Alphabet in crime fiction: Isaacs

IBefore there was Janet Evanovich or Desperate Housewives there was Susan Isaacs, an author I discovered quite by chance when I noticed a then-just-published bright yellow Penguin paperback with the intriguing title of Compromising Positions. Published in 1985, almost 10 years before the first Stephanie Plum book, the novel was like a breath of fresh air, unlike anything I had read before. The plot concerns a suburban housewife, Judith, who is bored and stifled by the domestic grind. When a local dentist and "stud" is found murdered, Judith's life takes on a new purpose as she determines to solve the crime – not least when she discovers that several of her women friends (supposedly happily married mothers) have been captured photographically by the dead man – in the compromising positions of the title.

This was a very funny book, and I'd be interested to know if it was the first of the genre of "wisecracking, domestic, comic mystery" as one blurb has it. Maybe it would not seem that original now, but I loved it at the time. I read most of Susan Isaacs' subsequent books, most of which I enjoyed a great deal. Although the protagonist is invariably a strong female, she varies her themes, from crime to romantic to historical, usually with a refreshing, funny touch. One exception to the humour element was Shining Through, a World War two romantic spy story, a good book which was made into a (reputedly) awful film with Michael Douglas. Other books by Susan Isaacs that I've enjoyed were Lily White, a crime thriller about a lawyer amid the privileged Long Island set; After all these Years, about a woman whose husband leaves her after their silver wedding party and is subsequently found murdered; and Magic Hour, murder and romance in The Hamptons.

I lost touch with Susan Isaacs' novels a few years ago until this crime-fiction alphabet series caused me to check out the author's website, where I see that there are three I haven't yet read. Maybe I will, or maybe I would no longer enjoy this lightly amusing, satirical lifestyle type of book. Either way, I think Susan Isaacs is a funny and talented exponent. 

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Book reviews 2010

Book reviews 2010

The Girl with the Crystal Eyes by Barbara Baraldi

Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay (Petrona, May)

Never Look Away by Linwood Barclay (Petrona, October)

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (Petrona, October)

Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett (Petrona, January)

Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista (Petrona, April)

The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard (Petrona, May)

Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton (Petrona, January)

Blue Heaven by C. J. Box (Petrona, July)

Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce (Euro Crime, July)

The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri (Euro Crime, April)

Shadowplay by Karen Campbell (Euro Crime, October)

Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta (Petrona, April)

The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio (Petrona, June)

The Missing by Jane Casey (Petrona, February)

Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang (Petrona, August)

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex

61 Hours by Lee Child (Euro Crime, April)

Worth Dying For by Lee Child (Euro Crime, October)

The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark (Petrona, May)

Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave (Petrona, October)

Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves (Euro Crime, January)

Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves (Petrona, August)

Caught by Harlan Coben (Petrona, May)

Play Dead by Harlan Coben (Petrona, August)

The First Rule by Robert Crais (Petrona, May)

Willing Flesh by Adam Creed (Petrona, August)

Captured by Neil Cross (Euro Crime, January)

The Last Fix by K. O. Dahl (Petrona, April)

The Man in the Window by K. O. Dahl

The Woman from Bratislava by Leif Davidsen (Euro Crime, May)

American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea (Petrona, August)

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai (Euro Crime, August)

The Dragon Man by Garry Disher (Petrona, August)

Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher (Petrona, October)

The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall (Petrona, September)

The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards (Euro Crime, February)

The Cruel Stars of the Night by Kjell Eriksson (Euro Crime, February)

The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson (Petrona, June)

In the Wind by Barbara Fister (Petrona, June)

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Petrona, July)

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (Petrona, August)

What to do When Someone Dies by Nicci French (Petrona, March)

Complicit by Nicci French (Euro Crime, May)

At Close Quarters by Eugenio Fuentes (Euro Crime, April)

The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Petrona, August)

The Neighbour by Lisa Gardner (Petrona, June)

Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Petrona, January)

This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (Petrona, June)

Vodka Doesn’t Freeze by Leah Giarratano (Petrona, July)

