Guillermo Orsi wins the Hammett prize 2010

Holy city  Thanks to Euro Crime and The Game's Afoot, I am delighted to learn that Guillermo Orsi has won the 2010 Hammett prize for his novel Ciudad Santa (Holy City). Not yet published in English, but from the publisher's website (courtesy of the mad Google translate):

"A politician is executed in the light of day in a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. A beauty queen seeks help from a lawyer who has been widowed twice shot. A cruise of tourists stranded in the muddy River Plate: the food is served to a band of kidnappers. Among the tourists, a Colombian drug baron and her lover are the main attraction.
A collector of human heads meantime reveals two policemen locked in a duel that will have little to do with the law and even with their loyalties and deceptions.Buenos Aires, as a canoe full of fugitives from successive disasters, browsing aimlessly through a sea without beaches or horizons.This drift is the raw material with which Guillermo Orsi builds its Holy City, seductive, violent …shocking.

With a cast of characters to remember,Holy City is the absorbing and breathtaking novels of a country that, when everything seems to have been said and even though it pretends obvious silence, speaking through their dead."

Sounds brilliant! (Read a more sanely put account of the book at Reuters website.)  One assumes the translation into English, when it happens, will be a bit more subtle. 
OrsiAlthough Ciudad Santa has not yet been translated, I recently read another book by this author, No-one Loves a Policeman, translated by Nick Caistor (more elegantly than the above, I have to say!), publisher Maclehose Press/Quercus. I very much liked this book, stating in my review: 

"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."

If Ciudad Santa is as good as No-one Loves a Policeman, it will be very good indeed. I hope that those of us who have to rely on translations for non-English-language books won't have too long to wait.

Weekly Geeks: Shiny book syndrome

Having spent what seems like years (but it can't be) reading "Weekly Geeks" posts on various blogs I subscribe to, I thought I would give it a go, and so subscribed to the Weekly Geeks blog. Even so, I seem to have missed this (last) week's assignment, which is about "shiny book syndrome". [No 24, 2010.]

SBS, writes Tara SG, is "when a person only wants to read their newest book and leave piles of poor unread books on their shelves to collect dust.What can you do to alleviate the symptoms?" Her solution is a mixture of spreadsheet and undertaking specific reading challenges.

Mine? Well, I have to confess I don't suffer from the syndrome exactly. Although I do have several hundred 
Hyland ukbooks on my shelves to read (literally), I'm just as happy to read a blank-covered proof copy, a second-hand mass-market paperback, or (shuddering slightly) one with a glossy bloody hand on the cover. To me, I read the book independently of looking at it, and relatively independently of when I obtained it – though the books I acquire as a result of reading blog reviews do tend to have shorter lead-in times. 

I have a school exercise book in which I write down each book as I've read it, with a code M, F, D, T, which stands for male, female, debut, translated. I like to even up these categories over a year or so, so each quarter I add up the numbers (writing a blog post about it) and if there are too many in one of the four categories I will prioritise some from the other categories to read next. (I have plenty of options in all four!)

Sometimes I am given books, either by Karen of Euro Crime to review for her website, or by publishers. I try to prioritise those according to their publication dates (if I have actually asked for the book from the publisher, if I haven't it is in the same queue as the others).

Recently, I have read Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland, a proof with a blank, monotone cover. I loved it, and even though I would love to have read the actual UK edition with the beautiful blue cover, I would not (could not) have enjoyed the contents any more than I did. When I read The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri, I was a bit disappointed to be reading the US edition instead of the UK edition as I love the Picador covers of this series. But again, it made no difference to my enjoyment of the book itself. And 
Sphinxby one of those strange coincidences, I passed on the US edition after I had read it, and a week or two later the publisher kindly sent me the UK edition directly! I'm very lucky.

So, in conclusion, I am conscious of the cover of a book and I do very much like to read a book that has a cover I like, even if the appearance has no effect on when I choose to read the title, or how much I enjoy what lies between the covers.

