Book review: White Dog by Peter Temple

Text publishing Australia, 2003.

Before his “breakthrough” novel, The Broken Shore (winner of the CWA gold dagger), and its sort-of sequel, Truth, Peter Temple wrote three stand-alone novels and a series of four books about ex-lawyer turned investigator Jack Irish. White Dog is the fourth of these Jack Irish stories, and the only book by Temple not yet to have been published in the UK (it is due to be published by Quercus this summer).

White Dog contains all the standard elements of a Peter Temple, and specifically a Jack Irish, novel. What first strikes the reader is the apparently effortless, poetic use of language: every sentence, every paragraph is infused with lean, masculine beauty. Near the start, Jack meets a client, a woman who welds sculptures out of metal:

I gave her my card and said goodbye, walked back the way I had come, around the downed knight in his pool of harsh light, around the steel scrapheap, between the execution and the crawling, panting pack of dog-humans. Finally, I passed by the witches preparing to cook a small creature and came to the sliding door and opened it to the dripping world beyond.

It’s all like that: metaphors and portents that never slow the pace. The client, Sarah Longmore, has been arrested for apparently killing her ex-boyfriend Mickey, a shady-seeming character who had recently taken up with Sarah’s sister Sophie, providing the older woman with a motive or two. Jack is hired by his ex-legal partner Drew, to help the defence. Jack carries out his task with his customary introspection and ambivalence, immersed in the wreck of his past life (dead wife, estranged daughter and sister), and in the constant “gentrification” of his beloved Melbourne. As usual, the old ways of life are constantly and tellingly observed as the yuppification continues and the old establishments and simpler illegal activities give way to more shallow, sophisticated enterprises. These observations are filtered through Jack’s alternative, parallel jobs as a cabinet maker, regular at the local pub and Saints footy supporter (lots of humour about that including a couple of dentist jokes), and a shady horse dealer. Jack’s conflicted state is partly due to his own history: his father was a communist stonemason and his mother an heiress, and that theme is to the fore in his first steps at unravelling the truth behind Mickey’s death.

After some time of not getting very far, a pivotal event happens which galvanises Jack and the plot – which is standard Peter Temple. Jack uses a network of convenient contacts to follow the trail of registered companies and deals, at the same time tracking down possible but vanished witnesses to Mickey’s mysterious business dealings. Everything is very complicated and one has to pay a lot of attention to the details, but at heart this novel is a straightforward tale of greed and corruption, par for the course with this author, but none the worse for it.

I loved reading this novel, though the reading of it is more compelling than the resolution of the plot, in which one feels the author got a bit bored as the ending is rather perfunctory and the villains interchangeable (though the various victims, mainly women, are not). This does not matter to me, as reading a Peter Temple book is always a lovely, emotional journey. I am only sorry that I shall probably have to wait a long time before reading another book by this excellent author – Truth, his most recent, was first published in 2009 but Temple is not an author who writes fast, to put it mildly.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading, for my copy of this novel, together with Kerrie (Mysteries in Paradise) and Norman (Crime Scraps) for ensuring its safe journey.

About Peter Temple: Interview with Bob Cornwell (2010). This is probably the best article to read about Peter Temple and his books if you have not yet read him and want to find out more about why he’s in the pantheon. Australian Crime Fiction database: lists all the novels and links to reviews of all but the first; and an associated brief interview at Crime Down Under blog (2008). All things Peter Temple, a post at Bite the Book blog. Peter Temple at Fair Dinkum crime.

