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.

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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.

CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming

This week’s crime fiction we love is submitted by long time fan of the genre Ayo Onatade whose contributions to the crime fiction community include reviewing and interviewing authors at Shots: Crime and Thriller eZine


CASINO ROYALE – Not quite my favourite crime novel but pretty close!

UK First Edition cover 1953

When I am asked about my favourite crime novel, my first response normally would be to say FAREWELL MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler. No question about it. However, there is another book, which at one time would have surpassed FAREWELL MY LOVELY as my favourite crime novel. As it is, the book will always be in my list of top five favourite crime books. The book in question is CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming.

First published in 1953 CASINO ROYALE introduced readers to that suave Secret Service Agent Commander James Bond also (and some would say better) known as 007. The story is to a certain extent quite uncomplicated. Bond is sent to Royale-Les-Eaux in order to take down Le Chiffre who is the treasurer for the French Union and an agent of SMERSH by bankrupting him in a tense game of Baccarat Chemin-de-fer. Bond soon finds himself in over his head. He is assisted by a three main people in his quest. Vesper Lynd from Station S, René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau and Felix Leiter of the CIA. I will not say anymore, but suffice to say what we have in CASINO ROYALE is a battle of wits, a love affair which goes tragically wrong and a torture scene that even I would not wish on my worst enemy.

The 1955 edition saw the first picture of Bond - James Bond

The 1955 edition saw the first picture of Bond – James Bond

But why do I consider CASINO ROYALE to be one of my favourite crime novels? For a number of reasons. I have always been a fan of Ian Fleming and to be honest, as with Raymond Chandler I did not start reading the Bond books with the first book in the series. I started with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956). This of course piqued my interest and I went back to the start of the series and read CASINO ROYALE and fell in love. I fell in love with not only the character of Bond but also the series. Bond in CASINO ROYALE is much different to the Bond that we read about in the later books. In CASINO ROYALE, he is very different; he is naïve, not sure about what he wants with his career. When reading CASINO ROYALE one of the things you realise is how snappy the dialogue is. I am not sure that everyone will agree with this comment now but at the time, CASINO ROYALE was written this was in my opinion the case. His sense of place is vivid even from the start –

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” (CASINO ROYALE, Chapter 1: The Secret Agent)

This edition tied in with the first movie starring Sean Connery

This edition tied in with the first movie starring Sean Connery

Even when he is describing Bond and his fondness for gambling he does so with such an appreciation of his surroundings that on reading it yourself you are easily immersed and think that you are there with him –

“Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffles of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card-rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants. He was amused by the impartiality of the roulette ball and of the playing cards –.” (Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir)

One only has to think of the baccarat scenes as well to appreciate what is going on. The most specific one that comes to mind for me is the following and it takes place at the baccarat table as his final showdown is taking place at the table with Le Chiffre.

“This is a gun, monsieur. It is absolutely silent. It can blow the base of your spine off without a sound. You will appear to have fainted. I shall be gone. Withdraw your bet before I count ten. If you call for help I shall fire.” (Chapter 12: The Deadly Tube)

One might think that Fleming dwells too much on the minutiae of things but for me that is all part of what makes CASINO ROYALE so good.

For me also, Bond has always been exciting, sexy, at times ruthless but in my opinion terribly cool. Furthermore, he is an uncomplicated man when it comes to his sense of style and food when he is at home. It is only when he is away that his fastidiousness comes to the fore. I mean cast your mind back when we are first introduced to the drink, which he later names “The Vesper” after Vesper Lynd.

“‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘ One. In a deep champagne goblet’…

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon’.” (Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir)

in the 2000's a new movie demanded a new tie-in cover

in the 2000’s a new movie demanded a new tie-in cover

Moreover, CASINO ROYALE is in my opinion the most atmospheric of all the Bond books. It is certainly the most grim and brutal when one considers the rest of the series. In fact, it is the most vicious and we see Bond at not only his coolest but also when he is at his most ruthless.