Black Ice by Leah Giarratano (Petrona, October)

Winterland by Alan Glynn (Euro Crime, July)

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton (Petrona, September)

Murder on Page Three by Ella Griffiths (Petrona, January)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Petrona, February)

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (Petrona, May)

Money to Burn by James Grippando (Petrona, May)

Inspector Cataldo’s Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciaradi (Petrona, April)

The Disappeared by M. R. Hall (Euro Crime, January)

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah (Euro Crime, March)

The Last Child by John Hart (Petrona, June)

Far Cry by John Harvey (Petrona, June)

Gone by Mo Hayder (Petrona, October)

Tell Tale by Sam Hayes (Petrona, September)

Blood Sunset by Jarad Henry (Petrona, January)

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Petrona, May)

Death in Oslo by Anne Holt (Petrona, January)

Any Man’s Death by Hazel Holt (Petrona, September)

Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland (Petrona, June)

Silent Counsel by Ken Isaacson (Petrona, September)

Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn (Petrona, August)

Dead Like You by Peter James (Euro Crime, June)

The Pull of the Moon by Diane Janes (Euro Crime, May)

The Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Euro Crime, June)

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly (Euro Crime, June)

The Last Ten Seconds by Simon Kernick (Euro Crime, March)

B-Very Flat by Margot Kinberg (Petrona, April)

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg (Euro Crime, March)

Rupture (aka 1000 Cuts) by Simon Lelic (Euro Crime, April)

About Face by Donna Leon (Euro Crime, January)

Where the Dead Lay by David Levien (Petrona, February)

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Petrona, July)

Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli (Petrona, June)

Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli (Petrona, August)

The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland (Petrona, June)

Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Petrona, August)

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell (Euro Crime, March)

Affairs of State by Dominique Manotti (Petrona, April)

Supreme Justice by Phillip Margolin (Petrona, June)

Che Committed Suicide by Petros Markaris (Euro Crime, May)

Red Wolf by Liza Marklund (Euro Crime, October)

Tooth and Claw by Nigel McCrery (Euro Crime, January)

The Rising by Brian McGilloway (Euro Crime, April)

All The Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney (Petrona, September)

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (Petrona, August)

Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer (Petrona, January)

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer (Euro Crime, April)

Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski (Petrona, July)

Still Midnight by Denise Mina (Petrona, April)

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe (Petrona, June)

Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe (Petrona, July)

Hit by Tara Moss (Euro Crime, August)

Audition by Ryu Murakami (Petrona, October)

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Euro Crime, April)

Woman with Birthmark by Hakan Nesser (Euro Crime, February)

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser (Euro Crime, August)

The Twelve by Stuart Neville (Petrona, July)

Twisted Wing by Ruth Newman (Petrona, May)

Midnight Cab by James W. Nichol (Petrona, September)

The Dinner Club by Saskia Noort (Petrona, May)

A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (Petrona, August)

Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn (Petrona, October)

Like Clockwork by Margie Orford (Petrona, January)

No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Petrona, June)

Havana Red by Leonardo Padura (Petrona, August)

The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer (Petrona, February)

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pinerio (Petrona, February)

The Complaints by Ian Rankin (Petrona, June)

The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell (Petrona, June)

Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath (Euro Crime, July)

Experimental Heart by Jennifer L Rohn (Petrona, October)

The Vault (Box 21) by Roslund-Hellstrom (Petrona, January)

Three Seconds by Roslund-Hellstrom (Euro Crime, September)

Last Light by Alex Scarrow (Petrona, February)

Afterlight by Alex Scarrow (Petrona, July)

Bunker by Andrea Maria Schenkel 

My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Euro Crime, May)

Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Petrona, September)

The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Euro Crime, February)

Cop Killer by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Euro Crime, August)

The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Yours Until Death by Gunnar Staalesen

Truth by Peter Temple (Petrona, January)

Snow Angels by James Thompson (Petrona, March)

The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt (Petrona, January)

River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (Euro Crime, September)

Water-blue Eyes by Domingo Villar (Petrona, May)

Silence by Jan Costin Wagner (Petrona, October)

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (Petrona, March)

The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson (Euro Crime, March)

An Empty Death by Laura Wilson (Petrona, September)

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong (Petrona, March)

A Certain Malice by Felicity Young (Petrona, April)

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh (Euro Crime, April)

See all my book reviews – complete archive.

