Book review: A Colder Kind of Death by Gail Bowen


A Colder Kind of Death
by Gail Bowen
McClelland and Stuart, 1994
Joanne Kilbourn #4

I am very much enjoying this Canadian series of novels, which combine a light touch in the writing style with somewhat hard-hitting and deeply emotional themes. Jo Kilbourn is currently a professor of politics at a university in Regina: she’s the widow of the ex-attorney general of her political party and has four children, two of them grown up and one (the youngest) adopted. The first three books introduced Jo and her circle of friends and political associates. Here, however, the mood shifts as Jo has to decide whether to confront the few-years-ago death of her husband, Ian, or whether to continue carrying on her life having put it behind her.

The stimulus for this decision is the death of Ian’s convicted killer, Kevin Tarpley, in a drive-by shooting at the jail where he’s incarcerated – a highly unusual crime. Jo discovers that Tarpley had found God before he died and has sent her some biblical texts. In the aftermath of Tarpley’s death, Jo has to face a very unpleasant person, soon finding that she herself is prime suspect in a crime. Reluctantly, therefore, Jo decides to find out the details of how Ian died, and to talk to the half-dozen friends who were present at the fund-raising party he attended on the fatal night, in an attempt both to achieve closure and to clear her name.

The novel is compelling as Jo both confronts her sadness and finds out more about her husband’s last few hours. There is also a good mystery plot and the usual mixture of domestic details (just the right amount) as Jo has to keep her family’s lives going, juggle her various careers (she’s also a TV panellist), as well as cope with her own mixed feelings. In the end, the questions about how Ian died are resolved, but I was left puzzled as to who was responsible for the two present-day crimes (though a solution can be inferred, there are questions left hanging).

I bought this book.

Read another review of it at: Reactions to Reading.

Posts about Gail Bowen, including reviews of some later books in the series, at: Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan

Author’s website, includes a list of the books of the series, in reading order.

My reviews of the earlier books in the series: Deadly Appearances (#1), Murder at the Mendel (#2) and The Wandering Soul Murders (#3).

Book review: A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read


A Field of Darkness
by Cornelia Read
Warner/Mysterious Press 2006

Madeline Dare comes from an old-money family, money that is so old that there is none left, as she puts it. Her parents divorced when she was young, so she was bought up in California, then New York. Now, however, she’s met the love of her life, Dean, married him and lives with him in Syracuse, upstate New York, circa 1988. Dean is obsessed with his plans to create an automatic method of grinding rail tracks, so is almost always away. Madeline is bored out of her mind, her only real distraction being a part-time job at the local newspaper, writing humorous foodie columns.

This is a book that is replete with local colour and observations of the American way of life. Dean comes from a family of farmers, so the reader is treated to descriptions of the contrasting lifestyles of the hardworking, redneck, uncultured in-laws, with the brittle world of the socially superior yet largely empty-headed relatives of Madeline.

Dean’s brother casually reveals that he’s discovered some dog tags while ploughing up a field. The site is where two young women were murdered 19 years ago, in 1969. The murderer was never found. Madeline is shocked to see that the dogtags belong to her favourite cousin Lapthorne, on whom she had a teenage crush, from around the time he was drafted to Vietnam. She determines to prove his innocence by investigating the crime herself, using Dean’s family connections and her own newspaper contacts in the process.

The tale is told at an extremely leisurely pace, with many observations of small-town life seen filtered through Madeline’s humorously sarcastic perspective – also applied to her family. She spends an inordinate amount of time missing Dean, who is rather a colourless, if handsome, character. This repetitive theme becomes a tiresome aspect of the book.

Half way through the book, Madeline comes across some evidence that exonerates her cousin, so she goes public with her intention to solve the crime. This decision rapidly stimulates some nasty events which hastily lead to a conclusion that echoes the opening page of the novel.

The main pleasures of A Field of Darkness are its detailed, well-written portrait of Syracuse, a decaying community; and the character of Madeline, who is both distinctive and who has an interesting selection of friends and relatives whom we come to meet during the book. As a crime novel, the pace is too slow and there is a dearth of suspects, even though the ending is quite chilling.

