Book Review: The Last Child by John Hart

Hart  The Last Child by John Hart (publisher John Murray)

Thirteen-year-old Johnny’s twin sister Alyssia disappeared a year ago. Katherine, his beautiful mother, could not cope with the strain and has become a fragile, hysterical addict; and his father, wracked by guilt as he was late to collect the girl from school on the fatal day, abandoned his family in the aftermath. Katherine and Johnny are in their separate ways dominated by the tragedy – Katherine has retreated into a world of prescription drugs and alcohol, and into dependency on the abusive but powerful Ken Holloway. Johnny spends his time either looking after his mother, driving to the supermarket for supplies and making her breakfast as well as trying to keep Holloway away from her (at whatever cost to himself), or skipping school to search systematically for his lost sister with his collection of talismans and map of the neighbourhood.

An observer of this tragically broken family is Clyde Hunt, a local detective. He keeps an eye on Johnny, offering help when he can. Hunt, too, is plagued by guilt as he was in charge of the investigation when Alyssia was lost, but failed to find her. As a result of his subsequent inability to drop the case, his wife left him and his 18-year-old son now hates him. One theme running through the book is Hunt’s feelings about Katherine – many characters assume they are having an affair, or that Hunt’s refusal to drop the Alyssia case is because of his feelings for her mother – but in fact he is as much drawn to the serious, imaginative and brave boy of the family, and admires Johnny’s commitment to his search for his sister.

This slow spiral into misery and despair is disrupted when Johnny witnesses a fatal hit-and-run car accident. Before the victim dies, he says to Johnny “I know where she is”, which the boy takes to refer to his sister.  Not only does Hunt find himself investigating the crash but he is also searching for Johnny, who has run off to continue his quest, armed with his new scrap of knowledge.

The Last Child is a compelling story with many interconnecting threads – partly a traditional detective novel and partly a study of the emotional after-effects of a devastating occurrence on a family and those associated with them.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly the character of Johnny and the imaginary world and mission he has created for himself after his life was shattered and his realisation that he can trust nobody. Some parts of the plot work very well, others less so – but this book is an overwhelmingly good read, and it is certainly easy to forgive the inconsistencies and unlikely elements. In the end, two separate crimes have to be solved in order for the truth to emerge; even though the solution to Alyssia’s disappearance is not a surprise, its unveiling has real emotional power. And the journey of Katherine, from despair into something else, as she and Johnny gradually learn more of the truth and have to revise their assumptions, is very moving. As she says to her son, “There is always more to lose”;  this author conveys the impact of human loss with great empathy, while at the same time providing a page-turner with many satisfying overlapping elements.

The book has won much praise and some prestigious awards, including the Edgar prize for best novel 2010, and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for 2009. 

Read other reviews of this book at: The Guardian (brief); Washington Post; Musings of a Bookish Kitty; and a feature at Crime Watch (includes a link to excerpts from the book). 

Crime Scene Italy, latest addition to the series

Varesi  It has taken me a shamefully long time to read the latest Crime Scene Europe publication – on Italy. But now I have done, and what a fantastic resource it is – comprising both an interactive online version and freely available as a PDF download, a real bonus. The Crime Scene series surveys "the very best of the international crime writing scene, country by country. Each profile will collect the key facts, relevant figures, publishing trends, notable writers, crime fiction festival and prizes. And each issue will be put together by key figures: writers, bibliographers, or other experts active on the Crime Scene in question."

Crime Scene Italy is compiled by Gian Franco Orsi, and begins with a short history of Italian crime fiction – with a helpful asterisk for the titles discussed that are translated into English. The other main essay is on the Italian crime novel today, which has given me plenty of ideas for my reading list. The third main component is a set of resources, on the main publishers, websites, bookshops, prizes, festivals and more. Truly a fantastic summary, all in five (double) pages.

One book I'd like to read is Giancarlo de Cataldo's Romanzo Criminale, available in Spanish (soon), German and French already, according to Amazon, but no sign of an English version. I am also intrigued by another untranslated author, Guiseppe Pederiali, whose character Camilla Cagliostro is said here to be one of the best Italian female detectives. But there are plenty of suggestions of authors who are translated into English to keep me happy, including the book featured on the Crime Scene Italy cover – River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (MacLehose Press) – sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. A comprehensive list of Italian crime fiction is available at Euro Crime - click on the name of an author and you get to a list of his or her novels (if translated) and links to reviews of the books.

