Top six amateur TV detectives

I sense I am about to kick myself for not paying more attention to TV over the years, because  Georgina Turner at The Guardian has identified "six amateur (non-police) TV sleuths", about whom she writes: "They're not on Her Majesty's payroll, yet somehow they constantly find themselves banging up badduns. Have-a-go heroes or interfering know-it-alls, we're not sure, but we do know one thing: Britain would be overrun with cunning killers without them."

Before reading any further I was sure I was going to demur, as one has to disagree with these lists on principle, and sure enough I do. The six honoured tecs are: Miss Marple  (obvious, but fair enough, I suppose); Jonathan Creek (watched one episode once, hated it for the facile lack of actual detection); Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote (please! and what of the "Britain" in the header?); Rosemary and Thyme (never watched it, but according to the reviews it was (is?) poor); Scooby Doo (er? real? and "Britain" again?); and Dick van Dyke as Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder (never seen it, but can it be British? Wasn't Burt the chimney sweep enough of us for him?)

So, not watching TV is a bit of a challenge, but in addition to Miss Marple and without leaving these shores, I would venture to suggest (from my era): Hazell (Nicholas Ball); Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi); Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve); Anna Lee (Imogen Stubbs); and, of course, Sherlock Holmes (various). But I could equally have chosen Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), Hetty Wainthropp (Patricia Routledge – never watched but the name has stuck), Lovejoy (Ian McShane), Cordelia Grey (via P. D. James) and even Lord Peter Wimsey (Ian Carmichael, who did a good job with a spectacular bit of mis-casting). There must be lots of others given how much TV I have missed in the past 18 years - and even so I was not reduced to Scooby Doo.

Anyone got any better ideas? Top six fictional (book) amateur detectives? Top six US TV amateur detectives?

Leaving the World by Douglas Kennedy

There's nothing like writing a post with "Sunday Salon" in the title for obliging you to write a Monday post, even though it has been a long, long day for one reason or another – not least because this morning was the first work day since the clocks "sprang" forward on Saturday, so it felt as if we were getting up at an even more ridiculous hour than usual.

Never mind that, back to business and the post. The other week I read a review of a book in The Times – the book is called Leaving the World, by Douglas Kennedy.

I very much enjoyed the first two books by Douglas Kennedy, which were nail-biting Grisham-esque thrillers set in that sort of Madison Avenue, big business world that seems so glossy from the outside. One is called The Job, and the second is The Big Picture. The author then changed tack completely, and wrote several very highly regarded literary novels, none of which I have read, though I do own a couple of them. He has written many reviews and literary features in the newspapers, including several in The Times, which I read. He's been rebranded and his books now have soft-focus, introspective, "arty" covers. His official website does not even list these initial two, lowbrow books – but I liked them, especially the first.

Leaving the World seems possibly to be a return to his roots. According to the Times review, Douglas Kennedy is famous for writing insightfully about women's lives, and crafting gripping narratives (the word "unputdownable" is used). This latest book is about Jane, a literature scholar whose lover dies suddenly, causing her to leave academia for a big-money job at a hedge-fund (irony alert). Various tragic, life-changing events ensue, from the sounds of it. Part of the plot involves Jane's desire to solve the case of a local girl who has gone missing, which leads, according to the Times, to a "nail-biting denouement". (Hmm, unputdownable and nail-biting in the same review!) "The only people who will not instantly adore this book are those who are squeamish about lost hedge-funds or missing children. For everyone else, it may well be the most thrilling 450 pages they will read all year." (Published in the USA on 21 April.)

Times review by Melissa Katsoulis of Leaving the World.

Telegraph review by Jane Shilling of Leaving the World.

Book Bag review.

Douglas Kennedy on Wikipedia.

Sunday salon: Reading The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

TSSbadge3 Ever since I read Fiona's review at Euro Crime, I've been very keen to read The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr, published by Bitter Lemon press and translated from the German by John Brownjohn. So keen, in fact, that I bought the book on the basis of the review. I didn't begin it until this morning, and so far (85 pages in) it is living up to my expectations, and more.

