A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Wolf WinterThis recommendation comes from Crimeworm, who blogs at Crimeworm


It’s obviously incredibly difficult to recommend a novel to someone you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting – particularly someone as influential, knowledgeable and, of course, loved as Maxine was. From what I know of her, which isn’t a great deal, she was fanatical about Nordic/Scandi Noir – call it what you will. That’s when Wolf Winter sprang to mind. It is a Swedish mystery – but set way back in 1717. I hope, were Maxine here to read the book, she would it enjoy it as much as I and many other bloggers did.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter.

Wolf Winter is the debut novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, whose family originates, not surprisingly, from the north of Sweden and Lapland. This doubtless accounts for the novel’s hugely strong sense of atmosphere and place, and makes it the unique book that it is. The phrase also refers to the longest and hardest times in a person’s life – so, for our main characters, it is certainly an appropriate title!

It’s set in 1717, and is the story of a family: father Paavo, mother Maija, and daughters Frederika, 14, and Dorotea, 6, who move to a settlement on Blackåsen mountain in a “swap” deal with Paavo’s uncle (mainly arranged because Paavo has developed a phobia of his work on the sea as a fisherman), from the seas of Finland to the mountains of Sweden. So they arrive at their new settlement on the side of the remote mountain, where there are only six households, not including the Lapps, who only come down to the mountain in winter from higher ground. Life is very tough, and really seems to consist of survival for the families.  Obviously, as it’s so far north, in summer it’s almost completely light, and in winter the opposite.

At the very opening of the book, just three days after arriving on the mountain, Frederika and Dorotea come across the dead body of a man in a glade. Their mother fetches other residents of the mountain, none of whom she’s yet met, who dismiss the death as a wolf attack. But Maija knows wolf don’t attack humans, and even if they did, the wound wouldn’t resemble that inflicted on Eriksson, which she believes was caused by a rapier. The other settlers would also know this. She believes Eriksson was murdered, but knows that the pool of suspects on the mountain is obviously small, and that she, as a newcomer and a woman, is not in a position to publicly disagree with the longer established male settlers. So she does her best to gather more evidence (a little of which she manages to do at an examination of the body, requested by Elin, the dead man’s widow, and also attended by the priest.) Thereafter, she watches and waits, taking in all she can regarding relationships between the settlers, past disputes, etc, hoping to find out the truth behind Eriksson’s demise. Meanwhile, before winter starts, Paavo decides it would be prudent to travel south to gain employment, and leaves his wife and daughters to run the smallholding – although to me, this merely seems a plot device to allow Maija to take centre stage.

Frederika, the oldest daughter, seems to have some kind of supernatural powers, which are recognised by Fearless, one of the Lapps. She is also on a quest to find out what happened to Eriksson, although she and her mother seem the only ones concerned, as was apparently an unpopular man who liked to discover people’s secrets and use them for his own gain. Almost everyone, it seemed, was on remote Blackåsen mountain to hide away and conceal secrets – and in the course of Maija and Frederika’s respective investigations, many such secrets people would prefer to keep to themselves come tumbling out. And I can promise you, some will certainly surprise you. Other secrets are revealed when people take trips to the coast and “make enquiries” about their neighbours .

Wolf Winter is a novel most of which I really enjoyed, although I did put it down for a week or two at one point as it seemed to lose momentum slightly. About halfway through, though, the story picked up considerably, mainly with Frederika’s attempts to use supernatural powers she feels she may have, and with the secrets of the various settlers being revealed – some innocuous, others the hiding of which you can certainly understand.

Where Ekbäck really excels, though, is in her description of the weather – to me, it beggared belief that people were able to survive in these circumstances, never mind live self-sufficiently! One description of a storm is so evocative, you can almost feel the wind blowing the windows in. The nature of the area; its animals, and particularly its plants, is another area where you can tell she’s done her research.

I really liked Maija – she was a tough, resourceful woman who got on with what had to be done, without complaint, although there were a few points in the book where it was clear she wondered what they’d let themselves in for by moving somewhere so isolated and demanding. Paavo, to be honest, we barely got to know, although it was apparent that, of the couple, Maija was definitely the stronger one. However, their relationship was without doubt rock solid – despite receiving no letters from him throughout the winter (we learn of the reason why) she has faith he will return.

