Book Review: Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett

Beckett Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett
(Bantam, paperback, 2010; £6.99 in UK*)

I have belatedly caught up with Simon Beckett, whose third David Hunter novel is set in Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, colloquially known as the ‘Body Farm’. After his previous cases in the fens of eastern England (The Chemistry of Death) and on a tiny, storm-wrecked island off the north of Scotland (Written in Bone), Hunter takes a visiting stint at the Tennessee lab while he recovers from the cliffhanger at the end of Written in Bone, when he was the victim of a surprise attack by an insane murderer.  Hunter, who has lost his self-confidence and is sad about the ending of a relationship, is enjoying his scientific investigations in collaboration with the head of the lab Tom Liebermann. In this strange facility, people who have donated their bodies to scientific research are left outside after their deaths and the decomposition of their corpses is studied by scientists, with the aim of improving future forensic investigations.

All is going reasonably well for David, who is welcomed by his new colleagues and beginning to feel more stable, when a body in an advanced stage of decomposition is discovered in a remote cabin in the woods nearby. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), led by Dan Gardner, don’t want Hunter involved in their investigation as he’s English (i.e. not American), and instead put their trust in an egotistical profiler.  Liebermann is nearing retirement age and suffers from a heart condition, so he insists that Hunter is involved in the analysis of the body (soon, inevitably, to become bodies, plural) – hence Hunter is not only privy to strange inconsistencies that quickly become apparent, but also points many of them out in the first place to the bemused investigators.  Events escalate, and the TBI realise they are on the track of a serial killer – a killer who always seems to be one step ahead and who has unusually detailed knowledge of forensic pathology.

Although I found this book over-leisurely and long, it is a jolly good read. The investigators are sharp and although the killer leads them a jarring St Vitus’s dance, the plotting is tight, rich in detail, and logical. Suspects and victims crop up with increasing regularity, with Hunter (mainly) and the TBI team uncovering a range of clues that lead them into further mysteries. The forensic details and post-mortems are described with authoritative detail in direct, scientific prose, unflinchingly providing the reader with the essential information but passing on quickly from the more gruesome aspects. I could have done without the over-used device in crime fiction of interleaving the story with “in the mind of the killer” passages in italic. The result would have been a more focused, and perhaps more chilling, read.  Although the first half of the book is too slow, it really takes off in the last quarter, leading to an exciting ending to the case.  In many such novels, the ending can be a bit of a predictable let down, so I commend the author for keeping the tension so high and compelling.

Simon Beckett’s novels have been compared to those of Patricia Cornwell.  This novel is much better, being a mixture of a very good plot and an overwhelmingly convincing account of forensic pathological and anthropological details.  It seems that Hunter might not continue taking on Scarpetta in her own country, but even so, I would encourage readers who like the Scarpetta novels, or the Tempe Brennan novels of Kathy Reichs, to do themselves a favour and read this far superior fare.

There is an interesting article bound into this edition of the novel in which Simon Beckett writes about the background to the David Hunter novels and his inspiration for writing them.

*I purchased this novel for £2.99 as part of a W H Smith/Times “book of the week” promotion.

Whispers of the Dead has been reviewed at Euro Crime by Michelle Peckham.

Written in Bone has been reviewed at Euro Crime by Laura Root and Terry Halligan.

The Chemistry of Death has been reviewed at Euro Crime by Fiona Walker and Terry Halligan, and by Kim at Reading Matters.

Author's website.

Badfellas, CrimeFest and the International Dagger

Badfellas Via email from the publisher, the excellent Bitter Lemon Press, Badfellas by Tonino Benaquista, translated from the French by Emily Read, is out now in the UK. According to the publisher: "violent, pacy and full of black humour, Benacquista's story explores what would happen if, say, the Soprano family were to move to Normandy – and the consequences are savagely funny."

After being a museum night-watchman, a train guard on the Paris-Rome line and a professional parasite on the Paris cocktail circuit, Benacquista now a highly successful author of fiction, film scripts and even graphic novels. His novels Holy Smoke, Someone Else and Framed were previously published by Bitter Lemon Press. His script for The Beat that my Heart Skipped, filmed by Jacques Audiard, won a Cesar. Emily Read is a well known translator from French. She has published a number of titles of non-fiction and fiction, including 'The Reckoning' by Georges Simenon.