I bought this book. It was nominated for the Edgar award for best first novel.

Read other reviews of it at: Bookreporter, Oprah (who selected the novel as one of her summer’s picks), Spinetingler and MBTB’s mystery book blog.

Author’s website, where there are free excerpts and Q/As about this book and the next two in the series.

Book review: Blood Tears by Michael J Malone


Blood Tears
by Michael J Malone
Five Leaves Publications, 2012
Kindle edition

DI Ray McBain of the Glasgow police and his team are celebrating the successful outcome of a murder case: before a day has passed, however, another murder is committed and the team swings into action again. An elderly man has been killed by someone who has inflicted wounds similar to the stigmata on his (or her) victim.

Tasks are divided up, and McBain with his young colleague Alessandra Rossi go to a Catholic care home where the victim worked as a caretaker. McBain is overwhelmed by emotion during his and Rossi’s interview with the mother superior. It turns out that McBain himself grew up in the home and that he suffered cruelty and abuse while there. While the two cops are copying out the names of children who were at the home while the victim was employed there, McBain persuades Rossi to leave his own name off the list, on the grounds that he’ll be taken off the investigation if it is known that he has a connection with it.

The first half of the book continues in a standard police procedural vein, but McBain’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. He gets drunk a lot, insults people, picks up random women and attempts to sleep with them, pukes up everywhere, eats little but deep-fried pizza, and so on. He suffers from terrible dreams, and is convinced that he is somehow connected to the case, if only he can remember how or why.

Events then take a sharp turn, and McBain finds himself a fugitive from the law. He is helped by his only friend, a local criminal who he has helped a couple of times in the past, and by two of his colleagues, who keep him up to date with the investigation. Will McBain be able to solve the case before he is caught?

Blood Tears is a quick and easy read, but I found the main character hard to like, despite the traumas he had suffered in his past. The second part of the book seems particularly unrealistic, as McBain hangs around in a local hotel doing nothing for a month apart from getting fit and drying out, before swinging into action and attempting to follow up some leads. As he does so, the dreams intensify and the reader is given a few more italic “mind of the killer” sections. The ending, when all is revealed, seemed a little flat. There are some engaging elements in the book, in particular the dynamics at the police station in the first half (as well as the underdeveloped character of Rossi), but the second half suffers from these being dropped. The subject matter of abuse in religious and other institutions is a harrowing and awful one. Although this book is perfectly sincere in its portrayal of this sensitive issue, I do not think it provides any further insight in comparison to previous treatments.

I downloaded this book as a free promotion. I thank Rob and Sarah for recommending it. Their reviews of it are at The View from The Blue House and Crimepieces, respectively.

Other reviews of the book are at: Crimesquad, Ric’s Reviews and Undiscovered Scotland (plus a very large number at Amazon UK).

Book review: Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham


Talking to the Dead
by Harry Bingham
Orion, 2012

DC Fiona Griffiths has been in the police force for 4 years after graduating from Cambridge. She’s particularly talented at paperwork, so as the book opens is investigating an ex-cop who has been embezzling money from the school where he went to work after retirement from the police. Fiona is puzzled because there is more money washing around than is missing from the school.

While Fiona wields her calculator, her Cardiff colleagues become involved in a major crime investigation. A woman and her six-year-old daughter are found dead in a dingy flat, the girl clearly having been murdered. The couple did not live in the flat, so the investigation centres on the forensic evidence (leading to a drug connection) and the possibility that the mother was a prostitute. Fiona is itching to get involved, and manges to persuade DI Jackson to let her help interview some prostitutes in an attempt to find the names of men who might have been controlling them.

There are many strands to this novel. Fiona herself is the main event: she is an unusual person who has suffered from an unspecified illness for two years while a teenager. This has left her as an outsider: although she efficiently adds information into the shared database of the investigators, there is plenty she keeps to herself, especially when she perceives a link between the murder and embezzlement cases. The author provides many details about Fiona’s friends and family, as well as her romantic feelings towards a colleague. There is also a great deal of Welshness about the book, in terms of locations and descriptions of ways of life.