(This is a "weekly and a half geek" post, I reckon.) 

Woodcutter, Lifeblood and Black Sheep in The Times

So, I continue with my self-imposed task, started last week:

Now that The Times has made its online content subscription-only, I thought I might provide readers of this blog with a regular update of books reviewed in the Saturday Review section, which I read in print each weekend (usually Sunday morning). I don't subscribe to the online version of the paper, though I do buy and read the print edition each day except Sunday.

Saturday's (17 July) Times featured a round-up of crime novels (last week was thrillers, as The Times 
Woodcutterdefines them). Marcel Berlins has about 500 words to review three books: 

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins, £17.99 – a publisher owned by the publisher of the Times). This is an "outstanding novel of force and beauty", according to the reviewer. The plot sounds very convoluted, about a business tycoon and "vengeance, betrayal, sexual obsession, fraud, espionage, miscarriage of justice, pornography, many deaths, dysfunctional English families and a black woman prison psychiatrist". Sounds a rich mix (and I wonder why the colour of the psychiatrist was mentioned?). The verdict of the Times reviewer: "far fetched and the characters a touch exaggerated, but 
Lifeblood  Hill's elegant writing, erudition and imagination make such reservations seem petty."

Lifeblood, by N. J. (previously Natasha) Cooper (Pocket books, £7.99), is the second book to feature forensic psychologist Karen Taylor. I reviewed the first in the series, No Escape, for Euro Crime. In this novel, Taylor believes a recently released prisoner will reoffend, and is proved right (and her superiors wrong). "Excellent tension, and convincing psychology, especially about the power relationships between rapists and their victims" writes Marcel Berlins.

Bank of the Black Sheep by Robert Lewis (Serpent's Tail, £7.99) is the third of a trilogy (I have a copy of it, kindly sent by the publisher, but had not realised it is part of a trilogy). It's said by the Times to be "viciously funny…for the goodish reason that the Welsh private eye is soon to die of cancer……..bleak, witty, engaging, curiously moving and an absolute delight to read."

In keeping with my fascinated horror with the "Saturday Review" overall, I'll briefly mention the composition of the rest. Two whole pages of an extract from "Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor", being republished 40 years on. I have to say I was absorbed by this extract from the book that inspired 
Bank  Mad Men (the author is an advisor on the series) – even though I began watching Mad Men series 1 some time ago but could not bear to continue with it after the first few episodes. I just could not bear to watch the way women were treated in those days, even though I realised it was satire, and very beautiful, and all that. It just made me sick, sorry. The book does look good on the basis of what was in the Times, though my experience of buying books on the basis of extracts is that the extract is the best bit (often by a long way).

There is a whole-page article about Louise Bagshawe, author of "women's commercial fiction" (a.k.a. chick lit) and now a Tory MP; two pages about ugly architecture and Milton Keynes, archetypal ugly town ("born ugly" I always think); a Q/A with TV starlet Honeysuckle Weeks, late of Foyle's War (another failed experiment of mine) and about to attempt Eliza Doolittle on stage; a double-page spread of pop record covers; and an interview of a woman doing for Italy what Peter Mayle did for Provence (or trying to). 

The main book review of the week is that of midget Peter Mandelson's memoir, as if Times readers aren't sick to death of him (if they weren't already) after three days of extensive extracts taking up pages of the main paper (including the entire front page twice), followed by two days of more pages taken up with hypocritical shock at how upset the Labour party is at what he said in it. I ask you – who wouldn't be upset at the way the Times presented the contents of the book? (Publisher again is HarperCollins, say no more.) A couple of interesting books are reviewed, one about China's population and another a novel about the discovery of Pluto. A couple of "Gothic" children's books are briefly reviewed – White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick and The Glass Demon by Helen Grant. In the various little brief blurbs scattered among all this is one by (?) Tess Gerritsen, who is asked what she's currently into in this week's "they're reading" column. She picks "The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus", a travel memoir by Justin Marozzi, who followed the same journeys as his subject. "I've long been obsessed with Herodotus", writes Tess Gerritsen – whose latest book has just been published in the UK, as noted in the column (not published by HarperCollins, though).