Frederika was equally likeable – sweetly protective of her little sister, she initially rejected any sign of any kind of “power”, before doing her best to use it – not for her own benefit, but to see justice done and protect her family. The justice that she sees done, though, may not be for the crime she’d initially hoped…

I’d really recommend Wolf Winter as a perfect winter read (although I may be a tad late for this winter!) It would also probably please the many fans of Nordic Noir, containing as it does murder and mystery at its heart. Also, if you enjoy books with a supernatural element, this would also be just the ticket for you.

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

The Shut EyeThis recommendation comes from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.  

Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Maxine, any reader who visits Amazon UK regularly is bound to be familiar with her reviews. It’s a testimony to the quality and popularity of her reviews that even now her profile is still listed amongst the ‘Top Reviewers’. Maxine reviewed Belinda Bauer’s debut novel ‘Blacklands’ and said “I loved the book, though it is not a “crime” novel in the usual sense…Overwhelmingly, though, I admire the achievement of the author for this well-constructed, observant and insightful book, not least because it is her first novel.” I’m sure she would have enjoyed Bauer’s latest book just as much.

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie’s case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. In fact, so desperate had he become that he even put aside all his disbelief and cynicism and consulted a psychic. But to no avail, and the case is now officially classed as ‘cold’. But when Marvel begins to suspect a tenuous link between the two very different disappearances, he’s willing to clutch at any straw to have it reopened…

Belinda Bauer has the rare talent amongst crime writers of achieving a near perfect balance of light and shade, so that her books are always hugely entertaining even when they are addressing some pretty grim and disturbing subjects. In this book, she does this in two ways. Her third person multiple-viewpoint narration provides a tiny bit of distance between the reader and her characters, allowing her to show the emotional turmoil of losing a child without forcing the reader to spend too much time inside the bleakness of the parents’ minds. She is also a mistress of the art of injecting little bits of black humour at just the right places to lift the tone without destroying the tension. Her humour is so black and so subtle, in fact, that it often feels as if it comes direct from the reader’s mind rather than the author’s pen, which is brilliantly disconcerting.

There are three main viewpoints in the book. James, Daniel’s father, is riddled with guilt because he left open the door allowing Daniel to run off. But he’s just about holding it together, providing strength and support for his distraught wife, Anna. James works in the garage across the road from his home and it was there that the last signs of Daniel were seen – his little footprints embedded in the wet cement of the new forecourt. The garage is staffed mainly by immigrants, legal and illegal, while James’ boss is an unscrupulous bully. But this all-male environment gives James a kind of emotional support that helps him face things at home.

Anna is falling apart – she rarely leaves the house except to clean and polish the footprints to stop them from being worn away. Anna’s story is the grimmest strand in the book – Bauer shows us the agony and guilt felt by a mother who loses her child, and when we first meet Anna we learn how close she is to complete despair and mental breakdown. But one day a flyer is put through her door for a spiritualist meeting and she is tempted to try to find out once and for all if Daniel has died.

The third viewpoint is DCI Marvel and it’s in the sections relating to him that Bauer employs her humour. Marvel is a good cop, driven to succeed, but with little empathy for either the victims or his colleagues. Usually he sees each case as a competition between himself and the killer, but something about Edie has found his soft centre – maybe because she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, and this reminds him of his own boyhood dream. So when the Superintendent pulls him off a murder case to carry out what he sees as a trivial investigation, he’s at first outraged but then decides to use it as leverage to force the Superintendent to reopen Edie’s case. We also get to see Marvel’s home life, and his relationship with his put-upon partner Debbie, which nicely rounds him out as a character. He loves Debbie but he clearly doesn’t understand why she gets so frustrated with his behaviour. What’s so odd about looking over autopsy pictures during dinner anyway?

There is a supernatural element to the book surrounding the spiritual church and the psychic involved in looking for Edie. Normally that would destroy the credibility of any book for me, but Bauer’s writing is of such high quality that she carried me along and I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Marvel, too, is a cynic about such things and his down-to-earth scepticism prevents this aspect of the plot from becoming too fanciful.

Another excellent outing from Belinda Bauer, who seems to grow in skill and confidence with every book. Recently she has been producing standalones, as this is, but I would be one delighted reader if she decided to bring DCI Marvel back for another case at some point – he’s the kind of character who’s fun to spend time with… complex, frustrating, sometimes unfeeling, but also amusing and likeable, and with a good heart. I may have to start a petition…

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

ecThis recommendation comes from Rebecca Bradley, who blogs at Rebecca Bradley Crime 

Eye Contact by Fergus McNeill

If you look him in the eye, you’re dead.

