Kindle reading report 1

Silent Silent When I was given a Kindle (wireless version) for my birthday in September this year (a couple of weeks late, not because the kind present-giver had forgotten the date but because of Amazon's order backlog), I made a resolution only to download a book when I had finished one, that is, only to have one unread book in it at a time. How am I doing on that front? Not that well, unsurprisingly.

The first book I read was one I've been wanting to read for a couple of years, but which I thought too expensive in print version (no paperback available). Silent Counsel by Ken Isaacson was reasonably priced on Kindle, so as an experiment I downloaded it and read it. So far so good: one down, none to go.

Searching my longstanding 200-300-item long Amazon shopping list was not very fruitful, as so few of the entries in it have Kindle editions. Newly published books on Amazon often do have Kindle editions but the pricing is often not competitive and I'd prefer to wait for the paperback. (I'm not surprised about the pricing as I am only too well aware of how much work goes into producing an online/digital edition of content compared with print. )  I did, however, find one Kindle book that is reasonably priced and that I would mildly like to read, The Dying Light by Henry Porter, so downloaded that to read next. The only thing is that I have not read it yet. The lesson I learn from this is only to download a book when I really want to read it, not just because it is on a list of books I might read one day. 

In the meantime, I signed up for the NetGalley service, in which if you write book reviews you Heart can request e-copies from the publisher – which are free. With trembling heart because of the intials J.P., but very eager to read anything by Liza Marklund, I requested a copy of The Postcard Killers. Nothing happened.

Another novel I've been meaning to read for a while is Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn. I read one night on a blog or elsewhere that it is available in Kindle form, so checked out the price.  It was reasonable (higher than the previous two books I'd downloaded, but not by that much), so I downloaded and actually read it, straight away (review here)

Getting into the swing of it, I received an email from Amazon suggesting I might like to read the latest Michael Connelly novel, The Reversal. Would I? Yes.  The publisher had agreed to send me a review copy, but after 3 weeks or so it hasn't arrived, and I'm very keen indeed to read this novel –  all the more so as it is now officially out and reviews are appearing. So I checked out the Amazon page and saw that the hardback is selling for just under £10 (as in the main real-world bookshops), but the basic Kindle edition is priced at half that. No brainer, I have purchased it. Michael Connelly also offers a more expensive, enhanced Kindle version for those who like fun add-ons, but I'm more than happy with just the text.

No sooner had I done this than I received an email from NetGalley announcing that I could have an Light Light e-copy of Postcard Killers, so after a bit of tinkering (I realise you can only receive books on your Kindle if you tell Amazon the email address of the sender, what a good idea to prevent unsolicited material), I have downloaded that, too.

So now, I have three unread Kindle books waiting. I have to finish my current print title first (as I am not one of those people who can read more than one piece of fiction at once), then I plan to rehabilitiate myself in my own eyes, and reduce my e-backlog.

I find the reading experience on the Kindle more pleasant than I had anticipated. I feel now that I shall quite happily mix my metaphors and read some books in print, others in e-form. 

Book Review: Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher

Kittyhawk Kittyhawk Down by Garry Disher
Bitter Lemon Press, 2008 (first published in Australia in 2003)

Kittyhawk Down, the second in the Hal Challis/Ellen Destry series of police procedurals set in the  fictional Old Peninsula district in southern Victoria, Australia, is even better than the first, Dragon Man, and that’s saying something. The characters have gelled and the author is more assured in his plotting and pacing this time round. 

Hal Challis is an Inspector in the Homicide Squad, “tall, thin but hard boned, and looked slightly out of date in his jeans, scuffed flying jacket and plain leather shoes. His sunglasses were not an accessory perched above his forehead but shaded his eyes. He’d never worn a T-shirt as an undershirt or tracksuit pants out of doors. He’d never owned a pair of runners. His hair was straight, dark and lifted a little in the wind. It was cut once a month by a young woman who worked beside her father in a Waterloo barbershop. She was skilful and attentive, and for the sum of $10 returned him to the world with a neatly shaped head.”

Challis is investigating the case of an unidentified dead body that has been washed ashore, and slightly uneasily settling in to his relationship with the editor of the local newspaper, Tessa Kane. His sergeant, Ellen Destry, is herself on the trail of a man who attacks “courting couples” in parked cars at night, and pretty soon gets a good result, thanks to solid policing of the team, including the attractive character of constable Pam Murphy, her less attractive partner John Tankard and the sensitive Scobie Sutton. The thoughts and actions of these five policemen and women are the backbone of the novel, as they go about their professional and personal lives – personal lives that are intertwined in the local community and as such bring them into contact with people who may be of professional interest concerning various petty and not-so-petty crimes.

