SinC25: Katherine Howell, #4 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

Katherine Howell is my fourth choice because she’s (so far) published four books in her excellent series about Sydney police and paramedics. I’ve only read two of these books, but assume the interesting “formula” in those applies to all four. In one sense, the books are police procedurals, as Detective Ella Marconi and her colleagues investigate the crime that forms the basic plot of the book. In another sense, the books are “slice of life” dramas about the city’s paramedics, given great authenticity by the fact that the author was a paramedic before she became a full-time writer. The paramedics are different in each of the two books I’ve read, though there are cross-references. Ella binds the novels together.

What is so enjoyable about Katherine Howell’s books is not just the realism of the paramedics’ jobs as they are called out to many kinds of bizarre, dangerous, sad, repetitive or funny incidents that test the full range of their ingenuity and survival skills, but also the sheer pace and muscle of the stories, which are more common (in my experience) in crime novels by male authors. The author combines well her tough plots, often about personal dilemmas and ethics as well as straight murder mysteries, with the life-situation of Ella, her colleagues and the politics she faces at work. In common with some other cops in crime fiction, Ella has to cope with an intrusive mother who is always trying to get her to settle down, get married and have children rather than single-mindedly pursue a career, which is more to Ella’s own taste.

The first novel in the series is Frantic, which I have not read but which (appropriately) won the 2008 Sisters in Crime Davitt award and was longlisted for the Ned Kelly award. The book introduces Ella, who has to deal with a case in which a police colleague is shot, his daughter abducted, and whose wife (a paramedic) decides to investigate the case herself as she realises her husband is being accused of having been corrupt.

I’ve read the second and third novels, The Darkest Hour and Cold Justice (links go to my reviews), both of which cover similar ground as Ella investigates crimes in which paramedics are involved. Violent Exposure, the fourth book, is not yet out in the UK but was published this year in Australia. You can read a review of it at Fair Dinkum Crime, as well as other articles and reviews of the author’s books.

A fifth book, Silent Fear, will be published in Australia in early 2012.

Another woman author who writes in the same vein? This is quite a hard one, as many “medical” thriller authors, such as Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Tess Gerritsen and so on, tend to focus more on medical procedures than does Katherine Howell, whose books are more similar to classic police/PI novels that happen to have a medical setting. Similarly, I’d say that psychological crime authors with women protagonists, such as Nicci French (only half a woman, admittedly!) are not like Katherine Howell who is more interested in social and ethical dilemmas than excessive introspection.

I’d therefore suggest that Sue Grafton, despite the lack of a paramedic angle, is the author among those I’ve read who comes to mind as writing books with a similar-ish tough, professional female protagonist who is somewhat (but not overly) concerned with pressures to conform domestically but essentially happy to exist according to her own mores. In addition, the plots both authors write are brisk and strong, with an emphasis on professionalism rather than mysticism, over-analysing or other psychological aspects. Yet, finally, both authors are interested in addressing social mores and assumptions, with their protagonists having to confront head-on issues of trying to be ethical in a society where many people aren’t, often on an institutionalised scale.

Katherine Howell’s website. Articles by Katherine, and reviews of her books and more, can be found at It’s a Crime! blog – whose author, CrimeFictionReader, first suggested to me that I try a book by Katherine Howell.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

Book review: Ashes by Sergios Gakas

Ashes
by Sergios Gakas
translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife
MacLehose Press 2011, first published in Greece 2007

Crime fiction as allegory is here taken to the greatest extent I think I’ve read in a genre novel. Ostensibly, the story is about a house in Athens that burns down one night, killing an old man, a young woman and her 3-year-old daughter, leaving the remaining resident, fading actress Sonia Varika, severely burnt and in a coma. Police Colonel Chronis Halkidis of the Internal Affairs department hears news of the event and immediately calls in a favour from his boss so he can be assigned the case. We realise that this is the only way it will be properly investigated as the regular police force is corrupt to the core, essentially acting as an arm of powerful politicians and others.

