Dinner with the Criminal Minds

CMheader_VP The Criminal Minds: a virtual panel is a great blog with a great publishing strategy. Each week, "seven crime fiction authors respond to a question about writing, reading, murder and mayhem" – so a different person writes a post answering the same question each day of the week. For the week of 7 September, the question concerned who you would invite to dinner, what would be on the menu and what would you discuss? Here's a post on the topic from Rebecca Cantrell, author of the Hannah Vogel series set in 1930s Berlin (which I have not yet read, but thanks to the generosity of Norman (Uriah) of Crime Scraps, hope to do so soon). Norman's review of A Trace of Smoke and his interviews with the author can be found here.

Rebecca Cantrell's meal and guests have a distinctly German theme. I, on the other hand, would probably go for sushi or a Thai meal as I so rarely get the chance to sample those cuisines. The guests, though? You're allowed three, and assuming they have to be people you don't actually know, I'd choose Viggo Mortensen, J. K. Rowling and Ian McEwan (that did not take long to decide!). I wouldn't need to do any talking, just listen (and, occasionally, watch of course.) Maybe you'd like to answer the dinner-guest question on your own blog or in the comments here.

The Criminal Minds blog/panel is well worth subscribing to if you don't know it already – as well as the themed posts you can also email questions to the seven authors, and it looks as if you can win prizes for writing good comments. It also reminds me that I've been meaning to try a novel by one of its bloggers, C. J. Lyons (great dinner companions!), as I like medical thrillers, so I'll add one to my list. (Currently running at about 500 books, and that's not counting the couple of hundred actual ones I have on my shelves waiting to be read.)

The Darkest Room and more from Johan Theorin and Marlaine Delargy

My review of the superb book The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin and excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy, was published last Sunday at Euro Crime. I feel that my review did not do this brilliant story full justice; I also think that I did not edit and revise the review enough times before finishing it, so apologies to those who read it for those aspects. Be that as it may, I think this author combines the talents of a natural storyteller, an excellent plotter, a shrewed yet sympathetic observer, and a sensitive empathiser, more than any author currently writing crime fiction. (I would be delighted if anyone could provide examples that would contradict this assertion!). It is, I think, impossible to do this rich book justice in a brief review, but here is an excerpt:

Above all, the author himself is a wonderful storyteller; one becomes totally immersed in his Oland world and in the lives and personalities of the superbly well-observed characters, major and minor. He is also a great plotter – the main stories as well as the minor ones weave in and out of each other: apparently small details in one story turn out to be highly relevant in another. [read on here.]

There are some other very good reviews of this book which I link to in this post 'Not getting away with Scandinavian murder'. If you haven't read these reviews, I do urge you to, in case you think I am just getting a bit carried away. I do think that Johan Theorin has a special talent.

I was enormously flattered to receive an email from Marlaine Delargy, the translator of Johan Theorin's novels, after my review of The Darkest Room was published. Apparently she and the author read and enjoyed my review, nice enough in itself but it is heartwarming that they took the trouble to write to tell me so. Marlaine writes about an earlier, equally superb, book by the same author, Echoes From the Dead: the small-format paperback issued this year in the UK by Black Swan contains "about 8 wonderful black and white photographs in the back, all from Johan, and he has written a short commentary on each one. They really help to bring his stories to life, and there's also the map of Öland that's in the front of The Darkest Room." I think I shall be buying this edition of Echoes From The Dead to see these photographs and read the commentary.

Finally, Marlaine writes about Johan Theorin: "he's hard at work on his third novel, and the publishers are hoping it will be ready around Christmas." Me, too!