Challis’s somewhat desultory investigation and his ambivalence about Tessa and his imprisoned wife are swept aside by a series of incidents, starting in a small fashion but escalating way out of control. “The Meddler” is a person who writes anonymous letters to the newspaper complaining about petty infringements of the law by various residents or about failings of the local authorities. Tessa has made these letters into a regular column, but out of this initiative and an (uncharacteristically cruel) article she writes about a man who walks around with a pet ferret on a lead, are the seeds of some ghastly future events. 

A lonely and introspective man, Challis has one hobby, which is to restore an old wrecked plane, the Dragon, which in 1942 helped ferry Dutch refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Java, from Broome to Perth. The Dragon is kept in a hangar at a local aerodrome, along with other vintage planes, one of which is the Kittyhawk of the title. Its owner is Janice Casement, whom everyone calls Kitty after her plane, and Challis feels more than a passing interest in her. One day, Challis witnesses a crazy incident while Kitty is attempting to land her plane, and feels compelled to investigate. While doing so, he finds some unsettling evidence in Kitty’s “office” area of the hangar that may involve or implicate her in some more serious, drug-related, investigations.

The novel tells the story of these several, apparently unconnected investigations, set against the evocative and vivid descriptions of community life in the Peninsula.  Because we are following the lives of several law-enforcement characters, the same people who are questioned by the police in one chapter sometimes crop up in other circumstances – for example one of the policemen has a child at the same school as two “persons of interest” – and this adds a dimension to the novel that is quite unusual in my experience of the genre.  While conveying a great sense of place, however, the author never loses sight of his storytelling role, and as the pages turn the reader gradually becomes aware of threads tightening up and connections coming together – how or why is, pretty much, kept obscure until the end, whose tense conclusion is sad in parts, but also satisfying.

I’ll end the review by quoting a passage that summarises one of the appeals of this series for me, concerning Challis’s visit to someone whose husband has been shot and killed. “She was red-eyed, her grief raw. Ostensibly he was there to ask her some gentle questions, but he learnt nothing new and hadn’t expected to; visiting and comforting the bereaved was the other side of a murder investigation. Waves of misery and anger can spread from a single act of homicide and swamp a family and its friends. Challis represented order. Where things were falling apart for the bereaved, he was competent, professional, focused, and familiar with a bewildering system.  Sometimes his relationships with bereaved families and individuals lasted years. His was a shoulder to cry on; he was a link to the beloved victim; he represented the investigation itself and so offered hope and justice. He’d provide his phone number and find himself talking calmly, patiently, at the darkest hours of the night, and visiting from time to time, and taking people who’d almost lost heart into the squad room and showing them the desks, the computers, the photo arrays – the sense of justice at work. It often meant a lot and the flow was two-way, for as the bereaved felt valued and encouraged, so did he.” An excellent series, and one which I shall be continuing to read with eager anticipation.

 

I purchased my copy of this book.  Read other reviews of Kittyhawk Down at: Australian Crime Fiction Database; Publisher's Weekly and Booklist; and here's Glenn Harper discussing "redneck noir" in the context of this book at International Crime Fiction.

About the book at Text Publishing (Australian publisher) and Bitter Lemon Press (UK publisher).

My review of the first in this series, Dragon Man.

Spotlight on Garry Disher at Masterpiece Mystery.

Author's website.

Booksellers’ choices for the new year 2011 (including a dentist)

Darkside Every month or so, The Bookseller runs a feature called "Bookseller's choice", in which a panel of, er, booksellers select their favourites of the upcoming titles that they'll be selling soon. The feature in the current (15 October) issue focuses on books that will be on sale in the UK in the new year, and though the selections aren't bound by genre, it's interesting that several of the picks are the same as those I highlighted in my post the other day, New UK fiction for January. I thought I'd share some of the booksellers' choices and views.

 Emma Giacon of Amazon picks The Leopard by Jo Nesbo (Harvill Secker) – which, according to its stellar translator, Don Bartlett, may be bought forward to be available before Christmas, I and other readers of this blog will be pleased to know. Emma Giacon says that "fans will not be disappointed with the new Harry Hole thriller…….many a Christmas gift voucher will be spent on this hardback come January." 

