happened. She’s shocked to discover that nobody’s really taken an interest in the girl’s whereabouts. She’s been missing for three weeks, and no-one has really searched thoroughly for her. Resolving to do just the opposite, Lynnie starts looking for her sister.

In the meantime, we learn more about Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. The Klein family, originally from Leipzig, fled what was once East Germany during the 1980’s, when the Cold War was in full force. They made their way to New Zealand and have built new lives for themselves.

Gerda remembers the Stasi, the East German secret police, and knows from tragic experience the power they had. She’s happy in New Zealand, and appreciates the second chance at life that she’s gotten. Ilsa likes New Zealand too. But she was too young to understand what life under the Stasi was really like. And even after all these years, she misses the culture, the food, and her own language.

Although these two women have different perspectives on life, on Germany and on New Zealand, they both get involved in Serena Freeman’s life. And their decision has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. They end up finding themselves drawn into much more than they thought.

I’d like to think Maxine would have enjoyed this novel. She particularly liked novels where larger issues are brought to the ‘human’ level and we see that in this story. For example, without preaching about social class and the role it plays in our lives, Richardson shows how class has affected the Freeman family and their local reputation. Richardson also shows, at a very human level, what it’s like to live under a government that spies on its own citizens and uses scare tactics and secret police to control people. And there’s the issue of immigration, which is also addressed at the human level.

And yet, these larger issues are also discussed at a larger level, and Richardson doesn’t offer pat, easy answers. I’d like to think Maxine would have appreciated that too. She preferred books that don’t offer easy, superficial answers to sometimes very complex and difficult issues.

What of the mystery itself – the story of Serena Freeman’s disappearance? Maxine appreciated stories where the mystery is believable – where people do credible things and, well, act like real people. And that’s the case in this novel.  The truth about Serena’s disappearance makes sense and the characters react to it, to her and to the events in the book in ways you can imagine, given the story. The plot is taut and suspenseful, too, and I think Maxine would have liked that as well.

Maxine wasn’t much for a lot of gore, and didn’t care for gratuitous brutal violence. So I’d like to think she’d be pleased that this book isn’t ‘blood-soaked.’ There are scenes of violence, but they aren’t overdone and they aren’t extended. Oh, and I think she’d also like the fact that Richardson doesn’t use the ‘female-in-distress’ plot point as the focus of the novel. Maxine got quite impatient with that.

Maxine enjoyed novels with a solid sense of place and atmosphere, too, and we see that in this novel. Richardson depicts both settings – South Island and Leipzig – distinctly, including culture and lifestyle as well as physical setting.

So is there anything about this novel that Maxine might not have liked so well? It’s written in the present tense, and Maxine commented to me a few times about her preference for the past tense. But I think she’d have looked past that easily. She’d have appreciated the focus on the characters, the pace of the plot, the larger issues discussed and the fact that Richardson accomplishes all of this without resorting to brutal violence.

All in all, I think Maxine would really have enjoyed this book. I’m truly sorry she won’t have the chance to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

This recommendation comes from Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, and was originally posted on his blog.

TheAscendentSince offering to write the first post for Petrona Rememberedon on a book I have read in the past year that I would have recommended to Maxine I have been thinking about the 50 some books I have read since the middle of 2013. What might Maxine have liked?

My favourite book over that time would be Gail Bowen’s mystery, The Gifted, which is the 14th book in the Joanne Kilbourn series but it is not the book I have chosen to recommend.

The book I have selected is The Ascendant by Drew Chapman. My review of the book is being re-posted as part of this recommendation.

I was primarily led me recommend the book because of its skilful description of nations using technology to attack other nations. Not a bullet is fired or a bomb dropped but devastating attacks are launched between the China and United States. I remember and was impressed with Maxine’s knowledge of the internet and the technical aspects of blogging. Her obituary from Nature noted that she was a “researcher in the biophysics of muscle contraction” before joining Nature. I think she would have appreciated the information technology nuances of The Ascendant more than I understood them and she might very well have had a trenchant comment for my review.

On cyber attacks The Ascendant is very much current. Today’s New York Times has an article on Chinese hackers attacking American government agencies and how the U.S. government has penetrated Chinese companies.