The author is one of the featured guest authors at this year's CrimeFest in Bristol (20-23 May), which is one good reason for reading his latest book before then. Another is that Badfellas qualifies for the International Dagger 2010, according to this list of 60 eligible titles created by Karen Meek of Euro Crime. The shortlist from these 60 titles will be announced at CrimeFest.

When Karen drew up the list, I had read eight of these titles. Since then, I've read another, Death in Oslo by Anne Holt. I've now acquired another eligible title, The Woman from Bratislava, by Leif Davidsen. I hope to have read this novel, and one or two more at least, by the time of CrimeFest.

Norman Price on Leif Davidsen's books and Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista.

Badfellas reviewed at Crime Time, The Guardian (brief) and Bitter Lemon.

Book review: Siren of the Waters, by Michael Genelin

Siren Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (written in English).

This novel is set in Slovakia, both in the present (post-Communist) day and, in flashback, during the Communist era. The two regimes do not seem very different from the perspective of the protagonist, Commander Jana Matinova. Jana is a strong woman who has carved herself an impressive career in the police force, despite political forces and corruption all around her. She’s a very sensible woman who has a sixth sense for trouble and who gets along well with her immediate boss, Colonel Trokan.
The story opens with a horrific car accident in which several women and a man, presumed the driver, die. In view of the sheer number of fatalities and the continuing firebomb that was the vehicle, the emergency rescue team cannot take the (usual) easy way out for them and write it off as an accident, so they call in the police – Jana and her lazy warrant officer, Seges. The two police officers rapidly confirm that the crash was indeed not an accident, discovering that the male victim has two passports in different nationalities and different names, and that the female victims are probably prostitutes, possibly being transported across borders in an international trafficking ring. Barely have Jana and Seges had time to catch their breath when the body of an older woman is found in the river – again, murdered, and again, implicated in the sex trade.
Jana vigorously carries out her investigation, rescuing and looking after two sad, blind cats in the process. As the action proceeds, she reflects on how she misses her estranged daughter, Katka, who is married and living in Nice, and who has just had a baby daughter. Jana remembers her first meeting with Dano, a handsome and very promising actor. Their courtship and marriage was initially ecstatically happy, but soon the horrible apparatus of the Communist state destroys their relationship and forces Jana to make choices between her career (and hence her ability to support her aging mother and young daughter) and her love for Dano.
Returning to the present, after a brief and violent interlude in Kiev, Jana is sent to a UN conference in Strasbourg in which the problem of the international sex trade is to be addressed. Here is where the book slightly disappoints: it shifts from primarily being an investigation into the crimes in the opening chapters, to becoming a thriller in the Evelyn Anthony mould in which various delegates and others are killed while Jana, with the Russian delegate, Levitin, chase around Europe tracking down who is responsible. Levitin, it turns out, is looking for his long-lost sister Sasha, who has been a drug addict and sold into prostitution. Somewhat improbably, Jana’s and Levitin’s family, and Moira Simmons, the erratic chairperson of the UN conference who has previously called on Jana for help, are all tied together in the criminal network that has “the Siren of the Waters” at its heart.
The main weakness of this novel is that the characters, with the exception of Jana, are not three-dimensional. At the end, when the crime is solved and a somewhat abrupt ending to Jana’s domestic problems occurs, it is hard to feel involved in either outcome. I was also slightly disappointed that the acerbic relationship between Jana and her lazy subordinate Segre was not better developed. However, there are plenty of strengths in this book – the interplay of the police colleagues and the stories of daily life in Slovakia are fascinating, and I am sure that any future installments will be able to build on this promising start – particularly if they stick to local crimes and the strong character of Jana, and keep away from the international crime-ring element.

Reviews of this book at Mysteries Reviewed (Katherine Petersen),  International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper) and at Euro Crime (Norman Price).