Several booksellers pick out Snowdrops by A. D. Miller (Atlantic). Sarah Clarke of the Torbay Bookshop calls it a "sophisticated and subtly chilling first novel…It tells the tale of Nick Platt, an English lawyer living in Moscow….Reeking of corruption from the start, the darkest secrets are not Snowdrops uncovered until the final pages." Sue Scholes of W. H. Smith  says this "intense psychological drama….has a wonderful sense of place and the plot unfolds with great skill as we get the steady but inevitable slide into corruption, tragedy and the darker side of modern Russia." Rodney Troubridge of Waterstones and Emma Giacon also recommend this novel.

Sarah Clarke likes The Facility by Simon Lelic, his second novel after the stunning The Rupture (aka A Thousand Cuts). She calls it "at times an edgy and uncomfortable read…..it concerns a top-secret institution where a number of prisoners have been taken against their will, supposedly under anti-terrorism legislation. None is a terrorist, and one is an innocent dentist. Conspiracies and frightening repercussions come about when his wife and a journalist try to find him."

Patrick Neale of Jaffe&Neale bookshop (a wonderful place, in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds) highlights Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (Mantle) – more Russia. "A young girl searches for her lost baby and Arkady Renko battles to solve a murder that the authorities want to Leopard bury as a drug overdose. Contemporary Moscow, the backdrop for this funny and fast-paced story, is at its most glitzy and chilling. The Three Stations terminus is one of the few places where the rich and impoverished cross each others' paths and Cruz Smith walks you through all of its secret places. Once started, you will race to learn how the tale unfolds."

Sue Scholes also recommends The Holmes Affair by Graham Moore (Century), a historical conspiracy thriller which "cleverly weaves the Victorian London of Conan Doyle with the modern New York of Harold White, literary researcher and Sherlock Holmes obsessive. The plot has twists, turns, murder and intrigue aplenty."

Finally Ruth Hunter of Bertrams singles out two novels I am looking forward to. Darkside Seas end (Bantam) is Belinda Bauer's new novel after Blacklands, "set in the same, remote Exmoor village and just as sinister and disturbing." A local policeman investigates a crime while looking after his wife who has MS. "It's a compelling and scary mystery, with a nice twist at the end that makes you reconsider the whole book." Second, The House at Seas End by Elly Griffiths (Quercus) is the third book about Dr Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist – investigating a 70-year-old case while dealing with some personal elements that I won't reveal here in case you have not read the previous two novels in this delightful series (The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone).

Book Review: Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn

ExHeart_f Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn
Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2009

Experimental Heart is a novel in two parts: the first is an account of the biologists in a leading institute in London, and the research they do; the second is a plot-driven story. In chapter 1, Andy O’Hara, a postdoctoral researcher, is working late one night in the lab. This is normal for him; his life consists of 13-18-hour days at work, seven days a week, a vending-machine diet, odd hours in the pub, and snatched hours of sleep inbetween. He’s a loner, despite being an attractive man who the other female characters in the novel either have fallen for in the past or would like to in future. The reason for his driven, somewhat arrogant and solitary nature lies, we are led to understand, in his family background. His father was himself a scientist who died in his 40s of a malignant melanoma, and Andy has chosen a similar career in response, keeping an old photo of his father in his desk drawer as an inspiration.

Andy is interested in Gina, whom he can watch through his window as she works in her own late-night laboratory routine. Unlike Andy, Gina works in the commercial sector, seeking practical medical applications of the research she does. Andy spends quite a bit of time trying to pluck up courage to strike up a friendship (and perhaps more) with her, though is constantly foiled by work and the fact that Gina always seems to be monopolised by other people. While Andy muses on Gina and struggles with his feelings about other female characters, we are told an enormous amount of detail about the experiments that he and his colleagues perform and the possible biological implications; about the working and drinking life of young, childless scientists; and about the publications, seminars and conferences that form the background to their tense occupations. The author is very much on a mission to show the reader what it’s like to be a scientist in a highly competitive environment where there aren’t enough jobs for everyone and where you are in an invisible race to be the first to publish your results.  