I expect the hero’s talent in seeing patterns would further have appealed to Maxine’s scientific mind.

I also looked at the “About” section of Petrona Remembered and noted that Maxine “…..particularly enjoyed those novels which explore a social issue, political idea or troubling aspect of the human condition”.

The Ascendant is a thriller more than a mystery it delves into an important social and political issue in China – a fictional grass roots movement challenging the Communist Party because of the Party’s corrupt and arbitrary actions in furtherance of economic development. I think Maxine would have been intrigued by the all powerful Party being confronted.

As well Maxine always loved a good story and The Ascendant has a plot to capture the reader.

****

24. – 771.) The   Ascendant by Drew Chapman – I was swept into The Ascendant. It has been quite awhile since I was reading in bed and suddenly realized it was 2:00 in the morning of a work day and I still wanted to keep reading. I was reminded of how I was caught by the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I had to know what was going to happen next in the story.
I rarely repeat blurbs but the words of Marysue Rucci, Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief of Simon and Schuster resonated with me:
 
     I love this book and tore through it in two sittings.
 

Chapman has created a striking contemporary hero in Garrett Reilly. The former California surfer has become a bond analyst on Wall Street for a medium size firm. The job barely holds his interest. Most days he smokes some marijuana to gain the “fuzzy, contented peace” he needs to let him deal with the constant agitation of trading in bonds.

He has two special gifts. He has a photographic memory for numbers and a talent for detecting patterns:

 

Just the barest hint of a pattern – in numbers, colors,
sounds, smells – would start a tingling feeling at the base of his
spine, the faintest electric shock that was somewhere between
pleasure and alarm. As the pattern, whatever it happened to be,
became clearer to him, the tingling dissipated, melding quickly
into hard fact ……. It didn’t matter if there was purpose or intent
behind the patterns; Garrett simply saw them, felt them,
everywhere, and the recorded them in his brain. Just like that.
Every minute of every hour of every day.

 

On a rare sober day he senses an unusual pattern in the market for American Treasury bonds. Because he can remember the identifying numbers on Treasury bonds issued years ago Reilly, by looking closely at the Treasury bond market around the world notes that someone is selling the bonds purchased at a single auction of the bonds twelve years ago. What excitement can there be in the sale of bonds? Their sale becomes breathtaking when the total sold is $200,000,000,000.00.

Reilly advises his boss, Avery Bernstein, that China is attacking the U.S. through the sale of the bonds. Confirming other evidence is the timing of the sales. They took place in a repeating loop 4 and 14 minutes apart through the day. In Chinese culture 4 means death and 14 means accident. They are “the two most unlucky numbers in China”.

When Bernstein passes the information on to the Treasury Department the information is intercepted and assessed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

As the American government recognizes Reilly’s remarkable talent to see patterns in the chaos of modern society’s ceaseless flow of information they seek to recruit him to determine the patterns in Chinese actions.

The diplomatic corps has already noted a change. Chapman’s narrative ability is demonstrated by the following summary of diplomacy:

Diplomacy with the Chinese was, to U.S. Ambassador Robert
Smith Townsend’s mind, ceremonial theater. A carefully
choreographed dramatic set piece, with a first act, an interlude, a
second act, the occasional reversal or surprised, the
reintroduction of an early plot point, a denouement, and then a
neatly wrapped-up resolution. Each actor knew his or her role,
what was expected, and how the drama would turn out.

But not this time.

Reilly is a master of modern information technology. At the same time he is abrasive and self-absorbed and amoral. He is volatile. Simmering with anger he flares into violence. He is a team of one. No one could be more ill-suited to work in the military.

It is no surprise he is resistant to joining the DIA. Beyond his innate distaste for working in a group, having his older brother killed in action while a soldier has left him bitter towards the American military.

At the same time  Reilly is so brilliant at patterns that the DIA continues his recruitment.

The American military realizes that soldiers are inevitably unready for the next war because they have studied and are influenced by the last war. Reilly is free from the mould of conventional military training.

Within China Hu Mei, a young peasant woman, is leading a growing movement against the regime which has no hesitation in trampling the working people in pursuit of economic development. Can she be having an effect upon the Party leadership?

Reilly and readers of the book are suddenly caught up in a conflict between China and the U.S. that is being waged by technology rather than soldiers.

