Liza Marklund and her newly translated novel, Red Wolf

Red wolf I am often asked to name my favourite crime fiction author, or character, or other "favourite". These questions are impossible to answer and of course the response changes with time and mood. When I am asked to name my favourite female character in crime fiction, however, more often than not, my answer is Annika Bengtzon, Liza Marklund's newspaper journalist.

It is a while since I've read any novels by Marklund, having some time ago read (in chronological order) Studio 69, Paradise, Prime Time and The Bomber, which tell the story of Annika's struggles to overcome childhood problems, her relationship with a sports star, her continuing friendship with Anne Snapphane, how Annika finds an "in" as a subeditor, gradually working her way to become a senior reporter as she breaks a number of political scandals and criminal cases. Annika and Anne struggle with their love-lives, and eventually in later novels the issues of "having it all" – a decent job, young children and associated domestic responsibilities. More than anyone else in novels I've read, Annika's juggling seems to reflect that of real women, based on those I know and work with – and it is a constant feature in the novels, not just an aside. As well as this, Annika is a principled journalist, determined to write serious, investigative, campaigning stories rather than coast or "dumb down". Again, her professional life is presented with realism, undoubtedly because of the author's own background. The fictional character, however, is aided in her goals by her contact within the police force, whose identity is revealed after several books in the series, enabling her to break and report a number of high-profile scoops and scandals, more than one of which put her in personal danger.

Another interesting aspect of Liza Marklund's writing is that she wrote her books out of chronological order. She wanted to write about the experience of a journalist being kidnapped by a terrorist, which forms the plot of The Bomber (book 4). She then turned the clock back, and the next three novels tell Annika's back story.

It has been a while since English-language readers have been able to catch up with Annika, as her English publisher did not continue with the series. Luckily for us, Transworld have taken her on, and her next Annika book, Red Wolf, comes out in October this year under the Corgi imprint, translated by Neil Smith. I have been given an advance proof copy of the novel by the ever-generous Karen of Euro Crime, and have just finished it. It is marvellous, taking place soon after the events described in The Bomber, when Annika returns to work after having taken a few months' sick leave, but I shall write no more about it for now. I'll submit my review to Euro Crime and I hope it will be out in October to coincide with publication. In the meantime, I thought I would share a brief excerpt from the novel, an exchange between Annika's husband Thomas and a colleague at his work:

"Does your wife work?" Sophia asked, sipping her drink.
He let out a deep sigh. "Far too much."
She smiled, and lit another cigarette. The silence between them grew like a soft deciduous tree full of promise, trembling leaves and sunlight. Everything was sweetness and light in their oriental cellar.
"She spent a while at home last winter", he said, more sombre now. "That was great. It suited the children, it suited me. It even suited the apartment; we renovated the kitchen and even managed to keep it clean."
Sophia had leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. He could see the look in her eyes, and realized the effect his words had had.
"I mean", he said, swallowing more gin, "I don't mean women should be housewives and just stand by the stove and have babies, nothing like that. Of course women should have the same opportunities for education and careers as men, but there are loads of nice jobs in journalism. I don't see why she insists on writing about violence and death for a tabloid."
All of a sudden he could hear his mother's voice in his head, words she had never said but he knew she was thinking: Because that's what she is. A tabloid person who attracts trouble. You're too good for her, Thomas; you could have found a good woman.
"She's a good woman", he said out loud. "Intelligent, but not very intellectual."

Liza Marklund at Euro Crime.

Liza Marklund biography and bibliography.

Red Wolf was first published in Swedish in 2003, so you can read reviews of it by people who can read Swedish and other languages into which the novel has been translated. If you can't wait for my review, you can read one here at Nordic Bookblog.

[Note, I apologise to readers for the unavoidable inclusion of one J. P. in this post. Maybe he'll have acquired a necessary apostrophe by the time the book is published, but probably not based on the same quote on the publisher's website.]

My Euro Crime and Petrona reviews for August

WtNight My last Euro Crime review of August is of an excellent debut novel, Witness the Night by Kirshwar Desai. I highly recommend it, and thank Karen for suggesting it to me. From my review: "The main character is a great invention, and I hope she'll return. She deals with the prejudiced and patriarchal society in which she lives with humour, resolve and determination, simply refusing to bow down or accept that other people's rules apply to her. In addition, the story of Durga's and Sharda's history is truly appalling, and one that can only make the reader's blood boil. This is an excellent, no-holds-barred and moving account, with a clear moral tone that adds resonance to the whole." (Read more here!)