Book review: The Crow Trap, by Ann Cleeves

Crowtrap Weighing in at 550 pages, I was slightly daunted at the prospect of reading this book, but I need not have worried. It’s very absorbing – a slow burn of a book (published by Pan Macmillan), full of atmosphere and suspense, as well as with a well-drawn cast of characters and a satisfying plot.
The first part of the novel concerns three women who are staying in a remote cottage in a village in the north of England. Rachael, Anne and Grace are conducting an ecological review, the results of which will determine whether the area can be developed into a quarry. As the novel opens, Rachael arrives at the cottage to begin the project and discovers her friend Bella, owner of the neighbouring farmhouse, hanging from a noose, having apparently committed suicide. This being a crime novel, we know that this conclusion may not be justified, but for the first part of the novel, the author is content to let everyone believe that Bella took her own life, while we get to know the living characters and the dynamics between them. Each section of the book is told from the point of view of one of the three women researchers, having the double benefit that the characters and their concerns can come to life, and that certain events can be with justification kept from the reader.
Tensions build between the women and with the people in the nearby village who have conflicting interests in the project. Peter, the women’s employer, is a greasy-pole-climber who among other nefarious activities has plagiarised Rachael’s research and discarded her after an affair without telling her he’s begun to see another woman (whom he eventually marries). Rachael is the most successfully portrayed of the three central women, as she fights to overcome her insecurities and relationship with her confident, overwhelming mother. Anne is married to the local squire, but their relationship is semi-detached to say the least; Grace also has a local connection – she is the most mysterious of the three women and one senses she must have some connection to Bella’s death.
A crisis occurs in the shape of another death, which leads to the introduction of DI Vera Stanhope, a middle-aged, unmarried and distinctly unconventional woman who has bags of external confidence but her own share of internal insecurities relating to her own past, and in particular her father’s “secret obsession”. Vera brings a welcome dynamism to the book, both in terms of plot and her working environment with her subordinates.
The author cleverly switches between points of view; these, together with her paced revelations of past events gradually show the full extent of the network which Vera must unravel to get to the bottom of the mystery (or mysteries). I shall certainly be reading the next books in the Vera Stanhope series (though I believe that THE CROW TRAP was originally written as a standalone novel), not least because I find her an attractive and unusual character, and want to know more about her.
Since first drafting this review it has been confirmed that Vera Stanhope is to become a TV detective. I’m very much looking forward to watching her exploits, and well-deserved congratulations to Ann Cleeves for this news.

Ann Cleeves's online diary 

The Crow Trap reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence

Wheredunnit on Northumberland, Ann Cleeves and the Vera Stanhope books.

Brief review at Mysteries in Paradise, as part of a "female detectives" post.

Ann Cleeves guest post on "crime for all" at DJ's krimblog.

Posts about Ann Cleeves at DJ's krimblog: includes reviews of all the Vera Stanhope series.

A few thoughts about the Dagger shortlists

As usual late to the party, the shortlists for the "Specsaver ITV3 crime and thriller Dagger awards" have been announced today (approx). ITV3's web page for what they call the "bestseller" award is here, where you can see videos of the nominees Martina Cole, Dick Francis, Nicci French, Alexander McCall Smith and Harlan Coben. Tough call – I'm tending to Nicci French but possibly Harlan Coben might sneak up on them. I am not sure at this stage whether these awards are for a particular book or for a body of work by these authors. I suppose I'll have to go and watch some of those videos to find out.

By the way, the same ITV3 web page contains a video "hall of fame": Ruth Rendell, Lynda La Plante, P D James, Colin Dexter, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin all talk about their novels. Tempting for the next time I have a spare half-hour (probably never).

Perhaps more interesting than "bestselling" is the CWA Gold Dagger prize, for the "crime novel of the year". The shortlist for 2009 is:

Kate Atkinson: When Will There Be Good News? (Black Swan/Transworld)
Mark Billingham: In the Dark (Little, Brown)
Lawrence Block: Hit and Run (Orion)
William Broderick: A Whispered Name (Little, Brown)
MR Hall: The Coroner (Pan Macmillan)
Gene Kerrigan: Dark Times In The City (Harvill Secker)

Of these, I've read only The Coroner and Dark Times in the City, and I am completely stumped as to which I'd choose if I were a judge as they are both fantastic crime novels. I suppose I will have to read the other four now. I really enjoyed Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, so perhaps I'll soon embark on When Will There be Good News, not least because, surprisingly, she is the only woman author on this shortlist.

Fishing in Utopia, by Andrew Brown

Fishing in utopia I just visited Amazon, as, I have to admit, I often do. On the first page where they show you all these books you might want to read (where there are usually quite a few I find hard to resist), I spotted one which seemed at first glance to be an outlier. (By which I mean being offered a gardening book because you recently bought Red Leaves by Thomas H. Cook.) The book concerned is called Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, by Andrew Brown, published by Granta in May of this year. Here's the blurb:

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Sweden was an affluent, egalitarian country envied around the world. Refugees were welcomed, even misfit young Englishmen could find a place there. Andrew Brown spent part of his childhood in Sweden during the 1960s. In the 1970s he married a Swedish woman and worked in a timber mill raising their small son. Fishing became his passion and his escape. In the mid-1980s his marriage and the country fell apart. The Prime Minister was assassinated. The welfare system crumbled along with the industries that had supported it. Twenty years later Andrew Brown travelled the length of Sweden in search of the country he had loved, and then hated, and now found he loved again.