Alphabet in crime fiction: Marklund

M It is no secret that I am an admirer of the novels by Liza Marklund,a Swedish journalist, publisher, UNICEF ambassador and, last but by no means least, crime writer. The books by her that I have read have as their main character newspaper journalist Annika Bengtzon, but the author has also written another two books (not translated into English) about Maria ("Mia") Eriksson, a Swedish woman who was abused by her immigrant boyfriend and forced into hiding. These books became subject of some controversy over whether or not they are fiction, as can be seen from this Wikipedia entry about the author. Marklund has also written two other novels that are not part of a series (not yet translated into English). More information, and synopses of the books, can be found at the author's website. Euro Crime blog has recently reported the welcome news that not only is Marklund's collaboration with James Patterson due to be published in the UK in September, but also that more of her books are due to be translated into English, published by Transworld, starting with Red Wolf in October.

The Annika Bengtzon series (the character is named for the author's daughter) currently runs to eight books, of which only the first four have so far been translated into English. Annika is a young woman under considerable stress, both because of an abusive boyfriend and because she is struggling to become a reporter at the offices of a national newspaper, where she has a temporary post as a subeditor. Later, she achieves her career goal, has a stormy romance resulting in marriage and two children, and even more stress as she and her husband juggle work demands with their attempts to bring up their children as well as Annika constantly feeling that she is not "good enough" at all the wonderful crafty, home-making activities that seem to be second nature to the distaff Swedish population (if the country's crime literature is anything to go on). The "crime" in the stories usually consists of cases that Annika investigates as a journalist, but in many ways the author is more interested in issues of feminism (Annika's work situation, which is unerringly accurate in fact and emotion) and of social injustice, particularly concerning women, so the crime cases often peter out, being left to others (eg the police) to solve – quite a refreshing change from the standard explosive conclusion to many such novels.

Apart from strongly identifying with Annika (whom many readers don't like because she is quite spiky and difficult, particularly when under pressure, but then so am I!), I am fascinated by the chronological order of the books. The author wrote the Annika series in the following chronological order: The Bomber, Studio 69, Paradise (which is the best of the four in my opinion, containing more than an echo of the "Mia" story), and Prime Time. Yet in terms of the events in the novels, the chronological order of the books is: Studio 69, Paradise, Prime Time, and The Bomber (which has apparently sold more than half a million copies in Sweden). Not only is this an unusual way of writing a series, but the events of the novels dovetail, even at the level of minor details, in an unfaltering way. It is clear from reading the books that the author had everything all mapped out at the outset, as events are referred to in The Bomber which had not at that time been written, and the complex relationship dynamics between Annika and her husband, which result from events and actions in the past (again, in not yet written books).

Paradise reviewed at Petrona.

Paradise reviewed at Crime Scraps.

The Bomber and Prime Time reviewed at Euro Crime. 

Liza Marklund's books reviewed at Scandinavian Books

 

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Liza Marklund has already appeared in Crime Fiction alphabet this week, in this four-author post by Dorte of DJ's Krimiblog.

Mysteries in Paradise
, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

My review highlights of 2009

Eu3 Karen Meek, suprema of Euro Crime, has collected her reviewers' (Pat Austin, Paul Blackburn, Amanda Brown, Maxine Clarke, Amanda Gillies, Terry Halligan, Geoff Jones, Karen Meek, Michelle Peckham, Norman Price, Laura Root and Rik Shepherd) favourite reads of 2009 in this Euro Crime page.

For Euro Crime purposes, novels by North American authors were not included. So my complete list of 13, my usual baker's dozen, including authors from this region, is reproduced below. The list, which is alphabetical, consists of reviews that were published in 2009, not necessarily books that were published in that year. The asterisks represent authors who were new to me last year.

Translated into English:

Thriller: Missing by Karin Alvtegen (translator Anna Paterson) (Sweden)
Intensely exciting story of a young woman fugitive racing to prove her innocence.

[I discovered this author last year and read all four of her translated novels. It was almost impossible to choose between them; if I had read one per year for the past four years, each would have made my list for that year. Shadow and Betrayal are particularly good, also.]