Another reason why CASINO ROYALE is one of my favourite crime novels is the fact that at the time it was written, it combined two types of novels. The first is what one could describe as being a traditional and classic British thriller and the other a noir novel that has a more credible and cruel approach in the mould of Chandler and Hammett. In that sense I am not surprised that CASINO ROYALE is one of my favourite books.

If there is a downside to CASINO ROYALE that it is with his characterisation. I freely admit that aside from Bond himself his characterisation of the others in the book could be improved. His characterisation does however get better as the series progresses.

A Swedish edition from the 60's

A Swedish edition from the 60’s

While Bond’s misogynistic attitudes towards women leave a lot to be desired, one cannot but help feel sympathetic towards him. As the book progresses especially at the end and specifically as the series progresses one can understand (but may not agree with) his attitude towards women. It is only in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE that things change and not for very long.

Therefore, what can I finally say about CASINO ROYALE that will truly explain why it is one of my favourite crime novels? How about the fact that it is a well-paced tensely written thriller. It is filled with what one could only describe as an edge of your seat quest combined with sex and intrigue. There is also a sense of indulgence and excitement all the way through the book. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

And oh by the way, did you know that when CASINO ROYALE was released in paperback in the US in 1955, it was done under the title of YOU ASKED FOR IT? I am not sure, why as in my opinion CASINO ROYALE is a much better and appropriate title don’t you think? I certainly do. Moreover, he does introduce himself as “Bond – James Bond”.

So while FAREWELL MY LOVELY will always be my favourite crime novel, CASINO ROYALE comes second and could have quite easily been my favourite.


Book Details:

author: Ian Fleming (learn more at his official website)
original language: English
publication date (UK):  April 1953 (Jonathan Cape)

Contributor Details:

Ayo is a clerk for a judge in the Court of Appeal, a book reviewer and a major fan of athletics and American football living in London, England. She is the Special Crime Reporter at Shots Ezine and also is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association (CWA) of Great Britain. You can read many of Ayo’s reviews and interviews from her page at the eZine, or follow her on twitter for a great stream of crime fiction news and views.

NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK by Ernesto Mallo

This week’s favourite is submitted by an American book blogger who has a taste for translated crime fiction.


NeedleInAHayStackMallo2083_fNEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK takes place in Argentina in 1979, during the Dirty War where the military junta leading the country disappeared thousands of alleged subversives. The case at the center of this novel begins when Superintendent Lascano is called to investigate two dead bodies, but he finds three dead bodies instead: two were obviously executed by the military, but the third is a different sort of murder. The murder investigation does not take up the bulk of the novel. Instead we jump back in time to meet all the characters who are involved in the crime and the investigation.

The set-up is interesting: how do you work as a homicide detective under a regime that cuts off investigations of murders it itself commits? How do you fulfill your mission then? The setting is absolutely nightmarish: military patrols, people yanked from their homes, and murders. Mallo details the corruption throughout the society, from the criminal justice system, the military, and the church.

Besides the handicap of working for the police in a totally corrupt and violent regime, Lascano is also battling depression after the death of his wife less than a year before. He’s a damaged individual. He’s not the only character with a rough past: his friend Fuseli the pathologist is also a widower who also lost a child. It’s a book full of people with difficult pasts living under the military regime. Because it’s such a brief book (coming in under 200 pages), I don’t want to give away much more about the characters and the plot. Though it’s a short book, Mallo develops everyone’s backstory pretty thoroughly.


Book Details:

author: Ernesto Mallo (the multilingual among you can learn more about him at his website, the rest of you will have to make do with this page)
original language: Spanish
translator: Jethro Soutar
publication date (UK): 2010, Bitter Lemon Press (original Spanish edition 2006)

Contributor Details:

Rebecca Kreisher reads and blogs from the US via her nick-name inspired blog Ms Wordopolis Reads

THE LIGHT OF DAY by Eric Ambler

This week’s contribution is from crime writer Leighton Gage whose own series of novels is set in Brazil where Gage lives for part of each year.