From the outside, Robert Naysmith is a successful businessman, handsome and charming. But for years he’s been playing a deadly game.

He doesn’t choose his victims. Each is selected at random – the first person to make eye contact after he begins ‘the game’ will not have long to live. Their fate is sealed.

When the body of a young woman is found on Severn Beach, Detective Inspector Harland is assigned the case. It’s only when he links it to an unsolved murder in Oxford that the police begin to guess at the awful scale of the crimes.

But how do you find a killer who strikes without motive?

My Thoughts: 

This is a very clever novel that manages to drag you in and hold you hostage as Robert Naysmith plays his ‘game’. The game being that when he decides to start the clock, the first person who looks him in the eye will be the person he kills. But, that person has 24 hours to live first as Naysmith likes the hunt: to find the person again after 24 hours have passed, with the person being hunted completely unknowing.

Naysmith is a clever articulate man. He holds down a whole other life: a great job and a home with a beautiful partner whom McNeill manages to show you the intricacies of Naysmith’s emotional checks and balances as he maintains this relationship and how this itself plays out.

There’s also Detective Inspector Harland who is struggling with his own loss while hunting Naysmith. And though there are chapters with Harland in them and the police in general making an attempt to capture this killer, this is not a police procedural by any means. In fact the police aspect takes a back seat most of the time.

The whole book is hypnotising. It’s the only way I can describe it. I had to keep turning the pages because the language used and human frailty captured was just riveting. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next novel by McNeill.

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Wreath for the BrideThis recommendation comes from Moira R., who blogs at Clothes in Books.

A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang

I love the idea of remembering Maxine this way: recommending a book that we think she would have liked. I didn’t know her long or well before she died, but she had already shown her generosity to me, welcoming me into the world of blogging and making her thoughtful and perceptive comments at Clothes in Books. She wanted to share her great ideas and great finds with the rest of us, and she hoped we’d do the same back for her – so what better way to commemorate her than to carry on that tradition.

The book I have chosen is A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang. It was first published in Sweden in 1960, and has recently been republished in English (my translation is credited only to the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton) – probably because a Swedish TV show has been made from her books, and was recently shown on the BBC under the name Crimes of Passion.

Maria Lang (1914-1991) wrote 42 detective stories: she was ‘the first queen of Swedish crime fiction.’ She was often compared to Agatha Christie – usually these comparisons make me sigh (you wonder if the people making the comparisons have actually read any Christie) but based on this book, it’s not so unreasonable.

The book has a very strong sense of place – but it couldn’t be further from the hard-boiled, noirish books many of us now associate with Scandi-fiction. It’s set in a small village, Stroga, where everyone knows each other. Everyone gossips and has an opinion on others’ affairs. You can’t walk down the street without being seen and noticed.

Or can you?

‘Anneli is wearing virginal (but not bridal) white when she disappears. This image from the Clover Vintage tumblr’ (http://clover-vintage.tumblr.com/post/79109082830/1956-la-femme-chic)

‘Anneli is wearing virginal (but not bridal) white when she disappears. This image from the Clover Vintage tumblr’

Anneli, young and beautiful, is about to marry rich eligible Joachim. She is chatting with her friend Dina in the main street, then dives into the florist’s shop – her fiancé has asked her to look at her bouquet, which he has chosen. Dina waits outside for her, chats to some locals. It starts raining, and she can wait no longer. So she goes into the flower shop – and is told by the owner that Anneli has never been there. She has vanished into thin air. She does not re-appear in time for the wedding, which has to be called off, though everyone goes for the meal in the hotel anyway.  A few days later a body is discovered.

So what did happen to her? What are the undercurrents in peaceful Skoga? Luckily, Chief Inspector Christer Wick is visiting from Stockholm – he has come for the wedding, as he grew up in Skoga and his mother still lives there. He investigates the crime, and also takes a great interest in the delightful and pretty Dina, Anneli’s devastated friend. In the end he finds the solution, and expounds the full explanation to the gathered townspeople in true Christie fashion. In a very Christie-like manner, there have been all kinds of different things going on, and the explanation is very complex. My only criticism is that if something very odd and inexplicable has happened –  but it turns out that it didn’t happen, someone was just lying – then that’s not much of an illusion. But that’s a bit picky.