I'm rather tempted by this, especially as it is only £6.99. It sounds as if it is an interesting link between where Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo leave us in the late 1970s, and the present day. Sjowall and Wahloo's 10-book series, an excellent set of detective novels, presents a strongly opinionated view of the social developments in Sweden over roughly 20 years, from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s. As I've now only one book of the series left to read, Andrew Brown's opus might be a fascinating coda.

I am confirmed in my optimism by the leading Amazon review for the book, which is by Simon Clarke (no relation!), a regular commenter at this and other crime-fiction blogs. Simon (whose Amazon reviews are always a very helpful guide, I find) gives the book 5 stars and calls it a "wonderfully written, fascinating read".

Drawing a line in the sand of crime novels

In a Standpoint article, Crimes against Fiction, author and reviewer Jessica Mann explains why she will no longer be reviewing novels that contain "outpourings of sadistic misogyny" – a category that far from being a trend is, in her opinion, now a bandwaggon. She also notes that these books are not part of an anti-feminist backlash as some are written by women – one author quoted as stating that she is well-qualified to write this sort of book because girls grow up knowing that "to be female is synonymous with being prey". [No it isn't!]. Jessica Mann says, correctly, that authors must be free to write and publishers free to publish, but she is not going to review any more of this type of book. Good for her.

The Standpoint article was bought to the attention of many keen crime fiction readers by this post by Martin Edwards – and there is quite a discussion there and in this earlier post by Martin, Why so gruesome?, arising from Jill Paton Walsh's talk at the recent St Hilda's conference in Oxford. This conversation has continued at FriendFeed, where it has bifurcated into two parts (here and here).

One author cited in some of these discussions is Mo Hayder: she is a good example from my perspective because I am not sure if she goes over my personal 'line' in this respect, or not. Like many people, I was bedazzled by her debut, Birdman, while at the same time repelled by it. I thought parts of Tokyo quite brilliant (though other parts of the novel, particularly the last section, were weak): the description of the Nanking massacre was both horrific and yet worked in context (for me). [Coincidentally, Rafe McGregor today writes an excellent analysis of Tokyo and why it appeals to him.] On the other hand, I thought Hayder's Pig Island a mess – plot all over the place, tedious and unrealistic scenes on the island, badly written, clunky and sensationalist for the sake of it. Rafe McGregor disagrees – and that of course is the nub. What one reader finds unacceptable, another finds unproblematic or even appealing.

Looking at the question of gruesomeness from the other perspective, Karin Fossum is the opposite of sensationalist: her novels are written with a detached empathy. Her stories are extremely restrained, without any descriptions of injuries or information about post mortems, for example, and the narratives are simple ones. Yet her books are unbearably sad, featuring as they do the impact of the deaths of children or the tragic "Indian bride", told in unequivocal, unsentimental terms. I can well imagine some people finding these books quite unreadable, not for any gore but because of the intense emotions they evoke (I've cried while reading some of her books).

I like crime fiction because it is Greek tragedy in a (more) modern setting. All the classic elements of drama are present in a good crime novel, and the best of them show a massive disruption of some kind, and how a person or people come to terms with the challenges created by the disruption. That is what I find interesting – not the disruption itself. For me, if the event that drives the novel involves sadism, kidnapping, torture and other crimes against the weak and helpless, I'm closing the pages. (Also such plots are extremely boring and repetitive.) I've never been remotely tempted to read a novel by Chelsea Cain for this reason, though I am sure she's an excellent novelist and good luck to her. I've drawn the line under Michael Robotham, I am afraid, after reading Shatter, in which the villain forces a series of women to humiliate themselves publicly in various nasty ways, including driving them to suicide, by threatening them over the phone with the rape and torture of their teenage daughters, who he convinces the mothers he has kidnapped. For me, that book is beyond the pale – though again, many people like this author and good luck to him, too – but I shan't be reading him again.