Talking to the Dead is an interesting novel which I enjoyed, especially the character of Fiona. It is rather long for its content, lagging quite seriously in the middle 150 pages. Yet towards the end of the book, when many of the apparently disparate plot strands come together, there is both a satisfactory solution to the mystery as well as some insight into her illness, and closure, for Fiona, who becomes aware of a very significant personal event due to her ability to empathise with the dead young girl. There is an action-packed climax which I found a bit silly, but this did not spoil the book for me.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of it at: Reviewing the Evidence, Books and Writers, Promoting Crime Fiction and Crime Fiction Lover.

Book review: Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg


Old City Hall
by Robert Rotenberg
John Murray (pb), 2009

This compelling novel starts simply: Mr Singh, delivering the Globe and Mail to apartment 12A of the Market Place Tower in Toronto, finds Kevin Brace waiting at the door instead of sitting at the table having his customary early-morning cup of tea. Brace tells Singh “I killed her”. On entering the apartment, Singh discovers Brace’s wife dead in the bath. He calls the police.

The unfolding tale of the investigation and court case is told from the point of view of several police officers and lawyers. The two main policemen are detective Ari Greene, son of a Holocaust survivor, and officer David Kennicott, an ex-defence lawyer who joined the police force three years ago after the death of his brother. The two men are friends, so continue the investigation in partnership. The two main lawyers are Albert Fernandez for the Crown, keen to prove himself on his first trial case, and Nancy Parish, who is chosen by Brace, a celebrity radio talk-show host, to represent him.

None of these professionals has a complete, or even much of a partial, picture of why and how the death occurred. The case, which at first seems open-and-shut, becomes more and more complicated as more information is uncovered by the investigating policemen and, later, the lawyers. The story is told in great detail against a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of Toronto, gripped by a feverish support of the Maple Leafs hockey team. The suspense is built up gradually: at first the reader is aware of the basic facts of the investigation, such as the discovery of the murder weapon, but soon, as witnesses are interviewed, a more complex and subtle story comes to light. The characterisation of Brace and some of the witnesses and minor characters, particularly Brace’s first wife, is vivid – though the two cops are too similar.

I thoroughly enjoyed Old City Hall, which is a confident, measured, absorbing debut. The book is a great example of the use of detail to create atmosphere and a wonderful sense of place, without feeling as if one is reading a lecture (which is often the case when authors decide to make location a major part of their story). Although most of the book is told from the point of view of the professionals involved in investigating the crime and taking it to trial, the power of the novel is in what it has to say about human emotions, in particular in the light of the grossly cruel actions, based upon conviction without proper knowledge, by authorities in the past – actions whose effects will last for the lifetimes of those concerned.

——
I bought this book. I thank Bill Selnes for the recommendation. Bill has reviewed the book at his blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. Bill has written three posts of questions, answers and thoughts about Robert Rotenberg (mostly about his next book, The Guilty Plea). The first of these is here.

Other reviews of Old City Hall: Quill and Quire (Sarah Weinman), Murder by Type and Crime Time (Michael Carson).

Author’s website. The book was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award in 2009.

Book review: The Eyes of Lira Kazan by Eva Joly and Judith Perrignon


The Eyes of Lira Kazan
by Eva Joly and Judith Perrignon
translated by Emily Read
Bitter Lemon Press, 2012
First published in France, 2011

When I discover that a book is said to be, as in this case, a “sensational international thriller”, my heart sinks, as experience has shown that such books tend to be disappointing mish-mashes. Not so in the case of The Eyes of Lira Kazan, which is a great read: exciting, poignant, sophisticated and bang up to date. Not only is the plot a ripper, but the characters are individual and alive on the page. The translation by Emily Read is so naturalistic it was hard for me to believe that the book was not originally written in English.