Series novel: The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri (translator Stephen Sartarelli) (Italy)
Vengeful tragedy overshadows the Sicilian sun in a typically eccentric Montalbano investigation.

*Psychological: The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr (translator Mike Martin) (Germany)
Journey to the depths of one woman’s mind as repressed memories uncover motives and crimes.

Detection: Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (translator Victoria Cribb) (Iceland)
Apparent suicide of young historian has resonance in past deaths and disappearances.

*Adventure: Blood Safari by Deon Meyer (translator K. L Seegers) (S Africa)
Bodyguard turns detective in road trip to find a woman’s long-lost brother.

*Suspense: Back to the Coast by Saskia Noort (translator Laura Vroomen) (The Netherlands)
Rock musician finds her life turned upside down by malevolent stalker.

*Private Eye: The Consorts of Death by Gunnar Staalesen (translator Don Bartlett) (Norway)
The 14th in a series is as fresh as new in compelling story of effects of social deprivation.

Gothic: The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin (translator Marlaine Delargy) (Sweden)
History, themes, traditions and emotional dynamics are superbly juxtaposed in island mystery.

English language originals:

Mystery: The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves 
Scientific rivalries and local feuds underlie Vera Stanhope’s first case.

Police Procedural: Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly
Harry Bosch out of his natural home in race to find kidnapped child.

Thriller: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
Journalist’s last assignment reveals horrific series of crimes.

*Legal crime: The Coroner by M. J. Hall
Woman on verge of a nervous breakdown determines to obtain justice for abused boy.

*Debut: Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg
Classic mystery engagingly told against background of academic skulduggery.

All the books I reviewed in 2009 are collected here.

I very much enjoyed most of the books I reviewed last year. Just to mention a few more by name as highly recommended: the three novels I reviewed by Inger Frimansson; The Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser; Shooting Star by Peter Temple; and The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg (reviews of all can be accessed via my 2009 reviews page). I have not included the two novels by Stieg Larsson that I reviewed last year, partly because I think they have to be read as a trilogy and don't work well as stand-alones, and partly because my favourite is the first in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I reviewed in 2008. All three novels are jolly good, though.

Kerrie has collected a list of favourite reads by readers of her blog, Mysteries in Paradise. She received 541 recommendations of titles from 56 readers: the full list is here.

Book review: Blood Sunset by Jarad Henry

Henry Blood Sunset
By Jarad Henry (Orion, £6.99 UK paperback)

Detective Rubens McCauley (great name!) is at the end of his night shift, having recently returned to work after being injured and suspended (a story told in the author’s debut novel Head Shot, which I haven’t read), when a cafe owner calls to report a dead body in his yard. Feeling exhausted and not wanting to face several hours of admin work, McCauley is persuaded by his junior partner to classify the death, that of a teenage boy, as a non-suspicious overdose. The next morning, however, he has severe internal doubts about his casual behaviour, and after following up with the coroner and checking the boy’s effects, realises that the death was most likely not accidental. McCauley’s unpleasant superior, Ben Eckles (known as “Freckles”) does not want to reclassify the death because it would make the department, and more specifically him (as he has signed off McCauley’s initial report), look incompetent. McCauley disagrees and the two have an argument, resulting in McCauley being sent on “carer’s leave” to help look after his sick mother.

Naturally, McCauley instead decides to investigate the boy's death on his own. He’s frustrated at the politics and political correctness that are impeding the case and loses no time in persuading, pressuring or threatening a series of people (mainly medical professionals) to confirm the death as murder. Although he gets his wish, the case is handed to the homicide department. This does not deter McCauley from continuing his own line of unorthodox, almost vengeful, investigation.

Blood Sunset, set in the St Kilda district of Melbourne, is a deeply atmospheric, readable thriller, and one I enjoyed a lot. It isn’t without flaws, however, the most obvious one being McCauley’s stupidity in pursuing his investigation independently of the homicide division instead of trying to coordinate with them, in the process putting people at risk (particularly his ex-wife Ella, but also at least one young witness), and leading to yet more inevitable confrontations with his superiors and colleagues – not to mention the risk of queering the pitch of the official case. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the community of St Kilda is extremely well done, and although the pace of the first half of the novel is over-leisurely (providing recaps of the previous novel and McCauley's resultant insecurities, which slow the pace), the studies of the region’s lowlife and nightlife, and the plight of the teenagers involved in the story, are vivid and gripping, if harrowing at times.