In the hours immediately after the fire, we see events through the eyes of three characters: Halkidis; Simeon Piertovanis, an elderly lawyer who has just returned from a period abroad and who owns the property; and (in italics) Sonia. All three are interconnected, as we gradually learn through the mist of their memories and emotions concerning the past. Further, all three are pretty ruined, Piertovanis and Sonia by alcohol addiction and Halkidis by his choice to use cocaine to keep himself going to solve the case as quickly as possible (before he is shut down, or because Sonia, who is in intensive care, is in danger from more than her injuries), not to mention his addiction to cigarettes.

The two men, “wounded by disappointments and mistakes”, wallow in emotion as they both separately recall their past relationship with Sonia and how she affected them. The novel is saved from too much maudlin sentiment, though, by the sharp humour and poetic language (the translation is extremely able) and the brisk pace of Halkidis’s investigation with the help of his young team. Many layers of different crimes, criminals and professional rot are slowly uncovered as Halkidis pursues the truth while convincing his boss that he’s writing a government report and while the country prepares for the upcoming Olympic games, an excuse for any amount of wrongdoing to be brushed under the carpet.

Although I found the back story of the actress less compelling than the various set-ups and revelations that make up the police investigation, the two themes inexorably merge, not least when about 200 pages into the book, Piertovanis remembers an encounter in his office some while ago that he’d previously forgotten in a fog of alcohol, which provides both the motive and the identity of the crime and criminal(s). Nevertheless, this discovery also heralds the final plunge into despair of Halkidis, as he increasingly takes extreme measures to reach his goal. His anguished journey is paralleled by that of his county which is falling into unsalvageable ruin, helped on its way by the greedy and the opportunistic. Halkidis has his own code of honour, which means that he puts his own colleagues before himself, but also that for him personally, revenge takes precedence over justice.

After reading this book, one is left feeling that one has been on a dark journey showing us the many individual ways in which a society, or country, has been ruined beyond repair, often (but by no means only) by those who are entrusted with looking after it. As one who exists in this world, Halkidis has no other option but the downward spiral he embraces in Ashes. Marvellous stuff.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for kindly lending me her copy of this book.

Read other reviews of Ashes at Euro Crime (Karen Meek) and Winstonsdad’s blog

“Top five reasons to read Ashes”, post at MacLehose blog.

If you are interested in reading more “Greek noir”, you might like to try Che Committed Suicide by Petros Markaris (link goes to my review).

Book review: Burned by Thomas Enger

Burned
by Thomas Enger
translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
Faber&Faber, 2011

I welcome this stunning crime-fiction debut from Norway. Henning Juul is a journalist who hasn’t worked for two years while recovering from a doubly traumatic incident, more details of which are gradually revealed throughout the book. After the seemingly obligatory prologue (which I personally find an unnecessary device) we follow Henning’s thoughts and experiences as he begins his first day at work since the tragedy. Journalism has changed during this relatively brief time; Henning works for the website 1-2-3-News where the emphasis is on speed and “hits” rather than on accuracy or in-depth reporting.

Barely has Henning had chance to get used to the swipe cards and the new coffee machine, let alone the fact that his ex-intern is now his boss, when he is sent to a press conference about a bizarre murder. As he arrives, he receives a couple of other shocks in which his personal concerns intrude into his professional life. Listening to the scanty details of the press conference, he muses on one of the presenting police officers who was the school bully when Henning was young – can Henning hide his dislike and convert him into a useful source?

The murder itself is of a film student and has racial overtones as the mode of death is one that leads the police and the media to suspect an Islamic connection. Henning is not so sure; his doubts are confirmed by his visit to the university and his conversations with some of the dead woman’s friends. The police very rapidly home in on a suspect, the victim’s boyfriend, but Henning’s researches, and his renewed contact with his “deep throat” from the old days, lead him to the view that the man is innocent.