Previous Crime Scene publications have covered France, The Netherlands and Switzerland. So there is plenty to look forward to, not least Sweden, Norway and Spain….for a start, if the publishers are looking for suggestions.

Book Review: The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland

Maitland The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland, Orion 1994.

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise, then Bernadette of Reactions to Reading, encouraged me to try reading a novel by Barry Maitland.  He’s written a series about two police detectives, Brock and Kolla, so I decided to start with the first one, The Marx Sisters (not least because of the intriguing title).

The Marx Sisters focuses on a little pocket of London just north of Tottenham Court Road tube station, in which a few streets form a quaintly Dickensian relief from the modern architectural monstrosities around them.  In this small area, Jerusalem Lane, it is as if time has stood still: there is an old bookshop, a delicatessen, a small solicitor’s office and so on; people have lived in the area for many years and form a tight community of residents who know each other’s names and all about their business, going back to the Second World War when some of them emigrated to the UK. There isn’t a bank or estate agent to be found. The residents of Jerusalem Lane give the area its character – among them the titular sisters, three elderly ladies – one of them, Meredith, a widow, and the others, Eleanor and Peggy, spinsters who live in flats upstairs in Meredith’s house.  One day, the sisters reflect on how the area is changing, as many of the long-time residents are retiring, shutting down their businesses and leaving for the country. Two of them  go out for a regular outing, and when they return, the third has died. Is it a murder or is it a natural death?

Kathy Kolla is the detective sergeant assigned to investigate; and Chief Inspector Brock of Scotland Yard’s Serious Crimes Office, who has just closed a high-profile case, is, for reasons unknown to Kolla, assigned to help her. The two of them, Kolla more energetically than Brock, talk to the pathologist and to the victim’s family and friends – but although plenty of suspects and plausible motives emerge, it is hard to pin down how the old lady died. 

The novel is told in two parts – each part concerning one murder. The second section opens with Kolla being enlightened as to why Brock was assigned to her investigation, and she is not best pleased. However, she and Brock do like each other in an unstated way, and without knowing anything about their subsequent outings, I feel sure something will be going on between them before too long. And what of this particular book? It’s a competent novel – its canvas broadens considerably in part 2 as the reasons for suspicion (there are several distinct ones) and some of the minor characters in part 1 become more fleshed-out, most of them in rather interesting ways, not least historically.  In the end, though, it is Kolla’s short-sighted and to my mind unnecessary dare-devilness that provides one breakthrough, and, believe it or not, another equally (predictably) stupid action on her part that provides the decisive one. I enjoyed the novel, which seems to sit somewhere between being a classic comfortable detective story of the Agatha Christie mould that isn’t quite in the real world as we know it (as if the 1950s have been transposed directly to the 1990s), and being on the verge of something a bit darker and edgier. 

About this book at the author's website.

Amazon reviews of this book.

Book Review: The Neighbour by Lisa Gardner

Pb neighbour  A domestic thriller in the tradition popularised by Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay (even down to the white picket fence on the cover of the UK paperback, the edition I bought), The Neighbour is a tense thriller that's fast to read. The basic premise is simple and shocking: Sandy (Sandra), a teacher and 23-year-old mother of Ree, vanishes from her home one night, in some violent fashion after someone breaks in. Sandy's husband Jason is a journalist for the Boston Daily who works nights. He reports his wife's absence to the police a few hours after he gets home – and is singularly uninformative and unhelpful to the ensuing investigation.

Sergeant D. D. Warren is in charge of finding Sandy. She is highly professional and competent, not only in her organised strategy in the search, but also in her awareness of what will make evidence admissible or inadmissible in court - particularly in the case of the testimony of 4-year-old Ree, the last person (presumably) to see Sandy before she disappeared.

Not only is Jason a chief suspect, but a neighbour, Aidan Brewster, is soon identified as a registered sex offender and hence a "person of interest". When he was 19, Aidan slept with his 14-year-old stepsister. He's served 2 years in prison and is now working at the local garage. Quite a chunk of the book is taken up with showing Aidan's life and how his one bad act will always affect him in many practical ways as well as psychologically. Later on, a couple more characters are introduced: a 13-year-old schoolboy who seems infatuated with Sandy; and his uncle, a state trooper. Despite all these distractions, Warren and her team are most convinced that Jason is the perpetrator, and when it becomes clear to them that he's operating under a false name and has secrets to hide on his computer, they close in on him.