Book Review: Afterlight by Alex Scarrow

, by Alex Scarrow (Orion, May 2010)

What would Britain be like 10 years after the oil has run out? This stark question is the basis of Afterlight, a crackingly absorbing thriller. The novel is ostensibly a sequel to the author’s Last Light, but you don’t have to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one, even though the same family, the Sutherlands, is at the centre of the story.

Afterlight is set at a time 10 years after the “end of oil”, interspersed with flashback chapters about the days and weeks immediately after this climactic event, told in Last Light, when civilised society as we know it collapsed. The “10 years on” story focuses on a small community who scratch an existence on a defunct gas/oil rig off the Norfolk coast. The surviving members of the Sutherland family have made their way there and live with a few hundred others, mainly woman and a few older men. They manage to be self-sustaining by growing plants, keeping chickens and doing lots of fishing. One of the men has rigged up a generator producing methane from human and chicken excrement, which provides a few hours of power each evening. The group lives simply, everyone making a contribution, sleeping crammed together on the various rig platforms: occasionally, a few of them sail to Bracton, the (fictional) coastal town nearby, for supplies from the abandoned shops and warehouses.

In the “10 years ago” sections, we learn the bare outline of how the Sutherlands ended up on the rig. This part of the novel, however,  mainly focuses on one of the government-designated areas for people to collect in the event of a disaster, the ex-Millennium Dome. The Dome is the only one of these areas left, owing to Alan Maxwell, the civil servant in charge, only letting in a fraction of the number of refugees that he was told to in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He’s used some clever tactics learned during his time as a history teacher to keep control of his mini-society in the ensuing years, but he is acutely aware that the supplies laid in 10 years ago are in danger of running out.

The first third of the book establishes what passes for the norm in this strange new world. The plot is kept taut by a commendable lack of sentimentality – no character is exempt from the authorial sentence of disaster or death. Hence, when a small group decides to leave the rig and cycle to London on the basis of a rumour that a new government has begun to re-establish order, we know that it is highly unlikely everyone will reach this destination. Similarly, we can be pretty confident that the social structure on the rig is unlikely to hold for very long, and it’s obvious even to those who don’t know their Ancient History that the management structure of the Dome’s population is highly unstable. 

The author is not simply interested in a Steven King-like schlokfest, thankfully, and nor is he interested in providing the reader with a survivalist’s handbook approach to post-apocalyptic life – though there are brief encounters with groups who have found these “solutions” to the anarchic chaos of the new world. Although characterisation isn’t the author’s strong point, he is very good on human psychology as well as plot pacing, and this is where the book fully comes into its own, as the tension increasingly builds up to breaking-point – while at the same time presenting and exploring outcomes of alternative societal values – young vs old, male vs female, passive vs active, religious vs athiest, etc.

Afterlight is a real page-turner, which just gets better and better. It’s written in an easy, accessible style and has some attractive protagonists who you’ll be rooting for while at the same time knowing that they aren’t all (or even any of them) going to make it. It’s this ability to create a nervy, paranoid atmosphere, together with a relentless pace, and a focus on individuals’ thoughts and actions rather than on spectacle, that makes this novel just a great way to spend the two or three hours it will take to read it. It’s a far superior book to Last Light, not least because the author has jettisoned the James Bond elements that for me were a weak spot in the earlier novel, and has focused on the drama of people and of society.

In a post-script, the author writes: “This was a chance to see what a world without oil looked like…I’ve imagined it as being a relentlessly hard life of grim endurance, where every day is a constant reminder of all the little luxuries we once had, and lost…So this book has ended up being less about railing against our evil, greedy, consumer ways and more a swansong to those times…[The characters] ache for that old world. They pine for it.