It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

TheLightOfDayThus begins Eric Ambler’s 1962 novel, THE LIGHT OF DAY. The narrator, we immediately suspect, is a man loath to shoulder responsibility for his actions. The bad things that happen to Arthur Abdel Simpson are always someone else’s fault.

Abdel? Yes, Abdel. Ambler’s protagonist, it turns out, was born in Cairo. He explains that his middle name, Abdel, is a concession to his Egyptian mother.

But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British.

 

My father rose from the ranks. He was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Buffs when I was born; but in 1916 he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Quartermaster in the Army Service Corps. We were living in officers’ married quarters in Ismailia when he was killed a year later. I was too young at the time to be told the details. I thought, naturally, that he must have been killed by the Turks; but Mum told me later that he had been run over by an army lorry as he was walking home one night from the officers’ mess.

You notice how much I’m quoting from the book? I didn’t intend to when I began writing this piece. But then I reached the conclusion that the best way to convey Ambler’s genius is to let Arthur speak for himself. I deleted everything I’d written and started anew.

I was too young when my father was killed to have known him well; but one or two of his pet sayings have always remained in my memory; perhaps because I heard him repeat them so often to Mum or to his army friends. One, I remember, was “Never volunteer for anything,” and another was “Bullshit baffles brains.”

Arthur calls himself a journalist, but in reality he’s a thief, a pornographer, and a pimp, all of which he reveals in the course of self-serving explanations such as this:

Is it a crime to earn money? The way some people go on you would think it was. The law is the law and I am certainly not complaining, but what I can’t stand is all the humbug and hypocrisy. If a man goes to the red-light district on his own, nobody says anything. But if he wants to do another chap, a friend or an acquaintance, a good turn by showing him the way to the best house, everyone starts screaming blue murder.

With lines like these, we know from the get-go exactly what kind of a fellow we’re dealing with. And yet, such is Ambler’s skill that we find ourselves warming to Arthur Simpson–and, by the end of the book, we’re downright fond of him. Ambler helps us along in this regard by making the other baddies in his novel much worse than Arthur. In THE LIGHT OF DAY’S early chapters, it isn’t so much a case of liking Arthur as a case of disliking the people plaguing him. It soon becomes evident that all of them are capable of violence. Simpson, on the other hand, is a criminal of another ilk, a coward viscerally incapable of harming his victims. Yes, he’s a crook, but one, he tells us, who’s “only been arrested 10 or 12 times” in his whole life.

As this story begins, our (anti-)hero, down on his luck, as usual, is scrambling for cash. The rent is due, and his demanding girlfriend, Nicki, has been dunning him for more new clothes. We find him at the Athens airport trolling for tourists. His scam of the moment is to offer foreigners his services (as the driver of his own car) and subsequently burgle their rooms. He makes the mistake of approaching a mysterious man named Harper:

He looked like an American … Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American; plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it … He arrived … on a plane from Vienna. He could have come from New York or London or Frankfurt or Moscow and arrived by that plane–or just from Vienna. It was impossible to tell. There were no hotel labels on the luggage. I just assumed that he came from New York. It was a mistake anyone might have made.

Arthur first takes Harper to his hotel, then on to an appointment at a house of assignation called Madame Irma’s. Thinking his pigeon occupied, Arthur then hastens back to Harper’s room to rifle the luggage.

But Harper turns the tables. He’s been hunting for a man like Simpson and has laid a snare to entrap him. Catching Arthur in the act, Harper forces him to sign a confession, then threatens to denounce him to the Greek police unless Arthur ferries a car from Athens to Istanbul.

Simpson, whatever else he is, is no fool. No one goes to the trouble Harper has gone to unless there is something in the assignment that doesn’t meet the eye. Arthur suspects that it’s a scheme involving drug or arms smuggling, and as soon as he’s safely out of Athens, he pulls to the side of the road and gives the automobile a thorough going-over.