Although the pages fly by, I was not entirely convinced by this novel. The set up in chapter 1, when Sandy disappears, is a great hook but the denouement does not mesh properly with it: it's a bit of a cheat. Jason and Sandy both have deep secrets, and one kept feeling that if only they'd spoken to each other a bit during their 4-year marriage, they could have avoided a lot of trouble! (I also found it hard imagining Jason as a journalist.) Their little girl Ree is portrayed realistically enough but with that awful saccharine, Disneyfied way that is common in Hollywood movies, so I did suffer from cuteness overload as far as she was concerned. Nevertheless, putting these flaws to one side, there is lots to like in this book – D. D. is a great character, Aidan's plight is well told without sentimentality (although the focus of the novel is not on him, so I am a bit puzzled by the title), and there is genuine tension in the search to find and uncover the secrets in the computer near the end of the novel. 

Other reviews of this book at: The Madhouse Family reviews; Lesa's Book Critiques; Google book search (includes PW editor's review).

Author website, where I found that The Neighbour is the third in a series of books about D. D. Warren. The author has also written an FBI profiler series and several standalone novels.

Book Review: No-one loves a policeman, by Guillermo Orsi

Orsi No-One Loves a Policeman

By Guillermo Orsi, translated from the (Argentinian) Spanish by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press (Quercus), May 2010. 

Pablo Martelli, known as Gotán, is retired from the police force (“the National Shame”) in Buenos Aires, and is now selling bathroom fittings – though we witness none of this particular professional activity in this novel.  As the book opens, Gotán answers a late-night phone call from his old friend Edmundo, who asks him to come immediately to see him.  Edmundo lives 400 kilometres away on the beach at Mediomundo, near the town of Bahia Blanca. When Gotán arrives at his friend’s house, he finds him lying dead on the floor, shot. He calls the local police, but they insist the death is a suicide. He also calls Edmundo’s daughter Isabel, of whom he is fond. Isabel is distraught and says she and her mother (no longer married to her father) will immediately travel to the region to supervise the funeral.

While the shocked and grieving Gotán is waiting for the women to arrive, Lorena, Edmundo’s young girlfriend, turns up. This event is cue for Gotán to be plunged into a whirlwind of violent, confusing and increasingly dangerous events which continue in ever-widening circles of impact without rest until the novel’s end. First he suffers a bruising encounter with the local police; then he finds himself driving south with Lorena, who vanishes while he is in the bathroom at a desolate petrol station. Totally confused about what is going on, but determined to find out for his friend’s sake, Gotán refuses to be intimidated by various dangers, bizarre characters and events that happen with increasingly frenzied pace, pursuing his quest to get to the bottom of his friend’s death.

What makes this book stand head and shoulders over most novels of this genre is the mixture of black comedy and knowing cynicism through which the reader experiences the story, and above all, the setting. Argentina in December 2001 is melting down, as the currency collapses and the banks refuse to give savers their money. Riots are the norm on the streets of Buenos Aires, the “bloated hydra’s head” of the country, teeming with shanty towns built by once-hopeful peasants flooding into the city when their lands or jobs were taken from them; immigrants from other South American countries or from further afield; as 
Ar-map  well as thousands of striking or protesting citizens trying to live a “normal” life of work and leisure . All this is going on against a background of endemic evil – organised drug dealing, institutionalised corruption of every kind imaginable in all the professions (even hospitals are not exempt), family violence, sinister authorities, and extreme poverty – all of this gradually creeps up on the reader as what starts out as an apparently simple tragedy becomes more and more tangled with bigger-picture events going on in the capital and the entire, ruined land. Gotán himself provides a running internal commentary to the reader and to his cat of the events he is experiencing, in a country where “there are more supporters of the final solution than there are of Boca Juniors football club.”