The main pleasures of this assured novel are the character of Henning, who initially one suspects is a typical damaged loner but in fact turns out to be more individual than that; and the descriptions of the modern newsgathering operation, with its tensions between ethics and sensationalism. Henning is an old-school journalist who relies on his own ability to break and write a good story to stay one step ahead of the superficial time-saving culture he finds himself in. The plot itself is solid, with a twist in the tail, though some elements (for example the predatory, sexist thoughts of Henning’s police contact about his attractive female colleague) are rather too repetitive without being developed. Nevertheless, one can see the author laying down elements and hints for future novels, for example Henning’s past cases; his relationship with his sister, a justice minister; his interactions with his colleagues; and the “shock” question asked in the final pages.

Burned is not a novel that goes over the top in an attempt to woo the reader. It is relatively understated, not least in its characterisation of Henning, a man who has his own moral code (of course, as this is a crime novel!), in his case thoughtfulness, intelligence and consideration for others laced with a sense of humour as well as a rather compulsive but understandable obsession with batteries. Henning does the opposite of hog the limelight, a device that works well in some aspects of the plot, for example the way that witnesses and potential suspects trust and confide in him, but perhaps less well in others, such as his dealings with some supposedly hardened criminals. This minor criticism did not detract from my enjoyment of this excellently translated book, even though it is written in the present tense. I very much look forward to reading more about Henning Juul – not least to see if I am right in my suspicion about the identity of his “deep throat”, but mainly just to read about his own style of journalistic investigation.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for lending me her copy of this novel.

Read other reviews of Burned at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), Reactions to Reading, Nordic bookblog, and BookGeeks.

About the book and the author at the Norwegian publisher’s website (in English), which reveals that there are five more novels planned in the series.

Book review: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

Misterioso
Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally
(Intercrime #1)
Pantheon, 2011 (first published in Sweden 1999)

English-language readers have waited a long time to read Arne Dahl’s well-regarded series about a small unit within the Swedish police force that deals with serious crimes, set up in direct response to the massive and confused official response to the assassination of Olaf Palme. The eventual translation is a US edition – and we have to be thankful that the first book in the series (the second to be written but chronologically the first) has now been published in English, unlike many other crime series from non-English speaking countries which are translated mid-way through. (While mentioning the translation, I note that Tiina Nunnally has done her usual excellent job with this text.)

Misterioso focuses on Paul Hjelm, a police detective stationed in a Stockholm suburb who defuses a hostage crisis before it gets out of hand. Because of the ethnic origin of the perpetrator, and because of his method of resolving the situation, Hjelm is handed over to internal affairs and is interrogated by two unpleasant Sapo (state secret police) officers. Worried that he is going to lose his job, and feeling alienated from his wife and teenage son, Hjelm even begins to doubt his own motives for his actions. He’s soon plucked out of his dilemma, however, by being invited to join a small, dedicated team of police officers in the national crime squad who will be assigned to particularly serious crimes. Hjelm signs up and meets his new colleagues in a useful (to the reader) meeting where each of them briefly identifies themselves and provides a bit of background.

The timing for the formation of the group (informally known as the A team) has been forced by two very similar crimes in which rich businessmen have been assassinated. In the absence of any clues, Hjelm and his colleagues embark on the kind of classic investigation that is familiar to the reader of police procedurals: the team searches for any connection between the men, social, financial or professional, in order to identify and protect the next victim(s). This investigation forms the bulk of the book, as the team follows up clues and possible leads in their increasingly desperate, and apparently fruitless, attempt that lurches from exclusive golf clubs to the Estonian mafia, and from private yachts to the boards of Sweden’s main institutions. For those, like me, who love reading about these details, this book is a real treat – the author provides just enough details about Hjelm’s personal life, and a few hints about the other team-members, to maintain the human interest in the characters while the plot twists and turns.