Because scientific research is such a specialist and intellectual occupation, the characters have a camaraderie (even when they irritate each other) and a sense of “separateness” from the rest of society; the author is excellent at conveying this rather superior alienation. In the background to this story is a group of animal rights activists who are both frighteningly violent and rather well-informed about the research going on at the institute. These activists, as well as several parties attended by the characters where there are some convenient “non scientist” flatmates or guests, provide a platform for us to be told the various ideological positions about genetically modified crops, research on living organisms,  and other dangers or benefits of contemporary biology research.

All this is fascinating if you are interested in what makes a small group of scientists tick and in following the ins and outs of their research. It might be a little hard-going if you aren’t. In the second half, however, the author drops much of the explanatory tone and instead gets stuck into a tense story in which Andy and his colleagues realise that Gina may be being dragged into a project that is not only highly unethical but extremely dangerous.  This part of the novel is very clever, and the tension the author wrings out of measuring radioactivity or running a gel is truly nail-biting!

For me, the strengths of the book are in the way it explains rather technical and complex scientific concepts in an accessible manner, and the scientific detective story of the second half – not a story in which it is a challenge to work out what is going on and who is responsible, but exciting in the thriller sense. On the other hand,  I did not find the half-dozen or so characters that interesting, so could not care that much about their romantic ups and downs, though I was certainly rooting for Andy and Gina at the end. 

This novel is steeped in a passion for biological research. Just as many books have appeal because of their beautifully conveyed sense of a particular geographical place, science is the country of Experimental Heart, and it is one that this author conveys authentically and lovingly. It is scientific research that is the hero or heroine of this enjoyable novel.


Jennifer L. Rohn
, the author, is a cell biologist and founder of LabLit, a wonderful website that promotes and celebrates science in culture and fiction. Find out more about her at her website. A selection of reviews of Experimental Heart is also available at the author’s website.

I purchased my copy of this novel, in the form of a Kindle edition. It's available also in print form from Amazon and from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Book Review: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Blacklands Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
Corgi,  2010

Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colourless grass, prickly gorse and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the most cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark – a twelve-year-old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade.

This is the opening paragraph of Blacklands, the debut novel that won this year’s (2010) CWA Gold Dagger, and deservedly so.  The story is that of Steven Lamb, the boy in the opening paragraph, who lives a relatively impoverished life, both materially and emotionally, in a small Exmoor village. Steven lives with his Nan, mother Lettie, younger brother Davey and has experienced a succession of “uncles” passing through (two of whom fathered Steven and Davey). His mother is tense and irascible, always distracted (probably about money), whereas his Nan spends most of her time looking out of the window, barely acknowledging Steven, the outsider in the little family. We soon learn that underlying the family dynamics is the fact that Steven’s real uncle, Billy (Lettie’s sister), disappeared when he was a bit younger that Steven is now. It transpires that he was abducted and presumed killed by Arnold Avery, who is now in prison serving a life sentence for murdering some other children whose bodies he buried on the moor. 

Nobody is allowed into Billy’s room, which is kept exactly as it was when he disappeared. Steven becomes obsessed with the idea that if he finds his uncle’s body, his Nan will stop being sad and the family will become close. He spends most of his time outside school in this fruitless task, making a map of the places he’s dug up. After an incident involving his friend Lewis and some Lego, Steven learns the bare facts of Billy’s presumed death from his mother, and conceives the idea of writing to Avery to find the location of the “grave”. Thus begins an extraordinary campaign between the boy and the prisoner, who can only write the most banal, brief letters to each other, but who communicate on a far deeper, more intimate level. Who will “win” this secret, psychological war? Each is determined in pursuit of his goal, but inevitably one will outwit the other.

The novel’s appeal lies not only in this intensely strategic exchange, but also in the depiction of life in a small village among a deprived family, and community, in twenty-first century England. The book is full of telling little details:  the effect on Steven of some unusual praise from a teacher; a visit by Steven and his brother to the library in the local town; the ritualised interactions of Steven and Lewis; and Uncle Jude’s attempts at gardening.

I loved the book, though it is not a “crime” novel in the usual sense. Quite a bit of it is from the point of view of Avery, the child killer, but the author maintains a tone of neutral interest that succeeds in avoiding the usual pitfalls of novelistic representations of such people, making the reader interested in Avery’s part in the drama, while not having to become embroiled in the details of his revolting crimes. Towards the end I felt there were a couple of deviations from believability (a section in the prison and subsequently) and in its otherwise admirably cool yet sympathetic and deeply empathetic portrait of Steven in his community environment. Without a doubt, thought the book’s main success is in its portrayal of Steven, who very much reminds me of Harry Potter in his serious modesty, in his feeling that he’s not very good at anything, and in his analytical tenaciousness against what seem to him to be impossible odds. (Right at the end of the novel, an explicit comparison is made, which I felt unnecessary.) Overwhelmingly, though, I admire the achievement of the author for this well-constructed, observant and insightful book, not least because it is her first novel. 