My book reviews 2009

My book reviews 2008

My book reviews 2007

Finished reading Truth, by Peter Temple

I have just finished reading a proof copy of Truth, the latest novel by Peter Temple. The book will be published in the UK by Quercus on 7 January 2010, so my review will appear here in the new year. I'm still reeling from reading this book: a few excerpts might help to show why, and to whet the appetites of any eagerly awaiting readers.

Di Palma offered his hand, Villani shook it. Then he shook Orong's treacherous little hand. He left the offices, walked down the cool and self-important corridor. From the walls, the dead watched him pass, they had seen many a coward come and go.
In a short time, he was on the street, orange sun behind the haze, looking for Finucane, unaccountably thinking about the first horse Bob raced, the best horse he ever had, the lovely little grey called Truth who won at her second start, won three from twelve, always game, never gave up. She sickened and died in hours, buckled and lay, her sweet eyes forgave them their stupid inability to save her.

A hot north-west wind on their faces, another blocking system was idling out in the southern ocean. Two long valleys ran from the north-west towards Selbourne, the main road down one of them. The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a ten-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith's reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to sliver flowing liquids and buckled steel.

He switched off his lights and went to the window. Below, the bright ribbons of traffic. Across the road, the dark of the school and its grounds, the botanic gardens. Then, far away, the gloss of the highways, and, in the sky, gleaming in the clouds, the full luminescence of the huge city.

Peter Temple is Australia's most acclaimed crime and thriller writer – the only author to have won the Ned Kelly prize five times. The Broken Shore won the CWA Gold Dagger, as well as several other prestigious awards. Peter Temple is South African by birth and lives in Ballarat, Australia with his family. Truth his his ninth novel. He is also author of the Jack Irish series: Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and (yet to be published in the UK) White Dog. Other novels by Peter Temple are Shooting Star, In the Evil Day and An Iron Rose. Without exception, they are wonderful.

Read more reviews and articles about Peter Temple using Crime Fiction Journeys, created by Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.

Liking, not liking; dogs, angels and misery memoirs

Crime fiction has featured in the "loving/not loving" readers' column of the Bookseller in the past couple of weeks. In the 20 Nov issue, David Headley of Goldsboro books is loving Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn (Macmillan New Writing). He writes: "This is one of the best literary thrillers I have read in 2009……From the very first page this is a shocking and gripping novel and a cinematic tour de force, a terrifying crime novel. I read it in one sitting." It's on my shelf to read. The book he's not loving isn't on my shelf, though: The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell (Little, Brown). "I used to enjoy Cornwell's strong and unique style but I am no longer excited by what is going to happen next." I quite agree.

This week's (27 Nov) column is by bookseller Celia Leary of Victoria Park Books. She's loving Gone by Michael Grant (Egmont): "A cross between TV's 'Heroes' and Lord of the Flies". One of my daughters enjoyed this novel very much. She is not loving Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (Gollancz): "The characters are very two dimensional, the plot was pretty obvious, and for a book set in the south of America it had a real lack of diversity". (I don't quite get that particular point? Isn't there diversity everywhere not just in "the south of America"?)

I was amused by another piece in this week's issue claiming that "women readers are turning to angel books as the appetite for misery memoirs declines". Yes, apparently there are hordes of people that liked reading about people's awful childhoods, but because of the current state of the world they are now all reading books about angels instead. Believe that if you will (I don't think I've ever read a book about either) but I did love this quote from Asda book-buying manager Steph Bateson: "We are still seeing misery working but there are fewer mis-mem titles and more angels books. Dogs is [sic] another crossover – a book that combines mis-mem, angels and dogs is our perfect paperback." (Words fail me! I'd be too busy running away.) The article concludes that angels are "being tipped" to follow vampires as "the next big thing in paranormal romance", a genre that is said to be "mutating". Crime sounds a lot safer to me!