Afterlight has certainly turned out not to be a manifesto for the hardcore survivalists out there. It’s not a celebration of anti-consumerism nor a yearning for a simple smallholding lifestyle. Sorry, that’s just not me. But, what it is – just like Last Light was – is a warning that we can’t go on consuming the way we’re doing now. ..Tough times ahead. Tough decisions ahead…and it’s unavoidable…The sad thing is, even though I’ve had my head in ‘Peak Oil’ for years and written these two books, I’m just as childish and selfish and shortsighted as anyone else.”

Read other reviews of this novel at: Material Witness (the blog that encouraged me to read this author's books – thank you!) and The Northern Echo. There are several enthusiastic but very brief paragraphs of approval on various book (mainly science-fiction) blogs. 

Afterlight at the author's website.

Reviews of the earlier novel, Last Light, at: Petrona, Material Witness, Reactions to Reading.

The Silence: BBC TV drama

Extraordinary news – I've watched a TV programme over the past two or three evenings, due to an unusual combination of no football, no Prof Petrona, daughters busy doing other things, and not being impressed enough by current reading for it to keep me awake for a whole evening.

So, based on some good reviews in the paper during the week and with some technical assistance with the iPlayer (a new experience on me), I watched the BBC's four-part series The Silence, and rather enjoyed it – the first two episodes anyway, before it slipped into predictability. The plot is that the 18-year-
The silenceold, deaf  Amelia witnesses a murder while walking her uncle's dog in the park. The uncle is a senior detective in the Bristol police, Jim Edwards. Amelia is staying with Jim and his family while she undergoes therapy for her recent cochlear implant. Before she witnesses the murder, she sees the victim, a policewoman, having sex with a boxer at a local gym. She is so terrified by her experience that she does not tell anyone. Jim is a workaholic and brings CCTV tapes home of another investigation he's working on. Because Ameila is deaf she's jolly good at lip reading, so looking over Jim's shoulder while he's watching the tapes, she speaks out loud what the people are mouthing. This makes Jim realise that the case is linked to the murder in the park. His dilemma is that he suspects police corruption, so does not want to reveal to his colleagues that his niece is a witness as this would put her in danger, or that she has seen the tapes as this would compromise that investigation as well.

The positive aspects of this series are overwhelmingly the acting of Douglas Henshall, who plays Jim, and Genevieve Barr, the deaf woman who plays Amelia. Amelia's psychological relationship with her condition, together with her fraught relationship with her mother, are excellently portrayed, as is the whole "teenage condition". 

The downsides are the usual "beautifully designed TV lifestyles" of everyone and the cliched character of Jim's wife, overplayed by Dervla Kirwan in a way that reminded me of a marshmallow; the number of coincidences which if you stop to think about it is very silly; the length – two episodes would have been far better than four; the police complaints woman who looks like all those other suited, lipsticked-to-death TV detectives who surely bear zero relationship to reality; and the ending which threw in as many new (and blindingly obvious) ideas as it could in the last 15 minutes and then didn't do anything with any of them. (Oh, and while I am about it, the baddies were exceptionally stupid in the end, having been marginally cleverer than the impulsive and short-tempered Jim for the previous 3.75 episodes, but pretty comprehensively bettered by the cooler, more thoughtful Amelia.) 

Well, that seems like quite a lot of downsides. Even so, I did enjoy it: perhaps because the first two episodes were far superior to the last two, I was sufficiently mellow to forgive all the latters' laziness and cliche. In sum, a reasonable enough way to pass the time if you don't have anything better to do, but my TV-watching experiment has not convinced me that I'm missing anything much by not doing it and reading books instead.

The Silence at the BBC website, with various links including to the iPlayer version, good for a few more days on the TV and for about 3 weeks on your computer, I believe, if you are in the UK.

About The Silence at Douglas Henshall's website, including lists of cast, crew, episode guides, etc.

Reviews of The Silence at The Guardian blog (positive, mainly about deafness), HeraldScotland (negative), The Telegraph (mixed), The Arts Desk (mainly positive).