 

I am very grateful to Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.

Other reviews of Blacklands, full of praise for the novel,  are at: Euro Crime (Paul Blackburn); Mysteries in Paradise (Kerrie); The Guardian (Laura Wilson); Reactions to Reading (Bernadette); It's a Crime!; and The Independent (Jane Jakeman).

US publisher's website, where you can download Chapter 1 free.

Book Review: Gone by Mo Hayder

Gone Gone
By Mo Hayder
Bantam Press, 2010

Mo Hayder is back on form with a vengeance in Gone, her latest novel about detective Jack Caffery of the Bristol major crime investigation unit and police diver sergeant Flea Marley. After two promising but, for this reader, eventually disappointing outings for Caffery in his Bristol persona (Ritual and Skin), the author here delivers a cracking, classic police procedural novel that must be one of the best of its type I’ve read for a good while.

The story is about missing girls, a subject too distressing to contemplate, but here handled in a sensitive way. There are none of Hayder’s trademark obsessions with visceral or pathological details in this novel, leaving us with a jolly good detective story with a classic but clever plot. A man steals and drives away in a car from a city-centre parking garage, as Rose Bradley, a vicar’s wife, packs her food shopping in the boot. Her 13-year-old daughter is in the back seat. Caffery and his team, as well as all the regular police that can be spared, are soon out searching for the girl. Flea, a person given to watery premonitions, feels convinced that the old, buried canal is relevant, so takes her team of divers down the dangerous, dark tunnels to search along the sludge and sunken, abandoned barges – a remarkably atmospheric and convincingly described setting. Nothing is found, and the parents are increasingly desperate. 

Before too long, another girl is taken in a similar manner. The description of this abduction is highly suspenseful, as the reader is pretty sure it is going to happen sooner or later – but the circumstances are nevertheless a shock as Janice, the mother concerned, becomes distracted while Emily is waiting in the back seat of their car. We have been witnessing cracks appearing in Janice’s marriage before this crisis occurs, cracks that we feel pretty sure will give way to a full-blown break-up. Yet again, the direction taken by the author in this regard is a surprise.

Caffery and Flea pursue their separate off-the-books investigations. In Caffery’s case, this means a couple of encounters with his alter ego, the Walking Man, for possible enlightenment; and in Flea’s, this means leaving her somewhat demoralised team to the official search while she follows the hunches of her dreams (mainly involving her dead father) into the old canal again. But these somewhat mystical asides are just a fraction of the main action, which focuses on two main elements – the police investigation and the effect of the disappearances on the two families concerned. I’m not going to give away any more of the plot than I’ve already mentioned because it would spoil too much of the pleasure a reader must surely feel in the clever construction of layers that the author has provided. As I have mentioned, although the subject is a horrible one, the author never oversteps the mark into unnecessarily explicit or horrible description, yet she provides a blisteringly paced, tense thriller that you honestly won’t want to stop reading until you have finished it.

The novel is best appreciated if you have read the previous Jack Caffery novels, particularly the last two, although the reader of Gone is provided with a few brief updates of the necessary back-story, not least the misunderstanding that lies heavily between Flea and Caffery after the complicated fallout of the car accident of the previous two books.  It is far superior to these earlier novels, though, perhaps even touching on the excellence of the author’s, and Caffery’s, debut, Birdman. I very much hope this signifies the beginning  of a fresh burst of life for this series – not least because the author has left things nicely poised for Caffrey and Flea, connected on the astral plane, to stop ignoring each other in the real world and have a meaningful conversation, which could lead who knows where? I don’t, but it will certainly be somewhere exciting on the evidence of Gone.

My copy of this book was borrowed from the local library.

Read other reviews of this novel at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham); Tangled Web; Easy Mix; and Reviewing the Evidence.