The most reviewed books in the UK press this week were The Passport by Herta Muller and The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell. Here are a couple of review snippets. The Passport: "attains the epic ponderousness that defines recent Laureates" (Daily Mail); "elegant simplicity in the great tradition of German storytelling" (Times). The Scarpetta Factor: "The series has picked up a lot….it's not so much the cases being worked I like but rather the relationship dynamics" (Daily Mail); "All the worst aspects of the series' recent instalments: jerky prose; relentless acronyms and brand names; the baffling, repetitive dialogue" (Guardian).

Thinking beyond the Borders

Much ink and many electrons are being expended in the wake of the confirmation that UK Borders is entering administration, after a day yesterday of announcements and denials. Predictably, many of these articles and comments have gone beyond the fact of the Borders news, predicting all kinds of apocalypse for chains, physical bookshops, print books, authors, you name it. The Book Trade information service sums up articles in The Guardian, The Independent, and by Susan Hill (an author and small publisher) in The Spectator, thus:

A double ecology is evolving. Discounted bestsellers from big publishers are being sold in supermarkets, not shops like Borders. But a vibrant and more interesting trade is taking place in smaller shops. People who want to buy serious books can still find them; people who want to write are not without hope of finding a publisher. The electronic book might change everything, of course: margins on ebooks are already greater than in print. But good publishers, and creative retailers, will surely adapt to that too.

Susan Hill has stopped publishing adult fiction because whereas a novel might have sold 2,000 copies in hardback ten years ago, nowadays it is lucky to sell 500 and most sell far less. As an example of the economics of publishing, she mentions a good non-fiction book by a well-known author on a subject of interest to many, which has sold a mere 48 copies in its first couple of months of publication.

It is true, as the authors of these articles and many others state, that a smallish number of "top selling" celebrity ghost books, cookbooks and one or two others, and an equally smallish number of (mostly poor quality) fiction is both skewing the entire publishing/bookselling industry and is subject to a discount "price war" involving each other, Amazon and the supermarkets. I've observed that, for example, W H Smith couldn't (more or less – £5 per title) give away many copies of the current hardback nonfiction list over a weekend, making me wonder how much longer people will be prepared to buy books written on behalf of celebrities recycling half-digested pap, or yet another book filled with painted, sprayed, pretend "meals" full of ingredients that nobody buys to be cooked by methods that nobody has time to undertake. Fine to leave all those to the supermarkets, in my view!

Leaving aside the digression of the "bestsellers", I think there are quite a few factors and features that aren't being taken into account in the articles I'm reading in the news media and on blogs.

First, Borders is coming under attack for selling "non-profitable" DVDs, CDs, stationery, magazines and for hosting coffee-shops. But W H Smith and Waterstone's, (now) the main two UK book chains, do just the same. WHS in particular has turned around its business over the past few years, in part by drastically reducing its book stock in favour of in-store coffee shops, phone shops, post offices (that don't stock bus pass renewal forms, but will exchange your money for other currencies), computer accessory centres, etc. Similarly, in Waterstone's you can have coffee, lunch, dinner and book your holiday, as well as buy stationery, magazines, christmas gifts, calendars, souvenirs, etc. So this can't be a prime reason why Borders has got into trouble. (All three chains have cut down a lot on their DVD and CD stock over the past few years.)

Second, many of these commentators seem to think that e-readers and digital books are threatening to wipe out print books. They won't. There are situations in which digital "books" are useful – in education, as service manuals (eg when the person comes to service my boiler he accesses the latest-edition manual on his laptop), while travelling and so on. It's also confounding the argument to bring e-readers into the equation, as dedicated e-readers may be a temporary technology. As computer screens improve, when Apple produces its famous tablet, people will read books, magazines, news, watch films, etc using these devices when it suits them – as a few do now on their mobile devices or on e-readers. They'll probably still read print books on the beach, in the bath, in the hospital, while telling good-night stories to their children, and in a host of other situations.