A video game has become real life. Attacks, without using a bullet, bomb or rocket, are being launched through computers.

Chapman has imagined a new form of conflict for the 21st Century that entranced me.

Reilly’s cleverness is amazing. While a genius, his behaviour is often boorish and immature. I was reminded of Lisbeth Salander – another brilliant, emotionally damaged, amoral character with immense computer skills. What a pairing Salander and Reilly would have made!
It is not a book you want to pause and reflect upon while reading for you are bound to question the reality of the plot. Just settle in for the ride and prepare to be astonished adopting  the words of the New York Times on Maisie Dobbs, the first in the series by Jacqueline Winspear. Not many books justify the use of the word thriller. The Ascendant is a genuine thriller.

 

Not just another ‘best of 2013′ reading list

santa_klausThis week’s post is from Rich Westwood

Back in December 2011, when I was still new to blogging, I was struck by a piece Maxine Clarke wrote for her blog Petrona. Rather than do a simple ‘best of the year’, she opted to follow the ‘End of the Year Book Meme’, which enabled her to highlight more of her year’s reading. She didn’t originate the idea, but it was her
version I saw first.

Everybody who has written for Petrona Remembered has pointed out how supportive Maxine was to other bloggers, and I can only echo that. So here by way of thanks is a Petrona-inspired End of the Year Book Meme.

(Disclaimer: I tend to review classic mysteries, so I’m taking 2013 to mean ‘read in 2013′ rather than ‘published in 2013′. Don’t worry, there are some recent titles in here as well.)


Best book of 2013
‘Best’ is a very difficult thing to pin down. Are we being subjective or trying for objectivity? Petrona’s strapline was ‘intelligent crime fiction from around the world’, so I’m going to offer some global candidates, all of which I awarded five stars.

From Ireland: Gene Kerrigan’s THE RAGE (2012). Set in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin, this is a tough crime novel with a moral core. In true noir style, it focuses on a committed career criminal working on his first big job but about to fall prey to his own weakness – in this case, revenge.

From the US: Patricia Highsmith’s THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1955) is an acknowledged classic which, however, seems to divide opinion quite sharply. The moral of the story could be summed up as ‘what a tangled web we weave…’ as we follow anti-hero Tom Ripley in his leech-like career in a beautifully described Italy.

From Holland (sort of): Nicholas Freeling’s GUN BEFORE BUTTER (1963), of which more later.

From France: Didier Daeninckx (trans. Liz Heron) MURDER IN MEMORIAM (1984) is a cold-case story with its roots in the brutal treatment of Algerian protesters in the 60s. The hero Cadin is a wily cop with a talent for making enemies. Despite the unpleasantness that underlies this case, the overall tone is light and reminiscent of Camilleri. Cadin, like Montalbano, is a slight obsessive, adept at blundering through local politics, and has a history of falling in love with witnesses and victims.

Worst book of 2013
Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE (1939)

Having failed to assassinate a European dictator, the protagonist of ROGUE MALE bolts to the English countryside and then disappears from view by digging himself a hole in the bank of a country lane. There are hints of Robinson Crusoe as he builds himself the perfect den.

Why don’t I like it? I can’t stand the (nameless) protagonist. He’s angry, arrogant, and a snob. ‘A hideous word – hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.’

Most disappointing
Michael Innes’ THE JOURNEYING BOY (1949)

This started so well. A fussy schoolmaster named Thewless accepts a job tutoring the problem child of a nuclear scientist and finds himself drawn into a confusing world in which his charge may or may not the target of kidnappers. Meanwhile, somebody has killed the boy’s former tutor. By the half-way point I had no idea what was going on (in a good way). Then I did (in a bad way). Once the mystery begins to resolve itself, the book becomes an adventure story with shades of Enid Blyton. And I lost all interest.

Most surprising in a good way
Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT (1987)

I would never have picked up PRESUMED INNOCENT in a million years. A 1980s American legal thriller? No way. But it was one of the Crime Writer’s Association’s top 100 novels and so I tried it.

It is the story of Rusty Sabich, a Prosecuting Attorney in Kindle County, USA. Rusty is already mixed up in a tense and competitive political struggle when his ex-mistress Caroline is found raped and strangled. The book follows his investigation, and then in a volte-face, his trial for Caroline’s murder.