I like a strong drama and I am not squeamish – Andrew Vachhs's novels are dark, addressing some of these issues of entrenched evil, and I enjoyed them. I would not agree with one commenter at FriendFeed who put Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo into Jessica Mann's no-go area. Even though this book contains some strong scenes, these drive the plot and are not endlessly repeated in ever more inventive ways. 

The books I dislike are those in which the main "interest" is some perverted person (usually a repressed man who had a bad relationship with his mother and who is locked in some inner fantasy world which we, the reader, experience in italics) stalks and murders several other people – this is boring (and cliched). This is why I didn't like Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris very much - and I am sorry to admit, Inger Ash Wolfe's The Calling - and, I suppose, why I don't read "true crime" with its associated prurience, banality and cod psychology. The mind of the killer, and lovingly detailed descriptions of inventive murders, just are not interesting to me.

Book review: Just Take My Heart, by Mary Higgins Clark

Heart Succumbing to a bank holiday offer of Just Take My Heart, Mary Higgins Clark’s umpteenth novel, at half-price in Borders, I spent a few happy hours in what I knew in advance would be an enjoyable and absorbing read. Mary Higgins Clark is completely reliable in delivering a suspenseful story about an independent heroine, an ordinary woman who has had to overcome personal tragedy and who is confronted by evil in some shape or form – which she faces and resolves according to her own wit, integrity and doggedness. These books are about fundamentally decent people – perhaps unrealistic, but always uplifting and guaranteed to raise the spirits.
Just Take My Heart is no exception. It tells the story of Emily Wallace, whose husband was killed in the Iraq war three years before the novel opens, and who is now a prosecutor. She is given a career-making case to try – that of Gregg Aldrich, a theatrical agent accused of killing his estranged wife, a renowned actress. The case is apparently open and closed, and much of the book is a traditional courtroom drama, with each side calling witnesses as the case plays out. The stronger her case, however, the less convinced is Emily that Gregg is guilty.
Various other typical Higgins Clark themes run through the novel – Emily is being stalked by a serial killer who lives next door and who has developed an unhealthy obsession with the attractive young lawyer. Emily’s boss, Ted, may be invited to take up a senior post in the new US President’s administration, so against her will, Emily gets caught up in manipulations and office politics. And of course there are a range of minor characters involved in the wealthy East Coast social scene from New York to New Jersey and Cape Cod.
The tension builds up as the jury returns a verdict – which far from achieving resolution, seems to throw up a whole new set of problems. Eventually, Emily realises she must look into the victim’s distant past in order to find out how she was killed – at the same time, understanding how she herself needs to accept her own husband’s death in order to move on with her own life.
Mary Higgins Clark delivers to a formula, but it is always superior formula, and I enjoyed this novel, like all her previous ones, very much. (I’m not so keen on her short stories or collaborative efforts.) Even though the solution to the mystery doesn’t seem to be that important, and the 'heart' theme perfunctory, the heroine, through sheer decency and honesty, with a dash of intelligence, comes good in the end, and the reader is right behind her, every step of the way.

Ann Pettifor interview in The Times today

Ann In today's Times (Business section) there is an interview with/profile of the marvellous Ann Pettifor. It is the best article I've read in the Times today, so I am sharing it here. She is someone with intelligence, originality, practicality and vision – rather a contrast with a weedy, bandwaggony moan from David Cameron in an earlier part of today's paper about the Lockerbie bomber's release (not worthy of a link, you can predict exactly what it says without needing to read it).

Ann Pettifor on the other hand has written two books about the global financial crisis (before it happened); she has things to say about our situation today and she is qualified to say them. She thinks that the economy is still in freefall and that politicians are being far too complacent about it – and thinks it is wrong that the British government has used billions of pounds of the taxpayers' money to bail out the banks without insisting on changes in behaviour. Instead, she says, this public money should be used to bail out small businesses and households facing bankruptcy, to stimulate the economy and pull us out of a depression.

Ann Pettifor is asked a lot of tough questions in the Times interview, and provides factual, specific, clear answers. How unlike a politician, government minister, banker or most pundits!  I urge you to read this article. (If you like what you read, sign up to Ann's Debtonation blog for her regular updates about the financial crisis.) We need more leaders and other influential personalities who are as ahead of the game as is Ann Pettifor – then there would be more hope for us. I'm voting for her as our next Prime Minister.