As well as conveying an authentic sense of place, the author adds human interest via McCauley’s extended family, to whom he feels committed but also feels that he lets down owing to his dedication to his job. These aspects of the book are handled very well, particularly the scenes with McCauley’s mother and niece Chloe, who is possibly beginning to take illegal drugs. I found the character of Ella, a dedicated nurse, less plausible.

The climax to the novel is exciting, but marred for me by my sense of irritation that McCauley has only himself to blame for the things that go wrong through rushing to follow up his own hasty conclusions without collaborating or leaving information for colleagues in case of cock-ups (which of course occur, as any reader of the genre could have told McCauley). I also guessed early on the identity of the villain, but although this final unmasking was not a surprise, I was impressed with the clues and tracking that led the detectives to a premature solution, the suspense of the plot, and how the author gradually reveals the motivation both of the crime and, movingly, what was really going in on the life and mind of the boy who was killed.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading, whose review of this novel encouraged me to read it. I am very glad I did, as I think the series has great potential – so long as the author irons out a tendency for over-exposition. He has set up the ending of Blood Sunset to allow the series to take a slightly different direction, which I think will be to its benefit.

Other reviews of Blood Sunset are at Boomerang Books, Aussiereviews, Crime Down Under (reading notes), and the Australian publisher's (Allen&Unwin) website.

Author website

YouTube video about Blood Sunset (Australian edition).

Book Review: Death in Oslo by Anne Holt

Death in Oslo
Anne Holt
(translated by Kari Dickson).

Holt To appreciate DEATH IN OSLO as an English-language reader, one must note that the book was first published (in Norwegian) in 2006, being written and set in the spring of 2005. Only now (December 2009) is it available in an English-language version. In those times, 9/11 was a much closer, and more raw, memory than it is now, and DEATH IN OSLO takes place in the context of international and personal relations that have not settled down to a new norm after that dreadful atrocity.

Helen Bentley has recently been elected as the first woman president of the United States, beating George W. Bush.  Preoccupied with internal stability, Bentley has not made any state visits abroad since her inauguration until the opening of this novel. She’s decided to visit Norway, the safest country in the world from the point of view of its dearth of terrorist attacks and its internal stability. Mysteriously, Bentley travels very light, refusing to let her husband and teenage daughter accompany her, and allowing only the minimum in terms of her own security. Abruptly, she vanishes from her hotel room on the first night of her visit, during the preparations for Norway’s national midsummer day holiday celebrations.
 
The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of this shocking event. The author is mainly interested in looking at the United States in relation to the rest of the world, in particular the country’s response to the 9/11 atrocities in terms of its sudden legislation to remove many civil liberties as the authorities seek to track and monitor any possible attack from within. After Helen Bentley disappears, the Norwegian police and security services begin an immediate and exhaustive investigation, soon discovering witnesses who saw the president travelling in a car (oddly, in a very wide-ranging trip around the country) and pulling the perpetrators in for questioning. Although progress in this sense is very fast, these leads go nowhere and the authorities are left in total ignorance of the president’s whereabouts, as well as how and why she was kidnapped.

At the same time, the Americans themselves are piling into Norway, quickly brushing aside offers to share the investigation and setting up their own system from their embassy. Warren Scifford, who we know from previous novels by reputation as a senior “spook” of some kind in the USA, is called in as he’s become the president’s special adviser and is also her friend – one of the small circle who helped her to get elected. As soon as he arrives, Warren asks for Johanne Vik, his ex-student, to be his liaison between the US and Norwegian investigations. Not only does Johanne refuse this request because of their past history, but when Warren instead asks Adam Stubo, Johanne’s husband and a senior policeman, to take the role (no doubt hoping Adam will discuss the case with Johanne and pass on her insights), Johanne tells Adam she and their baby daughter will leave him if he accepts. Adam has no choice but to accept his boss's instruction to accompany Warren. As soon as he does, Johanne takes her baby and goes to the only person she knows will take her in and not ask questions. Her decision brings her right into the centre of events in the most incredible (unlikely) sense, and her skill as a profiler becomes crucial in the hunt for the missing woman.