What is fascinating is that Rusty knows the game so well. His trial isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s about winning. Nobody on his side even considers the question of guilt or innocence. And so the reader has to presume…

Book you recommended to people most
Harry Kemelman’s THE NINE-MILE WALK (1968)

This relatively obscure collection of Harry Kemelman short stories features Nicky Welt, an armchair detective who works as Professor of English at Fairfield University but is often on hand to advise his friend the County Attorney. The stories (which first appeared in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’ between 1947 and 1967), are neat little bits of old-school mystery. Kemelman’s virtuoso piece is a thought-experiment in which Welt reconstructs a crime from a chance remark overheard by his friend, so convincingly he realises it must have actually happened.

Best series you discovered
A toss-up between Barbara Nadel’s Hakim and Arnold, and Anya Lipska’s Kiszka and Kershaw.

I’m a fan of Barbara Nadel’s other series – the Istanbul-set Inspector Ikmen and the Blitz-ridden undertaker Francis Hancock. She’s good at depicting cosmopolitan communities – and the ways in which very different people get along (usually). Nadel brings the same approach to her new PI series Hakim and Arnold. Mumtaz Hakim is a veiled Muslim woman with real courage and strength of purpose. Lee Arnold is a former East End copper with an unexpected soft side.

Anya Lipska is a new author with reader-friendly prose and characters who make for engaging company: Janusz Kiszka and Natalie Kershaw. He’s a successful fixer to London’s Polish community; she’s an ambitious young detective. Some of the most interesting scenes are the meetings between Natalie and Janusz, initially exposing their prejudices: Polish thug vs harmless girl.

Most hilarious book
William Stephens Hayward: REVELATIONS OF A LADY DETECTIVE (1864)
Mrs Paschal is one of those ‘much-dreaded, but little-known people called Female Detectives’. Her eminently Victorian opponents are an enthusiastic mix of aristocratic bank robbers, Italian unificationists, evil nuns, live-rat-eating sideshow performers, the enormous wife of a pork-and-butter merchant, bent solicitors, evil twins, and larcenous postmen. Detection is kept to a bare minimum. Mrs Paschal’s MO is 1. Dress up as a servant. 2. Catch villain.

She displays a sly wit:

‘Thermopylae was not defended by men who lived upon the fat of the land, but by those who ate coarse bread and spring onions – rather objectionable in feminine eyes, but conducive to physical development.’

But more often than not, the humour is frankly unintentional: ‘Oh! How egregiously I have been duped!’ cried the abbess, in despairing accents.

Most thrilling, unputdownable book
John Fowles’ THE COLLECTOR (1963)

I think the putting down of a book depends as much on mood and circumstance as anything else. I can read a good book and find myself leaving it alone for no good reason, or charge through something demonstrably bad just because I am enjoying it. I have noticed this year that I’m no longer a big fan of the classic thrillers. Twenty years ago I hung on to every word of THE DAY OF THE JACKAL; this year I enjoyed it but wouldn’t describe it as immortal any more. Perhaps oddly, the book I had trouble leaving alone was THE COLLECTOR, John Fowles’ story of a butterfly collector who wins the pools and builds himself a prison in his cellar.

Book you most anticipated
Agatha Christie’s CROOKED HOUSE (1949)

This came highly recommended by fellow bloggers, and it is pretty good. Agatha herself rated it very highly: ‘This book is one of my own special favourites… writing CROOKED HOUSE was pure pleasure…’

Young diplomat (and son of a Scotland Yard brass hat) Charles Hayward falls for Sophia Leonides in wartime Cairo, and when the war is safely over he gets in touch to see if she wouldn’t mind awfully getting married. Unfortunately Sophia’s got some baggage in the form of a recently murdered grandfather and a very suspicious family. The family lives together under one roof, and Charles ends up staying with them while the police try to sort it all out.

The end is a classic Christie twist (you’ll kick yourself), and the book is definitely a cut above the majority of country house murder mysteries.

Favourite cover of a book you read
I can tell you the worst, straight off: Georges Simenon’s THE IRON STAIRCASE/THE iron_staircaseTRAIN.

