SinC25: Catherine Sampson, #2 post of “moderate” challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ easy challenge, I am now embarking on the next step, the:

Moderate challenge: write five blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention another woman author who writes in a similar vein.

I shall take as my second author Catherine Sampson, who has written four books initially about a TV journalist, Robin Ballantyne and set in London, but increasingly “taken over” by a Chinese ex-policeman and now PI, Song. The author was herself a journalist with the BBC and now lives in China, so her novels have a natural air of authenticity as well as being very good reads. (Her website is here.) A quick summary of the four books to date:

Falling Off Air: Robin is on maternity leave from “the corporation” having given birth to twins but not getting much if any support from the babies’ father. She witnesses what she thinks may be a murder or a suicide. She becomes embroiled in the case as a witness and then a suspect, so has to struggle to clear her name as well as deal with two babies and various family issues. I thought this was a great debut novel, both for its crime plot and its realistic depiction of working in the media as well as what it is like for a woman to adjust from a responsibility-free professional life to cope with tiny babies, complete with society’s and colleagues’ judgements.

Out of Mind, the second book about Robin, was generally less well-received, but I enjoyed this account of her investigation of a missing woman in the context of backstabbing “office politics”, and her continuing struggles to juggle professionalism and domesticity. Strangely to me, women reviewers in particular seem to get quite exasperated with novels about women in this situation, but it is a real issue that I and many others have faced, in the realisation that (unlike many men who seem to have children and carry on regardless with their previous lives!) having children and a professional job is very, very challenging and you can’t just “have it all” as Shirley Conran and co once told us so blithely in their best-selling books.

I read Catherine Sampson’s first two novels before I began regular reviewing, so have not written up my impressions of those. I have, however, reviewed her subsequent books at Euro Crime.

The Pool of Unease. Robin is sent to Beijing to investigate the case of a missing (English) businessman who may have been involved in illegal or shady activities. A new character, Song, is introduced. He’s an ex-policeman who has fallen out of favour with his powerful father-in-law and is struggling to make a living as a PI. He discovers the body of a woman who has been burnt; part of him wants to investigate and part of him wants to flee in case he is implicated. He gradually becomes more important in the novel as his story eventually merges with Robin’s, with the help of Song’s friend Wolf and Robin’s interpreter, Blue. I really enjoyed this book for its perspective of China, as well as for its plot and the character of Song.

The Slaughter Pavilion is almost all set in China and Song is firmly the main character. Song, Wolf and Blue all have their struggles (including Song’s complicated domestic situation); Song becomes embroiled in a dangerous case; and I enjoyed very much the Chinese setting and the many issues raised about life and people’s concerns in various parts of that society. I think this is the strongest book of the four, and very much look forward to the next one, if there is one.

The author wrote a Guardian column in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic games and for a year or so afterwards, which makes interesting reading about social and political issues in China.

Now I have to mention “another woman author who writes in similar vein”. I can’t do this precisely, but will do it in two.

First, Liza Marklund‘s series about journalist Annika Bengtzon, a crime reporter (eventually) at a Swedish newspaper who has a challenging personal life, including (eventually!) having children and juggling the demands of her job with those of domesticity. Annika’s friend Anne works in TV, so the workplace issues that figure in the first two of Catherine Sampson’s books are very much a theme in Liza Marklund’s. (Annika is one of those fictional characters who seems to be disliked by (even women) reviewers for being very dedicated to her job as well as trying to be the best mother she can to her children in difficult personal circumstances and with little sympathy from home or work.) A listing of Marklund’s books, with reviews of some of them, is at Euro Crime. Here is the author’s website.

Second, I have not read very many other books by women set in China, but one is The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Lang, about a young woman who quits a “safe” life and sets up a detective agency. Although the family and social issues are dealt with very well (and hence are an interesting counterpart to Catherine Sampson’s depiction), the crime plot is not very successful (in contrast with Sampson). Nevertheless, Eye of Jade is a good read and a short one. For more information, see Diane Wei Lang’s website.

The Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge (SinC25) (At the blog of Barbara Fister, the originator).
All Barbara’s posts and round-ups of contributions to the SinC25 challenge.
All my contributions to this challenge.

9 thoughts on “SinC25: Catherine Sampson, #2 post of “moderate” challenge

  1. Maxine – Excellent choice! Some authors just seem to do a marvellous job at weaving in the sleuth’s home life and work life; she’s one of them and so is Marklund. And I’m glad that you brought up the way that a series can shift focus, either from one setting to another or from one major character to another. That, I think, is part of what keeps a series interesting, and several of my favourite authors (e.g. Michael Connelly) do that well.

    • Thanks, Margot! I agree that the better authors of series keep them alive by refusing to churn out a different story on the same framework each time 😉

  2. Thanks to you, I have read and enjoyed the first Catherine Sampson, and as the second is already on my shelf, I can read it with a good conscience 🙂

  3. So, now the TBR list has toppled, with the addition of this author’s books. I gather you recommend all four, but think The Slaughter Pavilion is the best. I would enjoy reading about China. The only crime fiction I’ve read involving current day China is The Man from Beijing.
    And I’ll add The Eye of Jade, too.

    • I enjoyed most of The man From Beijing. I have read some books from China by male authors, but this particular “challenge” is for women authors so it was lucky I’d read one!

  4. I’ve so far only read the first of her books, and I enjoyed it. (My greatest annoyance was that the US cover had a generic house picture with a window – and it seemed SO obviously an American-style clapboard house that the disjunction between the real setting and the sloppy cover made me irritated every time I looked at the book. How silly is that? I should have wrapped it in brown paper.)

    I am so intrigued by what you say, and was thinking about Annika Bengtzon – so was pleased you mentioned Liza Marklund’s series. I confess, when I first read The Bomber I found her a bit grating, but since you pointed out how real her juggling act is, I have tried to be more empathetic. Have you seen the Swedish television series based on the books?

    Catherine Simpson’s books set in China have been on my list of books to read forever; must do something about that. I enjoyed reading her blog so much, I owe her the price of a book or two!

    • No, I don’t think I knew (or had forgotten) that there is a series of the Marklund books. Hope you enjoy Catherine S – I think she gets better with each novel.

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