Some Scandinavian books I am looking forward to reading

As an avid follower of Karen’s Amazon lists and Euro Crime blog, I am eagerly awaiting several novels and keep checking them out on Amazon, which then obligingly keeps reminding me about them. Despite the windy weather, summer must be nearly upon us because several of these tempting books are finally about to be published. Among those that I am keenly awaiting are:

Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Anna Yates and published by Harvill Secker, who currently have a very good list of translated crime fiction. This Icelandic novel is the seventh in the Erlunder series (the first two have not yet been translated but reviews of the rest, several by me, can be found at Euro Crime). Along with Vargas and Camilleri, Indridason is a favourite among the Euro Crime regular reviewers. In Outrage, the investigation is undertaken by Det. Elinborg as Erlunder is away. I hope my favourite depressive will make more than a brief appearance, though.

Misterioso by Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally and published by Pantheon. As the blurb puts it: “The first novel in Arne Dahl’s gripping Intercrime series—widely considered to be one of Sweden’s best—Misterioso is a penetrating, dark, and absorbing introduction to this acclaimed author’s world.” Arne Dahl is the pen name of Swedish literary critic and novelist Jan Arnald.

Until Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson, translated by Laurie Thompson and published by MacLehose Press. This Swedish novel is the fourth in the Rebecka Martinsson series. The first three titles, beautifully translated by Marlaine Delargy, are among my very favourite crime novels (see my Euro Crime reviews). I’ve had to wait a while for the fourth novel owing to a change of publisher, but I am sure the wait will be worth it. Two strong female protagonists (a financial lawyer and a police detective) and journeys into the dark secrets underlying “respectable” society and family lives – perfection. (The publisher has not listed the translator on the Amazon entry, to its shame.)

The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by who knows?* and published by Hodder and Stoughton. Another Icelandic series, this one about witty lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir, her predilection for mysteries and her complicated but warm family and (attempted) romantic life. Reviews of the first three titles can be read at Euro Crime. *It is very remiss of the publisher not to list the translator on its website or on the book’s Amazon listing. There is a big, silly promotional sticker on the cover, but no mention there or in the bibliographic details of the translator. The first novels were translated by the late Bernard Scudder (1 and 2), Anna Yates (2) and Philip Roughton (3).

The Quarry by Johan Theorin, translated by (I guess!) Marlaine Delargy and published by Doubleday (another publisher with a black mark from me for not listing the translator). Johan Theorin is in my opinion the best Swedish crime-fiction author writing today (and perhaps the best crime author from anywhere?), he is certainly in a different class to “hyped” authors such as Stieg Larsson, “Lars Kepler” and Sissel-Jo Gazan. This book is the third in his loose series set on the island of Oland. My reviews of the previous two titles (both CWA winners) are at Euro Crime.

The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K E Semmel and published by Harvill Secker (the only publisher among this book collection that bothers to acknowledge the translator in online listings, though gets a black mark here for the sticker on the front cover comparing this author to Jo Nesbo – polar opposites!). This is the eighth in the Inspector Sejer series: the first has not been translated from its native Norwegian but reviews of the rest (some by me) are at Euro Crime. These novels are not “crime fiction” but rather seek to illuminate some aspect of human psychology and failing. I also highly recommend Fossum’s standalone novel, Broken, which would be a perfect introduction to this marvellous author.

This list is not comprehensive (of course!) but highlights some of the books I shall definitely be reading. Some other Scandinavian offerings that are not quite out yet I’ve already been lucky enough to read in proof – reviews of these will be appearing at Euro Crime over the next few weeks or months: The Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt (translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally); The Dinosaur Feather by Sissal-Jo Gazan (translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund); The Hypnotist by “Lars Kepler” (translated from Swedish by Ann Long); and Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner (translated from German by Anthea Bell; the book is set in Finland). I’ve also recently reviewed on Euro Crime some very good new titles, including the superb Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (translated from Danish by Lisa Hartford) and The Gallows Bird by Camilla Lackberg (translated from Swedish by Steven T. Murray).