The atmosphere is beautifully done: the old-fashioned shops in the street, giving onto a yard, the old lady who sits outside watching what goes on. The action takes place in the high summer, and I love the fact that one character goes out at 3 o’clock in the morning and finds it is

‘…wonderful out— the sun out and the birds singing away at full blast.’

Quite a lot of people are out and about in this midnight sun, so very un-English and beautifully described.

I watched the TV version of this one, which was enchanting, with gorgeous scenery, 1960 clothes, and Swedish houses to look at. It was somewhat expanded from the book, but true to the spirit, I thought, and great fun to watch.

The English title of the book is misleading: The bride’s flowers are very important, but it is her bouquet, not her head-dress, that matters so much. The Swedish title translates as the King of the Lily of the Valley, and refers to a poem which various characters quote, and indeed lilies-of-the-valley are of great importance (there is a song based on the poem, which you can hear on YouTube).

As we all know, Maxine loved her Scandi-fiction, and the books she read were often harsher and more contemporary than this one. But I think she would have liked A Wreath for the Bride: to see where it fits in the history of Swedish crime fiction, because of its great sense of place, and because it is engaging, but also haunting – it has a darker sadder side. It is the ideal short sharp read.

*Clover Vintage Tumblr

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

The Burning AirThis recommendation comes from Cleo, who blogs at Cleopatra Loves Books

When I originally signed up to recommend a novel to Maxine I foolishly thought the task would be easy, I’ve read loads of crime fiction and give people recommendations on what to try frequently enough that the names of those authors trip off my tongue. Giving a recommendation to someone who was as well read as Maxine was tough, so I concentrated on the aspect of crime fiction writing she found most appealing, those that covered a social issue, a political idea or troubling aspect of the human condition. I believe I found the perfect book . My choice definitely covers two of these, with a hint of the other, and it is one of my favourite crime reads of all time

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly

Lydia opens her diary, picks up her pen and prepares to commit her sins to its pages. Overwhelmed by her illness she finishes her entry stating ‘A good mother loves fiercely but ultimately brings up her children to thrive without her. They must be the most important thing in her life, but if she is the most important thing in theirs, she has failed.’ These words underpin the rest of one of the darkest stories I have read.

Lydia and Rowan McBride had a successful life, Rowan a headmaster at a prestigious private school and Lydia a magistrate with altruistic nature. Their three children Sophie, Tara and Felix grew up with all the benefits this background afforded them, attending their father’s school. Lydia’s husband Rowan, her adult children Sophie, Tara and Felix gather together along with an assortment of partners and offspring over a cold November weekend to scatter her ashes at Far Barn, the scene of many happy family holidays. Without a television or mobile signal and only a tape deck and record player for music, being at Far Barn is like going back in time. And so the scene is set for a claustrophobic weekend where the consequences of the past make themselves known. When Felix’s new girlfriend disappears with Sophie’s baby on bonfire night the secrets of the past come tumbling out with each character having a part to play in this well-crafted story.

So where, you might ask, are those aspects so beloved by Maxine? Well, this is a book about obsession which sparks acts of violent revenge, a human condition which left unchecked can cause utter devastation as this novel demonstrates. The cause of the vengeance is someone who believes the family were responsible for a bright, intelligent child from a mixed-up background missing out on the chance of attending the private school, the one that the younger McBrides attended because their father was headmaster. This single event sparked an obsession with the McBride family that lasted many years, the pursuit of revenge having a corrosive effect on all who stepped into its path.

This is a fascinating look at some views about private education: does it provide an advantage regardless of the ability of the child attending? Likewise the converse, if a child is intelligent would they thrive in any educational facility? What does a private school offer children of all abilities that aren’t available in the state system? Or is it perhaps a little more complex than any of those questions? Isn’t it a social as well as a political issue that an education that can be bought is more desirable than the one that the vast majority of children attend?

In many ways The Burning Air is a book about moral issues with degrees of guilt and innocence being far more important, certainly in the background to this story, than the absolutes of right and wrong. I prefer my reading matter not to be black and white and so I think this book will be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how morally responsible the reader holds the perpetrator.

As I hope you can see, there is plenty to think about in this novel but just for avoidance of doubt, it is also a great read, with plenty of twists and turns which I have done my level best to avoid spoiling whilst writing this recommendation post for Petrona Remembered.