There is a break in the case after about 200 pages, when the title of the book, Misterioso, is revealed in a three-part ‘definition’. The key clue is a cassette tape which leads to a subplot that is quite quaint to readers in 2011: the book is set in 1997 when many people still listened to cassettes. The book itself has dated remarkably little, however, with the crash of the Swedish economy a few years before the book opens, caused by reckless bank lending – a situation which also contributes significantly to the plot and which is certainly extremely relevant today.

I very much enjoyed Misterioso. Although there are some necessary ‘setting up’ sections paving the way for future novels about the same characters, and although the solution to the mystery involves one event that is necessary to frustrate the A-team’s investigation but is otherwise not (to me) credible, the book is compelling and exciting. The chasing down of the clues was, to me again, more interesting than the showdown section near the end of the book and the revelation of what is going on and why, but overwhelmingly this is an absorbing and intelligent novel that makes me very keen to read more titles in the series (which so far number 11). I hope they will be translated soon.

I was given this book as a gift.

Other reviews of Misterioso are at: Nordic bookblog, Yet Another Crime Fiction blog, International Noir Fiction (a post showing some alternative covers to the book), Reactions to Reading, DJ’s Krimiblog and Mostly Fiction Book Reviews. These reviews are either fairly or very positive. A couple of them give away more of the plot (especially the Misterioso aspect) than I have done in this review.

Author’s English-language website

Arne Dahl is the pen name of Swedish journalist Jan Arnald. Read more about him (and the Intercrime books) at Wikipedia.

Book review: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

Villain
by Shuichi Yoshida
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker, 2010 (first published in Japan in 2007).

I thoroughly enjoyed Villain, admittedly somewhat against expectations. The plot is a skeleton for the intersecting stories of a range of ordinary Japanese people affected by a crime. One of the many charms of this book is that the characters are usually blue-collar people who work in construction, in shops or as insurance sales clerks, often worrying about money (to the exact yen), noting what things cost and deciding accordingly. To the non-Japanese reader this “slice of life” approach is a fascinating education into a culture that is completely different from that of the West and yet, at the level of people’s feelings and actions, the same.

The style of the book is straightforward and non-sensationalistic, yet told with great skill as sections switch constantly in time as a young woman is found murdered on a notoriously dangerous mountain pass. After a couple of weeks or so, a man is arrested for the crime. Between these two events we read of the lives of the victim and the presumed perpetrator, their families and friends, their colleagues and memories of their pasts. As we learn more about everyone, we come to see the clash of the ways older people see the world with those of the young – this applies as much to core values as it does to use of technology that grips everyone under the age of 30. Both groups are alienated but in different ways: the older people are struggling to make ends meet or are seriously ill after a lifetime of working; the young live alone, fixated on watching films on TV, or compulsively emailing people they “meet” on dating websites, or visiting bars and showing off to each other while often despising themselves and their companions. One of the many interesting aspects of the book is the way it shows how the school and university education system has increased, rather than ameliorated, this disengagement with wider society.

Hardly any of this inner desperation is articulated, but as we read this compulsive novel, we become more and more aware of the limitations of the world in which the characters are trapped. When people do meet, they seem to have nowhere to go except a “love hotel” where one has to know in advance how much private time one wants to spend with one’s companion, and put the right amount of money in the slot. How two people, a man and a woman, overcome the soul-less world in which they live and learn simply to love each other is really very poignant.

This novel is very absorbing and tense: we are not sure for most of it who did actually commit the crime; and the book leaves open the question of who is the “villain” as well as providing us with a realistic account of the complex set of factors involved in creating someone’s personality, such that it is impossible not to see the world from his perspective.

The translation is good, I think, but is American English not English English. For me some of the US colloquialisms jarred, but I am sure the reverse would be true for a US reader of an English English translation.

I obtained this novel free of charge via Amazon Vine.