The story is about desperate housewife Cora Bender, who is so depressed that she decides to kill herself, even though she has a nice(ish) husband, sweet young son, interesting job and pleasant home. Cora has some (as yet) unknown trauma in her recent past that is causing feelings of intense panic, desperation and despair. She has also had an awful childhood at the hands of a religious maniac mother, dying younger sister and caring but weak father. One day, Cora can't take it any more and decides to commit suicide by going to the lido with her husband and son and drowning herself while swimming – she plans it this way so that her death will not be considered suicide and, by not killing herself in the car or the house, causing minimal inconvenience to her husband. Once at the lido, however, events turn out very differently.

This book is brilliant so far, I can't wait to continue with it.

Petra Hammesfahr has written more than 20 crime fiction and suspense novels, and writes for TV and film. She has won numerous prizes for her work. The Sinner seems to be the only book of hers that is available in the UK in English (according to Amazon).

Publisher's website.

Review of The Sinner at International Noir Fiction, the blog of Glenn Harper.

Review of The Sinner at Mostly Fiction, by Tony Ross (includes brief author biography).

Broadcast news

Tomorrow (Sunday 29 March), Tom Rob Smith and Donna Leon are on Open Book, BBC Radio 4 at 4 p.m. Tom Rob Smith talks about his second novel, The Secret Speech, which apparently features the same central character as Child 44 (which I must read! It is on my shelf); and Donna Leon (books listed and reviewed here) explains the inspiration of Venice for the exploits of Commissario Brunetti, who features in her latest book About Face.

On Monday 30 March, author Mark Billingham is on The Book Quiz (BBC4, 8.30 p.m.) along with The Bishop of Southwark, The Right Rev Thomas Butler, Rowan Pelling and Jenni Murray. I've not watched this programme before but with that line-up, I'm intrigued! Mark Billingham's novel, a standalone thriller called In The Dark is just out in paperback, and is on sale at half price in W H Smith's this week; did not appeal to me on a quick look at it, but he's very popular. (See Euro Crime for reviews of his other books.)

On Friday 3 April, the Friday Play (BBC Radio 4, 9 p.m.) is an adaptation of Australian author Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask, a "lesbian feminist private-eye novel, written in verse" and set in Sydney.

Waterstones and Film 4 are collaborating on a season of films adapted from books (Great Adaptations), including LA Confidential, The Devil Wears Prada, Brick Lane and The Motorcycle Diaries, which in their book incarnations will be sold on "3 for 2" offers. The TV series starts on 10 April and there will be a launch and panel discussion at Waterstones Piccadilly (London) on 1 April, featuring Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of Slumdog Millionaire (Q&A) and, er, Julie Myerson, who you may be thrilled to know is having her book The Story of You "developed" by Film 4.

UK paperbacks in June

Following on from my post the other day about new books to be published in June, here (again via the Bookseller, 27 February issue) is a selection of crime fiction paperbacks due in the same month.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly (Orion, 11th)

Superb book, the second to feature the Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller), with Harry Bosch making an appearance.

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre (Hodder, 25th)

The Bookseller says: tackling the moral and political issues of the war on terror.

White Nights by Ann Cleeves (Pan, 5th)

Second in the Jimmy Perez series. Excellent. The third is just out in hardback.

Paying for it by Tony Black (Preface, 4th)

Simultaneous publication with the hardback of Gutted, about "a tortured character living on the edge", says the Bookseller.

A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari (Abacus, 4th)

A second case for Michele Ferrara of A Florentine Death (see this Euro Crime review of The Monster of Florence).

Third Strike by Zoe Sharp (Allison and Busby, 15th)

The third thriller about bodyguard and ex-special forces soldier Charlotte (Charlie) Fox.

To Dream of the Dead by Phil Rickman (Quercus, 4th).

A series about an exorcist called Merrily Watkins.