Book Review: The Twelve by Stuart Neville

The twelve The Twelve by Stuart Neville (Vintage)

In this impressively gripping debut novel, Gerry Fegan is living a miserable life after serving a prison sentence for terrorist murders. Released as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, he’s ravaged by guilt and haunted by the people he killed, spending most of his time in a drunken stupor. The only solution that occurs to his tortured mind in order to get any rest is to do what the ghosts are telling him and kill the people who helped him to murder them. This book tells the story of how Fegan embarks on his self-appointed grim task.

The best parts of this book, for me, concern the transition from a region in which criminal activity was passed off as an acceptable part of a fight for freedom, to one in which those same criminals have had to find a niche in a post-conflict Northern Ireland. Some of them go mainstream and become politicians and the like; others pretty much carry on as before with the same brutal behaviour; while others drift around without a clear role for themselves, and no skills to take part in constructing a future. There is a moral clarity to the author’s writing about these aspects, which I liked very much.

Although I began reading the novel with little interest in the advertised dispatch of fellow-criminals by one of their number, the simple and direct writing style (this is definitely an "easy read"), together with a good pace, drew me in. I was quite absorbed in the first half of the novel, and although I was pretty sure at the outset that everyone in it was doomed, there were some glimpses of possible salvation in the shape of a woman who, in the past as much as the present, had refused to conform to the expected behaviours of the day despite considerable pressures and threats of various kinds. She, together with her young daughter, gives the book life and spirit against a relentlessly grim collection of individuals ranging from the cynical to the worst kind of criminal.

Sadly, the last quarter of the book veers sharply downhill. The author could have taken the narrative in various directions as Fegan nears his end-game. To my mind, he took the least interesting one, which also involves a lot of explicit, nastily imagined violence. Other crime novelists, such as Gene Kerrigan and Brian McGilloway, have incorporated the awful recent history of Irish politics into their books, demonstrating the lasting impact on people and society to the reader without making this the main focus. Stuart Neville takes a much more full-on approach in The Twelve. It’s an interesting one but one that, perhaps due to the emphasis on narrative rather than character, I found unsatisfying – not least because I felt the author backed-off from following his premise to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, the book is easy to read (if extremely unpleasant, particularly in the last section), and I can see why it has enjoyed so much success. Perhaps in his next novel, the author will be more ambitious with his characters, making them deeper in their promising yet not fully delivered emotional scope, as well as going the full way with his plot.

This novel is the third of three that I recently purchased on a "3 for 2" special offer at Waterstones. The other two are Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and Black Water Rising by Attica Locke.

Read other (rave) reviews of The Twelve (US title – The Ghosts of Belfast) at: Euro Crime (review by Mike Ripley); The Observer; The Guardian; Crime Scene NI; Mysteries in Paradise; International Noir Fiction

Spiral is back for a third series later this year

Ever since the online version of The Times has been converted to paid-for, the print edition keeps featuring interesting articles to which I'd quite like to link. The new subscription-only website does not let you even create a link to an article without registering, which I am not going to spend time doing just to find out whether or not linking is even possible (some publications allow you to read an abstract free, others don't even do that).

So, I write here about an article on page 47 of the print edition on Wednesday (14 July) all about Engrenages (Spiral, though a literal translation is "Gears"), the French TV series which is jolly good 
Spiral  indeed. Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD in subtitled versions, and series 3 will be broadcast in the UK "later this year". I was first alerted to the existence of this series by Euro Crime, and have never looked back since. I do, however, recommend either watching these filmic series on DVD or recording the episodes and watching them more frequently than once a week, to keep up with the convoluted plots.

The Times feature is by Sarah Hay, and describes her experience watching part of the new series being filmed. She calls it "France's answer to The Wire" for its "complexity of its characters, realistic depiction of Parisian life and biting portrayal of the French judicial system". If the depiction of Parisian life is truly "realistic" then the city would never attract any tourists – this is the Paris of Dominique Manotti, not the Paris of Gene Kelly or Coco Chanel. I should also add in all fairness that the three main characters: the policewoman, her main antagonist and the prosecutor, are all extremely good-looking. 