A literal book and book blogger world tour

One of the great things about the Internet is that it enables one to find out instantly about enticing books. Often this discovery comes about from reading great blog reviews, reviews that make one desperate to read the title in question. Sadly, when the blogs concerned are in different “geographical regions” as defined by book publishers, this desperation is likely to remain unrequited if one lives in the “wrong” place. We’ve seen in the past week or two how superinjunctions have failed to be upheld in England and Wales, at least in part due to the mass anarchy of online social media. Sadly, however, the frustrating rules about where one can buy books are less susceptible to such pressures: even though one can freely read about a book, one may not be able to buy or read it. (Even if the books are available in e-format, the same restrictive rules apply, very sad for keen readers.)

Every now and again, an opportunity arises for a remedy, and such an opportunity has just been taken by a human chain of bloggers, starting with Bernadette in Australia, who purchased the titles in question, then moving on to Kerrie, also in Australia, whose physical location is luckily nearby and was about to embark on a trip to visit her family in Abu Dhabi, before attending Crime Fest in Bristol, UK. Among the attendees at Crime Fest was Norman, he of the Yurt on the Moor (picture copyright Crime Scraps) who, after a handover, very kindly posted the cargo on to me, a couple of hundred miles up the road.

So thank you, all, so much for my mercy package which arrived a couple of days ago via so many exotic and disparate locations. A wonderful thing, the Internet.

Book review: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Harvill Secker, July 2011.

Turn of Mind is a very powerful book, but it is not what I would call a crime novel. Dr Jennifer White is a 65-year-old orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hands. She’s suffering from dementia, so has had to take early retirement. She lives in her lovely old Chicago home with her live-in carer, Magdalena, and has two grown-up children, Mark, a lawyer, and Fiona, a financial analyst. Jennifer is an intelligent, focused woman who has made a great success of her career, not only as a leading surgeon but also as a tireless volunteer helper in a centre for those who don’t have medical insurance.

This account may not sound that compelling, but the novel grabs you from the very first sentence, and does not let go. Why? Because it is told from Jennifer’s point of view, as her mind decays and she struggles to stay in control of her life while being all-too-aware of what is happening to her. She uses various aids to keep track – labelled photographs on the wall, and a diary which she and her visitors and carer write in, so she can read back and try to keep some cohesion in her turbulent experience. The authorial hand, however, ensures that the book never rambles or confuses – there is a discipline to the fractured prose of the novel, and a lack of sentimentality or self-pity, that ensures the reader is both gripped and can follow the events of Jennifer’s past and present life.

The author’s style is simply superb, as she presents an utterly convincing and moving account as the Alzheimer’s disease from which Jennifer is suffering causes her memories to jump in and out of timeframes. Sometimes Jennifer thinks she is a young woman, even though we gather from the reactions of those around her she is ravaged and a physical mess as she cannot cope with dressing or realising when she is wearing her night clothes or even nothing at all. Her relationships with her adult children are particularly well-drawn, as they cope with their mother’s current erratic mental state while still reacting to her on an emotional level as the parent they knew before the illness.

The crime plot is woven into Jennifer’s memories in the sense that her only and longstanding friend and neigbour, Amanda, has been found murdered. It seems as if Jennifer was the last known person to see Amanda alive, and the mode of her death causes the police to suspect Jennifer’s involvement. Of course Jennifer cannot remember whether or not she is involved in the death: quite often she can’t even remember Amanda. But Jennifer’s haphazard reminiscences provide the reader with a gradual picture of what Amanda was like and the dynamics of her friendship with Jennifer’s family. One of the police detectives investigating the murder had a partner who had suffered from Alzheimer’s, so she is particularly sensitive and adept at eliciting information from the puzzled suspect, despite the attempts of Jennifer’s family to protect her. Eventually, the police close in as the illness continues to exert its inevitable iron grip, told in a couple of relatively short, tragic sections at the end of the book (which is divided into four parts broadly reflecting Jennifer’s state of mind and living circumstances).