A Great Crime Novel Recomendation

GameForFiveThis recommendation comes from Jacqui, who blogs at JaquiWine’s Journal

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

This post is my contribution to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of Maxine Clarke.

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, a delightfully playful and witty mystery set in the Tuscan countryside in 1895, published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Malvaldi has also written the Bar Lume mysteries set in present-day Italy, and Game for Five (published by Europa Editions, World Noir) is the first novella in this series.

Game for Five takes us to Pineta, a fashionable seaside resort near Pisa. Here we meet Massimo, long-suffering owner of the Bar Lume and unofficial guardian to four old-timers in their 70s and 80s who spend their days winding one another up and playing cards at the venue.

One of the most delightful aspects of this novella stems from Malvaldi’s descriptions of the characters and the banter between the main players. At an early stage in the story, we are introduced to the four elderly gentlemen, each of whom has his own individual habits and mannerisms. Ampelio, who also happens to be Massimo’s grandpa, is like a child who has escaped from the watchful eye of his mother, always on the lookout for ice cream and unsuitable drinks – unsuitable for both the sweltering heat, and his state of health. In this scene, we get a sense of the other characters and their activities at the bar:

The first to open his mouth is retired postal worker Gino Rimediotti, who looks all of his seventy-five years, and who now says, as he usually does, “I’m fine with anything. As long as I don’t play in a pair with him there.”
Listen to him! As if it’s always my fault…”
Yes, it is your fault! You never remember what cards have been dealt even if they bite you.”
Gino, listen, I’m fond of you, but someone who winks like he’s swallowed gravel the way you do should just keep still, OK? When you’re dealt a three anyone would think you’re having a heart attack. Even the people inside the bar know what cards you have.”
The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times in a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character: apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt. (pg. 24, Europa Editions)

Life in this small town is disturbed by news of a murder. Very early one morning, a local guy discovers the body of a young girl dumped in a parking-lot trash can by the side of a wood, and he stumbles into Bar Lume to raise the alarm. Having spent the night at the disco, the man is as drunk as they come, so Massimo accompanies him to the crime scene, confirms the presence of the body and calls the police. Into the fray comes the insufferable and bumbling Inspector Fusco, a man who Massimo and Dr. Carli, the police doctor in attendance, consider ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.

Game for Five is a hugely enjoyable book full of wry humour, and much of the story’s wit derives from the interactions between characters, especially those involving the inspector. Here he is interviewing Massimo about events on the night in question:

Right, you live in the city. Simone Tonfoni, the person who found the body, maintains that he entered your bar at 5.10. Can you confirm that?”
After he entered, he says he phoned this station to report finding the body. The officer on duty at the switchboard thought it was a joke and hung up. Then…”
Then I asked him to show me where the body was. We went to the parking lot, I saw the scene, went back to the bar and –”
Please just answer my questions and don’t interrupt,” the inspector said calmly. “Did you phone the station at 5.20 A.M.?”
Did you go back to the parking lot immediately after the phone call?”
Was the scene of the crime exactly as it had been the first time?”
Did you wait for the police to arrive, without leaving the spot?”
Are you sure about what you’re telling me?”
Is yes the only word you know?”
No.” (pg. 42)

It’s not long before the old-timers at Bar Lume start gossiping about the murder, speculating – often rather wildly – on events and possible suspects. Nevertheless, Inspector Fusco could probably do a lot worse than pay a visit to the bar should he wish to get to the bottom of the case:

You know the neat thing about this whole business, my dear Massimo? It’s that the town already knows more than the inspector. Firstly, because Fusco is a fool” – all those present nodded in unison – “and secondly, because if something happens in this town, to someone from the town, then someone else must know something about it. Maybe someone who saw something but doesn’t know what it meant. In my opinion, Massimo, Fusco should come to the bar and talk to all the people who drop in here, then go to see all the women in their homes, then go to the market, and so on. Nobody’ll go straight to him…” (pg. 39)

Due to his involvement in the discovery of the corpse, Massimo gets drawn into the investigation. He soon realises that Fusco has jumped on the obvious suspect – a young boy who had been seeing the victim – despite the absence of a clear motive or any evidence linking this individual to the crime scene. While Massimo longs for a quiet life and would prefer to leave matters to the authorities, the more information he uncovers, the more the case niggles away at him. Underneath Massimo’s slightly weathered exterior lurks a natural empathy for others, and he takes it upon himself to talk to those who knew the dead girl in an attempt to solve the crime. Aided and abetted, of course, by his grandpa and fellow frequenters of the Bar Lume.