I also reviewed another very strong book, Cop Killer by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the penultimate of the 10-book Martin Beck series of police procedurals, which are modern classics. This particular title is translated by Thomas Teal. I wrote: "Although the book can be read as a stand-alone, it is worth reading the series in order to appreciate the ironies and full effect of many of these encounters or tales. I continue to be extremely impressed with this very CKiller readable and insightful set of novels. I am torn between eagerness to read the next in the series, and a desire to wait – because I know that the next one is the last."

Another enjoyable (in a very bleak way) Swedish novel is The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser, written about 20 years later (translated by one of my favourites, Laurie Thompson). It is fifth in the series of ten, and very much up to the high standard of the series, with the grimly funny,  irreverent Chief Inspector van Veeteren on his usual form as he investigates a reported disappearance that nobody will talk about.

Hit by Tara Moss did not impress me as much as these three titles by a long way, but looking on the positive side I said it "is written in an engaging, attractive style, though at over 550 pages the novel is far too long for its content. It verges too much towards romantic fiction, describing events without really conveying them on an emotional level, for my taste. It's a light, escapist read that passes the time pleasantly enough without being in any sense profound."

I should also mention here Where The Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath, which I reviewed WTSLie for Euro Crime in July but forgot to include in my July round-up post.  It is a fast-moving, breezy and solid thriller, with a different perspective on Iceland to that more familiar to me from the work of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Well worth checking out.

I posted a large number of reviews at Petrona during the second part of August, largely because of my holiday earlier in the month which gave me chance to read a lot more than usual. I won't bore readers by listing them all individually, but they can easily be found in Petrona's August archive, or you can find links to them in Petrona's cumulative annual book review listing page. I have not yet posted a review of my very favourite of these holiday books, because I've submitted it to Euro Crime along with one or two others that will appear over the next few weeks. There were some good, solid novels among the books I read in August and wrote about here at this blog, so I hope you enjoy my reviews.

All my Euro Crime reviews are collected here.

All my reviews written and posted so far this year are collected here (as a list of links).

Book Review: American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea

American visa American Visa by Juan de Recacoechea
Translated by Adrian Althoff. 
Publisher, Akashic Books, 2007 (first published in Spanish, 1994).

A taxi grinds to a halt in the middle of crammed street parties and demonstrations in downtown La Paz, Bolivia, and Mario Alvarez disembarks. Alvarez is searching for somewhere cheap to stay while he applies for a US visa so he can visit his son, who is living and working in Florida. After several failed attempts to find anywhere with a vacancy, he discovers a cheap-seeming dive called the Hotel California. It was at this point that I realised that I was in all likelihood reading one of those books in which the protagonist never achieves his goal.

Whether or not Alvarez does get to his destination is not for me to reveal here, but it is certainly true that the book is almost wholly about his sojourn in the steep up-and-down streets of La Paz, experiencing many different aspects of life and meeting the widest range of people imaginable. The author plays with many themes in this hectic book – the entire process of trying to obtain a visa, with the queues, bureaucracy and cheats that desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket being but the kicking-off point for Alvarez’s increasingly bizarre, Kafka-esque journey of discovery and self-discovery.

Hotel California itself provides a mix of characters all too eager to advise our somewhat hopelessly naive high-school teacher protagonist. He’s inevitably very short of money, as is everyone – his two main companions  among his fellow-guests exist by selling off a personal archive of books one-by-one, and being an enthusiastic lap-dancer/prostitute.

American Visa is certainly not a novel for the faint-hearted, as the dives and details of life in this impoverished, land-locked country are dissected in minute detail, against a background of political comment against the Spanish colonialists, the British landowners, the silver and tin mine-owners and the government who nationalised everything and consigned the people to poverty rather than their hoped-for freedom. The country is bankrupt, as are many of the people and institutions we encounter in the book.

If you like the kind of book that is, in effect, a journey round a series of set-piece characters and situations, there is much to like here. I was particularly fond of the section in a bookshop, featuring a hilarious book-reading by a pretentious poetess. Like other books I have recently read from South and Central America, the novel is extremely sexist. The women characters are almost all extremely keen on sex, usually with Alvarez, which gets a bit tedious. Alvarez’s cherished goal of working in an IHOP is, in itself, surreally amusing. However, there are so many satirical and cynical passages that it all gets a bit lost in the mix.

