Fossum and Cotterill: tales of contrast

The two books I’ve recently reviewed for Euro Crime are quite a contrast. Broken, by Karin Fossum, is a pared-down affair, a distillation of simple beauty.

“A long queue of people waits patiently at a door. Old and young, in small groups or alone, everyone waits silently. Every year, the author who lives in the house on the other side of the door will choose the first in line and write that person’s story. At the head of the queue is a woman carrying a baby in her arms.

But that night, the author is startled out of her sleep by a man in her room. He is from the queue, but is not first in line. He is pleading for his story to be told, believing himself to be too nondescript and insufficiently interesting ever to justify his turn. After some conversations with him, the author is, almost reluctantly, but with some strange willingness, drawn into first providing the man with a name, Alvar Eide, and then into sitting down to start his story.”  Read on here

The other book is packed with events. It’s Disco for the Departed, by Colin Cotterill. Not only is the narrative convoluted, exciting, satirical and anarchic, but the spirit world adds another dimension of confusion, plot opportunities and general mayhem.

“The third book in the series that began with THE CORONER’S LUNCH and continued with THIRTY-THREE TEETH continues our journey of discovery of a magical-realist, independently minded group of protagonists in landlocked, impoverished 1970s Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun, the country’s coroner despite being long past retirement age, together with his mortuary nurse and new tenant, Dtui, is sent into the mountains to investigate the discovery of an arm that has been found protruding from a the concrete of a path under construction. This isn’t just any path, but is part of a huge celebratory project. The caves of the mountain were used as the hiding-place of the revolutionaries who are now the rulers of the country, and are to become enshrined as a national monument complete with opening ceremony, hence the pressure is on for a fast resolution to this potential hiccup. As Siri soon finds, the caves also sheltered the then royal family, and were used to create a massive hospital during the blanket-bombing of the Vietnam war, the after-effects of which are still causing misery and suffering.” Read on here

Although they are so different in subject-matter, pace and style, both books are written by authors in confident control of their words, plots, characters, and setting. Take your pick, or read both — if you are like me, you will enjoy the experience.

Sunday Salon: British lawyer books

Sunday Salon David Johnson asked this question the other day on the rec.arts mystery group: There are great heaping huge mounds of American lawyer books (which comprise the most common subgenre of mystery these days, I think). Are there any British lawyer books (not counting Witness for the Prosecution)?


Over the next few days, answers from the group included:


The Rumpole series by John Mortimer (not sure these charming tales count as “mystery fiction” though — they started out as a TV series, so long ago that I remember watching it).

Sarah Cauldwell’s Hilary Tamar series (gender of protagonist never revealed).


The Helen West and Sarah Fortune series by Frances Fyfield (which I recommend, the Helen Wests slightly more than the Sarah Fortunes, but only marginally. The two characters feature in each others’ series).


Natasha Cooper’s Trish Maguire books (I’ve read one, which I liked a lot).


Martin Edwards’s Harry Devlin novels. The older titles are not currently in print, but he’s just written a new book in the series after taking a break from it, Waterloo Sunset, which is very good indeed.


The remaining recommendations are from earlier times.


The Martin Hewitt short stories  by Arthur Morrison, apparently published in the Strand magazine “as a sort of contrast to Sherlock Holmes”, writes Dave from Toronto, “(believe it or not there were people in Victorian times who did not like the eccentricities of Holmes).  Hewitt was a lawyer with a keen analytical mind like Holmes but there the resemblance ended – Hewitt was short and stocky, very jovial and always co-operated with the police”. Dave points to a link at Project Gutenberg where the stories can be read free online.


Edmund Crispin wrote some delightful books featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen, but I don’t recall them as being mainly “legal”.


Cyril Hare certainly wrote legal mysteries in the 1940s and 50s.


Michael Gilbert wrote many crime and mystery books in a range of genres, some of which I’ve read many years ago, including Smallbone Deceased, nominated here.


Sara Woods wrote 53 books featuring Antony Maitland, barrister. The author’s real name was Lana Hutton Bowen-Judd, and she also wrote under other pseudonyms.