Other reviews of this novel: The Complete Review (includes links to many other reviews), NPR books, Reactions to Reading and Yet Another Crime Fiction blog.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

About the author (Villain is his seventh novel but the first to be translated into English).

Villain was made into a film last year (2010), which is reviewed at Diverse Japan.

Book review: Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst

Dregs
Jørn Lier Horst
Translated by Anne Bruce (from Norwegian)
Sandstone Press, 2011

Dregs is a very enjoyable, classic police-procedural novel featuring Chief Inspector William Wisting who lives and works in Stavern, a town on the coast south of Oslo. As the novel opens we are plunged straight into the story of how a training shoe containing a foot is washed up on shore. This is the second such find in the space of a week. The police have already investigated all reported missing people in the area, and have identified the names of four people who have disappeared in the past year and not been found. Can they link any of the names to the feet?

As well as being frustrated by an increasingly puzzling case, Wisting, at 51, is feeling his age. As the novel opens he has just been to see his doctor for a check-up, but never gets the time (or the nerve) to find out the results. Wisting is the grandson of one of Amundsen’s companions on his polar expedition; he’s a widower, living on his own but has started a relatively new relationship with Suzanne, someone he met during a previous case. Wisting has a journalist daughter, Line. At the moment she is working on a long feature article about the effectiveness (or not) of prison sentences as a deterrent. To this end, she plans to interview half a dozen or so convicted criminals who have served their time. One of these is a man from the Stavern area who shot and killed a policeman 20 years ago – hence Line is staying with her father while she prepares for and undertakes the interview. Wisting remembers the case well, and rather dislikes his daughter’s project, though wisely does not share this view with her.

Over time, some more feet are discovered as well as another missing person. The police team of Wisting and three colleagues follow up on the disappearances, and are pleased when some relationships become apparent: most of the disappeared had some connection with a particular care home, and two of them had children who subsequently married each other. By dint of questioning and DNA tests, the police discover the identity of the owner of the first foot, and of a third one when that is also washed up on shore, but cannot work out who the second one belongs to.

The novel continues its three themes: the details of the feet investigation; Wisting’s thoughts and personal concerns; and Line’s progress towards her article (and her romantic relationship with Tommy, an ex(?)-criminal, of whom Wisting disapproves but again sensibly keeps his own counsel). In terms of the case, the pacing of the novel is superb, in that more information comes to light gradually, so one experiences a sense of the police’s frustration without being bored at their lack of progress, and also one feels one can have a shot at trying to put the pieces together (which I sort of grasped in outline but did not manage to work out the precise details). Suffice it to say that the eventual explanation for the feet and their state works very well, and the outcome of the mystery is very well put together.

I loved everything about this book: the characters of the introspective, dedicated Wisting and his independent daughter are both interesting (as are the other police officers, though they are sketched quite briefly); the plain-speaking style of writing (and translation); and the way in which many small elements combine to create a complete picture, including input from witnesses and some scientific analysis of ocean currents that leads to the crucial breakthrough. What is slightly annoying for the first-time reader is that this novel is sixth in the series though first to be translated. Much of the back-story of Wisting and Line is therefore lost (though we are told some elements of it). This matters less as the book continues, as the plot increasingly takes over, but detracts slightly from the introductory chapters. The translation itself, so far as I can tell, is naturalistic and faultless.

As an aside, there are several similarities between this novel and the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell (though Horst is Norwegian and Mankell Swedish). On the basis of this first novel to be translated, I’d say that Horst’s novel is every bit as good as his Swedish predecessor. I emphasise that the two series are distinct, and distinctive, of course.

I would also add that the “feet” part of the plot in Dregs is very well done, a good balance of realism, lack of sensationalism and pragmatic straightforwardness. This contrasts considerably with the “severed feet” theme used in another recent book, Fred Vargas’s more fabular An Uncertain Place.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Read other reviews of this excellent novel by: Crime Fiction Lover and Simon Clarke,

About Dregs at the publisher’s website.