My favourite covers this year are probably from the British Library’s classic crime series, with Mavis Doriel Hay’s THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER being the most seasonal (I didn’t go a bundle on the story, though).

Most memorable character
Tricky: I think I tend to like big, colourful characters best.

The Victorian lady detective Mrs Paschal was a real find. She’s not afraid to get stuck in, adopting a take-no-prisoners approach reminiscent at times of Mike Hammer.

Mortimer Shay, the semi-mythic Royalist spymaster from TRAITOR’S FIELD, has a lot of potential and would be great on screen, I think.

R.M., the anonymous hero of ROGUE MALE, is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Fred and Miranda from John Fowles’ THE COLLECTOR are neither big nor colourful, but they are a memorable pair. He’s a control freak with a girl in his cellar. She’s a control freak who is, unfortunately, in his cellar. Their struggles for supremacy are gripping.

Most beautifully written
Robert Wilton’s TRAITOR’S FIELD (2013)

I’ve read some excellent prose this year, from Dashiell Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY to Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT. Their style is what has made them classics, so I’ve chosen to pick a new entrant.

TRAITOR’S FIELD is set during the English Civil War. It’s the story of two intelligence men working on opposite sides: The Royalist Sir Mortimer Shay and the Parliamentarian John Thurloe. They share an obsession with a suspicious death during a botched attempt at a kidnapping. Wilton’s prose is dense and he is adept at conveying atmosphere – from a besieged town to a run-down prison to a remote country house. His fight scenes are brilliant:

‘Then the nightmare: the earth shuddering and the heads screaming and the drowsy clusters of men dragging themselves awake and somehow up, and staggering and clutching for shoulders and weapons and clarity and the nightmare is on them. The nightmare is Cromwell, vast leather-and-metal men on rampaging horses, exploding dark out of the night, monstrous grey-brown shadows and a madness of noise.’

Book that had the greatest impact on you
Georges Simenon’s THE TRAIN (1964)

This has surprised me a little bit. I didn’t especially enjoy it, in fact I didn’t review it beyond a brief mention in my reading review for September. It is the story of an ordinary man from a small town in France at the very beginning of World War Two. He flees the approaching German army with his family, but loses them and without drawing breath takes up with the Belgian refugee who proves to be his soul-mate. They enjoy a bizarre honeymoon is a refugee camp before his ‘real’ life catches up with him. What’s snuck into my mind and won’t leave, is an incredible act of betrayal in the final few paragraphs. His return to normality, to duty, eclipses everything else. And his soul-mate, of course, understands.

Book you can’t believe you waited until 2013 to read
Nicolas Freeling: GUN BEFORE BUTTER (1963)

Van der Valk is a cop show I remember my parents watching in the 70s (and the theme tune, available on YouTube, will doubtless be familiar to many. However, for some reason I had never considered reading the Nicolas Freeling books until I found this in my local second-hand bookshop. Van der Valk is an unconventional and whimsical detective who I think probably influenced Fred Vargas when she came up with her Commissaire Adamsberg. Van Der Valk is similarly unconventional, a thinker and dreamer whose mental processes do not fit into the standard police mould, but who yet has his uses: ‘He got thrown the queer jobs. Anybody with a funny name or a funny business. Or who talked other languages…’

So there we have it: my pick of the 60-odd books I read in 2013.

Rich blogs at Past Offences and is a regular reviewer for Euro Crime.

Link

This week’s post is from Michelle Peckham, a long time friend of Maxine.

Maxine was a long time friend of mine, as we met back in the early 1980s when we were both PhD students, carrying out research into how muscles work. Some time later, when Maxine was working for Nature, and I’d moved up to Leeds as a Lecturer, I happened to mention to her that I’d quite enjoyed reading some books by Michael Connelly, and had started reading quite a few crime books as a result. Maxine immediately started telling me about all the crime novelists I should try (Michael Connelly being one of her favourite authors). Her love of crime fiction led to her blog at Petrona, reviewing for Euro Crime, reviewing on Amazon and even tweeting snippets of crime news, and I always enjoyed reading her reviews. Maxine always had such good recommendations for books that she knew I’d particularly like, and of these were those from another one of her favourite authors, Arnaldur Indridason.  I am sure that she would have really enjoyed STRANGE SHORES, particularly with the return to the story of Erlendur, the solitary, slightly depressive, detective, forever burdened by the loss of his brother when he was just a young boy, a character she very much engaged with.