Rules of reproduction

There is quite a blogostorm (more like a tornado, as blogosphere controversies tend to be whirlingly circular) going on about the recent decision by Associated Press (AP), a major news aggregate and syndication service, to limit the amount of its material bloggers can reproduce — in some cases to less than 40 words, which is draconian. There is an article about the AP’s decision, and some reactions to it, here at the New York Times. An AP spokesman is quoted as stating that the organization is going to “challenge blog postings containing excerpts of A.P. articles “when we feel the use is more reproduction than reference, or when others are encouraged to cut and paste.” “

The New York Times provides a helpful link to Blogrunner, so you can read the (predictable) reactions from around the blogs, ranging from reasonably informed to totally uninformed, and from rational to irrational. You can also see a hotly argued comment thread at Books, Inq.: The Epilogue, which is where I first learned about this story, together with a link to Instapundit’s “irony alert”, pointing out AP’s extensive quoting from blogs in its own coverage of the story it itself has generated.

Many bloggers seem to think they can make up their own rules about what they write. Of course, this is true so far as the law allows, and the law has a very long way to go before it catches up with the Internet, and in particular, with user-generated content on it. But it seems to me that bloggers can’t have it both ways: if bloggers want to be journalists and news-breakers, and be taken as seriously as some of them take themselves, they also have to be sensible of how they came by the information they wish to broadcast. Terms and conditions apply.

Days in the life, PODs at night

Over at Nature Network, we have a group called “Ask the Nature Editor”, where scientists (frequently young ones as it turns out) can ask questions about the publication process, how to format their papers, how to successfully apply for an editorial job, and so on. It’s quite a serious and worthy enterprise. Today, I read the most wonderful photo-essay there called A day in the life of a senior editor. It is brilliant, as well as hilarious. I can’t post an extract here and do it justice, so all I can do is to say that no other editor could have a life like this, and no other editor could describe it in such terms. Please, just go and read it. Pay special attention to the captions.

In the interim between reading this account and being able to write this post about it, the author of it, Henry Gee, has been busy. He’s published three books at Lulu, the print-on-demand service. Henry writes: “I have to say that using Lulu was simplicity itself. Even I didn’t screw up. I managed to load all three books, write blurbs, format covers and so on in around three hours.” Each book costs about £5. There is a great discussion in the comments, in which it emerges that Henry sent the link to his agent, who has thereby purchased the three books. What a great way to send your agent a book, rather than paying the postage and photocopying costs, and having to bind the book up, you can get it all done by Lulu and end up with something in much more readable format for your agent and potential publishers. I also learned that you can delete your book from Lulu if your efforts get you a publishing contract, and other useful tips. Have a look for yourself.

Nature Network, “the” social website for scientists and those interested in science, is free to access, but registration is required. You can read everything, but if you want to comment, you have to register (which is quick and simple, and also free). The comment threads are true demonstrations of the beauty of blogging, but I will draw a veil over some of the tags.

God, Rankin, violence and librarians

In the cusp of time between duties done (2145) and crashing out (2200) I will attempt a blog post, especially as there is currently a (probably brief) moment of respite between soccer and tennis.  Just a few strange links, therefore.

Only 73 percent of atheists don’t believe in God, according to the latest Pew Foundation study, on Religion and Public Life. Admittedly this is reported by the blog Improbable Research, but they have a screenshot so it seems to be true. A Pew researcher was quoted in the Washington Post: "Twenty-one percent of those who describe themselves as atheists expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit, and more than half of those who call themselves agnostic expressed a similar conviction."

Via The Bookseller blog and The Sunday Times: Ian Rankin, creator of John Rebus, one of the UK's most popular fictional policemen, is to head a Labour commission into declining standards of literacy in Scottish schools. It is quite nice when you get a non-professional educationalist involved in these projects, as they tell the truth as opposed to spin, eg: "Rankin said parents were not doing enough to encourage reading and writing at home, and were often happy to allow their children to sit in front of the television." However, defining the problem is not the same as solving it, and I wish him luck, whether in Scotland or anywhere else.