American Visa isn’t a conventional crime story by any means;  in fact the “crime” does not happen until about page 200 of the 250-page novel.  Although I could see much to admire in it, I am not the biggest fan in the world of existentialist noir, of which this book is almost a perfect type-example.  I like journeys to arrive somewhere real and to have more of a focused plot. Even so, it is fascinating to read a book from the Bolivian perspective.

According to the informative afterword to the novel by Ilan Stavans, which tells of how the book came to be translated, it was written as a direct reaction against the then-fashionable magical realism of the time (epitomised by One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel I struggled with years ago but could not finish). Stavans writes of the author: “Instead, he prefers the dirty urban landscape of La Paz, where the only thing magical is to make ends meet.”

Read another review of this book at International Noir Fiction, which is what made me decide to try it. The author's second novel to be translated into English, Andean Express, is also reviewed at International Noir Fiction.

American Visa is also reviewed at Seeing the World Through Books and Lotus Reads.

The Brooklyn Rail has an interview with the author and the translator about American Visa and other matters (the post has the inevitable title of Bolivian Noir). The opening part of the novel is excerpted at the publisher's website.

Book Review: Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang

Chang Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang
Soho Crime, 2006.

I recently read a very positive review of the latest in the series of books about Jack Yu, a Chinese police detective in New York, so I thought I would try the first one, Chinatown Beat. In this novel, Yu is stationed in Chinatown, almost the only cop there to speak the language or understand the culture. He has to deal with racism (usually unspoken) from his colleagues in addition to the standard (in the crime fiction genre) police politics, as well as a lack of trust from his old friends from the neighbourhoods in which he grew up, for joining the law-enforcement establishment.

Both these aspects of the novel are successfully and poignantly conveyed, framed as they are by the recent death of Yu’s father, which means that the son has to clear out his father’s cheap apartment and reflect on his childhood and difficult adult relationship with him.The crime part of the plot also starts well, set amongst the recent immigrants to the USA who have to contend not only with the struggle to survive and settle in an alien land, but with their own community in Chinatown, which is rigidly controlled by the heads of Tongs – the legal front for what were the Triads. This dilemma is shown in the persona of Johnny Wong, who has recently graduated from menial work to driving a taxi. One of his regular clients is Uncle Four, a senior figure in the Chinese community, and his young companion, the beautiful but desperate Mona.

In this milieu, a very young girl is attacked by a rapist while being escorted home from school by her grandmother.  Jack Yu is assigned the case, but quickly realises that the girl is not the first victim. The fact that the perpetrator is an apparently well-dressed Chinese man creates conflicts of interest within the immigrant community hierarchies and their relationship with the police and indeed within the police themselves as to how to handle the case.

The strongest parts of this book are the depictions of the various closed communities – the mores and rules by which people live and how the men at the top keep control and see off their eager rivals. Jack Yu, too, is an interesting character, particularly when he encounters a female human-rights lawyer who has her own prejudices about the police.

The story of Mona is very poignant while she is living in New York, and in fact takes over the novel to the detriment of the crime plot, which becomes rather perfunctory. Although this book is a bit raw in places, it is an impressive debut, leaving Jack Yu in an interesting place at the end. I think the soap opera aspects (the flight of Mona) that dominated the last part of the novel are not so successful, and some of the sections about Chinese immigrant life could have been shorter and just as effective.  I might well try a future novel in the series in the hope that it focuses more on a crime plot and Yu’s issues with his personal life and police politics.


Author website, including short synopses of this and other novels in the series.

New York Times interview with the author upon publication of this, his first novel.

Other reviews of this book are at: The Book Book; January Magazine; and The Telegraph (brief).

Book Review: Havana Red by Leonardo Padura

Havana red Havana Red by Leonardo Padura
Translated by Peter Bush
Bitter Lemon Press 2005 (first published in Spanish in 1997)

The Havana Quartet, of which this novel is the first, is a highly regarded contribution to the crime-fiction genre. The story is at first straightforward: a young man is found murdered in the woods outside the town of Havana, a well-known night-time pick-up haunt for homosexuals and others outside the mainstream who are unloved by the government.  The man, a “carnivalesque creature”, is wearing a red dress and is made up like a woman. He’s been killed by being strangled by a red scarf which is still tightly wrapped round his neck. Oddly, he seems to have put up no resistance to his murder.