From The Times piece: "In Engrenages, viewers follow Captain Berthaud, a workaholic cop played by Caroline Proust, as she tumbles between the gritty underlay of Parisian life and the Kafka-eque corridors of justice, where ambition and intrigue thrive. Standing between Berthaud's team and resolving their cases are Pierre Clement, the handsome, idealistic deputy prosecutor; Judge Francois Roban, whose doddery 
Spiral2appearance hides a sharp instinct for unveiling conspiracy; and the deliciously unscrupulous lawyer Karlsson. In series three the web of storylines tightens until a nail-biting denouement, hinting at corruption that reaches to the very top." (Sounds just like series 1 and series 2, then.)

Among other revelations in the article, we learn that red-headed Audrey Fleurot, who plays the unsavoury Karlsson, has a role in Woody Allen's next movie (currently shooting in Paris), and that a real-life lawyer recently gave a press statement on behalf of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, using the phrase "C'etait un engrenage") – a title which Kerviel used for his book. 

Like The Wire, the criminal plot lines are created by an experienced police superintendent, who says that all the situations in the TV series are based on real cases. Viewers who can't speak French and rely on the subtitles are often in the same boat as native French speakers, because the dialogue is full of argot and police insider-slang. The pace, the secondary characters, everybody is guilty and everyone is losing the plot, the sidekicks and, of course, the main characters – these, according to The Times, are the factors that make this series such a delight and why I am so much looking forward to series 3. (And the good-looking actors, of course!)

Official series website.

Engrenages at Facebook

Euro Crime posts about Engrenages.

When is a crime not a crime?

In my recent post about two new books, Purge and one with a rude title*, I and some of my lovely commenters were having a discussion on a frequent theme: whether these books are "crime", "literary", either or neither. They have both won prestigious literary prizes, yet both have crime themes, and one of them, Purge, is being compared explicitly with Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which is certainly "crime" rather than "literary". All rather puzzling.

Although I am no fan of squeezing books into genres, I nonetheless frequently find a lack of comprehension among "normal people" when I tell them I read mainly crime fiction (a bit like the puzzled reaction when you tell someone who isn't a blogger that you have a blog). I suppose that "normal readers" assume that "crime fiction" equals blood, guts and gore, with explict descriptions of murders? Or that one exists solely on a diet of Agatha Christie? I don't know, but I thought I'd create an archive of books – classic novels that were written before the genres were invented, and which if they were written now would or could be marketed as crime; and modern novels that could be or have been sold with the crime-fiction tag but in fact are "novels" on a range of rich themes, rather than clearly "crime" books (such as written by Michael Connelly), or "thriller" (such as Lee Child). All of these have a place in my own personal reading repertoire, so I assume (?) I use the adjective "crime" as a shortcut to exclude commercial fiction (eg chick lit), other specific genres (eg horror, sci fi), and high literature.

I appreciate I am going to come across some grey areas, but never mind – I hope people will help with contributions to these lists, whereupon I'll make a page that I can update with new additions (as I do with my book review archives by year, and my book reviews by country).

Category 1: Classics that would or could be classified as "crime novels" if published today (arguably!). I omit books that have detectives in them and that are primarily about (solving) a crime, eg The Moonstone – though I allow Bleak House.

Jane Crime and Punishment
Bleak House
Our Mutual Friend
The Woman in White
Therese Raquin
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
In Cold Blood
Brighton Rock
Jane Eyre
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Lord of the Flies
Animal Farm

Category 2: Modern novels that have crimes in them, or are about the effects of crime, or have been sold or promoted as "crime fiction", but which are not "crime fiction" in the sense of Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. That is, if they had been published 50 or more years ago, they'd just have been "novels". 

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
A Secret History by Donna Tartt

ShreveThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn 
Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Broken by Karin Fossum 
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Lost in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Unless by Carol Shields
The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve
A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne
We Have to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

What do you think of these lists? Any suggestions?