Game for Five is great fun. It’s an enjoyable mystery, but what really elevate this book, making it such a delight to read, are the characterisation and different shades of humour Malvaldi brings to the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, each of the old-timers comes with his own individual idiosyncrasies and ways to infuriate to others (many of which are unconstrained by political correctness). Inspector Fusco is well-drawn, as is Dr. Carli, the police doctor. And as the novella progresses, Malvaldi reveals more of Massimo’s character adding depth to our image of the protagonist. The banter amongst the old-timers and their exchanges with Massimo are a joy: some scenes are pure comedy; others peppered with slightly sardonic wit. And the interactions between Massimo and the inept Inspector Fusco bristle with prickly humour.

All in all, Game for Five is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The mystery is resolved, but you’ll have to read the book to discover how much of a part Massimo plays in the outcome. My edition comes with an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri on the rear cover, and I can see Game for Five appealing to fans of the Inspector Montalbano series.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions.

A Great Novel Recommendation

El ruido de las cosas al caer

This recommendation comes from José Ignacio, who blogs at The Game’s Afoot.

Reseña: El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer (English: The Sound of Things Falling) de Juan Gabriel Vásquez

This post is bilingual, scroll down to find the English language version

Esta entrada es mi aportación para honrar la memoria de Maxine Clarke. Ustdes pueden leer más sobre esto aquí y en el blog Petrona Remembered.
Alfaguara, 2011. Kindle edition (2422 KB). ASIN: B00634NZUE. E-ISBN: 978-84-204-9494-4. Pages: 272.

El ruido de las cosas al caer fue galardonado con el XIV Premio Alfaguara de Novela 2011. En en el acta del Premio “El jurado quiere destacar las cualidades estilísticas de esta novela cuya prosa recrea una atmósfera original y atractiva, un espacio propio habitado por personajes que acompañarán al lector. Ambientada en la Colombia contemporánea, la trama narra el viaje de un hombre que busca en el pasado una explicación de us situación y la de su país. Una lectura conmovedora sobre el amor y la superación del miedo.”

La traducción inglesa de Anne McLean, publicada en 2013, ganó el Premio Internacional de Literatura IMPAC Dublin en el 2014. En el comentario de los jueces se indica que: “El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer es un destacado thriller literario que resuena mucho después de la última página. Por medio de un dominio magistral de capas de tiempo superpuestas, misterios crecientes y una paleta noir, nos revela cómo la vida íntima se ve ensombrecida por la historia; cómo el pasado se alimenta del presente; y cómo el destino de los individuos, así como el de los países es moldeado por los acontecimientos lejanos, o encubiertos “. (Mi traducción libre, la cita completa en inglés está disponible aquí).

También ha estado galardonado con el Premio Gregor von Rezzori-Città di Firenze 2013. En la motivación del jurado se indica: “La nueva novela de Vásquez, El ruido de las cosas al caer, es una historia de conspiraciones y asesinatos, de personas que se enfrentan a misterios que, si se solucionan, podrían ayudarles a reparar sus vidas destrozadas. Es el noir, elevado a la categoría de arte. Es una novela que engancha desde la primera página, pero también nos ofrece una meditación profunda sobre el destino y la mortalidad.” (Mi traducción libre, la cita en inglés esta disponible aquí)

La historia está narrada en primera persona por el protagonista, un joven profesor de Derecho de la Universidad de Bogotá (Colombia), llamado Antonio Yammara. La acción se se pone en marcha a partir de la lectura de una noticia en una revista importante a mediados de 2009: Un hipopótamo macho cayó muerto. Había escapado dos años atrás del antiguo zoológico de Pablo Escobar en el valle del Magdalena, y en ese tiempo de libertad había destruido cultivos, invadido abrevaderos. atemorizado a los pescadores y llegado a atacar a los sementales de una hacienda ganadera. Los francotiradores que lo alcanzaron le dispararon un tiro en la cabeza y otro al corazón….