DEATH IN OSLO is a book that I find hard to assess. On the one hand it is extremely good and had me reading keenly to the end. It is very strong on its analysis of the international political scene and of the motives and modus operandi of the perpetrators. I don’t usually like these “who kidnapped the president?” thrillers but this one is certainly superior, partly because of the author’s confidence in constructing the scenario in all its disparate scenes that slowly come together, and partly because of the attractive character of Helen Bentley and the flashbacks to her campaign and political manoeuvrings. In other ways, however, the plot is unbelievably weak. Without giving away spoilers, the whole book depends on two massive coincidences- where the president goes after her disappearance; and Adam’s closeness to the investigation. As well as this, too many puzzles that the author creates are simply left, not even unanswered,  but just ignored. The character of Warren is an enigma – we know he has done something unspeakable to Johanne in the past, but not what. Now he is apparently a close friend of the president – is he in fact a double agent? Is he operating with or against the FBI? Why does he want to work with Adam and then ignore him, regularly disappearing? And, more generally, why is the apparently very persuasive briefing document about the most likely source of threats to the president ignored by the authorities, even though it is on file? And why is the person behind the killing, who obsessively plans for many years and has endless failsafes in place for various aspects of the plans, so casual about how the crucial final piece of information is to be disseminated? (Though this part of the plot does include a lovely character sketch of a widower and his daughters.) And why did the president travel with minimum security against advice?
 
These and many other issues are left hanging – in addition, the spectre of Wenke Benke (see THE FINAL MURDER) hovers over the novel – yet is not developed. The actions of the president are very hard (impossible, in my case) to comprehend, both before and after her disappearance – too much is simply left unexplained. And although we receive a throwaway piece of vital information about why Johanne hates Warren so much, most of the details are not shared with the readers.

In many respects, DEATH IN OSLO is an tight, convincing and readable thriller with good characterisations (particularly Adam and Johanne), yet in others, it seems incredibly careless – which is incomprehensible to me as I (not the most imaginative of people) can think of several ways in which some of the more implausible elements of the plot could have been made more authentic, and in particular, it isn’t hard to think of how the last part of the puzzle could be made more robust on the part of the bad guys given all their previous careful planning. All in all, I’m left confused as to why some parts of this well-translated book are so good, whereas others have a casually unfinished air to them, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated, even though the read itself is so exciting.

Death in Oslo has just been reviewed by Karen Meek at Euro Crime.

Other reviews of this book are by Dorte at DJ's KrimiblogSimon Clarke at Amazon; and a synopsis at the publisher's website.

Reviews of the previous two books by Anne Holt that have been translated, Punishment (review by Karen M) and The Final Murder (review 1 by Karen M, review 2 by me), are at Euro Crime. Dorte has also reviewed all three novels; her reviews can be accessed from this round-up post.

Death in Oslo is eligible for the International Dagger 2010, so I have read it as part of my project to read as many on the list as I can before the shortlist is announced at CrimeFest 2010

Rob Kitchin’s classic crime fiction curriculum challenge

Classic_Crime_Fiction_Challenge Rob Kitchin, author of The Rule Book and who blogs at The View from the Blue House, has an unusual dilemma – he wants some recommendations for books to read. Not just any book, as he explains: "Imagine a reader new to crime fiction and wanting an education in the classics. Or consider a seasoned crime fiction reader who’s barely read a crime novel published prior to 1970. Well I’m that latter reader."

Rob is therefore issuing a challenge:set a ten book, pre-1970, crime fiction curriculum (ideally, of different subgenres and styles) and either post the list on your own blog and send Rob the link by email  (rob.kitchin@nuim.ie), or post the list in a comment to his "challenge" post, by 31 January. Rob will then compile a curriculum based on the most popular choices (and provide link-backs to posts).