I very highly recommend this novel. Although its main subject is a harrowing one, and not one that many people might want to read about, the treatment here is marvellous, largely because of Jennifer’s spiky personality and her refusal to become a victim of her illness – most particularly shown as she retains her specialist medical knowledge despite her general mental decay, which she either uses verbally or notes to herself her diagnostic reactions to people she meets. Jennifer is a haughty woman who is rightly proud of her professional success. Throughout her disease she retains this world-view, however inappropriate it is to her current physical and mental circumstances, insisting (with weakening force) that people she meets call her by her title and not by a patronising diminutive, for example. The amateurish crime plot is not really relevant to one’s enjoyment of the book (though the telling of a police investigation through the filter of Jennifer is fascinating!), providing perhaps a slightly artificial framework and sense of climax when what is really the most interesting aspect of the novel by far is Jennifer’s relationship to her illness and her general determination as a character.

Despite initial reservations, I am very glad I read this novel and highly recommend it to anyone, whether or not they like crime fiction. I thank Karen of Euro Crime for so kindly providing a proof from the publisher. I particularly like the cover of the UK edition (the US edition seems to be different), which is doubly relevant to the story in its depiction of a flower and its sense of the milky haze of the tangled filaments of the neurons and plaques that underly Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the book is not published until July, there are some early, glowing reviews available at Bibliophile by the Sea, Simple Pleasures book blog, and Book Reviews from an Avid Reader.

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (25 May)

What are the essential books of the last decade? Jackie of Farm Lane books entered and won a competition by Penguin Essentials which asked bloggers to suggest their own favourites. Jackie’s excellent selection is here. Her prize (pictured at post) is the entire Penguin Essentials series – but I am wondering whether I should read some of the books she’s chosen as I’ve only read a few of them. I would be quite hard-pressed to decide on a few essential books from the past decade as I haven’t read enough “good” (literary) ones, unlike previous decades. But I’ll think on it.

Some good book reviews I read recently: Work in Progress reviews Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, a book I enjoyed very much years ago; Georgina Phipps of Allison and Busby finishes her epic review/reading summary of War and Peace (Tolstoy), a marvellous series of posts that bought the book back to me (I read it when I was 18 and about to go to college); and there’s another old favourite reviewed (superbly) at A Penguin A Week, The Last Tresilians by J I M Stewart (which I read when I was about 11 and understood very little! My father had all the Michael Innes and J I M Stewarts on his shelf in the attic which I read my way through at that time).

There’s a lot of reaction to the announcement of an eventual buyer for Waterstone’s bookshops, a deal that includes James Daunt of the highly-regarded independent chain. See this Guardian article, for example. This piece provides links to Waterstone’s and Daunt’s current websites, and asks which is better. It’s a no-brainer, of course the Daunt one is much more appealing and reader-friendly. However, this isn’t the point. The books featured on the Daunt homepage, or in a newly “independent” Waterstone’s branch, are available on Amazon for half the price in some cases, and cheaper than the Waterstone’s/Daunt price in virtually all of them. This is what Waterstone’s has to compete with – however attractive a website or bookshop, most of the sales are going to be made by Amazon or the Book Depository or a few other sites. I don’t see how real-world bookshops can seriously compete, sadly (I like both forms of book buying but I am not going to pay twice as much for a book just because I like the shop).

Paul Wakely of the BBC explains why publishers like his and my own company have to be so careful about user-generated comments on their websites, even though the same comments are all over Twitter, people’s own blogs, et al. The England and Wales law is enough to make any company with a physical office in either country relocate to California or the Cayman Islands. (It isn’t the going to court that is so much of a worry as the vast costs of dealing with frivolous threats and preparing due diligence possible defences.) The England/Wales libel laws need to change, which won’t happen by users getting cross because their comments have been removed, but it might happen if the same users (if they live in the UK) lobby their MP to support the current bill (awaiting a reading) – see Sense About Science. On a related topic, it is heartening to read (Economist), assuming that more people will believe it, that alternative medicine is 95 per cent ineffective, compared with placebos which can “work” a lot more often. (Or, “easy ways to save your money”.)