Video trailer for the book.

Time for an off-topic rant?

It is ages since I’ve written an off-topic rant, though I have been tempted once or twice ;-). Those temptations have now got the better of me, so please don’t mind if I just let off a bit of steam against the silly things that people in what passes for the government here are saying – plus the banks and a charity.

1. Single mothers are blamed for the recent riots for not bringing up their children with proper discipline. Rubbish! J K Rowling is (was) among many sterling role models for single parents. Many people find themselves in this situation through no fault of their own – a situation in which overwhelmingly the mother is looking after the children while the father(s) disappear, often providing no, minimal or meagre financial support. Most mothers are highly responsible for their children and do their best for them, whatever the circumstances. If anyone needs to be “blamed” for family break-ups, I submit that it is not (usually) the mother – she is the person left to carry the can.

2. Why has UNICEF now produced yet another patronising, superficial report, this time telling British parents what a bad job we are doing for working too many hours and giving our children too many gadgets compared with Spain and Scandinavia? As usual with these reports, the conclusions are based on a survey of 250 people; as well as being unrepresentative it is simply ignorant, in failing to consider relevant factors such as the cost of living necessitating work and the influence of US TV and its materialistic culture on an English-speaking nation compared with a non-English speaking one. But more to the point, I have been giving UNICEF a monthly donation for about 20 years because I believed it to be helping children living in poor countries and/or conditions, not for producing mindless reports for the media to shout about. I am going to stop my donation and give it to some other organisation that helps those most in need, as a small gesture of protest.

3. Iain Duncan Smith, a Tory minister, tells the “middle class” (his term) that it is our fault in some ill defined way that people live in poverty because we turn a mass blind-eye. Another load of rubbish. The “middle classes” are an easy target because we are too busy working, paying our taxes, educating our children, maintaining our living environment, and so on, to respond to this type of drivel. The truth is that it is these “middle classes” who pay our government’s salaries, part of which is to provide leadership and strategies to help all those in our society to maintain or improve their lot. Motes and eyes come to mind here.

4. Chris Hulne (Lib Dem energy minister) lambasts us for paying too much for our energy. He says we should be switching providers to cheaper ones, taking advantage of deals. What a load of hot carbon dioxide. Price-comparison websites are a nightmare in this regard in terms of how much information one has to provide to even get the comparison, as are the people employed by the charlatans who run our energy companies to knock on our doors at night to persuade us to change from one to another provider. And what happens if one does change to a cheaper gas or electric company? It puts its prices up after a few weeks so one is worse off than before. Mr Hulme would be better off regulating these companies better so they don’t charge so much in the first place, and while he is about it he could stop British Gas from making its minimal direct debit deduction much more than the energy consumed, only providing a “refund” once a year.

5. Banks are fodder for endless rants, but the recent report that almost but not quite recommends a split between investment and retail banks misses some tricks on the sharp practices of these odious institutions – odious because they use people’s money excessively to further their own profit motive, and they use technology to bamboozle the customer (so stupid as they even bamboozle themselves in this way, as yet another disastrous “rogue trader” has just demonstrated). Banks persuade customers to use online banking by reducing the number of branches, staff, etc, but they blatantly use the technology to foist loan offers on you every time you log on, providing no means to switch off this irresponsible garbage. Further, banks provide savings accounts at a certain amount of interest, but then “close” that type of account and reduce the interest payments to near-zero, often without bothering to inform savers. Therefore, to avoid being fleeced, one has to keep watch, and go through all the hassle of going to a bank, waiting to see some “advisor”, being pitched for all kinds of unwelcome “services”: all hoops to jump through to switch into another account that pays the same-ish, relatively meagre, rate of interest as the first account. Surely ending these sleazy practices are simple reforms to achieve that would be welcomed by every suffering customer?

Book review: Up Jumped the Devil by Blair S. Walker

Up Jumped the Devil
Blair S. Walker
Amazon Encore, 1997.