My suggestions, made on the fly in about five minutes, are:

1. Dashiell Hammett (the master) – I like The Dain Curse best but most people like The Maltese Falcon.
2. Ross Macdonald – any really, eg The Drowning Pool
3. James Hadley Chase eg No Orchids for Miss Blandish
4. Hillary Waugh, Last Seen Wearing, usually said to be the first police procedural told from the point of view of the details of the investigation, and fantastic.
5. Ngaio Marsh – again, any, really – I'd pick one with Agatha Troy in it. (wife of the detective, Roderick Alleyn)
6.Patricia Highsmith – the Ripley books were the start of something really else in the genre, but other books are also good: Strangers on a Train is great, much darker than the movie.
7. James Cain, eg The Postman Always Rings Twice
8. Raymond Chandler, any. (Lady in the Lake, perhaps?)
9. Wilkie Collins, either The Woman in White or No Name or Armadale (The Moonstone, to my mind, has not stood the test of time so well because the police detective novel has been so regularly imitated, and dare I say it, developed in more interesting ways)
10. I've run out! So many more I could choose. Dorothy Sayers is a bit snobbish but she is a classic so one of hers , eg Nine Tailors or Have His Carcasse.

Breaking the rules, I continued a full Baker's dozen:
11. John Franklin Bardin, who wrote three extraordinary novels – one could buy them in a three-in-one Penguin edition years ago. 
12. Julian Symons, a superb author. One of his earlier ones (pre-1970), eg The Man who killed himself or the Solomon Grundy one.
13 Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's books were mainly written after 1970 but Roseanna, the first, just about scrapes in and of all these old books, is perhaps the freshest today in terms of its lean prose and lack of "style of the times". (I've only read one Ed McBain, who is often compared to S/W or vice versa, but I prefer S/W on that basis.)

What do you think? Can you compile your own list, post it on your blog, and provide Rob with the link? (There are already several lists in the comment field to Rob's challenge post and some further discussion at Friend Feed.) I'm eagerly anticipating the final breakdown on 1 Feb or thereabouts.

Book Review: The Vault by Roslund-Hellstrom

The Vault (a.k.a. Box 21)
Roslund-Hellstrom (Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström)

The Vault is a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime-fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!
There are two main strands to the plot. One concerns middle-aged senior police detective Ewart Grens, a man who is like the living dead since the injuries suffered by his colleague and partner Anni 25 years ago have reduced her to a brain-damaged paraplegic. Grens is an Vault obsessive loner, rarely going home from his office where he listens non-stop to music sung by 1960s pop star Siw Malmqvist, and is an enigma to his colleagues (two of whom, Sven Sundqvist and Bengt Nordwall, are the closest he has to friends).
Desperately unhappy and depressed, Grens is a superb, workaholic detective who has solved vast numbers of crimes- but is fanatically concerned with one criminal in particular, Jochum Lang, the man who was responsible for Anni’s condition, but who received only a short sentence at the time.  Lang is an “enforcer” for organised criminals who has been in and out of prison over the intervening years, escaping with light sentences because he and his associates terrorise witnesses. Grens is determined to see Lang put away for good, and seizes an opportunity presented by an attack on a petty drug-dealer. Grens pursues his monomaniacal goal to the expense of everyone and everything, trampling over a witness’s sensitivities as well as the truth in his desperate pursuit of his one goal – a goal which is pointless so far as as Anni herself is concerned, as she will never be able to understand anything.
The second story is that of Lydia and Alena, who as young teenagers have been conned into leaving their native Lithuania to come to Sweden in search of work – but who instead have been sold into sex slavery. The girls’ ordeal is unbearably horrific as they are repeatedly brutalised by their ghastly pimp and their “clients”, a tale told in a fatalistic, nonsensational way which makes it almost unbearable to read – especially as it is clear that their story is repeated many, many times over for other poor girls. One day their grim lives reach a horrible climax that brings them directly into contact with Grens and his colleagues. The twists and turns of the resultant events are simultaneously exciting and sad.
I think this book is quite brilliant, most particularly in the story of the tragic Lydia, both in the present day and in the past, as she remembers her younger life and as Sundqvist finds out the details of her betrayal. It made me very angry indeed as the authors explore to the limit the extent to which the police bind together to protect their own, and how in so doing they are betraying those weaker victims of society who not only need their protection the most, but who the police are entrusted to serve.  The decisions made mainly by Grens but also by his younger colleague Sundqvist, are horribly misguided, leaving me shaken. The final pages of the novel leave the reader in no doubt as to the extent of the evil ramifications that can occur when people who should know better take matters into their own hands for their own reasons – but who cannot know the full story or understand (because of their personal involvements and weaknesses) the entire picture.