Brief links.

Excellent post about why being quiet does not mean being “not smart”. (Female Science Professor)

Books (150,000 of them) from the sixteenth and seventeenth century can now be seen online in full colour, thanks to the partnership between Google Books and various national or leading libraries. They’ve also scanned 450,000 books from the eighteenth century. (Inside Google books).

Dinosaur feathers? No, kiwi DNA preserved in Maori cloaks reveals the origins and history of the revered textiles (Nature News).

Not in front of the children (Nicci French blog). You just have to read this – incredibly awful parenting and a great (book-related) punchline.

I had to laugh at the £3.50 Waitrose lettuce leaf, though this writer with an eating disorder did not find it so amusing, thinking it gives the wrong message to young women.

Book review: An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

Translated by Sian Reynolds. Harvill Secker, 2011.

The latest in the Adamsberg series (now almost caught up with itself in translation) opens in London, with Adamsberg and Danglard attending a European-wide police meeting on crime. Adamsberg, in a reversal of the usual English attitude to the French, has never bothered to learn English so is deliberately remote from the subject matter of the conference, unlike his colleague Danglard, who not only is immersed in it but falls for a woman delegate called “Abstract”. Wandering round London with the main English police representative, Adamsberg and Danglard meet an unusual Lord, who leads them to Highgate cemetery and a gruesome yet eccentric discovery, capturing Adambserg’s interest in a way that the conference has failed to do.
Back in Paris, the team is immediately called out to an extremely horrific murder which Adamsberg attacks with his characteristic lack of forward motion but plenty of intuitive and weird observations and asides. As an example the unarmed suspect, once apprehended, is casually allowed to run away during questioning (by some strange sleight of hand managing to disable two police guards while the interrogators look on, jump over a wall and vanish into the night). Adamsberg is unperturbed, being more interested in the fate of some newborn kittens in the shed in the garden of his old neighbour (among other apparently inconsequential concerns that we know will all turn out to be relevant, somehow).
The preceding couple of paragraphs should provide an idea of the idiosyncracies of this novel. The apparently baroque plot, such as it is, is very obvious, so for the reader it is a question of whether or not one is prepared to be charmed by all the mini-meanderings that take place until all is revealed; whether one is prepared to suspend belief at many of the subsequent bizarre scenes and ruminations (mainly of Adamsberg); and whether one is prepared to put irritation on one side when, as often happens, a scene is described with a crucial element missing, or someone states a fact, is told this is wrong, then later, without any explanation, the fact is then accepted to be true.
Vargas’s characters inhabit a world where there is some external sanity and order, but not in a way that impinges on any of the plot. DNA tests and standard procedure have no place here, as each member of the police team is defined by his or her particular eccentricity or neurosis which is used to contribute, jigsaw-fashion, in a sort of psychotherapeutic approach to the crime as a “patient”. When the whole story is created from all the disparate elements (I can’t really call them clues, but they do add up), Adamsberg knows the complete picture – not that he is necessarily going to share it with anyone.
Vargas has many admirers and I can understand why her books, written with an intelligent originality, are so well regarded. But at heart, they are cold – they represent huge academic games in the author’s mind, rather than being written with passion or conviction. Here, as in previous novels, events are plucked out of Adamsberg’s past as if by a magician, and he remains detached from engagement with his family whom he regards as if they have nothing to do with him. (He has a similar attitude to the past revelations.) If, as a reader, one wants to engage with the author on her own terms, the books, this one included, are rewarding and, if you aren’t squeamish, entertaining. If, however, you are like me and prefer (crime) novels to be rooted in apparent authenticity and reality, with emotional power arising from this framework, they are less appealing.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for so kindly providing an advance proof of this novel, which has just been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger 2011.

Fred Vargas is a favourite among many of Euro Crime’s regular reviewers. A chronological list of her books, together with their associated Euro Crime reviews, can be found here.