Darryl Billups is a crime reporter for the Baltimore Herald. The paper is run by the white establishment but the Black reporters form an unofficial support group, sending each other emails of solidarity or sharing sarcastic looks each time one of them is victimised. Despite the (justifiable, in most cases) chip on his shoulder, Darryl is married to the job, like many journalists, and likes nothing better than to be out on the road, covering a crime and interviewing witnesses and police. He’s shocked one day to receive a strange phone call warning him that the NAACP (US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) building in the town is going to be blown up by terrorists. Frustratingly, he can’t find out any details from the caller, and though he informs the managing editor at the paper and his police contact, nobody is interested.

Darryl’s story alternates with that of the so-called terrorists, a few “white supremacists” who are in fact a couple of disaffected army veterans and a waste-disposal operative. These losers are furious at equal-opportunity programmes that, as they see it, do white people out of promotions and jobs. The plot covers their frustrations and actions in the lead up to their grand plan – sometimes in quite shocking fashion.

The first part of the novel is stronger than the second, which gets derailed into a romance between Darryl and a domestic assistant from the hospital who has had a row with her boyfriend. Several themes are picked up and dropped, for example there is a murder which given its nature would have caused a huge reaction, but nothing happens. Most frustratingly the newspaper in-fighting and jousting for position is gradually given less prominence in favour of the thriller and romance plots.

Despite a slightly raw feel to the prose, which I think would have been improved by better editing, this novel has a fast-moving (if very lightweight) plot and an engaging lead in Darryl, who is very real in his feelings about not only racist attitudes to Black people like himself, but in the stereotypes and attitudes that many Black people have to each other. My favourite parts of the book by far were the scenes set in the Baltimore Herald office, as Darryl fights to get his byline on the front page and to keep his job despite the racism and “greasy pole climbers” all around him.

I obtained this book free of charge from the Amazon Vine programme. It is first in a series of (so far) three novels, all of which are available cheaply (£1.99 in UK) in Kindle format.

Apart from the Amazon entry where there are several, I can’t find any reviews of this novel on the internet, so if you’d like to find out more I suggest you visit Kirkus Book Reviews. The author does not seem to have a website so here’s his Amazon profile.

Book review: Why Don’t You Come For Me? by Diane Janes

Why Don’t You Come For Me?
by Diane Janes
Constable, 2011.

This novel is a great little thriller of the domestic suspense variety. Jo is an apparently perfect wife with an apparently perfect existence. She lives in a lovely cottage in Easter Bridge, a hamlet in the Lake District, with her husband Marcus and his son Sean. Jo and Marcus own a literary tour company so one or the other of them takes groups round various regions of the country while the other stays to look after Sean.

Of course, all is not what it seems. Jo is troubled by past and present experiences. Eleven years ago she had a baby daughter, Lauren, with her then-husband Dominic. When the girl was one, she was snatched from her pushchair outside a sea-shell shop while the family were on holiday. Jo has never got over the guilt of this event, of course, and we really don’t know whether to trust her account of the abduction. We do know that the pushchair was found smashed at the bottom of a cliff, but when we learn what happened to her first marriage, and find that mysterious postcards appear every now and again over the years with the message “why don’t you come for me?”, we are really not sure what to think about Jo.

In the present day, Jo increasingly has trouble in relating to her environment. When she met Marcus, Sean lived with his ex-wife, who has now remarried and has a new baby. Sean has therefore chosen to live with his father, but however much Jo tries, Sean constantly rejects her in that typical teenager way. Their relationship becomes more strained when Jo thinks she catches him with a knife – but Marcus can’t find it and is not sure whether to believe Jo’s report. At work, Jo is increasingly unhappy as a colleague, Melissa, spends more and more time with Marcus planning tours, leaving Jo to do the “babysitting” for Sean. Jo’s relationship with her neighbours is also somewhat strained, with one very nosy woman living nearby. A couple who own a gallery also live near Jo, but she suspects that the husband Brian is abusive to the wife, Shelley, causing Jo to worry about what if anything to do when Shelley disappears one day.