No-One you Know by Michelle Redmond (Ebury, 11th)

"A captivating novel of a sister's life torn apart by the murder of her sibling and how years later she goes in search of the truth".

The Paris Enigma by Pablo de Santis (Harper, 28th)

A literary thriller starring 12 of the world's greatest detectives gathered in Paris for the 1889 World's Fair.

Also due in paperback in June: Trust Me by Jeff Abbott; Don't Look Twice by Andrew Gross; Deadly Intent by Lynda LaPlante; Dead Line by Stella Rimington; The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw; Swan Peak by James Lee Burke; Black Widow by Jessie Keane; River of the Dead by Barbara Nadel; Obedience by William Lavender; and Broken Hearts by Grace Monroe.

There are also short story collections edited by Michael Connelly (The Blue Religion), Lee Child (Killer Year), C. J. Sansom et al. (The Lost Prophecies), and Tony Hillerman/Rosemary Herbert (A New Omnibus of Crime).

Question of the day

Is the sequel a phenomenon that works for crime fiction but not for other genres? So asks Suroopa Mukherjee at the Macmillan New Writers' blog. "Do readers look for continuity? I am ill at ease with the idea of a brand name. Is this a marketing strategy? But what if the author is inspired to write differently?….How do we plan out our next book? Do we write with the Imprint in mind? How do authors deal with a contrary creative impulse? Which is the common meeting ground for marketing and creative strategies? Do readers look for brand names? Are these creative constraints faced by all published authors?"

Well, that's rather a lot of questions, not just one, but they all relate to the issue of the "second novel", and whether it is advisable (not least, in order to actually be published) to continue a theme begun in a successful first book, or to go for something different?

Suroopa writes that crime fiction is well suited to the second novel as sequel because of a "central investigating character". Her novel, not crime, is Across the Mystic Shore. Her post was inspired by M. F. W. Curran's news (on his blog Muskets and Monsters) that Pan Macmillan are not going to publish his third novel, The Black Hours, because "it couldn’t be marketed as an “MFW Curran” book. It’s quite different to The Secret War, perhaps too different." The Black Hours is described by him as a "Victorian thriller", which might interest readers of this blog – in which case I recommend a visit to Muskets and Monsters to discover more – its a very engaging blog.

Careless in Red, by Elizabeth George

Careless in RedCareless in Red by Elizabeth George is a whopping book – 600 pages of small type. After the disappointment of What Came Before He Shot Her (and the time taken to read it), I was unsure whether to read this, the author's next novel. And now, having finished it, I am still not sure whether I think my time was well spent.

The essential plot is that a young man dies while abseiling down a cliff on Cornwall's coast; the death is no accident and the police have to discover who sabotaged the climbing equipment. That's the one-sentence summary: to provide a little more context, Thomas Lynley, walking the coastal path while struggling to absorb the recent death of his wife and unborn child, discovers the body and seeks help from Daidre Trahir, a solitary woman who owns a nearby cottage. The next few hundred pages  concern Lynley and Daidre's slowly building friendship born of mutual pain, as well as an assortment of local families, probing the various stresses and strains in their relationships present and past; parents, grandparents and children; against a background of surfing, Cornish pasties, old seafarers in local pubs and other examples of "local colour". From an initial stance of detachment, Lynley is reluctantly drawn into the investigation despite himself, and is soon reunited with his old colleague Barbara Havers as well as meeting DI Bea Hannaford, in charge of the case. Bea has a lively personality and interesting relationship with her ex-husband the Assistant Chief Constable and their teenage son.

The pace is glacial, with oodles of pages and paragraphs of leisurely descriptions of various preparations for the tourist season as well as the domestic and inner lives of the cast of characters – in many cases rather irritating types in whom it is hard to care, frankly. The book suddenly picks up in the last 150 pages, when the police investigation bursts into life, having strangely taken a very back seat until then. (For example, chief suspects are not questioned for days and days, and Lynley potters around Cornwall digging up old histories in a hobby-like way, instead of a few constables being sent to conduct interviews, and many other basic details are simply not checked out by the police, who are said to be overstretched but seem to spend their time looking at surfing pictures and puzzling over frayed rope.) I guessed the motive for the murder very early on, and although I did not guess the identity of the murderer, I knew it would be one of a particular group of people using an assumed name, and sure enough it was. Daidre's secret was more of a surprise, but other "revelations" were predictable.