Ian Rankin is mentioned again at Danuta Kean's blog, but only in passing, as the post is mainly an interview with Karin Slaughter, published in the Independent. The interview addresses the question, subject of a famous row between Rankin and Val McDermid, about the relative depictions of violence by male or female authors. Danuta Kean concludes: "Crime fiction contextualises violence, contains it, and removes that taboo. As far as Slaughter is concerned, that is her ultimate riposte to those who think she should show more decorum when detailing every violation in unflinching detail." I conclude that trying to analyse why or whether male and female authors depict violence differently from each other is a losing game. There is far too much variation from the "cosy" (male and female authors) to the extreme (ditto). I also recommend that analysers watch out for pseudonyms.

Be that as it may, one group that one should not mess with? Librarians. I know that anyway, but I got this link from Books, Inq. the Epilogue (who, appropriately enough, got it from Dave Lull.) There's some belly dancing going on in the Books, Inq. comments.

Time's up. Good night!

Perspectives on the Espresso

Following on from my Espresso post of the other day, several other bloggers have written about this development.

My friend, colleague, and knight in shining armour for being "the only validator of Petrona on Facebook apart from Petrona herself", James Long, writes a post at The Digitalist about the Espresso-Blackwell deal. Excitingly, James features a video of the machine in action, though I have not dared to watch it yet – but please do take a look. Part of James's take is "could Blackwells use the EBM to leapfrog Borders or Waterstones in the UK by selling the long tail titles across all segments, categories and genres? Unlikely, I suppose, with just 60 stores, and that idea relies on readers/bookbuyers everywhere being very determined about what they want to buy next, and being constantly on the hunt for relatively obscure titles."

James also refers to Eoin Purcell's post about the E-B deal. Eoin writes: "I hope they [Blackwell] roll it out fast and with fanfare before other[s] steal their thunder. When you consider the customer breakdown and the likely purchases that Blackwell encompasses, you see that they are almost ideally suited as a launch customer for the Espresso in the UK."

Last but of course not least, author Debi Alper writes a post called Books – the next chapter? in which she concludes: "Looks like a positive result for publishers, authors, booksellers, readers …" Right on, Debi.

Jeff Marks on Anthony Boucher

It is a while since I read the Dorothy L mail list: I have not read it since I started this blog, in fact (there is only time for so much). But it was there that I first heard of "the Boucheron", the main US mystery convention, gradually discovering that it is named after a man called Anthony Boucher. At that time (2005), a DorothyL-er called Jeff Marks was writing a book, "the ultimate resource on Anthony Boucher, critic, editor, translator, writer, and scriptwriter. So many people know of Bouchercon today, but few know of the man behind the World Mystery Conference." So I got to read a bit about Jeff's progress — I think we even exchanged a few emails about it. Well, I am delighted to say that the book is now out.

"Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography is the first book to look at the life and career of the 20th century's most influential mystery and suspense critic. Along with his mystery criticism, Boucher was known for starting The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, writing seven novels, and writing the radio plays for Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen."

See more about the book at Jeff's website, and buy it (and others!) via his online bookstore.

London as a thermal city

IR_1356 I read today about Thermal Cities, London, a gallery of images of London from space, the air, or just from some high-up building. You can see lots of lovely images, and read more about the project and how the images were created, here and on the other bits of the thermal cities website, which is apparently due to have a lot more pictures uploaded into it. From the "about" page of the website, the aim is: "To look at London from a FRESH! (Thermal) perspective. Had the idea of borrowing and experimenting with a state of the art thermal imaging camera, out and about in London, to see if anything interesting could be captured and then presented on a non-engineering website." You can see thermal images of animals in London Zoo, people, transport, patterns and the alarming category of "experiments", as well as being able to download screensavers and the like.