The policeman who is given the case is Inspector Mario Conde, whose father was a Count in the old regime of Cuba but who now lives in relative poverty alongside almost all other citizens of this anomalous island. His closest companion is an old schoolfriend Carlos, a.k.a. “Skinny”, nowadays an obese man who is wheelchair-bound after his service in the army’s Angolan campaign. The two men cope together with the extreme heat and the trials and tribulations of living in a country where there isn’t much of anything and where the laws are oppressive.

The murder victim is called Alexis Arayan, the son of well-to-do parents. His mother is devastated, and his father, a UN ambassador, is called back from his current overseas mission. Conde soon finds out that Alexis was not living at home but with a playwright called Alberto Marques, at first presented as a decadent, slug-like person who Conde suspects had influenced the young man into a world of shady transsexuals and drug-induced excess. Conde repeatedly refers to himself as a red-blooded male, and is revolted by the concept of homosexuality, transvestism and all other aberrations of human nature, as he sees them. Marques is a patient man, and almost despite himself, Conde finds himself willing to learn about these practices in order to find out more about the murder victim and how he might have died. Part of the novel is about Conde’s journey of discovery towards a more enlightened perspective rather than his instinctive revulsion of “deviants”. When he was a young man he wanted to be a writer. He wrote a short story but while it was in the press at a magazine, the publication was shut down by the government for being anti-Communist. Conde never wrote again, instead becoming a policeman.  Now, as he becomes more open-minded under Marques’s guidance, his muse returns to him – all highly allegorical of the country itself.  The story of Marques and Conde is heavily influenced by the Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera, for many years banned in Cuba, and whose play Electra Garrigo, based on the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon and his family, forms an integral part of the plot (the dead man’s red dress was worn in the play). Padura himself is an advocate of Pinera’s work.

Conde spends most of the novel distracted into these avenues, allowing himself to attend a transvestite’s party and picking up a young woman there. In the meantime, his professional and focused sergeant pursues a more conventional approach to investigating the crime, asking witnesses and suspects pertinent questions and so on. Conde does return to the case near the end, and does not take long to nail it down.

I have to say I didn’t like this book much because of its relentless sexism, objectifying all young females. Any woman under the age of 60 (mothers and old servants are tolerated so long as they just cook and keep out of the way) is treated with contempt by the male characters, including in Conde’s fictional work, although I assume that his short story is an allegory with the woman character representing the political repression meted out to the populace.

Although I am no prude so did not mind the very up-front, often very funny, dialogue, I really hated the constant and explicit male-wish-fulfilment sexual aspects. I quite liked all the literary and philosophical digressions, indeed without them the crime would have been solved very quickly and there wouldn’t have been much of a book. I also liked the laconic humour and political manoeuvrings of the police station and force, though there was not enough of this for my taste. The author is interested in doing more than just tell the story of a crime, though, and I liked the many implicit political and social points he is making, and appreciated the literary depth of the book. I am not so sure I could tolerate reading any more of the series. It was all a bit intense and sexist for me, even though I can understand the popularity and plaudits that the series has attracted, on the basis of this first outing.

Other reviews of Havana Red are at: Tangled Web, The Complete Review, Mostly Fiction, Dave Riley.

Interview with the author (The Independent) (The Guardian), which calls him "The Hammett of Havana".

Agamemnon at Wikipedia. Virgilio Pinera at Wikipedia (in Spanish)

The end of the Havana quartet at International Noir Fiction.

Book Review: Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves

Cleeves Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves
(Pan, 2005)

The second novel to feature Inspector Vera Stanhope is an involving mystery set in the fictional coastal village of Elvert in East Yorkshire. Emma and James are a young married couple with a new baby, who have recently come to live in the area. James is a pilot, regularly travelling to Hull and other ports to guide the huge trawlers into the harbour.  Emma overhears James and their neighbour, a handsome man called Dan who runs a ceramics studio, mention that Jeanie Long has committed suicide. Jeanie was imprisoned ten years ago for killing a young teenager.