By the end of this plodding book, we sense that Lynley will return to New Scotland Yard once he has completed the coastal walk whose ending will coincide with his acceptance of widowerhood. We learn not much more about Barbara Havers, though there are some heavy hints about her and Lynley's feelings for each other. Barbara and DI Bea Hannaford are my two favourite characters, perhaps because they are the two with the most energy and verve – I felt the book would never have ended without them to push things along now and again.

As usual, everyone is in awe of Lynley, who here is more Peter Wimsey-like than ever; there are numerous references to his "breeding", and almost every character is flattered that he behaves towards them as an ordinary person rather than like an Earl (however an Earl is supposed to behave – it beats me – but everyone seems to have an innate knowledge of this and to be gratified that Lynley deigns to speak to them courteously!). This rather self-conscious treatment is grating, and adds to the general 1950s air of this book and, indeed, series, which despite a modern veneer, seems to me very much stuck in a previous era. Nevertheless, there are passages of real empathy and interest. So I am still on the fence so far as this author is concerned.

Kerrie's Euro Crime review of Careless in Red.

Terry's Euro Crime review of What Came Before He Shot Her.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging to celebrate women in technology. Lots more details are available here. I also encourage you to check out today's guest blog post at the UKRC's GetSETWomen blog, which is by Honora Smith, great-great-great niece of Ada.

I've always had an interest in the history of computing, the field to which Ada Lovelace made such a significant contribution, as my parents met while my father was an electrical engineer and my mother an operator on the Mark 1 computer in Manchester back in the 1950s, and they both spent the rest of their working lives in the computing profession.

Back in those days, people who wanted to use the power of computers for their various projects had to learn programming languages such as usercode, Algol, Fortran, Basic and so on. These days, many of us can be "high-level" users, i.e. we don't have to learn the programmes or the technologies to use the tools. I have great admiration for those who do both, so in honour of Ada Lovelace day I will mention a few of those people here – all of whom I have met (most of them in real life) since I started blogging.

Debra Hamel, inventor of many web-technologies involving books and reading, is appropriately interviewed today by Clare Dudman, a distinguished scientific writer and novelist, and keeper of the snails. Debra is perhaps best known for adopting Twitter on day 1 of the service, and developing TwitterLit and its younger relation Kidderlit, daily games which have featured in the mainstream media (The Guardian newspaper, for example). Debra is also founder of one of the earliest book-bloggers' reading festivals, the quarterly Buy a Friend a Book week. Full details at Clare's excellent interview, which reveals others of Debra's talents. Debra runs several blogs, but her "main" one, if that is a fair description, is the Deblog.

Karen Meek, as well as being a librarian professional, created and maintains the Euro Crime website. This wonderful resource is a database of original reviews of European crime fiction (new reviews are added every week), much of it in translation, as well as a complete bibliography of the very many authors writing books in the genre, with links to their websites. Euro Crime also features news, events, a blog and other information about European crime fiction and, occasionally, science fiction (with an accent on Dr Who). As well as being a considerable, and free to use, technical achievement in its own right, Euro Crime brings together those who love the genre, and is a fantastic resource for any potential reader wishing to broaden her or his horizons. 

Steffi Suhr writes a blog called Science Behind the Scenes, about people in science but also very much about those behind the science, who help to make it possible, whether in support roles, in management, publishing or other. The accent is on marine and polar science, so readers truly get a sense of the technologies and efforts involved in doing research – all told with Steffi's good humour and positive outlook. She herself juggles a demanding job as an editor for a German scientific publisher, a challenging family life (her partner is away for long periods of time), running marathons, and her passion for the communication of science. Her blog conveys a wonderful enthusiasm for technology, and her descriptions allow one to understand these sometimes complex subjects almost without realising it. I wish more scientists would write blogs like Steffi's; she is a great example and role model – just check out her blog and scroll down the variety of descriptions, interviews and stories, to see what I mean.