The word “international” is a clue that the action takes place in a range of countries. In an opening section, Nwankwo Ganbo, the head of the fraud squad in Lagos, is hastily attempting to flee the country with his wife and three young children, after his best friend and close colleague has been murdered. The family hope to reach England, where the British government has offered Nwankwo asylum and a teaching post at Oxford University in exchange for keeping his head down about his knowledge of the extent of financial and violent corruption in Nigeria.

In St Petersburg, Lira Kazan is a journalist in her early 40s. She’s separated from her husband and has a beloved daughter, Polina, who is currently studying in Paris. Lira has for some years been investigating Sergei Louchsky, a man who has made millions since the fall of the Soviet Union and whom Lira knows is evil in a large number of ways. She decides to travel to London to follow one of the lines of evidence she is pursuing, hoping to meet her daughter while she is there.

A judge and his clerk in Nice are confronted by a report that the wife of one of the world’s richest bankers has been found drowned, apparently having fallen off her luxury yacht. Their investigation arouses the wrath of the authorities, who want to write off the death as a swimming accident, despite the fact that the victim was wearing her evening gown when her body was discovered. The judge, as well as Felix (the clerk), continue to dig into the circumstances of the death, little realising the cost to themselves. The husband of the victim, Sunlief Stephensen, is a hilariously awful man from the Faroe Islands, whose Grind (“dolphin”) bank is one pivotal element of this tale. Sunlief must take the biscuit as one of the most evil baddies in modern crime fiction, as the reader learns with horror how his bank took its name.

How these events are connected gradually becomes clear. The main characters, Nwankwo, Lira and Felix, are all brave people with integrity, but for two of them the personal cost of their mission to achieve justice is terrible. Not only is their story an exciting and convincingly realistic one, but as the reader gets to know them, their predicament becomes truly tragic as “the cruelty of the world” takes its toll, particularly so in the case of Lira. Lira is a marvellous creation: bold, intelligent and dedicated in the face of awful reprisals. Will the determined trio give up, will they be stopped, and what they can do with the information they know in the face of establishment opposition? I urge you to read this excellent, relatively short book to find out. The last two or three pages are exceptionally sad and moving.

I bought this book.

Read other reviews of it at: Reviewing the Evidence, The Bookbag and Shots.

From the publisher’s website: “Eva Joly was a prosecuting judge in France famous for her anti-corruption cases, including that against Elf-Aquitaine. She is now running in the French presidential elections. This is her first novel. It is co-authored by the French thriller author Judith Perrignon.”

Book review: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End by Leif G W Persson


Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End
by Leif G W Persson
translated by Paul Norlen
Black Swan/Transworld 2010
first published in Sweden 2002
Johansson/Jarenberg #1

At my second attempt, I have completed this tome of more than 600 pages, a book that in some senses precedes Another Time, Another Life by the same author, which I read recently and very much enjoyed.

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End tells the story of the apparent suicide of an American student, John Krasser, by jumping from a window in Stockholm. There are several witnesses to this event, some of whom note that the victim’s second shoe fell to the ground some seconds after he did.

The first description of the crime involves the police investigation, whose aim is simply to deal with it as quickly as possible and write it up as completed. Here we see the police force in all its self-interested glory, as officers play the system to their own ends in the knowledge that colleagues will cover up for them.

The ripples of the crime spread out in a gradually more complex way. Sweden’s police force has secret operations within it – one of these operations is charged with drawing up lists of possible terrorists and other threats to national security, in those days mainly the Kurds and right-wing elements within the police. One has the sense that this operation is mainly designed to protect the status-quo, with a few extremists and hotheads being front men for a deeper, more sinister conspiracy. The apparent suicide of Krasser becomes a significant part of this operation.

In another parallel development, a secret message that Krasser had written to a well-known cop, Lars Martin Johansson, emerges after his death. Johansson is portrayed as the epitome of the Swedish police force in his calm, taciturn, intelligent and apparently incorruptible personality. He gets drawn into the investigation, using a trip to an FBI training course in the USA to find out more about Krasser and his activities.