He’s surprised to find that the car contains no contraband, at least he thinks it doesn’t. Confidently, he continues on his journey. But, unfortunately for him, there are incriminating items in that vehicle, concealed in a place he has completely overlooked. And though Arthur couldn’t locate them, the Turkish border authorities do.

It’s a time of political instability in Turkey. The Turks suspect Arthur’s involvement in a coup d’état. But they want to round up the whole gang, and so they force Arthur to continue to play along. That way, they’ll be able to get the goods on his employers.

It turns out they’re wrong about the coup, but it isn’t until we’re much further along in the book that we finally discover what Harper and his cohorts are really up to. Meanwhile, we are not quite sure what kind of a book we’re reading. Is it a spy story? A political thriller? In the event, it turns out to be neither one.

Now, if you’ve never read this novel, but you’ve seen Topkapi (a 1964 film based upon the book, in which Peter Ustinov plays the role of Simpson), then you already know what’s afoot. But I rather hope you haven’t seen the film, or if you have, that you can’t remember it.

One thing I can assure you: if you read THE LIGHT OF DAY you won’t ever forget Arthur Abdel Simpson. And, if you like him as well as I do, you can find him again in another book that Ambler wrote five years later, DIRTY STORY

In that one, Simpson is still in Athens and still up to his old tricks. Very early on in the first chapter you’ll find a great line. Ambler put it in Italics: “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens, is a shit.

God, I wish I’d written that.


This essay was first published at The Rap Sheet (reproduced with the permission of the author)

Book Details:

author: Eric Ambler (learn more at Wikipedia)
original language: English
publication date (UK): 1962

Contributor Details:

Leighton Gage is a crime writer who has lived in Australia, Europe, and South America and travelled widely in Asia and Africa. He visited Spain in the time of Franco, Portugal in the time of Salazar, South Africa in the time of apartheid, Chile in the time of Pinochet, Argentina in the time of the junta, Prague, East Germany, and Yugoslavia under the Communist yoke. He and his wife spend much of the year in a small town near São Paulo, and the rest in Europe and the United States, where they have children and grandchildren.

His series of crime novels, currently numbering 6 instalments, features Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police.

PRAIRIE HARDBALL by Alison Gordon

This submissions from a Canadian lawyer and baseball fan who was present at an event featured in the book!


PrairieHardballI love the book because it is set in rural Saskatchewan, has a baseball theme, focuses on the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame of which I am Second Vice-President and features the induction banquet for the Saskatchewan women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League which I attended in the mid-1990’s.

Over half of the 50 plus Canadian women who played in the league were from Saskatchewan. I examined every character in the book carefully but none resemble me.

In the book, Kate Henry has returned to Saskatchewan to accompany her parents to Battleford where her mother, Helen Henry, will be one of the inductees. She had played several seasons for the Racine Belles. Joining Kate is her partner, Andy Munro, a

Toronto police inspector on his first trip to Saskatchewan.

Gordon’s description of Kate’s hometown, Indian Head, is a perfect portrayal of small town Saskatchewan. She has been a skilful observer of us.

At the banquet Virna Wilton creates a grand entrance by wearing her old uniform over 40 years after she last played baseball. (I can vividly recall the actual lady who wore her uniform to the induction banquet. She looked great.)

The banquet was Saskatchewan charming. It is hard for me to distinguish real life memories from Gordon’s description. It was a nice evening honouring a group of women who had never received the recognition due them.

In the book everyone is shocked when Virna is murdered. Andy is asked to help the local RCMP. The nosy Kate demands to know everything going on in the investigation. The probing of lives brings out secrets that startle and even shock Kate. Life in the AAGPBL was more complex than she realized.

The book goes into some detail on the AAGPL which existed from the early 1940’s to the mid-1950’s. The movie, A League of Their Own, with Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks was a Hollywood version of the league. It was not sensationalized as much as many Hollywood movies but Gordon’s description of the league is far more factual.