The author cleverly ratchets up the tension. As the book is almost entirely told from Jo’s point of view, we cannot know what is factually true much of the time. It seems, for example, that the police have hinted to Marcus that the postcards might be posted by Jo herself, so nobody takes any notice when the message changes on the next one to appear (apart from Jo of course). Then, another strange woman moves into an empty house nearby. Jo recognises her instantly as an old schoolfriend, and comes increasingly to suspect that the woman’s daughter might be Lauren.

This really is a very suspenseful novel, despite one or two themes that did not seem to go anywhere. At the start I found Jo rather an irritating “perfect housewife” figure, but I soon realised how the author was providing a veneer of normality that is masking Jo’s gradually increasing inner torment. As the book progresses and Jo has fewer people to confide in, her actions become more extreme, causing everyone to believe her even less. There is a shocking climax to the story that has divided reviewers of the novel, some finding it a compelling ending but others thinking it disappointing. I think it works well, and admire the author for a very focused, determined novel that has echoes of one of the great modern suspense writers, Karin Alvtegen.

Other reviews (very positive) of this novel are at: Euro Crime (Lizzy Hayes), the Bookbag, and Shotsmag (Amy Myers).

I reviewed the author’s previous novel, The Pull of the Moon, at Euro Crime last year.

Author website/bibliography. The US edition of this book is called Why Didn’t [not Don't] You Come For Me? I wonder why the word was changed. I think the UK version works better with its connotation of an ongoing rather than a past mystery.

SinC25: Saskia Noort, #3 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

Two books by my third choice, Dutch author Saskia Noort, have been translated and published in English, by the marvellous Bitter Lemon Press.

Back to the Coast (2009), translated by Laura Vrooman, is an excellent little thriller, an easy read that can be raced through in a couple of hours and that leaves a haunting impression – or as the publisher describes it: “relentless suspense writing: a description of Maria’s hellish descent into a world of induced paranoia.” My full review is at Euro Crime.

The Dinner Club (2007), translated by Paul Vincent, is described by the publisher as “a subversive concoction of greed, lust, and violence set in genteel suburbia. Imagine Desperate Housewives scripted by Patricia Highsmith. That’s The Dinner Club.” See my review at Euro Crime.

These novels are “standalones” but share common themes concerning society’s judgements of women who do not conform to the expected norm of the moment. Maria in Back to the Coast is a rock musician who is punished for aborting her third pregnancy. She is viewed as a feckless and irresponsible person who is not capable of making rational decisions for herself, to the extent that the police and others decide she is “not worth helping” – and she is even punished further for acts of cruelty and violence against her by those who society has charged with helping. The novel describes the consequences of the only action left to Maria, and of her resilience in the face of escalating danger.

The Dinner Club (written before BttC but read by me afterwards) is very different, in its story of aspirational professional couples, mothers jockeying for supremacy in the playground and on the domestic front, fathers earning oodles of money to keep their families in luxury, all the time while everyone is very, very drunk. Nevertheless, there are certainly similarities between the two novels, in the attempt by Karen to break away from the imposed rules of the group, a decision that has increasingly negative consequences. Another theme is town vs country: in both books the countryside is initially presented as a haven, but in fact hides a multitude of sins and threats.

Another woman author who writes in similar vein? The comparison that leaps to mind for The Dinner Club is Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pinerio, an Argentinian novel presenting a strong element of domestic satire and also published by Bitter Lemon. I’d say that The Dinner Club is the darker of the two, though.

Back to the Coast is a little harder to match precisely, but it shares some similarities with a book by another Dutch author, The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt.

Saskia Noort has written several other novels. Apparently the English rights of one of them, New Neighbours (2006) have been sold (Wikipedia), but I know no further details.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.