As well as these various elliptical descriptions of the aftermath of Krasser’s death, the book is split into several parts describing Swedish internal politics since the end of the Second World War, and its role on the international stage at at time when the country was intimidated by the Soviet Union’s growth but without allies in the West who remembered all too well Sweden’s wartime Nazi sympathies. Towards the end of the book, Johansson comes into contact with a book that Krasser was researching, and after some procrastination, reads the draft. This draft provides the core of the story and tells the reader what is truly going on, pretty much.

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End is a depressing, leaden and grim read. It was a struggle to complete the book as it is so fragmented and contains so many unpleasant characters. Yet there is a fascination to it, mainly its focus on international cold-war politics at the time (the 1950s to the mid-1980s) and how Swedish society adapted to it in a deeply corrupt manner. I can’t say I enjoyed this book, and did not like it as much as I did Another Time, Another Life (which covers 1975 to the turn of the millennium, and which can be appreciated without having read this one first), but I am glad I read it, and can see that it is an achievement, particularly within Sweden, to have written such a self-critical, even self-loathing, book.

I bought this book.

Other reviews of it are at: Crime Scraps (and here), Shade Point, The Independent, To Be Read, and a further collection at The Complete Review.

Book review: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff


Some Kind of Peace
by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff
translated by Paul Norlen
Simon & Schuster 2012
First published in Sweden 2009

Some Kind of Peace is an atmospheric, well-written book. Yet it demands, almost, ambivalence from the reader in continually challenging us with the characters and their behaviour, as well as the way the authors present the crime part of the plot.

Siri Bergman is a psychologist. She’s depressed after the death of her partner Stefan some years previously, living alone in the remote seaside cottage which they bought together because of Stefan’s love of diving. Siri is a nervous, anxious person terrified of the dark, so sleeps with all the lights on. Nevertheless, she does not use curtains or blinds for her windows, it seems.

Siri practices with two colleagues, her best friend Aina and an older man, Sven, who has previously lost his university professorship for having an affair with a student (he’s married to another professor, of gender studies, an ironic touch), so has now turned to private practice. Both Sven and Aina are sex addicts.

Part of the book takes the form of Siri’s therapy sessions with her patients, and these are perhaps the best-described and most interesting sections. Another part is a “mind of the killer” theme, in which someone is stalking Siri, intending to cause her pain and harm. This threat escalates from some nasty tricks on Siri, to the extent that one of her patients is found dead on the shore by the cottage, in circumstances that point suspicion at Siri. The police become involved, and it becomes clear that the stalker is someone who has access to Siri’s patient records – in fact he (or she) may even be one of her other patients. The tension escalates as Siri attempts to live her life while pondering on who might be obsessed with her and wish to cause her harm. A very lonely woman, she becomes attracted to a young policeman who is working on the case.

I found Some Kind of Peace a frustrating book: sometimes sophisticated, sometimes over-simple. It is well written, and in many places intelligent and absorbing. The crime plot, however, is unpleasant as I do not like reading about the point of view of someone who abuses and exploits vulnerable women. Some of Siri’s behaviour seems incomprehensible for someone under threat, and her passivity towards a couple of men who make unwelcome passes to her during the book seems at odds with other times when she is very direct in conversation. Her loneliness is very well-conveyed, as she attempts to come to terms with a double loss in her past. Yet the outcome of the crime plot, when we learn the identity of the stalker, is one of those “pick one from the cast of characters” let-downs.

I bought this book.

Read other reviews of it at: S. Krishna’s books, Publisher’s Weekly and The Eloquent Page.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

Book review: The Camera Killer by Thomas Glavinic


The Camera Killer
by Thomas Glavinic
translated by John Brownjohn
Amazon Crossing, 2012
First published in Austria, 2002

This novella, just over 100 pages long, takes the form of a statement. A young man and his partner Sonja travel to the country to stay with their friends Heinrich and Eva for a few days over Easter, in the middle of rural, conservative Austria. The foursome hear of a terrible crime, in which a man has kidnapped three boys and persuaded two of them to commit suicide. The book consists of a description of the foursome’s activities in the days leading up to an arrest: cooking, eating, playing games and some degree of interaction with the locals.