Mo Hayder's unforgettable debut, Birdman (here reviewed by Nicci Gerrard in the Observer) and its sequel, The Treatment (reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence by Luke Croll) were about Jack Caffery, then a London detective, and his search for his brother.  The author then moved on to other books, the remarkably good Tokyo  and the remarkably bad Pig Island. Subsequently, she moved Jack Caffery to Bristol and to date has written three novels in a series about him and Flea Marley: Ritual, Skin and Gone. Author's website.

Book Review: Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn

Let dead lie Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
Pan Macmillan, 2010. 

The year 1953 finds Emmanuel Cooper in Durban, no longer a policeman after the Morton’s fork he faced in A Beautiful Place to Die, working in the shipyards with other ex-army men of a variety of racial origins. Manual labour affords him some comfort as he recovers from the earlier events and from his previous wartime experiences, but he’s eager to accept an offer from his old boss and sort-of mentor, Major van Niekerk, to do some undercover work around the docks, identifying smugglers and other low-life. While out one night gathering intelligence, he stumbles across the body of a young boy, whom he quickly establishes has been murdered. After an altercation with three men, Cooper calls the police anonymously to report the death. Although he knows the risks to himself, he can’t ignore the boy’s plight, and so shadows the police as they investigate. Before he knows it, he’s a suspect in the crime. And this is only the start of a huge, and convoluted, series of troubles, scrapes and double-crosses in store for Cooper, involving an increasingly large cast of characters, some of whom appeared in the earlier novel.

For its first half, Let the Dead Lie is a compellingly exciting read, partly as a fast-moving investigation of a crime, and partly as a social commentary on the repressive and evil society of 1950s South Africa. Yet by the second half of this long novel, I felt that the pace was flagging a bit, and the confusion factor was getting unrealistically high as yet more people seem to know about private conversations and actions when they shouldn’t have done; or it is revealed that informants have followed Cooper’s every move – steps that to me often either seemed unnecessary or made me question why he was even being asked to undertake various tasks if the outcomes were already known. Throughout, though, the sense of social justice is a very strong theme, both the racism endemic in this cruel regime, in which even people who are married can’t admit their status, and in which poverty is rife, with many people living in awful conditions, relying on charitable handouts from the religiously inclined to survive.

Cooper is both a participant and an observer of this melee of events and of the lives of the many people he encounters during the novel – and those he meets seem to come from almost every possible race or background, so the reader gets a full picture of Durban life in the build-up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps, for a novel, the picture is somewhat too full, blurring the effectiveness of the plot – but whatever one’s feelings about that, nobody could doubt that this is a novel with a big conscience, intent on revealing many shameful injustices that were accepted as the norm in their time but now, thankfully, exposed for what they really were.

 

I thank the publisher, Pan Macmillan, for my copy of this book. From the press release accompanying the book: Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland before moving to Perth. She studied theatre in the USA, where she began writing and directing short films. Her first novel, A Beautiful Place to Die, won the Sisters in Crime Davitt award for best crime novel by an Australian female author. It was shortlisted for an Edgar award for best novel. Malla Nunn lives in Sydney. 

My review of the first in this series, A Beautiful Place to Die.

Read other reviews of Let the Dead Lie at: Reactions to Reading; Murder by the Book and The Ember (includes a discussion with the author about this book).

My September Euro Crime and Petrona reviews

RoShadows RoShadows RoShadows Two of my book reviews went up at Euro Crime during September, both of rather good novels. One, River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (MacLehose Press; translator Joseph Farrell) is a classic police procedural set in the Italian countryside. I wrote that it is "a welcome newcomer to the crime fiction genre (in England, at least: it was first published in Italy in 2003). Soneri has many attributes in common with Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbani". The other, Three Seconds by Roslund and Hellstrom (Quercus; translator Kari Dickson), is an "addictive thriller".  I wrote: "the book has two elements. In one, it is a great thriller whose pace never lets up, particularly in the second half. It is full of the sort of detail that made Stieg Larsson so popular, for example the scenes in the library and the way in which the police informer tries to anticipate anything and everything that might transpire once he is incarcerated and can't control events. The other main element in the book, again with echoes of Larsson, is the political corruption of the national police force in Sweden and the ministry of justice responsible for its oversight."

My reviews at Petrona during September include some very good novels: An Empty Death by Laura Wilson; Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translator Philip Roughton); The Woman Before Me, a talented debut by Ruth Dugdale (winner of the CWA debut dagger); Midnight Cab by James Nicholl; and U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton, among a few others. See here for the month's archived reviews. I also reviewed my first (and so far only) Kindle book during September: Silent Counsel by Ken Isaacson.