As the characters of this energetic and blackly funny novel – including local police, an eccentric pathologist, a journalist, a magistrate and numerous quasi-military, police and armed factions of unknown origin – drive up and down route 3 between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca, as often as not blind drunk and falling asleep at the wheel,  Gotán finds himself similarly travelling back and forth in his mind to try to make sense of the nightmare he’s in, as well as working out strategies for his own survival. Bahia Blanca is on the edge of the pampas, the rich and vast farmland of Argentina, but increasingly exhausted, ruined by owners or left uncultivated. In the final chapters, events and geography continue to mirror each other as we move with the protagonists further down into the southern, windy deserts of Patagonia, where finally Gotán discovers what’s at the heart of all the madness, and we discover why he is no longer a policeman.

The novel contains a wonderful mix of characters (including the cat) who all have their own ways of dealing with the misery and cruelty all around them. The stories of poverty in the hospitals and the corruption of the government and police are particularly well-integrated in the plot of this exciting, absorbing book. The author is a journalist, and (unsurprisingly) a pretty cynical one, infusing his tales of tragedy with in-depth knowledge of current affairs but also sufficient humour and feeling that one is carried along to the end. The translation of the novel is masterly, in that the ‘running commentary’ that provides the framework for the plot, and that eventually merges into it, almost unconsciously gives the reader a vivid sense of experiencing events alongside the characters.  

The final chapters of the book go on for too long, with too many twists and turns of plot, necessitating occasions on which Gotán is attacked, captured, escapes or himself attacks others – and the other protagonists, some introduced right at the end of the book, are over-complex in motivation, rationales and actions — believability is somewhat sacrificed, not least in the illogical character of “Negra”. Yet at the very end, the novel returns to the core of the track it’s been on throughout: the strong basic plot of what happened to Edmundo and his daughter Isabel and why, together with the true story of how Gotán has come to be in a Patagonian mine with a woman who is after his life. It’s a powerful story, and a strong novel – one which I highly recommend.

“Argentina was like some huge, sleeping beast, a mythical elephant like those the ancients believed held up the world. It had just shaken off a president and all its ministers. It got rid of them because they did not know how to steer it, could only torment it with their absurd decisions on a journey to nowhere.  Today the beast was resting, digesting, occasionally regurgitating its favourite, its only nourishment:  madness.” 

Publisher's website

Guillermo Orsi was born in Buenos Aires, where he lives and works as a journalist. His previous novel Suenos de perro won the Semana Begra Umbriel Award in 2004.

Nick Caistor has translated many novels from the Spanish, including The Buenos Aires Quartet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban. 

I thank the publisher, MacLehose Press/Quercus, for so kindly sending me a copy of this book.

Crime fiction news from the Bookseller

There's quite a bit of crime-fiction news in the Bookseller last week (11 June edition), not least the "International English-language charts" for May, which show Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy at positions 1,2 and 4 in Australia; 2,3 and 6 in the United States; 2,3 and 6 in South Africa; and 1, 2 and 5 in Ireland. 
Hypothermia  Other crime novels that are doing well on this particular international scene are This Body of Death by Elizabeth George and 61 Hours by Lee Child (Australia); Innocent by Scott Turow and 61 Hours (United States); and The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly and Hard Girls by Martina Cole (Ireland). 

While on the topic of Stieg Larsson, there is a column by Lasse Winkler, the Swedish journalist who is said to be the last person to interview Larsson before the author died, about the possibility of a manuscript of a fourth novel. According to Winkler, Larsson left a draft of about 200 pages, together with synposes of some future novels in the series, on his (now-famous) laptop. His partner Eva Gabrielsson gave the laptop to Expo after the author's death, as most of the material on it belonged to the magazine. Gabrielsson says that this was the last time she saw it, and Expo says it is lost, or at any rate, they don't have it. According to Winkler, the laptop will "never surface" because none of the parties concerned wants it to fall into the hands of Larsson's official heirs, and Expo lost the bid for the Swedish film rights to the novels. I don't quite follow the logic, nor in fact do I care very much. Whatever does exist, if anything, won't be a finished novel and so isn't of much interest (to me).

Of some more interest, perhaps, is the third annual Book Video Awards competition, this time to make videos of The Snowman by Jo Nesbo, Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason, Blood Harvest by S. J. Bolton and Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy. Students at the National Film and Television School have been given £5000 each to make four 90-minute films, which will then be used to promote the books on YouTube and Amazon, as well as "fan sites". The public will be able to vote for their favourite video at Foyle's website during 
SisterSeptember, and the winner will be announced in October. (Random House and The Bookseller are sponsors of the award, along with Foyles).