A partir de ese momento, el recuerdo de Ricardo Laverde se convertirá en un fantasma siempre presente, fiel y dedicado. Y Antonio va a pensar cada vez más acerca de los días en que se conocieron, sobre la brevedad de su relación y la longevidad de sus consecuencias. Poco a poco iremos descubriendo que Ricardo Laverde murió, o más precisamente, lo mataron a principios de 1996, Antonio lo había conocido a finales del año pasado, unas semanas antes de Navidad, cuando estaba a punto de cumplir veintiséis años. Hace dos años que se había graduado de la Facultad de Derecho y se había convertido en el profesor más joven en dar clases en la facultad. Después del trabajo, él solía aparecer en los billares de la calle 14, cerca del apartamento donde vivía. Por esos días Bogotá comenzaba a desprenderse de los años más violentos de su historia reciente.

Las primeras palabras de Ricardo Laverde, que Antonio escuchó fueron: “Qué culpa tienen ellos de nada”. En referencia a la situación de los animales abandonados en la Hacienda Nápoles, el lugar mitológico de Pablo Escobar, después de su muerte en 1993. Días más tarde, después de que Laverde se hubiera marchado, uno de los muchachos con los que Antonio había estado jugando, le reveló que Ricardo acababa de salir de la cárcel donde había pasado veinte años. Pero nadie sabía realmente cuál fue su delito. Y así, casi sin darse cuenta, Ricardo y Antonio se fueron acercando.
Espero que me permitan terminar aquí esta breve introducción. Aunque, tal vez, debo añadir que un día, al salir de los billares, Ricardo es asesinado y Antonio resulta gravemente herido. Lo que sigue es el viaje que Antonio emprende con el fin de descubrir el pasado de Ricardo y comprender su propio presente.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Bogotá, 1973) es autor de la colección de relatos Los Amantes de Todos los Santos y de las novelas Los Informantes (escogida por la revista Semana como una de las más importantes publicadas en Colombia desde 1982), Historia Secreta de Costaguana (Premio Qwerty en Barcelona y Premio Fundación Libros & Letras en Bogotá) y El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer (Premio Alfaguara 2011, English Pen Award 2012 y Premio Gregor von Rezzori- Città di Firenze 2013 y Premio IMPAC Dublín). Vásquez ha publicado también una recopilación de ensayos literarios, El arte de la distorsión, y una breve biografía de Joseph Conrad, El Hombre de Ninguna Parte. Ha traducido obras de John Hersey, John Dos Passos, Victor Hugo y E. M. Forster, entre otros, y es columnista del periódico colombiano El Espectador. Sus libros han recibido diversos reconocimientos internacionales y se han publicado en dieciséis lenguas y una treintena de países con extraordinario éxito de crítica y de público. Ha ganado dos veces el Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar. En el año 2012 ganó en París el Premio Roger Caillois por el conjunto de su obra, otorgado anteriormente a escritores como Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Ricardo Piglia y Roberto Bolaño. Las reputaciones es su cuarta novela. Aquí puedes escuchar el discurso de Juan Gabriel Vásquez al recibir el Premio IMPAC Dublín 2014. (Información de Anagrama).

El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer es una novela brillante que encaja mejor en el neo-noir sudamericano que en la categoría de novela de detectives. Tengo que admitir que me ha gustado mucho. De alguna manera nos acerca a una realidad bastante familiar para aquellos de nosotros que vivimos en ese momento, pero que, al mismo tiempo, era una realidad muy desconocida. No es una mera descripción documental de algunos acontecimientos históricos, pero, en mi opinión, es una importante obra de ficción contemporánea, magistralmente escrita, y con un uso muy interesante y eficiente de los diferentes períodos de tiempo en los que se desarrolla la novela. Una trama que tiene lugar en un país muy específico y en un período de tiempo muy concreto. Lo recomiendo encarecidamente.

Mi valoración: A+ (No se demore, consiga un ejemplar de este libro) Alfaguara

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

SoundofThingsFallingThis post is my contribution to honour the memory of Maxine Clarke. You can read more about this here and on the blog Petrona Remembered.