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One aspect of this novel that intrigues me is that no translator is mentioned, either in the book's title page or the copyright statement. The authors' previous novel, The Beast, so far the only other one available in English, was translated by Anna Paterson (who has also translated Karin Alvtegen among others). I can only surmise that the authors wrote The Vault in English as well as Swedish themselves.

Borge Hellstrom is an ex-criminal who helps to rehabilitate young offenders and drug addicts. He is a founder member of KRIS (criminals return into society), a non-profit association which assists newly released prisoners. Anders Roslund is founder and former head of Kulturnyheterna (Culture News) on Swedish TV. He was for many years head of news at Aktuellt (Channel 1) and a prizewinning investigative reporter. Roslund and Hellstrom have a website, where you can read about the five books they have written so far, about Siw Malmqvist, and other news and information. There are links to reviews (in English) of "Box 21", as The Vault is called in the USA, including some in the US newspapers. (I think Box 21 is a more apt title than The Vault, incidentally.)

Hellstrom and Roslund at Euro Crime, with a review of The Beast (a previous novel) and a review of Box 21 (The Vault) at Reviewing the Evidence.

International Noir Fiction review of The Vault.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction review of Box 21 (provides a link to their review of The Beast).

Roslund and Hellstrom at Wikipedia.

Reading books and blogs in 2009

My favourites among the books I've reviewed in 2009 will soon feature on Euro Crime, but in the meantime, here are my reading statistics for the year:

I read 105 books in 2009.

Of these, 42 were translated into English from other languages.

Of the 105 books, 51 were by women, 54 men.

40 of the books I read were by authors new to me – and of these, 30 (to my knowledge) were debut novels.

I published 81 book reviews this year, mostly on Euro Crime or Petrona. I wrote 16 more book reviews which are in the press at Euro Crime. The remaining 8 books are unreviewed, either because I didn't find enough to like or because I read them on holiday while I was offline from any form of electronic input medium for a couple of weeks.

All my book reviews are archived here, categorised by genre and country of author.

Turning to blogs, I discovered four new blogs in 2009 which I enjoy reading very much, and commend them to anyone who has not yet discovered them:

Confessions of a mystery novelist by Margot Kinberg*

View from the Blue House by Rob Kitchin

Big Beat from Badsville by Donna Moore

Crime Watch by Craig Sisterson.

* Additional commendation for consistently thoughtful posts and a friendly, active discussion salon.

Of the blogs to which I already subscribed before 2009, I'd like to mention some of my favourites (criteria are at least 2 posts a week):

Crime fiction:

Crime Scraps (Norman)
DJ's Krimiblog (Dorte)
Do you write under your own name? (Martin Edwards)
Euro Crime blog (Karen)
It's a Crime (Crimefictionreader)
Mysteries in Paradise (Kerrie)
Reactions to Reading (Bernadette)**

[Added later: International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper)** ]

** Additional commendation for consistently excellent book reviews.

Reading (any genre):

Random Jottings (Elaine)
Reading Matters (Kim)

Other:

Comment Central (The Times: Hattie Garlick and Daniel Finkelstein)
Debtonation (Ann Pettifor)
Don's Life (Mary Beard)

I love lots of other blogs, many of which provide interesting links to external sites, but the above-named are the ones that consistently provide engaging (to me) content on a regular basis (I've excluded a few favourites that would have been included but which don't post very often).