Finally, in the panel of booksellers who provide a monthly round-up of titles they are looking forward to selling in upcoming months is a recommendation by Ruth Hunter (BookTime editor at Bertrams) of a book called Sister, by Rosamund Lupton (Piatkus), which looks good. Ruth writes: "Sister is a twisty thriller featuring Beatrice as she recounts how she sought the murderer of her sister Tess. Found dead in a park lavatory, everyone assumed that Tess killed herself after the stillbirth of her baby, but Beatrice is convinced she was murdered. With many literary references and an entrancing plot involving obsession, madness and genetic engineering, this is a realistic story with a satisfying, surprise ending." One to look out for. The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill-Paton Walsh is also recommended, by the way – this time by Sue Scholes, fiction buyer for W H Smith. The novel recreates Dorothy L. Sayers's character  Lord Peter Wimsey "with real style and intelligence…..A treat."

Finished reading a superb book, Winterland by Alan Glynn

Winterland I have recently finished what I confidently predict to be one of my best reads of the year, if not the best. It is Winterland, by Alan Glynn (Faber). A proof of the book was very kindly given to me by Karen of Euro Crime and my review has been duly submitted. It is one of those books that is hard to review without giving away a spoiler because the events in the opening few chapters kick-start the action in a way I'm glad I could work out for myself. My review will not contain any spoilers, of course. In the meantime, before the review is published, I thought I'd provide a few excerpts from other reviews of the book, devoid of any spoilers – but if you click through to read most of these reviews, you might well find out a bit too much about the book if you have not read it yet. (And if you haven't, I highly recommend that you do! It is a fantastic book and I certainly had the same experience while reading it as described by Glenn Harper in the extract from his review below).

Reviewing the Evidence: It's one of those books that immerses you from the start. Glynn tells his story in the present tense – and usually I'm fairly cynical about writers using this technique, as it often jars and seems overly precious. In this case, though, it gives the book an immediacy and makes you feel you're at Gina Rafferty's side all through (Sharon Wheeler).

Reading Matters: I love Irish literary fiction and I'm quite partial to the odd crime novel, so when I first heard that Alan Glynn's Winterland was described as "Dublin noir" I knew I'd probably enjoy it. I was right. This is a cracking story, brilliantly told and incredibly entertaining, and I bet it won't take long before the film rights are sold and we see it on the big, or possibly little, screen some time soon (Kimbofo).

Observer: He [Glynn] has conjured the unreal, transfigured character of Ireland's capital, with its claustrophobic nexus of shady politicians, corrupt property speculators and IRA-turned-"security professionals", as well as its yuppies, its thugs and its drab, lifeless, suburbs where housewives drink vodka and Coke. It's a portrait not too far off the real place, but exaggerated enough to make this an enthralling and addictive read (Mary Fitzgerald).

Independent: Although the credit crunch is causing the odd hiccup, the city of Dublin maintains its frenzy of property development. Walk through such areas as James Joyce's "Nighttown", and the working girls may still be there, but cranes now loom above the narrow streets, preparing the way for wine bars, coffee shops and upscale couture houses. But Dublin's basic identity seems to remain inviolable – and it is this struggle between the old and the new that powers some of the most provocative fiction in Ireland today. Interestingly, as Alan Glynn's Winterland comprehensively proves, it's crime fiction that throws up some of the most incisive evocations of this protean city (Barry Forshaw).

International Noir Fiction: It's a big, complex book handled by Glynn with grace and with considerable tension and forward motion (warning: this book is a compulsive reading experience once the story gets cranked up–you may want to set aside some time because you won't want to put it down, particularly at some key points starting from about halfway through). Threads of the novel lead to several endings, with a few hanging on beyond the end of the physical book (Glenn Harper).

Winterland is Alan Glynn's second book. The first, The Dark Fields, is being made into a film. There is a quote from reviewer and author Douglas Kennedy at Amazon: 'Alan Glynn's THE DARK FIELDS is that rare thing – a first novel of such great stylistic assurance and narrative energy that you immediately realize you're in the hands of a born storyteller. More tellingly, this dark, corrosive story of designer pharmaceuticals and high finance is a trenchant morality tale for our manic, avaricious times. This is a wild, compulsive ride into the greedy vortex of modern life. It is also an astonishing debut' – Douglas Kennedy. 