While the friends pursue their apparently innocent activities, they follow the horrible story of the murders on TV. The killer’s video camera has been found, so there is much debate on the media, from politicians and religious authorities about the justification of showing the film of the boys’ deaths. Heinrich becomes obsessed with the TV coverage, whereas the two women alternate between hysterical fear and fascinated horror. All four of them seem compelled to not only watch the case unfold, but also, when it appears that the killer may still be on the loose and in the area where they are staying, to participate in local gossip and speculation.

The Camera Killer won the Friedrich Glauser prize for crime fiction in 2002, so it is a book to be taken seriously. I found it unenjoyable, as it is a straight description of events designed to show the characters’ moral emptiness and detachment from reality – for example by the way Sonja is named only once, and by the way that the foursome switch to playing badminton or cooking dinner whenever there is nothing about the case on TV or in the papers. The crime itself is so horrific that I did not want to read any of the details about it. There is no explanation of the motivation for the murders here (perhaps not a bad thing): people are simply blank slates whose characters and motives can only be surmised by the reader.

Book review: Season of the Witch by Arni Thorarinsson


Season of the Witch
by Arni Thorarinsson
translated by Anna Yates
Amazon Crossing, 2012
first published in Iceland as Tími nornarinnar (The Witching Hour), 2005
Einar #4

Einar, a journalist with the Afternoon News, is posted to Akureyri in the north of Iceland to boost the paper’s regional coverage. He is fed up at having to leave Reykjavík for this backwater, not least because it separates him from his 14-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, he determines to make the best of it, helped by photographer Joa but hindered by office manager Asbjorg, with whom Einar does not get along.

The book begins at a fast pace, with Einar reporting on a story that interests him: the case of a woman who drowned while on a white-water-rafting team building exercise. His Reykjavik bosses, however, send him on assignment even further north to investigate what they think to be cases of racist-inspired brawling, due to the large influx of foreign workers on the multinational construction sites being developed everywhere. Then, a teenage boy who is putting on a production of a traditional Icelandic play goes missing, later to be found dead. Einar had interviewed the boy previously about his production, and is curious about what happened to him, even though any details are hard to obtain.

Einar makes peace with Asbjorg in order to get an “in” with the police, while at the same time dealing with his obnoxious news editor, and their mutual corporate henchman boss, who want him to spend more time on trivial stories than on investigative journalism. By his persistence in befriending relatives and those who knew the two people who have died, Einar gets gradually closer to the truth.

There is a lot to like in Season of the Witch, whose title refers to a 1960s song by Donovan: the mystery is solid, the Icelandic setting well-conveyed, and the characterisation more rounded than a typical crime novel. The mother of the drowned woman, now living in a care home, is a particularly well-observed creation, as is Einar’s relationship with her.

The dynamics between the colleagues are well-drawn, and small subplots, such as a dognapping theme and Einar’s feelings towards the parrot he is looking after, provide light relief from the main themes of corporate greed and social breakdown. There are lots of details about Einar’s journalism, but I found it hard to credit that a paper would not have an internet edition in 2005, necessitating delays before Einar’s stories can be printed.

The main downside of the book for me is that he middle section drags, being too repetitive rather than developing the story, and spending too much time on quoting song lyrics. In the final section, when Einar begins to see how the various cases he is working on are connected, the pace picks up. But it has to be said that part of this is due to him waiting until very late in the book to meet and interview certain people, and on a somewhat serendipitous, but crucial, discovery.

This is the fourth book in a series, but the first to be translated into English. There has clearly been some back-story about Einar concerning his daughter and his previous job in the capital that can only be surmised here, but the book can be enjoyed without having read the previous titles.

I was sent this book by Amazon Vine.

Reading in Reykjavík : review of the Icelandic edition of this book.