I'm not going to pick a favourite from these as it would be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but I can certainly recommend any of them as a very good read indeed.

Book Review: Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

JCW2 Silence by Jan Costin Wagner
Translated by Anthea Bell
Harvill Secker

Silence begins with the description of a murder that took place in 1974, in which a young teenage girl disappeared while riding her bicycle in the Finnish countryside. Her body is eventually found in a nearby lake. The main detective investigating the case is Antsi Ketola, and his failure to find the killer has haunted him ever since.

The main novel opens 33 years later, on the day of Ketola’s retirement. He is given a party by his colleagues, including detective Kimmo Joentaa, whom English-language readers met in the author’s previous novel Ice Moon.  Ketola asks Joentaa to go with him to the archive in the basement of the police station to look for a model of the scene of the old crime that Ketola had made at the time. He wants to take it home with him before he leaves the force, so he tells the younger man about the old case.

Six months later, a bicycle is found near the cross marking the disappearance of Pia, the girl who was killed so many years before. Joentaa and his colleagues soon discover that it belongs to a 13-year-old girl who had been on her way to a sports class. Her parents are devastated as it gradually sinks in that their daughter has disappeared. Naturally, the police wonder if the two cases might be related, and Joentaa asks Ketola to help with the investigation.

Silence is a quietly compelling book, dwelling on the consequences of life’s losses and disappointments. Several of the characters are coming to terms with the deaths of children or spouses, and it transpires that Ketola himself has a son who is very disturbed. As may be inferred from the title, most of the characters suffer their pain in internal reflection, sometimes for many years. Others keep silent about nastier secrets, and this is rather hard for the reader to bear, as the consequences of silence are that someone can live a life surrounded by vulnerable and innocent people, and that crimes can proliferate in ways that are not hinted at in this novel, but are all-too obvious, and too awful to contemplate. This overshadows the book, making it almost intolerable to read – and I mean this as a compliment. Yet the novel does not have the haunting other-worldly quality of Ice Moon. Also, the irascibly funny characterisation of Ketola is not reprised in Silence: he’s eccentric, but somehow not the same person as the man portrayed previously.  Nor is the outcome of the second (modern-day) crime entirely convincing. But compared with your average crime novel, Silence certainly stands out from the crowd and must surely be among the strongest of the genre published (in English) this year, not least by its ability to portray the pressures arising from years-long guilt and unhappiness.

 

I am very grateful to Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book. Her review of it is here.

Silence has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps .

Jan Costin Wagner is a German national who lives part of his time in Finland. Read more about him here and here (includes a review of his novel The Winter of the Lions, not yet translated into English).

 

Not the five best international crime novels

Some of us know that today's "best" lists are tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping, but even so I will note a strangely non-contextual collection under the title of Five Best Books: International Crime Fiction, by Geoffrey O'Brien in the WSJ.com (link sent to me by Dave Lull). An alternative link is here if the previous one does not work. The five "best" novels according to the WSJ are:

From Nine to Nine by Leo Perutz, 1918
Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, 1933
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, 1969
The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, 2005
The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, 2007

Eu3 I am sure these are all very good novels and all that (Geoffrey O'Brien's article consists of a brief paragraph about each, and that's it, no context or overview), but the "best" translated fiction? No. I have read two of these novels and would not say that they stand out from the rest of their authors' output. I have not read The Oxford Murders but if it is anything like the awful film version that I once saw on a plane, forget it. I may have read Tropic Moon, but if so, I have forgotten.

As I read quite a bit of translated crime fiction (albeit mostly modern) I thought I would write a list of five books I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the genre.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg.
Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason.
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen.
The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri.
Sun Storm by Asa Larsson.

While not claiming to be the "best", these novels will provide a good but rather modern and European-centric overview of translated (a.k.a. international) crime fiction, from a range of perspectives. If you enjoy these, I suggest you read all ten of the Sjowall/Wahloo Martin Beck series (not just one of them, as they work much better if read as a whole. Geoffrey O'Brien is quite wrong to repeat the erroneous statement that this series "owed much" to Ed McBain; they were conceived and written independently). Then you can fly solo, aided by the great resource of Euro Crime (mainly, but not entirely, European crime fiction.) Of course, any other person could write a list of five different books, which would be just as good as these.