Third, one reason why Amazon, perhaps the biggest threat to booksellers even though it only accounts for 15 % of UK book sales, rose so rapidly is that it filled a niche that customers wanted  – limitless stock of everything in print – but that booksellers themselves had not been able to fill because of local competition, technological innovation beyond their expertise, the organisational and logistical challenge, etc. Nowadays booksellers are using the internet more innovatively, for example the independent bookshops network (customers can order online and pick up their title from their nearest independent in the network, as discussed for example in this Petrona post back in 2006), and Waterstone's online. Nobody's online stock matches Amazon's, of course, partly because of Amazon itself and partly because of its marketplace network. Which, of course, enables a tiny local bookshop in Hereford or Salisbury to let me find out about and then sell me an out of print book which they have in stock second-hand. There is every reason for "physical" independent booksellers to do more online innovation and collaboration.

Fourth, publishers are in a time of uncertainty about digital formats and rights management. However, they all have long out-of-print backlists to which they own the rights, and many of them are digitising these to make them available print-on-demand. This is leading to new models of book publishing and selling, as well as writing. An author who will only sell a couple of hundred titles rather than a couple of thousand is a far smaller risk to a publisher on the print-on-demand model rather than the print-run and distribute to bookstores model. And the Espresso machine can only increase the options for publishers and booksellers. To a large extent, once these technologies are perfected (many of them are, or are nearly), it becomes more an issue of marketing than anything else - reaching your market by some other way than a publisher paying a physical bookseller to be "deal of the week" or part of a "three for two" offer.

Finally, one good aspect of all of this is that we still read lots of books, in whatever format. I read an article the other day in which the point was made that the industries and companies most vulnerable to collapse are the ones that focus on doing just one thing and doing it superbly. Those that survive are the ones that are good at looking around them. (A restatement of Darwin's argument that the species that survives is the one that adapts best to its environment.)  I think that there is still plenty of lateral thinking that can be applied to the writing, production, selling and, indeed, reading of books.

A short review of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

TGWTDT The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a powerful book which combines a strong story with haunting characters and a crusading message. Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist, publisher and co-owner of the independent magazine Millennium, loses a libel case bought by magnate Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, so takes leave of absence to enable the magazine's survival. Mikael is astonished to be summoned to meet the reclusive millionaire Henrik Vanger, who asks Blomkvist to solve the long-ago mystery of his granddaughter Harriet's presumed murder, in return for an irresistible reward. Vanger has had Mikael checked out by a detective agency which has hired Lisbeth Salander to hack into his computers. Lisbeth is an emaciated young drop-out, a ward of court unable to control her own finances or manage her own life, but she's drawn to Mikael and he to her. Aided by Lisbeth, Mikael pieces together the complicated Vanger family relationships while Lisbeth is shockingly persecuted by her guardian and enacts violent revenge. Eventually, the two of them come close to discovering what happened to Harriet, only for Mikael to find himself in great danger as a result.

TGWPWF In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander returns undercover to Stockholm some months after the climactic events of the previous book. Three brutal murders occur on one night. Lisbeth, the only apparent link between all the victims, is the prime suspect and becomes the focus of a national police hunt. Although a fugitive, she refuses to be victimised or to cooperate, and sets out to find out the identity of the killer(s) so she can deal with them herself. Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of Millennium magazine, is also investigating the murders. Two of the victims were colleagues and friends of his, and he's convinced that their deaths are related to their work in uncovering a massive scandal of prostitution and drug trafficking between Russia, Eastern Europe and Sweden. Even though she won't contact him, Blomkvist is convinced that Lisbeth is innocent and attempts to uncover other motives for the crime. The book is packed with incident, thrills, characters, rich details and plot revelations, reaching an emotionally draining climax of almost intolerable pitch.