Sunday Salon: Shadow Walker reaches the USA

Sunday Salon Dave Lull has alerted me to Publishers Weekly's(16 June 2008, page 35)  starred review of The Shadow Walker, by Michael Walters, to be published in the USA in August by Berkley Prime Crime ($14 paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-425-22233-1).  The PW review:

"Set in Mongolia, Walters's riveting first novel opens with a slew of murders investigated by a local policeman, Nergui, and a visiting British police inspector, Drew McLeish. The bloody nature of the murders makes them suspect a serial killer, but when a member of Nergui's staff joins the list of victims, the case becomes more complex. Traveling to a tourist camp during the investigation into the dead cop's background, the two detectives are confronted with a double murder. Suddenly, political or business motivations for the carnage come to the fore. A kidnapping starts the clock ticking toward a thrilling conclusion in a spooky abandoned factory. Throughout, the mysterious Nergui, who has a possible spy background, and the stoic McLeish make for a potent and exciting team. The evocative descriptions of modern Mongolia create a unique backdrop for a suspenseful mystery full of misdirection and terror."

I thoroughly enjoyed The Shadow Walker, and its even-better sequel, The Adversary. My reviews of these books, which are already published in the UK, can be seen at the Euro Crime links in the preceding sentence. US-based readers are in for a treat.

Waterstone’s books magazine on Harrogate crime

I picked up a copy of Waterstone's magazine today (issue 29, 2008), which is free if you have a Waterstone's card or spend some threshold sum on books, otherwise £2.50. (Same as a copy of Nature for a student in Malaysia, I found out yesterday, but I digress.) I always enjoy reading this magazine, but this issue is particularly relevant, as it is a "Crime special", focused on the upcoming Harrogate festival (which I'm attending, by the way).

The main article is by Simon Kernick, chair of this year's programming committee. He writes about how the differences between American and British crime fiction are becoming less pronounced, in this genre which is "constantly reinventing itself" (don't ask me what that means). After discussing the crime-fiction staples of hard-boiled (noir), "cosy" and police procedurals, he highlights two particular trends in recent years, that of the serial killer book, kicked off by Thomas Harris's (excellent, in my opinion) Red Dragon and his even more commercially successful, but less good, Silence of the Lambs, in which the author's fascination with the gruesome began to get the better of him. Although this "phenomenon" started in the USA, it quickly spread to the UK, with Val McDermid and Mo Hayder cited as having made "memorable and highly successful use of serial killers in their novels".

The second trend, and one of more interest to me, is the "suburban" thriller. Simon Kernick writes about Harlan Coben, previously a writer of the Myron Bolitar sports-agent series, who had a major breakthrough with a stand-alone, Tell No One (now an excellent French film out on DVD, which I highly recommend), and which stimulated this corner of the oeuvre. Simon Kernick is particularly interested in domestic crime about ordinary people whose lives spiral out of control, as he writes it (Relentless). He also refers to Jeff Abbott, whom I haven't (yet) read, as the "new kid on the ordinary-guy-in-trouble block". One book he doesn't mention in this subgenre is Linwood Barclay's No Time for Goodbye, which has just been chosen for a Richard and Judy summer read. Douglas Kennedy's first two novels were superb examples, and Mary Higgins Clark, of course, has been churning these out for years.

After this main article, several novelists who will be attending Harrogate are interrogated on the subject: Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Robert Crais, Thomas H Cook and others are asked questions such as "What's the biggest difference between British and American crime novels?", and whether Britain is perceived as "home of cosy" and the US "more guns".

Unfortunately the article misses out mainland European authors (some of whom will also be attending Harrogate, I'm pleased to say). But never mind, it is a stimulating magazine, well-written and engaging, also featuring mini-reviews of new work by Andrea Maria Schenkel (The murder farm), Kate Atkinson (When will there be good news?), Irvine Walsh (Crime), Elizabeth George (Careless in red), and others.

Oh, and there is a lot of non-crime fiction too, including the news that Keira Knightley is not only playing an unrealistically thin Vera Philips with the equally unrealistically thin Sienna Miller as Caitlin Thomas in The Edge of Love (a movie based on Love Letters of Dylan Thomas), but she's also due to appear in The Duchess, based on the book by Amanda Foreman. It's about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was a  "rich and beautiful woman trapped by her fame and class in a loveless marriage to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) , but desperately seeks true love. Georgiana rebels and falls for the Whig politician Charles, second Earl Grey, but fate is not so simple".