New books for June

From the Bookseller (6 March 2009), here is a selection of books due to be published in hardback in the UK in June.

Dead Tomorrow by Peter James (Macmillan, 5 June)
Another Detective Superintendent Roy Grace novel; I fully expect this one to be as exciting as advertised. "Expect a very superior police procedural with James' customary tight plotting."

The Buried Circle by Jenni Mills (HarperPress, 28 May)
From the author of The Crow Stone, this time about stone circles in Avebury – with an Indian connection.

Target by Simon Kernick (Bantam, 18 June)
Nobody believes Bob Fallon when he reports the abduction of a girl during a break-in at her flat. Author of Relentless (R&J pick) and Severed, among others.

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (Picador, 5 June)
Eagerly awaited (my me and fellow Euro Crime fans) tenth novel in the Inspector Montalbano series.

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo (Macmillan, 5 June) debut
Looks interesting, about a female Amish chief of police.

Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins, 28 May)
A Dalziel and Pascoe novel.

A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley (Headline, 11 June)
Second in the Detective Kubu series set in Botswana: I enjoyed the first, A Carrion Death.

Gutted by Tony Black (Preface, 4 June)
A Gus Drury novel. Sounds very hard boiled indeed; probably not one for animal lovers, based on the blurb.

Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus, 4 June)
Serial killer in 1930s Munich, author of The Murder Farm. Both of these short novels have won major awards.

Wicked Prey by John Sandford (Simon and Schuster, 1 June)
The 19th Lucas Davenport novel, so regular readers should know what to expect. I usually enjoy these; my main problem with them is recognising from the title whether or not I've read it.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos (Orion, 25 June)
The 16th novel by the much-admired author, who is also producer and writer of The Wire. I've only read one of his books and though I quite liked it, not totally my scene.

Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay (Polygon, trade pb) debut
Religious crime in sixteenth century Scotland by previous winner of Young Observer playwriting competition.

Night and Day by Robert B. Parker (Quercus, 4 June)
The 8th Jesse Stone mystery, sounds a bit gruesome, concerning a "twisted voyeur called Night Hawk".

Also an important if off-topic June release is The Road Goes Ever On and On: The Map of Tolkien's Middle Earth by Brian Sibley, out of print for five years but now revised and updated. (HarperCollins, 28 May).

Sunday Salon: Review of Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen

TSSbadge3 "One often reads the word "unputdownable" to describe a book – it is certainly a true description of this one. As the novel reaches its climax, I was on the edge of my seat, my heart was pounding, and by the end I felt wrecked. It has strong parallels with Wuthering Heights, in which two "normal" people (Gerda as Nelly Dean and Marianne as Lockwood) are the filter through which the reader experiences elemental, horrifically tragic and passionate events that are beyond the witness-narrators' comprehension."

I wrote these words as part of my Euro Crime review of Shadow, the new book by Karin Alvtegen, which is a magnificent novel. As well as the Wuthering Heights analogy, I was also struck by the name of the 92-year-old woman whose death starts the long process of thawing out the frozen wastes of the past. Her name is Gerda, which is the same name as the loyal girl whose long journey is to melt the spliter of ice put into her friend Kay's heart by the evil Snow Queen. Karin Alvtegen's story is no fairy tale, however.

As I read the novel, I was impressed by the translation, by someone I did not think I had heard of before, McKinley Burnett.  It turns out, however, that I have heard of him – and so, probably, have you. Thank you, Reg, for bringing this superb author to English language eyes (a few hints about translators' names in the comments here).

My Euro Crime review of Shadow.

Kimbofo of Reading Matters reviews Shadow.

Crimefictionreader of It's a Crime! reviews Shadow.