TGWKTHN The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest begins directly after the dramatic finale of the previous novel, after which Lisbeth lies paralysed and critically ill in hospital, knowing that Zalachenko is nearby and trying to finish his malign task – while other forces are keen to try her for murder, label her as insane and send her back to the secure institution where she spent her unhappy adolescence – assuming she survives her terrible injuries. Lisbeth's enemies enlist the help of psychiatrist Peter Taleborian, whom she has good reason to hate, to silence her for good. Mikael, Lisbeth and her underground hacker friends form the online ‘knights of the idiotic table' and embark on wreaking all kinds of electronic havoc. As the date for Lisbeth's trial draws near, Mikael gradually comes to suspect the existence of a conspiracy he calls "The Section", and with his allies plans to best this coalition of "men who hate women" on his own terms, and liberate Lisbeth from her life-long brutalisation and oppression. Lisbeth, of course, has her own plans, if she can recover sufficiently to apply her own explosive form of justice. 

The Millennium Trilogy is published by Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, and is translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. Links in this post take you to my full reviews of each book at Euro Crime.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Howell

My contribution this week of H is a review of H The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell, her second novel, which  tells two connected, interweaving stories with a cracking pace and confidence. I enjoyed it tremendously, despite not being sure about it at first.
The book opens with Lauren Yates, a Sydney paramedic, almost running over an injured young man running across the road late at night. Jumping out of her ambulance to help, the young man and his friend hastily drive away. Lauren investigates the alley where the men had run from, and encounters a horrific crime in progress. What’s more, she knows the perpetrator, who is able to threaten her sufficiently to make her stay silent about what she’s seen.
Six months later, Lauren and her partner Joe are called to the scene of another crime, this time a street where a man, James Kennedy, has been stabbed. While the ambulance is racing to the hospital, Kennedy is able to say the name of the man who attacked him: the same man who previously threatened Lauren. Lauren therefore has a dilemma – she has previously lied in court at the inquest of the man murdered in the alley in denying that she saw the attack, yet she can’t withhold the name of Kennedy’s assailant from the police because Joe, her colleague, also heard it.
Lauren is one of the two main protagonists in this novel; the other is Ella Marconi, a police detective who is being investigated after events in the previous book by this author (Frantic). Ella is determined to prove herself so that she gets to stay in homicide, hence when she pulls the James Kennedy investigation she is determined to solve it. She’s stymied, however, when Lauren withdraws her evidence about the perpetrator.
I was in two minds about this book up to this point. I wasn’t impressed by the coincidence of Lauren being involved in two cases involving the same perpetrator, or with her dilemma of silence. Lauren is a competent and committed paramedic who has evidently shown plenty of resilience at earlier stages of her life. I didn’t find her vacillation very interesting to read about.
But luckily it doesn’t last long, as Lauren realises that she and her family can’t live with a threat hanging over them. After she comes clean with Ella and the police force, the book shifts a gear into overdrive, and continues at a breathtaking pace until the end. Katherine Howell has a great way of keeping up the action and tension, while also providing plenty of authentic details about the police investigation and the paramedics’ life of constant call-outs, tension and bravery as they repeatedly help the victims of accidents, attacks, and self-destruction.
The police investigation is compelling, with several different divisions coordinating various lines of enquiry as it becomes clearer that certain events must be connected. The question is, how? I really enjoyed the way in which witnesses were interviewed, phone records checked, and evidence gradually put together to build up a complete picture. The author is particularly good at interspersing chapters from the point of view of some of the less savoury characters without giving away to the reader how everything is related. And she presents really authentic characters in Lauren and Ella by showing the reader glimpses of their home lives, their families and how they deal with everyday and not-so-everyday domestic tensions.
Although this is the second novel by Katherine Howell, you don’t have to have read the first to enjoy it (I haven’t). It seems that the character of Lauren is new to The Darkest Hour, and one learns enough of Ella’s back-story not to feel one is missing out by not knowing all the events described in Frantic.
Above all, The Darkest Hour is written with confident and authoritative prose. The author is clearly very talented and I’m eagerly awaiting her next novel, Cold Justice.

I thank Crimefiction reader of It's a Crime! blog, and the publisher PanMacmillan, for my copy of this book.