Other, mainly extremely positive, reviews of this particular novel can be found at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), The Sunday Independent, The Independent, Crime Scraps, Shade Point, and Shots e-zine.

CWA International Dagger shortlist 2011and predicted winner

The shortlist for the CWA International Dagger was announced at CrimeFest in Bristol on Friday evening (click on title to see my review):

Andrea Camilleri – The Wings of the Sphinx tr. Stephen Sartarelli
Ernesto Mallo – Needle in a Haystack tr. Jethro Soutar
Jean-Francois Parot – The Saint-Florentin Murders tr. Howard Curtis
Roslund-Hellstrom – Three Seconds tr. Kari Dickson
Valerio Varesi – River of Shadows tr. Joseph Farrell
Fred Vargas – An Uncertain Place tr. Sian Reynolds
Domingo Villar – Death on a Galician Shore tr. Sonia Soto

The full list of eligible titles is at Euro Crime. Not all these titles will have been submitted for the prize by their publishers, but immediately it can be seen that the choices are independent ones: no Mankell, Fossum or Nesbo, who one might have expected to be automatic selections, and other well-known authors are omitted (eg Lackberg, Marklund and Sigurdardottir). Of the titles selected, I’ve read five and am currently reading An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas, which I’m enjoying so far (more so than some of her previous novels). I am not sure if I’ll read The Saint-Florentin Murders, but will check it out.

Of the five I have read, any would get my vote for the winner (which will be announced at Harrogate crime festival in July). All five have many points to recommend them and a few to count against them – there is no perfect storm of a winner (such as is sometimes provided by Johan Theorin and Arnaldur Indridason, both past CWA winners in various competitions). My two favourites of the eligible titles, Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder (tr Marlaine Delargy) and Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (tr Lisa Hartford) did not make the shortlist (note, they may not have been submitted).

On balance I think my favourite is Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo. It’s got a solid, well-constructed crime plot, engaging characters, a social-political conscience and bags of tension. The ending is a real cliffhanger which has certainly continued to puzzle me. The Argentina setting makes the book distinctive from previous years, in which European titles have won.

I’d be happy for any of these excellent novels to win the prize, but the following explains why I prefer Needle in a Haystack.

Three Seconds: a scorchingly paced thriller, very exciting to read, but for me marred by an unsympathetic protagonist, unconvincingly convoluted political machinations, and some unlikely plot elements.
The Wings of the Sphinx: a charming, readable novel but not the greatest crime plot – Montalbano relies on the intuitive flash as usual.
Death on a Galician Shore: wonderful sense of place, atmosphere and traditional life, a well-put-together novel, and lovely family relationship between three men. The weakness is in the obvious crime plot, which lacks excitement or surprises. The byplay between the police characters is amusing but not as well done as it is in the first novel (Water Blue Eyes) in the series.
River of Shadows: again, a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, particularly the river throughout and the old villages in the last section. The protagonist is both flat and not nice or nasty enough to gel (a hint of misogyny?), and though the plot is well constructed and suitably twisty, the action of the novel is too dependent on numerous trips between towns and repeated interviews.
An Uncertain Place: The only book on the shortlist by a woman. I have not finished this book yet and am enjoying it, but it is full of Vargas’s usual eccentricites and strange “cosy”/violent/academic assessment mix that makes me regard her novels as fables or allegories, rather than “proper” crime fiction. Also, she’s won the prize too often in previous years!

Well, I was right in my prediction last year (The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin) so I don’t expect to be so prescient two years running. Time will tell.

*Post updated. Here is the official announcement from the CWA, with an explanation as to why each shortlisted book was chosen.

All my previous International Dagger posts.

Read, reading, to read: mid-May update

My reading rate during May has slowed down a bit compared with April. So far I’ve only read five books this month, though am well over half-way through The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner, a strange book. I’m not quite sure why my reading rate fluctuates from one book a day to one a week (roughly): time, length of book and interest level of book don’t seem to be factors. (Availability of books to read certainly is not!).