*Title given in linked post but avoiding writing it again because I don't want to attract unwelcome traffic.

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark places Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Phoenix/Orion)

Twenty-five years ago, a poor farming family in Florida was massacred, the only survivors being two of the children, Ben, the eldest, and Libby, the youngest. Libby was taken in by her aunt who lived in a nearby trailer park, but was so delinquent over the ensuing years that the woman finally threw her out when Libby killed the family dog (by accident, apparently). Now in her early 30s, Libby has lived with a succession of foster families before ending up in a grotty apartment. She’s never worked and drifted through life, still traumatised by the past, surviving on donations from the public and the royalties of a ghost-written “autobiography” of the killings. She’s so un-knowing that she does not realise she has to change the sheets on her bed occasionally, although she does own, and drive, a car. As the novel opens, the helpless and (in her own words) unpleasant Libby is told that her money has run out.

Simultaneous with this news, she receives a letter offering her money to come and talk to a group about the massacre, a prospect that seems better to her than getting a job. Libby’s brother Ben, who was 15 at the time of the deaths, was tried and convicted of the murders. It turns out that this group consists of a medley of obsessives who have pored over the case rather like detectives, and come up with a range of theories for who was really responsible – none of them Ben. Partly in a desire to “earn” some money, and partly as a reawakened need to remember the events and find out what really happened, Libby agrees to see her brother in prison and keep the group informed as to what she finds out. She also finally begins to go through the boxes of possessions from her childhood, ostensibly to sell as souvenirs, but in fact an action that triggers old memories and uncovers some contradictions.

The novel is told in alternating chapters: one set a flashback to the long day of the murders, and the other Libby’s present-day perspective of what happened then and how she feels about meeting her relatives and old associates of the family again, after so many years of isolation. In the flashback chapters, we learn of the extreme poverty in which Patty, the children’s mother lived. Patty had inherited the family farm after her parents died, her sister Diane not being interested and leaving home as soon as she was old enough. At first, things went well but soon Patty found herself with immense debts acquired while farming was a reasonable business but, by the slump of the mid-1980s, no way to pay them off. At the same time, she’d married Runner, a dropout loser, who had left her after fathering four children, Ben and three younger girls. During the flashback sequences, we discover (too) much about the 15-year-old Ben’s sexual awakening, excessive details about his less than salubrious activities with some deviant older companions, and about his alienation from his family – all providing a plethora of alternative suspects.

Dark Places, like its predecessor Sharp Objects, is a full-blown Southern melodrama in which restraint does not figure. Characters are at the mercy of their considerable emotional drives, often combined with low intellect, and are constantly scrabbling around to escape from the poverty trap by any means possible. It’s hard to sympathise with any of them, apart from Patty, whose struggles to keep the farm going and do the best by her children make her the only principled character in the novel. The fact that I found the characters unlikeable and non-admirable (education and self-reliance don’t feature much if at all), in addition to the seemingly endless details about bodily functions and unhygienic actions, did not help me to engage with this novel. It isn’t a bad book by any means, but in terms of a crime plot it certainly stretches credibility in too many ways (and breaks at least one genre “rule”) as Libby finds out what really went on that night in 1985 and why those still alive behaved as they did in the subsequent years. 

Some counterbalancing views: 

'Gutsy thriller of one woman pitted against her murderous brother.' WOMAN & HOME
'In a brilliantly interwoven plot, Gillian Flynn keeps the reader balanced on a knife-edge' TANGLED WEB 'Gillian Flynn is a great writer, equally able to ratchet up the suspense as create memorable characters and pervasive moods. This is a great and original piece of rural noir.' CATHOLIC HERALD

Other reviews: Michael Carlson (at the publisher's website); Material Witness; Reviewing the Evidence (review by Craig Sisterson) – all very positive, so I am in the minority view. I didn't hate the book, but it did nothing much for me and I was quite bored by half-way through (though I did finish it).