Read a review of Frantic at It's a Crime!

Read another review of The Darkest Hour at The Guardian (review by Joanna Hines, but it is brief.)

The author interviewed at It's a Crime! after winning the Davitt award.

Author website.

Mysteries in Paradise, the home of the crime-fiction alphabet.

The crime-fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Observer interview with Maj Sjowall

The couple of recent magazine articles about Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy, one in Prospect magazine and the other in Vanity Fair, were rather disappointing: a mix of rehash of the already well known and not very well-informed opinion on the part of the writers. These articles, I felt, were more to do with their writers showing off their intellectual credentials (not, as it happens!) to their readers, than with conveying anything constructive about the appeal of these books and their author's story.

Completely different from these two pieces in almost every way is a superb piece in today's Observer (22 Nov), by Louise France, about Maj Sjowall. Although I know the 10-book Martin Beck series, written by Sjowall and her partner Per Wahloo during the 1960s and 70s, and have read several articles about the authors and their novels, I learnt a lot while reading it, and found it very moving.

Sjowall did not become rich by writing these masterful books; she lives in a small flat and cannot afford a car, but she's happy and "free" as she defines it. The article tells the story of Sjowall's early life, how she met Per Wahloo, and how they came to write the Martin Beck books. Louise France, a fan of the novels, is right to point out how they still hold up today as exciting, involving detective stories even without the internet, email, faxes, DNA profiling and mobile phones, because they rely on tight plots, characterisation and have a strong authorial voice. Or, as she puts it: "what makes the books so compelling? There's something inherently honourable about them, something to do with the meticulous research that went into each one before it was written, and the frail humanity of the characters. They display, say critics, a relevance and timelessness that is the mark of all good fiction. The deceptively simple style is both sparse and dramatic – an accomplishment all the more remarkable when you think that the books were written by two people. "We worked a lot with the style," explains Sjöwall. "We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books. We wanted the books to be read by everyone, whether you were educated or not." People tell her that the Martin Beck series marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading. "They picked them up off their parents' shelves when they were teenagers and discovered a love of books." "

When they first met, Sjowall and Wahloo enjoyed reading the same type of detective fiction, those that had taken the genre out of the drawing room and onto the streets – Hammett and Simenon, for example. For their own novels, "Their aim was something more subversive than what had gone before. "We wanted to describe society from our left point of view [says Sjowall]. Per had written political books, but they'd only sold 300 copies. We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer." They planned 10 books and 10 books only. The subtitle would be "The story of a crime" – the crime being society's abandonment of the working classes. The first plot came to them on a canal trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. "There was an American woman on the boat, beautiful, with dark hair, always standing alone. I caught Per looking at her. 'Why don't we start the book by killing this woman?' I said." " That idea, of course, became Roseanna, the first book in the Martin Beck series.

Did the society that Sjowall and Wahloo feared come to pass? "Yes, all of it," she replies. "Everything we feared happened, faster. People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming."

There's lots more in this excellent article, so I do recommend reading it. Perhaps, if you haven't read any of these novels, it might encourage you to try one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

See also: Maj Sjowall interviewed at the WSJ.

Reviews of the Martin Beck novels at Euro Crime, including several by me.