Of my May reads so far, I’ve posted a review here of Back of Beyond by C J Box (USA), and had a review of another, Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark), published at Euro Crime. Another couple are submitted (or almost submitted) to Euro Crime: Blue Monday by Nicci French (UK), and The Dead of Summer by Mari Jungstedt (Sweden). I’ve also read Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder (UK) but am not going to review that because it was both utterly daft and featured two very irritating female protagonists, and I did not want to write a review full of gripes. It is (pardoxically?) a readable book, though, despite the fact that you could drive the Flying Scotsman through the plot. (A Euro Crime review of the book is here.)

What’s next? Books keep appearing, even though I’m not getting out to the library or physical bookshops at the moment. Two online purchases of print books are Nowhere to Run by C J Box, the tenth novel in the Joe Pickett series and the one that brings me almost up to date, as the eleventh has just been published in the USA; and The Fourth Man by K O Dahl, the last of the already-translated novels in this Norwegian series so far, which I want to read before the next one comes out. From publishers, under the kind auspices of Karen from Euro Crime, I have proofs of An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas (France); Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (a debut novel, USA); and Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Denmark). On the e-front, I have downloaded two novels that start off series (recommended by Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog), A Cold Day for Murder and Fire and Ice, both by Dana Stabenow (USA), and 69 pence each (admittedly the deciding factor in my purchase of these books).

I am not sure which of these to read next, so suggestions are welcome.

Book review: Back of Beyond by C J Box

Back of Beyond by C J Box
Corvus, 2011

As well as his justly admired series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, C J Box has also written a couple of well-received standalone novels (Blue Heaven and Three Weeks To Say Goodbye), books which have deservedly won him the attention of a wider audience. Back of Beyond is another of these standalones: though the main character here, Cody Hoyt, is in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye and the events in that novel are briefly alluded to, Back of Beyond stands in its own right and you certainly don’t have to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one.

Cody has moved on since Three Weeks (not entirely voluntarily) and is now serving as a detective in the Montana mountains. He’s a mess: a chain-smoking alcoholic who is divorced and barely sees the son whom he loves; in other words just the kind of self-indulgent, staple character I loathe. As the novel opens, Cody is sent out to the backwoods after two hikers call the police station to report finding a dead body in a burnt-out shack. At first, it seems as if the victim died by falling into a drunken stupour and leaving the wood stove door open, but the unseasonal rains mean that enough clues are left in the shell of the building for Cody suspect that the death is not natural. He calls in his colleague Lionel (who helps to keep him on the straight and narrow) who in turn calls the sheriff and the unpleasant coroner – both men standing for re-election, hence the coroner brings a journalist with him to the scene. Cody soon realises that he probably knows the victim, in which case he is sure that the mode of death is definitely not self-inflicted, but in order to persuade his colleagues of this inner knowledge he sets up an incompetent trap, resulting in him being suspended from duty.

Here the novel begins to get distinctive. Cody has his reasons to want to track down the killer (assuming there is one) off the books, ideally with Lionel’s help. Soon he discovers that the victim was about to go on a guided trek in Yellowstone Park – and some digging reveals that it’s likely that the perpetrator is going on the same trek in order to kill someone else. When Cody finds out the schedule, he realises that his own son Justin is on the list. The unlikeliness of this coincidence is explained by the fact that this particular trek is only available once a year, to a part of the (highly regulated) park that is not open to the public and along a route known only to one or two veteran park rangers. The book then shifts several gears as Cody juggles all the balls in order to help his son, which includes battling with his own addictions, being attacked and in lots of danger, plenty of classic detective work and the seemingly hopeless need to hastily acquire the outdoors skills necessary to follow the Yellowstone trekkers on their ambitious journey before the killer strikes.