A book not for me, but liked by others

This is a hard post to write. I recently read or received two very enthusiastic reports of a novel from bloggers whose reviews and posts I enjoy very much – Material Witness and Random Jottings. The book? American Devil, a debut thriller by Oliver Stark. A bit carried away by such praise, but only skimming the reviews because I like to read novels without knowing the plots beforehand,  I contacted the publisher, Headline, to see if a copy was available. One was, and was very kindly sent to me. 

Here's my dilemma – I did not like the book. I stopped reading it 100 pages in, disgusted by four descriptions of murders of blonde,blue-eyed young women, and the post-mortem atrocities done to them. I really did not want to read any more from the point of view of the murderer: his sadistic impulses and his compulsive need to collect a different body part from each of his victims.The damaged cop who is the only man who can solve the case is an over-the-top cliche but at least bearable. However, when he is sent to see a psychologist for his anger-management issues and the psychologist turns out to be a blonde, blue-eyed young woman – well the next 400 pages loomed ahead of me like an insurmountable obstacle of boredom, as I could guess right there that we'd end up with the evil villain (who will turn out to have a 
Devilsubterranean lair and a stuck-together set of body parts, and have a split personality) kidnapping and torturing her, etc. (I didn't read on to find out if I was right, as I don't actually care whether I am or not.)

Obviously my views are not widely shared, but I just do not like reading books about psychotic killers who are so clever that they can evade detection so the reader can be "entertained" with descriptions of inventive, grisly murders of a set of people who aren't even characters, but who are introduced purely for the sake of being murdered or of having their body defiled. This is just not for me. 

It is my policy not to review books that I don't like, as I don't see the point. However, on this occasion the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, so I feel some sense of obligation to write about it. (I shan't be asking publishers for review copies again without finding out more about the book concerned first.) Quite a dilemma, as I don't want to be rude but I also can't lie in a review. 

So, the best I can do is to quote from some of the publicity material for the book (unread by me before embarking on the book): "A brilliant debut thriller from new British talent Oliver Stark. The American Devil is stalking New York's streets. Detective Tom Harper, one of the NYPD's star homicide detectives, is on the verge of losing his shield for striking a superior officer, when the city is left reeling by a series of brutal murders. Young socialites are being targeted by one of the most gruesome killers New York has ever seen and the top brass know that Harper is the only detective who has a chance of stopping the newly dubbed "American Devil" before he can strike again. With Harper already living on the edge, they [sic] have no choice but to appoint psychologist, and new profiler, Denise Levene, to oversee his return. Harper swiftly realises that Denise's professional expertise is invaluable to his investigation and their relationship changes as they begin to work together to find the killer."

Positive reviews of this book are at Material Witness and Random Jottings.

Author website. 

Publisher website.

Book Review: The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio

CarofiglioThe Past is a Foreign Country

By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis. 

Published by Old Street, 2007 (first published in Italy 2004).

Gianrico Carofiglio has written three excellent novels* in a series set in the Italian seaside town of Bari. The Past is a Foreign Country is also set in Bari but is not part of this series. The book opens with a chance meeting between the unknown narrator and a woman in a bar. The woman finishes her fruit juice, comes over to the narrator’s table and stands there. He does not remember her. She says her name.

This act brings back a flood of memories to the narrator, now revealed as Giorgio, who in the early 1980s was a 22-year-old law student, living at home with his parents (as is common for students in Italy), going out with an attractive but boring girlfriend, Giulia, and living a life of predictable routine. One night, Giorgio and Giulia are at a party at a friend’s house when Giorgio witnesses an attack by some drunken men on a fellow guest. He impulsively head-butts the main aggressor, and the men are subsequently thrown out. The man Giorgio has rescued introduces himself as Francesco, and the two become friends. Francesco introduces Giorgio to a far more exciting lifestyle than he could imagine – but as well as adrenalin rushes there are hints of darkness, hints that escalate into horror.

Interspersed with the story of Francesco and Giorgio is another narrative, that of Chiti, a young lieutenant in the carabineri (the Italian military police). He is charged with finding a man who has sexually assaulted several young women over the course of the past couple of years. Chiti is a lonely man, prone to debilitating headaches, an outsider both in Bari itself and to the culture of the carabineri, even though his father was also in the force. 