As Emma thinks back to the past, it transpires that she’s rather involved in this story. She was the best friend of the murdered girl, and in fact was the person who discovered her body all those years ago. At the time, she was living a rather tedious life with an overbearing father, Robert, who had been a businessman in York but who had “found God” and retrained as a probation officer, hence his relocation to this small village near the prison. Her mother Mary, is a bit of a doormat and her younger brother Christopher more interested in his own solitary pursuits than in any of his family. Determined to escape, Emma went to university, met and married James, but is now somewhat disconcerted that he has insisted they live near Emma’s parents, so she has family around during his many absences.

When Jeanie’s death is reported in the papers, a man comes forward to tell the police that she could not have committed the crime. Jeanie’s story in her defence was that she had been in London on the day of the murder, but nobody at the time could corroborate her account. The person she saw in London was about to travel, so had missed the news and did not know that Jeanie had been convicted of the crime. His evidence is deemed convincing, so the police now have to re-open the case as well as investigate the robustness of their own earlier, flawed investigation. Hence they call in a representative from a neighbouring force who could not have been involved in any errors or cover-ups, in the shape of Vera Stanhope.

Vera undertakes her investigation in her own, idiosyncratic way. She doesn’t ask witnesses into the police station but travels round their homes, nosing about and getting them to talk in unguarded moments of gossip. She knows that Dan, the ceramics man, was on the police force at the time of the murder, but left soon after Jeanie was convicted. Why? Caroline Fletcher, Dan’s immediate superior who was in charge of the earlier investigation, also left the police force soon afterwards, and it isn’t long before Vera discovers a huge conflict of interest. Even James, Emma’s husband, seems to be hiding something in his past.

Telling Tales is a really good read. It’s a solid crime plot, and an insightful account of the way people in small, isolated communities live and think. There are plenty of minor characters who come to life, and plenty of action to keep the pages turning. My only complaint about the book is that I found the identity and psychology of the murderer unbelievable. I knew who I thought was responsible and I was wrong, but had I been right, the denouement might have been more obvious but I think it would have been more convincing. I also felt that Vera did not come into the book enough! She’s a great character, and we learnt quite a bit about her background in the previous novel in which she appeared, The Crow Trap. Here, we learn very little more about her personal life, but she’s a treat in all the scenes in which she appears, and I am looking forward to encountering her again in Hidden Depths, her next outing.

Read other reviews of this novel at: Mysteries in Paradise, DJ's Krimiblog,  Mystery Mile, and Suggestions for a Book Worm.

There are several reviews and posts at DJ's Krimiblog about (and even by) Ann Cleeves, which all can be seen here.

My reviews of another of Ann Cleeves's series, The Shetland Quartet, are at Euro Crime.

The Vera Stanhope books have been turned into a UK TV series that will be shown later this year. The novels will be reissued with new covers to coincide with the programmes.

New UK paperbacks for December

What will be arrayed in the UK bookshops (what is left of them) to distract us from our Christmas shopping this year – or perhaps instead to provide some ideas for our own lists for Santa? Not a huge amount, I have to say.  According to The Bookseller (20/27 August edition) the big sellers for December will be books by Tami Hoag, Richard Montanari and a "Clive Cussler"-like novel called Polar Quest by Tom Grace. I have not read either of the second two authors and although I did once read Tami Hoag's books I've now given up, not least because I can't distinguish between what is a reissue and what is new, but also because they are somewhat formulaic and shallow, if readable. However, if you are interested, Deeper than the Dead (Orion) is her first (new!) novel for three years. There are no details in The Bookseller apart from their opinion that it is good, "bloody" and is being published simultaneously with four backlist reissues. Too confusing for me to sort it all out.

In the "crime" category is Jodi Compton's Hailey's War (Pocket). I enjoyed the author's first two novels some years ago – The 37th Hour and Sympathy Between Humans, about an attractively flawed cop, Detective Sarah Pribeck. I had read that this author found it hard to get subsequent novels published, so now has come up with a new approach, "introducing a feisty new crime heroine and set between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Mexico." Based on some good reviews of her new book, I might give this one a go though it isn't my usual cup of tea, because I enjoyed her previous two.