What to read, or what not to read

Although I am annoyed with The Times today*, there is one comment and one article that I thought worthy of note. The comment is in a column by "sensible lady" Libby Purves. The title of the column is "Our trigger-happy reaction: blame the cops". The piece opens:

"The Raoul Moat affair reminds us how hard it is to deal with people unafraid to use their powerful weapons, impervious to the feelings of others, violently touchy about their own reputation and who harbour an irrational grudge against the police. I refer, of course, to large sections of the media and blogosphere".

Spot on, say I. Substitute the word "police" above for "scientific establishment" (publishers, research institutions, etc) or "scientists", and the sentiment epitomises many scientific bloggers and many people who blog about scientific issues. Not all, thankfully, but a great number. It is most saddening. It's also fair to apply this same condemnation to much of the way science is reported in the media by professional journalists. Again, there are some rays of light (not least in The Times itself, which has a very good science editor), but in the main, it is depressing.

The article that took my interest has the derivative title "The girl with the knuckleduster rings", with the introduction: "She doesn't have a dragon tattoo but Finland's hottest crime writer will soon be as well-known as Steig Larsson" 

and "Sofi Oksanen's works have made her a runaway success in Finland and a heroine in Estonia, but she has been accused of "Russophobia" ". All not very original.  I have read a review of Purge (Atlantic) previously and decided it probably was not for me, but as I was on the train reading the paper anyway, I thought I'd read on in case there was any new information in the piece. It does not start well, opining that Larsson has a "Nordic rival in the publishing world; a younger, more "literary" author from Finland who is fascinated by themes of sexual violence, the repercussions of misogyny and the satisfaction of in-your-face revenge."  Oksanen has won many Finnish prizes for Purge, her third novel, as well as this year's Nordic Council Literary Prize, said to be the Scandinavian equivalent of the Booker. The novel has been compared to Atonement and The Reader, capturing the conflicts of the Second World War and the universal horrors that war inflicts on women. It is about a pensioner, and what she did to survive the arrival of the Soviets in Estonia in 1940, and a young Russian woman who is "trafficked" to Germany, escapes, and makes her way to the pensioner's home, where violent revelations occur. The Times feature-writer, Viv Groskop,  says that the tone reminded her precisely of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the way that sexual violence against women is graphically and horrifically depicted – a step too far, the writer seems to think. I will give this book a miss, based on this article. Although I don't mind such themes in the books I read, there was not much indication in this article that there were redeeming features or a real point to going through the experience of reading harrowing material. Stieg Larsson's trilogy, of course, did describe some violence towards women in a graphic fashion, but only a very small part of it, and the vast majority of the novels concerned campaigning and positive forces. Purge sounds unremittingly gloomy.

Grove Atlantic also publishes another book that has just won a prize (the Found in Translation award) but does not look as if I'll be reading: Pornographfia by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (winner of the prize). " Witold Gombrowicz wrote Pornografia after leaving his native Poland for Argentina in 1939 and then watching from afar as the German invasion destroyed his country. Translated for the first time into English from the original Polish by award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt, Pornografia is one of Gombrowicz’s highest regarded works—a richly imagined tale of violence and carnality set in wartime Poland." More here, but it is strong medicine – too strong for me. Maybe crime fiction is not as horrific as "literary" fiction, these days!

*I was somewhat shocked to see in today's Times, the entire front page and several (pp 7 -11, inclusive) inside pages devoted to a syndication of Peter Mandelson's memoirs – publisher, unsurprisingly, Harper Collins (same owner). Apart from anything else, the man is a midget whose opinions and accounts are of little interest. My main objection is that it is usurping the newspaper role to do this quite so blatantly. It isn't "news", just some minor spin-doctor's opinion of events. Events that were so recent that they have not got any mature thought or consideration behind them. The time to publish your memoirs is after you have retired, when your contribution can be judged in proper perspective of recent history, not 5 minutes after you have left the building.