The sound of things falling was awarded the XIV Premio Alfaguara de Novela 2011. In their motivation “The jury wants to highlight the stylistic qualities of this novel whose prose recreates an original and attractive atmosphere, its own space inhabited by characters that will accompany the reader. Set in contemporary Colombia, the plot follows the journey of a man who searches in the past an explanation of his situation and of his country. A touching read about love and overcoming fear.” (My free translation)

An English translation by Anne McLean was released in 2013 and won the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The judges commented: “The Sound of Things Falling is a consummate literary thriller that resonates long after the final page. Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, it reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is moulded by distant, or covert, events.” (read full citation)

It has also been the recipient of the Premio Gregor von Rezzori-Città di Firenze 2013. In their motivation the jury stated: “Vásquez’s new novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is a story of conspiracies and assassinations, of people confronting mysteries that, if solved, might help them repair their shattered lives. It’s noir, raised to the level of art. It’s a page-turner, but it’s also a profound meditation on fate and mortality.” (here)

The story is told in first person by the main character, a young law professor at the the-sound-of-things-falling-cover-051413-margUniversity of Bogotá (Colombia), called Antonio Yammara. The action begins while he’s reading a story in a major magazine in the middle of 2009: A male hippopotamus was shot dead. He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena Valley, and during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch. The marksmen who caught up with him shot him once in the head and again in the heart….

From that moment, the memory of Ricardo Laverde will become an ever-present ghost, faithful and devoted. And Antonio will increasingly think about the days when they met each other, about the brevity of their relationship and the longevity of its consequences. Gradually we will discover that Ricardo Laverde died, or more precisely, he was killed in early 1996. Antonio had met him late last year, a few weeks before Christmas, when he was about to turn twenty-six. Two years ago he had graduated from Law School and had turned into the youngest lecturer ever to teach in the faculty. After work, he used to show up at the billiard club on 14th Street, near the apartment where he lived. At the time Bogotá was beginning to emerge from the most violent years of its recent history.

The first words from Ricardo Laverde, that Antonio heard were: ‘It’s not their fault, anyway’, referring to the situation of the abandoned animals at Hacienda Napoles, the mythological place of Pablo Escobar, after his death in 1993. Some days later, after Laverde had gone, one of the guys with whom Antonio had been playing, revealed him that Ricardo had just come out of prison where he had spent twenty years. But no one really knew what was his crime. And thus, almost without realising it, Ricardo and Antonio began to approach each other.

I hope you will allow me to finish here this brief introduction. Although, perhaps, I should add that one day, upon leaving the billiard club, Ricardo is murdered and Antonio is seriously wounded. What follows is the journey that Antonio undertakes in order to discover Ricardo’s past and understand his own present.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, (Bogotá, 1973) is best known as the author of El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer, winner of the Premio Alfaguara and the English Pen Award, and also a finalist for the Médicis. Prior to that, he wrote the short story collection Los Amantes de Todos los Santos and the novels Los Informantes, and Historia Secreta de Costaguana, all of which were rapturously received by critics and readers alike. He studied Latin American literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, and made Barcelona his home for more than a decade. His short stories have appeared in anthologies in all over the world. He has translated the works of E.M Forster, Victor Hugo and John Hersey, among others, and his articles appear regularly both in Spanish and Latin-American publications. Ever since the publication of his first novel, Juan Gabriel Vásquez has consistently impressed readers and reviewers with his talent, wisdom and his astonishing narrative maturity. To date his books have received an incredible range of international acknowledgments. They have been published in 16 languages and 30 countries. He is the two-time winner of the Premio Nacional Simón Bolívar and more noteworthy, he won the Roger Caillois in Paris in 2012 for all of his works, an award also given to Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Ricardo Piglia and Roberto Bolaño. He was also the 2013 recipient of the Von Rezzori award. Las reputaciones is his fourth and most recent novel, finalist for the I Bienal Mario Vargas Llosa, the Prix Fémina and the Prix Médicis. ( Casanovas & Lynch Agencia Literaria, Spain).

The Sound of Things Falling is a brilliant novel that fits best into the South American neo- noir than in the crime fiction category. I have to admit I’ve very much enjoyed it. Somehow it brings us close to a familiar enough reality for those of us who lived at that time but that, simultaneously, was a highly unknown reality. It isn’t a mere documentary description of some historical events, but, in my view, it’s a significant work of contemporary fiction, masterfully written, and with a very interesting and efficient usage of the different time periods in which the novel unfolds. A plot that takes place in a very specific country and in a very concrete time period. Highly recommend.

My rating: A + (Don’t delay, get your hands on a copy of this book)

The Sound of Things Falling has been reviewed at Seeing The World Through Books (Mary Whipple) and at Mysteries in Paradise (Kerrie)

Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) Penguin (US)