Maxine was a beautiful, kind person, with an enviable talent of being able to get under the skin of a book, and she is very much missed.


SShoresSTRANGE SHORES by Arnaldur Indridason is the eleventh in the series of Reykjavik Murder mysteries. This book focuses on the main detective, introduced to us in the first books, Erlendur. He is on holiday (something alluded to in the previous two books) and now we finally find out what he has been doing. There has been a long running story-line throughout these books about the death of Erlendur’s brother, and his continuous underlying guilt that he should have done more to save his brother Beggi from death.

As children, they were both lost in a blizzard. Erlendur was with Beggi and held his hand until suddenly Beggi was no longer there. Erlendur made it to safety, but Beggi was never found. Erlundur feels if only he could discover what happened to Beggi, it might help to bring some sort of closure. But his decision to come up to the East Fjords is also motivated by another disappearance, the disappearance of a young woman called Matthildur told to him in a story he heard as a child. Matthildur apparently disappeared in a storm many years ago, on her way to visit her sister. The same storm in which several British soldiers were also trapped, soldiers who were part of the occupying force during the war. It was simply assumed that Matthildur disappeared in the same storm, even though the British soldiers, in the same area, hadn’t seen her.

Staying in his parents’ ruined farmhouse, Erlundur thinks about the past, about Beggi, and Matthildur, and tries to find out what happened to both of them. The difficulty with Matthildur is that her disappearance happened long ago, and those who might know something have kept their secrets for many years, and are reluctant to reveal what they know. Moreover, Erlundur is an ‘outsider’ and has to slowly build trust between himself and the people from the area who know what might have happened. But Erlundur’s gentle and insightful approach gradually persuades the various villagers to unburden themselves, and he gradually manages to piece together an idea of Matthildur’s life and the events that lead to her disappearance. In the process, he gradually comes to terms with the death of his own brother, and we learn more of the events at the time when Beggi disappeared, why Erlundur feels such guilt, and the effects on his own family of the disappearance of a beloved child.

STRANGE SHORES is a powerful and emotional book, Erlundur is a complex, quiet yet persuasive investigator that digs away gently to discover what happened long ago. The memories of the past, both his own and those of the friends, family and neighbours of Matthildur bring together an evocative picture of life in the Fjords, the environment and the various occupations of those living there. Erlundur is able to sit and watch quietly and impassively as various key players unburden themselves of events that happened long ago, events that are gruelling to remember and have tortured their emotions, just as the disappearance of Beggi has tortured Erlundur. Perhaps it is the very fact that Erlundur has lived through something similar, that he is able to persuade people to co-operate and tell Erlundur of their own hopes and fears about what happened when Matthildur disappeared. A beautiful book that really digs down deep into how people cope with a traumatic effect, and how it shapes their lives for many years afterwards. If you haven’t read this series of books yet, this can be read as a stand-alone book, and will surely set you off on the trail of reading the remaining eight books available in English.

Highly recommended and one of my favourite reads of the year.

Book Details:

author: Arnaldur Indridason
original language: Icelandic
translator: Victoria Cribb
publication date (UK): 2013 (original publication 2010)

Contributor Details:

Michelle is a regular reviewer for Euro Crime.

In a Word: Murder – An Anthology

in-a-word-murder-coverAs part of the worldwide crime fiction writing and reading community’s tribute to Maxine Clarke an anthology of short stories has been published in eBook format.

The stories all have a focus on crime in the writing, editing, reviewing and blogging world: a fitting environment for a tribute to Maxine whose non-crime reading life included a long career in science publishing. Stories include the murder of an editor of a true crime magazine, a life-or-death short story competition and a killer literary festival in the North of England.

In addition to providing a bunch of short & sharp criminal stories, proceeds from the collection’s sale go to the Princess Alice Hospice so you shouldn’t need any more incentive to grab a copy Amazon (print version due early next year).

Margot Kinberg of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist fame is to be congratulated for pulling together this collection.