Perhaps of more direct interest is Shadow Sister by Simone van der Vlugt (HarperPress), author of The Reunion, which I liked a lot,  and a title eligible for the 2011 CWA International Dagger award. However, this one does feature twins, not one of my favourite topics as it tends to encourage cliche. Other December crime paperbacks include Five Ways to Kill a Man by Alex Gray (I was underwhelmed by her first DI Lorimer novel, of which this is one), The Godfather of Kathmandu by John Burdett (praised in various blog reviews on its first publication), Malice by Lisa Jackson, Pray for Silence by Linda Costello, Dead Ringer by Mary Burton, Paying Back Jack by Christopher G. Moore, Wait for Dark by Scott Frost, Broken English by P. L. Gaus, Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey and a few others (I have never heard of quite a few of these books/authors). According to The Bookseller, the biggest selling December paperback in the UK will be The Other Family by Joanna Trollope (Black Swan) which I have on my shelf somewhere so really must read. I usually enjoy her novels but am one or two behind.

Book Review: Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli

Dayafterday Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli

Translated by Oonagh Stransky.

Vintage, 2005. (First published in Italy 2000).

Day After Day is, after a bit of a rocky start, a tight and exciting follow-up to Almost Blue. It again follows an investigation led by Ispettore Grazia Negro of the Bologna police. The main plot concerns a series of assassinations by a professional killer — there is no apparent reason for the choice of victim, and no careless clues to give the police a handle on events. No clue, that is, except for the allusion to a pit-bull terrier in some form at each crime scene.

By clever intercutting between different characters’ perspectives, ranging from the secretive “mother’s boy” Vittorio, a jewellery salesman with a difference, to lovestruck young student Alex who helps moderate an internet chat room to earn some spare cash, the story gradually comes into focus. It’s a taut narrative told with frenzied pace, some shocks, and with little space for rambling digressions — though Vittorio does have time to muse:  “When they rise out of nowhere, [the] images are called fantasies. When they’ve already happened, they’re memories.”

Grazia is an extremely driven woman, with little time for personal life or even personal hygiene. Here, she's more confident, and harder, than she was in her previous appearance in Almost Blue. She acts first and thinks afterwards, which keeps the action cracking along but does lead her into some avoidable situations and, ultimately, catastrophes. I take my hat off to the author for providing a logical (I have no idea whether plausible!) explanation for the killer’s motives and actions, unlike many other thrillers about  serial criminals.

The author is a magazine editor, screenplay author and a teacher of writing, as well as being a host of a popular Italian TV series that “examines unsettling and unsolved crimes and the urban centres in which they occur”.  His earlier novel, Almost Blue, was shortlisted for the CWA gold dagger.

My review of Almost Blue, the first in this series (of which Day After Day is the second).

Reviews of Almost Blue and Day After Day at Crime Scraps, the blog that encouraged me to try this author.

Carlo Lucarelli's Almost Blue and Day After Day discussed by Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction.

Carlo Lucarelli at the Italian Mysteries website.

Book Review: Play Dead by Harlan Coben

Play dead Play Dead by Harlan Coben
Orion, 2010 (first published in the USA 1990).

I probably should not review this novel. It’s an early book by the now-bestselling Harlan Coben which was published in the USA 20 years ago but never made it to the UK until now.  In his preface to this UK edition, the author writes “Okay, if this is the first book of mine you’re going to try, stop now. Return it. Grab another. It’s okay. I’ll wait.” (Short sentences are his forte.) I can only agree.

Play Dead is a grand guignol melodrama. An impossibly glossy and beautiful young couple – David is a basketball star and Laura a top model turned international fashion designer — elope and honeymoon in Australia. After a few idyllic days, she goes off to a business meeting and he goes swimming – then missing, presumed dead. A few rags chewed by a shark come into it, inevitably.

Laura returns devastated to the USA after fruitlessly trying to find out what happened to David with the help of his mentor, ex-policeman “T.J.” She’s determined not to let things lie, so while running her business (going into work once, looking at some designs and adjusting the length of the skirts) she discovers more about David’s circumstances. We find out about her family – Gloria, her sister, who is a recovering drug addict; her neurotic mother; and her workaholic surgeon father. David’s disappearance or death are related to a murder that happened years ago. Gradually, Laura zeroes in on this, despite T. J.’s strange attempts to put her off the track. David’s evil brother Stan turns up at the funeral, determined to make a buck out of Laura, soon switching his attention to damaged Gloria.