Book review: The Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

Translated by Patrick Camiller.
If  the Swedish authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, writing in the 1960s and 70s, are often held to be the parents of the modern police-procedural crime novel, then the Spanish Manuel Vazquez Montalban, writing a decade or more later, is held to be as significant for detective fiction. So much so that the author Andrea Camilleri named his Italian police chief Salvo Montalbano after the Spanish writer, sadly now deceased.
In THE SOUTHERN SEAS, written in 1979 but not translated into English until about 20 years later and published by Serpent's Tail, private detective Pepe Carvalho is commissioned by the wife of a missing millionaire businessman, Stuart Pedrell, to find her husband after his disappearance a year ago – assumed to have departed for a new life in Polynesia. That is, until his body is discovered in a run-down tenement block in a run-down area of Barcelona.
The bulk of the book concerns Carvalho’s interrogation of everyone connected with the life of the dead man, in an attempt to discover where he has spent the missing year. Carvalho has to don many personae in this process, involving him as it does in highbrow literary and metaphysical debate as well as dealing with the advances of the dead man’s nubile daughter. Unfortunately, I somewhat parted company with the book at this point, as books in which older men “take advantage” of vulnerable young women (however “inappropriate” their behaviour) make me cringe. In this case, I found it hard to sympathise with Carvalho’s (or any of the male characters’) self-indulgent and selfish attitude to women, which is Neanderthal.
There is charm in Carvalho’s refusal to toe the line to the health police, and his almost self-enforced, mechanical enjoyment of as much food and drink as he can ingest or imbibe. I also liked the images of post-Franco Spain, a country struggling to find a future in the fantasies of Communist ideology. And the investigation, during which the dogged Carvalho refuses to tell anyone, even his employer, what he has found out until he eventually gets to the truth, is admirable and, in the end, poignant.
There is something cold about this book, particularly its attitude to women—not only Pedrell’s daughter but the dead man’s young activist girlfriend and Carvalho’s longstanding female “companion” (a prostitute) seem to my eyes to come in for undeserved sneering. Even Carvalho’s manic and vast consumption of food and drink conveys none of the sublime appreciation felt by Camilleri’s Montalbano. I admire the plotting and the intellectual depth of the book, but I couldn’t warm to it.

Read about this author and his books at Serpent's Tail, the publisher's website.

Review of Tattoo, another novel by Montalban, by Mike Ripley at Euro Crime.

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New UK paperbacks in February 2010

Finally, just in time for this week's issue, I have caught up with my archive of Booksellers. From the 23 October issue comes news of the paperbacks that will be published in the UK in February 2010. 
Among the predicted "top sellers" are Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child (Bantam, £7.99), which opens with Jack Reacher suspecting a woman on the New York subway of being a terrorist. For me, these books have become somewhat mechanical, but the Bookseller calls this "one of his best" and says that the next one (the 14th) is even better. Other predicted top sellers are Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid (Sphere, £6.99), a fast paperback publication for this novel about an internet stalker of teenagers; John Connelly's The Lovers (Hodder, £7.99), about Charlie Parker's childhood; and Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (Abacus, £7.99), a series that I've enjoyed but am about three behind.
Moving to the "major sellers" category, we have The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (Pocket, £7.99), his follow-up to the amazingly successful Child 44; and The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Black Swan, £7.99), not strictly a crime title, being "an epic American novel of Boston in 1918/19, of strikes, poverty, racism…..action-packed and violent…", etc. Its release has been delayed from 2009 to coinicide with the film of Shutter Island.
Perhaps more interesting than any of these are some titles from the "more normal" categories, including The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Orion, £7.99), apparently "a pastiche of an Agatha Christie-style English country murder mystery, only our detective is a precocious 11-year-old girl". This book has received tremendously positive reviews in many places.
Titles I can highly recommend on the basis of having read them myself (links go to my reviews) are: After the Fire by Karen Campbell (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99); Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (Pan, £7.99); Skin and Bones by Tom Bale (Preface, £7.99), Close-Up by Esther Verhoef (Quercus, £7.99); Shadow by Karin Alvtegen (Canongate, £7.99); and The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (Vintage, £7.99) – winner of the International CWA Dagger for 2009.
Titles I haven't read but have heard good things about include Dead in the Water by Aline Templeton (Hodder, £7.99); Death Watch by Jim Kelly (Penguin, £7.99), War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson (Serpent's Tail, £7.99); A Visible Darkness by Michael Gregorio (Faber, £6.99); Angel with Two Faces by Nicola Upson (Faber, £7.99) and The Hidden Man by David Ellis (Quercus, £7.99). These are just a few selected titles, there are plenty more! (Including TV or film "tie-in" editions of three more of Henning Mankell's books, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane – which must be a leading candidate for my prize for the novel with the worst "cheat twist" I've ever read.)