COLD HEARTS by Gunnar Staalesen

This week’s post is from Spanish crime fiction lover Jose Ignacio Escribano who takes us on a visit to Norway to catch up with the latest installment of a series featuring a ‘slightly’ alcoholic private detective who’s been on the case since the late 1970’s.

ColdHeartsStaalesenLike many other authors, I discovered Gunnar Staalesen’s books through Maxine Clarke’s blog, Petrona. Paraphrasing Maxine COLD HEARTS ‘has the added advantage of being translated by the superb Don Bartlett, who also translates (among other authors) Jo Nesbo and K. O. Dahl’. In addition to that COLD HEARTS is eligible or, to be more accurate, can be submitted for the 2014 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year

The story, like most if not all the books in the series, is set in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. Varg Veum, the leading character is a private investigator. Staalesen had said about him in a 2010 interview with The Scotsman:

“Varg Veum was born in 1942, so he’s five years older than I am; he was 34 when I created him,” says Staalesen, who introduced his flawed detective – a “slightly” alcoholic ex-social worker and the divorced father of one son – in 1977 in Bukken til havresekken (which translates, enigmatically, as Goat of Geese), with the words: “In the beginning was the office, and in the office I sat.”

The story is narrated in a long flashback. For some reason, Veum can’t take it out of his head. He was working on this case in January 1997, six months ago. On a Monday morning, Veum receives a visit from Hege Jensen in his office. She was in the same class as his son Thomas at secondary school. If she was his age, she must be around twenty-five. In fact, they had been dating for awhile. Now, to make a living, she sells herself. Since last Friday, she hasn’t seen her friend Margrethe, Maggi for short. That day she turned down a punter and Tanya took him instead. When Tanya came back, she was a flood of tears, all bruised and beaten. Hege can’t even consider going to the police. ‘You know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi’. Veum decides to take up the case.

After an unpleasant encounter with two unfriendly characters, Kjell and Rolf, Veum finds out they were driving a car belonging to a firm called Malthus Invest. ‘What they invested in was not clear from the name, but it was obviously everything from property to what they would no doubt prefer to call the entertainment industry.’ Instead of browsing the Internet, Veum believes it safest to skim through the telephone directory. ‘There was one person in Bergen with the surname Malthus. Oddly enough his first name was Kjell.’ He couldn’t find anyone called Margrethe Monsen. Nor, for that matter, Hege Jensen. Since he didn’t feel competent enough to use the Internet for detective work, Veum rang Karin Bjorge to ask if she would mind checking a name for him. A meal at Pascal’s was much more his style. Karin finds one Margrethe Monsen with a Minde address, born on 14 April 1970. Her father Frank died four years ago. Her mother Else has the same address as Margrethe, Falsens vei. An older sister, Siv, lives in Landas and her younger brother, Karl Gunnar is in prison.

Next, Veum, heads to the red light district and finds Tanya. Despite her initial reluctance, finally, she tells him they were two Norwegian, way over fifty. Only one did it. The other waited around the corner. When she tried to get away, he held her down. The one in the outside got into the backseat, placed a rope round her neck and threatened to tighten it. She remembers it was a black car and the first three numbers on the plate.

As he tries try to find out more, Veum will have to face a brutal reality. Soon the first body will be found, and it won’t be the last. Under each stone that he raises, some dark secret is hidden. Ultimately the pattern of wounded people, worm-eaten lives, and hearts long since grown cold proves deadly – for someone. (Arcadia Books).

COLD HEARTS is excellent crime fiction. The story is intelligent and very well written. It does have a great sense of place. The characters are credible, Varg Veum turns out to be extremely interesting. The plot is well structured and, at the end, all the different pieces of the puzzle will fit with each other. Staalesen provides us with a view of the welfare state that may not be for everyone taste, but no one can ignore its existence, and thus he adds an element of social criticism that is thought-provoking. This is a highly recommended book, by a superb writer, unfortunately not very well known.


Book Details:

author: Gunnar Staalesen
original language: Norwegian
translator: Don Bartlett
publication date (UK): 2013 (original publication 2008)

Contributor Details:

Jose Ignacio Escribano blogs at The Game’s Afoot where he takes the international flavour of crime fiction up a notch by reading and reviewing in both English and Spanish.