Within the book Helen was a woman professional baseball playing pioneer and Kate was a woman professional baseball sports writing pioneer. (In real life Gordon was the first woman journalist to cover major league baseball in Canada.)

Those young woman who went South from Saskatchewan to play baseball were an intrepid group leaving friends and family to play sports at a time when travel was limited and society offered little support for women making any career let alone an athletic career. I met several of the actual players from Saskatchewan and wrote about them for the sports column I write in Melfort. They were as gracious and lively as the women described by Gordon.

The mystery flows well. I know I am enjoying a book when the pages glide by and there is no consciousness of time passing. It is the best rural Saskatchewan mystery.


This review was first published at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan (reproduced with the permission of the site owner)

Book Details:

author: Alison Gordon
original language: English
publication date (Canada): 1997, McClelland & Stewart

Contributor Details:

Bill Selnes is a practising lawyer who also blogs about crime fiction at Mysteries an More from Saskatchewan. His speciality is legal thrillers and/or Canadian crime fiction but he dabbles in all manner of novels and his blog includes some in-depth interviews with authors too.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD by Michael Hogan

BurialOfTheDeadMichael Hogan’s BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of those rare books that gets almost everything right. I discovered it a few years ago, and it has become one of my most-recommended books. I should mention that I am an editor at an independent publishing house, but I was not the editor who originally found and published BURIAL OF THE DEAD. But I wish I had been.

I often think about, and sometimes blog about, the constraints of genre fiction. On the one hand, we (publishers, that is) like books that fit into a formula that is easily marketable. On the other hand, editors (like me) seek books that push the limits of the genre, that seek to do something new, different, bold, brave, exciting. It’s a tough balance to pull off, and it requires a special writer.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD is such a book. Fans of the genre can be assured that it falls clearly into the “mystery” category. Every single page, chapter, and part of this book is suffused with mystery. For every question that is answered, doubts are raised and new questions arise. We almost never know who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and who’s allied with whom. When those questions are answered, the only result is more mystery as the reader must adjust everything s/he thought s/he knew.

The plot is, on the surface, quite simple. A wealthy older woman, owner of a successful funeral home and rich in her own right, has died. Was it suicide, or was she killed? Throughout the pages of BURIAL OF THE DEAD, we see a parade of characters, all of whom stand to benefit in some way by the woman’s death. There’s her long-lost great niece; her late husband’s business partner; various employees; and various policemen and politicos, all of whom have a stake in finding out what really happened, or in trying to hide the truth. Each chapter mystifies as much as it enlightens, and the result is a book that grabs you and won’t let you go, as layers upon layers are peeled back and revealed.

The setting is Connecticut, which is deconstructed in a rather alarming and brilliant way throughout. We’re treated to a slice of life in which every character is somehow linked to other characters in sometimes subtle and always mysterious ways. Many books, I think, can be lifted from their setting and plopped down somewhere else with little damage to the story, but I don’t think that’s the case here, which is testimony to the author’s abilities as a writer and social observer.

Of course, the book is not perfect. It sometimes falls into the “trying too hard to be literary” category, and occasionally feels self-indulgent. But these are minor quibbles.

I do not exaggerate when I say that BURIAL OF THE DEAD is one of the most provocative, intense, mysterious books I have read in the last decade. In its pages the author has perfected the art of deceit: staying three or four steps ahead of the reader at every turn. I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed being so thoroughly deceived.


A version of this essay was published at The Rogue Reader earlier this year (reproduced with the permission of the content owner)

Book Details:

author: Michael Hogan (learn more at The Rogue Reader)
original language: English
publication date (UK): Minotaur books, 2008

Contributor Details:

Agatho is the pseudonym of someone working in the publishing industry who blogs at Mysterious Matters: Mystery Publishing Demysitfied and offers genuine insight into the ever-changing publishing world. I find it a fascinating blog as a mere reader, I imagine it’s a must read for any author (hopeful or otherwise).