I can’t bear to write any more – the novel is very readable in a “chick lit” kind of way. It is entirely devoid of realistic detail and almost completely predictable,  but at the same time it has glimpses of how the author has developed since he wrote it. The plot turns out to be both blindingly obvious and totally ludicrous – nobody’s motivation stacks up for a second, and people do the most convoluted things for years, for no reason I can discern. I only read this book because I was going on holiday and wanted a light read:  though I enjoyed it a little bit, my main reaction is to feel silly for having bothered with it.

I read the UK edition, but I posted a picture of both the US (left) and the UK (right) covers for comparison.

According to the author's website, he wrote another early novel, Miracle Cure, which also will be re-released this or next year.  You can read his introduction to Play Dead here. I can't easily find another independent review of the novel, but there are some varied reports from readers at Amazon.

Book Review: A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn

Nunn A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn.
Published by Picdor, 2009.

This impressive debut novel is set in South Africa in 1952, in the immediate aftermath of the election which resulted in the Boer government and specifically the Immorality Act, by which the “white”, coloured” and “black” races were not allowed to intermarry or have relationships. This cruel and totally wrong policy forms the backdrop to this story set in the small country town of Jacob’s Rest, where the chief of police, Captain Pretorius, has been shot to death just before the book opens.

The person who is sent to investigate the crime is Detective Emmanuel Cooper, who is an English veteran of the Second World War. He soon realises that he isn’t going to get any help from the local police officials, who consist of one absent officer and one very stupid, green recruit, Constable Hepple. He therefore turns to the Zulu Constable Shabalala, who is the only intelligent and experienced member of the local force. Shabalala, however, seems to know more than he is prepared to tell Cooper.

Pretorius, it soon emerges, was more than just the police chief – he, his wife and six sons ruled the town, owning most of the businesses and land. The sons are all arrogant and demand that Cooper finds out who killed their father. Cooper’s first problem is to determine a cause of death in the absence of the (white) police doctor who is travelling– he takes the body to the local convent where he is advised by the nuns to ask the “Old Jew” to undertake the task.  The “Old Jew”, who owns a general store and runs a small clothes-making operation in the back room,  turns out to be not only medically qualified but also to be an intelligent companion for Cooper as he desperately tries to make headway in investigating the crime despite being constantly hampered. (The fact that Cooper is not allowed to order a post mortem because Pretorius’s sons say their father “would not have liked it” is just the first of very many, increasingly challenging setbacks.)

The crime investigation is a tool used by the author to show at every opportunity the awfulness, meanness and worse of the prevailing administration and the attitudes it engendered in the people then living in South Africa. Not only do the Boers regard themselves as God’s chosen people living in a land that has been given to them by divine right, but very soon the infamous Security Branch step in to oversee the investigation. They want to resolve the case as quickly as possible, ideally by finding a likely “communist” and beating a confession out of him, so Cooper has to play a careful game of appearing to help while in fact continuing his search for the real perpetrator(s). Cooper’s methods are those of the traditional detective, but involve him experiencing the parallel life of the town along the “Kaffir paths” (mean little tracks that the black population had to use instead of the paved streets) and among the hovels and shacks that are the homes of the non-white population.

Malla Nunn is a great storyteller, and this novel gripped me to the end. It is somewhat of a melodrama, though, as the circumstances of Pertorius’s death become clearer in a series of dramatic sequences that occasionally stretch credibility. My main problem with the novel, however, is one of attitude — Cooper is a character in 1952 yet he has modern sensibilities. Rather than seeming like an enlightened liberal thinker of his time, he seems to me to me more like a 2010 man who has been parachuted in. Nevertheless, he’s an attractive character, and very deserving of the reader’s sympathies, both because of his dogged determination to get to the bottom of things despite considerable personal danger, but also because he’s vulnerable. Looking at the novel from the strict perspective of the mystery, the solution depends too much on people (even his friends) not telling Cooper things until a suitable point in the narrative — but this book is more than a crime novel, and it is one that will rest in the mind for a while.


I thank the UK publisher, and James Long in particular, for my copy of this book.

Other reviews of this novel are at: Reactions to Reading (Bernadette); Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog (Keishon); Mostly Fiction; and Reviewing the Evidence (Denise Pickles). Bernadette's review also provides a link to an interview with the author at National Public Radio.

Malla Nunn at Simon and Schuster (the US publisher) and PanMacmillan/Picador (UK publisher).