C J Box cleverly merges his plot with his knowledge and love of the American wilderness, in particular Yellowstone Park (as vividly depicted in an earlier series novel, Free Fire). The sections about the trek itself have a strong Agatha Christie air to them, as we get to know the various personalities on the trail and wonder why they are there – and which of them might be who Cody is seeking. At the same time, Cody is on his own inner journey and we wonder if he’ll change as a result of his quest (not least when he loses his cigarettes and stash of booze).

Back of Beyond is an exciting book to read, transcending the standard mystery plot by providing a protagonist who can choose to become more mature and responsible via the challenges he faces, as well as a varied and puzzling mix of circumstances and locations. This book is a perfect introduction to the novels of C J Box – or if you have read his earlier books, you’ll find this one very satisfying.

I thank the UK publisher of this book, Corvus, for sending me an advance copy. It is published in the UK in August, and has already been reviewed at The Book Bag . There’s a fascinating recent interview with the author at WyoFile . The author’s (excellent, US) website is here, and the author’s books available in the UK are listed at the Corvus website .

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (12 May)

One important post on the Internet is that of my daughters, who are running the “race for life” next month for a worthy charity close to our family’s heart. Please support them if you can – the three of them range from a regular marathon runner, through a tennis player, to someone who has never run a long(ish) distance before. They and I would very much appreciate your support. Please go here to their (international) donation page. Thank you so much.

Onto topics more usual for this blog. Bookish, to launch this summer, is the latest publishers’ initiative to encourage readers to buy books from their websites, which very few do currently (probably because most publishers’ websites are hopeless and their prices and/or e-commerce do not compare with sites such as Amazon). According to the New York Times, the one-stop site will be a mix of recommendations, reviews (by visitors) and features. I have already participated in several similar initiatives which have withered mainly due to lack of sufficient users or content, so it isn’t clear to me how Bookish will be better than those, or better than what one can do currently on a well-used, focused site like Amazon or Goodreads.

A Swedish newspaper has bucked the trend and boosted its circulation by being more ambitious editorially! (As well as various cost-cutting and efficiency initiatives.) Not only is this great news but the description of Svenska Dagbladet, described as an “upmarket tabloid”, reminds me strongly of the Annika Bengzton novels by Liza Marklund. One can almost imagine Annika as one of those journalists. Story in The Guardian.

There’s a nice post from Nicola Morgan who is preparing a booklet called How to Tweet right, about how and why to use Twitter. She is offering to list Twitter users in her index of recommended people to follow – instructions in the post at the link if you want to be included.

Unsurprisingly, publishers are now finding that e-books are contributing a significant amount to their total sales. (See also: Publishing’s paper problem and how to future-proof the industry.) What they need to do sooner rather than later is to sort out a more rational sales method, one that does not discriminate for or against readers from particular geographical regions. If they can do anything about pricing that would also be great, but those who rail against the high price of new e-books compared to the equivalent hardback need to acknowledge that cost is not only about distribution.

For those readers like me who are getting increasingly annoyed by the “noise” of self-published e-books when trying to look through Amazon listings, here’s a slightly unwelcome post about how tough it is to be an author of such a book. Amazon have told me that it cannot “kitemark” its e-books on the listing page as to whether the title is independently (professionally)- or self-published. The customer has to click through and look at each book’s product page (and even there, one cannot tell from the stated “publisher”, one has to check the blurb to be sure-ish). Given the plethora of these books, together with the large amount of “mini” books by established authors cashing in on the format’s flexibility to provide us with short stories, chapters or spin-offs, I’m pretty much at the point of deciding not to buy an e-book unless I know in advance which title I want to look at, as it is all too time-consuming and overwhelming.

Links in brief.

A book editor asks: what is suspense?

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a backlist book.

The four kinds of newspaper headline – and the health story.

Operation sandwich: the secret of the new Kindle.

Bad news, as a publisher outsources its subediting for two of Australia’s largest newspapers.