The book is a superb Italian version of the existentialist nightmare, as Giorgio becomes increasingly alienated from his parents, his studies and everything he knew. He feels himself being sucked into a vortex, but is helpless to resist its attractions. And in the counter-story, Chiti is a parallel version of the same dilemma of self, mortality and one's place in the world, but from a more subdued if no less nightmarish perspective.

Although The Past is a Foreign Country is in part a crime novel, it is also a fascinating psychological and philosophical character study, not pretentious or hard-going, drawing the reader into its web  as much for its atmosphere as for its plot. My favourite part in the novel was the closing chapters, when Giorgio meets his long-estranged sister and when we learn the background of the encounter in the bar which began the story.

* Involuntary Witness, A Walk in the Dark, and Reasonable Doubts.

About the author at Wikipedia and Bitter Lemon Press, UK publisher of the three series titles.

Book Review: The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson

Demon  The Demon of Dakar

By Kjell Eriksson, translated by Ebba Segerberg. Minotaur.

Dakar is a restaurant in downtown Uppsala, owned by Slobodan Anderson – a larger than life figure – and funded by very dubious money. Manuel is a youngish Mexican man. Two of his brothers have escaped the hard life of their village by becoming involved in an international drug-running ring. One of them, Angel, has been killed in Germany and the other, Patrico, has been caught and imprisoned in Sweden, so Manuel plans to find Patrico and bring him home. He sets off on his long journey with an innocent hope that seems bound to lead to crashing disappointment.

Eva Willman is a ground-down woman – she’s divorced her good-for-nothing husband and is raising her two teenage sons on her own. The family lives in a run-down apartment block, and as the novel opens Eva has just lost her longstanding job in the local post office as part of a national rationalisation programme. She wonders how the old people will cope in collecting their pensions, and whether they will be lonely – for many of them their weekly chat with “the post office lady” was the height of their social life. After being somewhat needled by her friend and neighbour Helen, Eva decides to follow up a suggestion made to her by Patrick, her elder son, and go for a change of career. His friend’s mother works at Dakar, and has heard there’s a vacancy for a waitress. After some doubts, Eva applies and, to her surprise, gets the job- which despite its meagre pay, she enjoys very much.

Eva soon has even more to worry about as Patrick does not come home one night. It is all over the news that a man has been wounded after being attacked by a gang of teenagers. To Eva’s shock, the police come round to her flat to ask about the boy’s whereabouts; Eva covers up for him, but is terrified that he’s involved in gangs and drugs, and roundly tells him off when the police have departed.

Ann Lindell and her team of Uppsala police soon have more serious matters on their hands when a body is found in a nearby river. The victim has had what seems to have been a tattoo removed from his upper arm, and this is the clue that begins the slow process of uncovering a drug-smuggling operation. The reader knows the identity of the perpetrator and the victim early on in the book as the police stumble around trying to connect up the dots. (This device is used effectively by the author in this and previous books.)

Manuel, in the meantime, has visited his brother Patrico in prison, learning more about the death of Angel and that Patrico’s “employers” (the dealers) had promised to send his family $10,000 for his role in the drug operation. Naturally, they haven’t come good on their promise, even though Patrico has remained silent throughout his trial and sentence. Manuel determines to find the men and force them to pay up. Again, we are convinced that this innocent in a strange country is bound to land himself in dangerous trouble by this plan.

As well as being a good thriller, this book has a great character – Eva. Her thoughts and actions within her little family, her neighbours in the grotty apartment building and among her new colleagues at Dakar are truly endearing and sharp, without being at all sentimental. Manuel, also, is an unusual and strangely attractive creation.

I enjoyed reading this book and seeing how the various narratives joined up, and how the police eventually cotton on to what is happening and try to sew up their case. I thought, however, that the initially promising character of Slobodan Anderson, the “drug lord”, turned out weakly  – he seems to tread water for a large part of the book rather than dealing with his situation, which seems to me incompatible with his “drug baron” status. That’s a minor flaw, though – The Demon of Dakar is a very good, rounded read. It is best enjoyed after reading the previous titles in the series  – so far available in English are The Princess of Burundi and The Cruel Stars of the Night , though there are earlier novels that have not yet been translated. The three that have so far been translated into English are American editions; there is not (yet?) a UK publisher for these books.

Read other reviews of The Demon of Dakar at International Crime Fiction and Mysterious Reviews.