Book review: The Darkness and the Deep by Aline Templeton

The Darkness and the Deep
by Aline Templeton
Hodder, 2006.

The second in the DI Marjory Fleming series, like the first (Cold in the Earth), provides an authentic, detailed picture of rural life in Galloway, Scotland – against the background of a “classic” murder mystery. In a dramatic opening, the local three-person lifeboat sets out in a storm, but after the crew deal with the ship in distress and are returning home, the boat misses the harbour and sails onto some treacherous rocks, with devastating consequences. The main focus of the book is Marjory’s investigation of the deaths, once it becomes apparent that the wreck was not an accident.

The small community is slowly coming to terms with the previous year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic, affecting the usually no-nonsense Marjory both because her farmer husband, Bill, has to get his life and business back on track, and because in her role as a police officer who carried out the unpopular government policy, her teenage daughter Cat is being ostracised at school. These family dynamics are knitted into the plot, as well as those of Marjory and her police colleagues, not least concerning a new recruit who is, horror of horrors, English – and cocky with it. A final running theme is the presence of Laura, a major character in the previous novel but here limited to making contributions when Marjory needs them, rather than participating in events in her own right. Laura is a psychologist, so not only provides Marjory with some brief profiles of the possible perpetrator, but also helps mend relations between mother and rebel daughter.

I enjoyed this novel because it is well-constructed and provides an absorbing account of an isolated community and individuals within it, complete with spiteful gossips, drug dealers, handsome doctors and endless supplies of rock cakes. There is a hard-headedness that prevents the whole becoming twee, even though quite a few salient details are glossed over. In the end, the mystery is solved by solid police work, though there is a somewhat “rabbit out of the hat” element to it. If the police had made more use of technology in, for example, tracing car number plates or doing some elementary background checks on the internet, the “discrepancy” that Marjory notices on about page 350 of a 390-page book, which changes the focus of the investigation, might well have provided the crucial lead much earlier on. Nevertheless, this second Marjory Fleming novel is a pleasant read, particularly in the depictions in brief of its cast of characters, and with plenty of threads and elements to keep the reader looking forward to the next installment.

I bought my copy of this book.

Read other reviews of it at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), DJ’s Krimiblog, Mystery Women, and Dancing with Skeletons.

About the novel at the author’s website.

My review of the first in this series, Cold in the Earth.

Books from Scotland: about the author and her books.

Can you catch a fish alive?

One, two, three, four, five
Can you catch a fish alive?

Jose Ignacio has posted about a meme called One book, two book, three book, four and five….. (via Books Please and Stuck in a Book.) Here’s my contribution:

The book I’m currently reading: The Drop by Michael Connelly. I always eagerly await the next book by this author, whether it’s going to be about his usual series character Harry Bosch of the LAPD or about something else. After the first seven chapters, it is definitely well up to the usual high standard of this author – and so far there are two possible meanings of the book’s title.

The last book I finished: I’ll walk Alone by Mary Higgins Clark. A “comfort” read rather than anything likely to be different from what she’s written before, but just the thing for an autumn Saturday while feeling under the weather.

The next book I want to read: Not an easy question, but I’ll say The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, which is on my shelf thanks to the ever-generous Karen of Euro Crime. (My review of the author’s debut, The Tenderness of Wolves, indicates why I’m looking forward to her second novel.)

The last book I bought: Actually a batch from Amazon but the one that is last to arrive from these (en route) is One Coffee With by Margaret Maron, which I read a long time ago but now plan to re-read. The author has written a recent, very interesting post about this book, and how the Sigrid Harald series is now being re-issued in e-format. One of the reasons for wanting to re-read the book now is to see if, in retrospect, Sigrid is an archetype (Kathy Mallory, Liesbeth Salander and many other subsequent female characters of crime fiction.)

The last book I was given: The Boundary by Nicole Watson (link goes to the review at Fair Dinkum crime). I was sent this book by Bernadette of Reactions to Reading; on the basis of her Fair Dinkum review, I’m looking forward to it.

Now, if you want to continue the rhyme:

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten
Then I threw him back again.

I can suggest five (six) more questions 😉

Which was the last book you borrowed from the library?
What is the most recent e-book you read?
What was the last translated book you read? (If the answer to this is the same as any of your other answers, substitute the question with: What was the first book you read this year?)
Which book is at the top of your Christmas [insert appropriate festival] list?
Which so-far unpublished book are you most looking forward to reading?

Is it a mad, bad, Amazon world?

Do you know, I really don’t mind that Amazon is being allowed to acquire the Book Depository* by the UK office of fair trading. Competition is a healthy thing, and it would have been better if the BD could have carried on in business independently. But as it couldn’t, the acquisition is not a bad thing – certainly not the horror some have portrayed it to be. Amazon has been around for a while now and as a reader I have benefitted from its presence immensely. (As have customers using or buying content from Amazon’s other partners, such as the Internet Movie Database, LoveFilm or Audible.)

Similarly, I don’t mind that Amazon is publishing books. As a reader, I can judge an Amazon book just as easily as any other kind of book. Existing publishers may see this as a threat just as booksellers have suffered at the hands of Amazon – through not acting quickly enough themselves to provide the service to their readers that Amazon came along and did instead.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe in monopolies and I would prefer it that Amazon’s competitors could equal or better its service. But so far, Amazon has done a pretty good job for readers. I might like it to do things a bit differently in some details, eg provide a translated fiction category, or ensure that independently published books are more clearly delineated from self-published books. But these are details. Amazon isn’t just about making vast amounts of money (its recent figures show just how much it has invested in e-readers at the expense of profits), it is about customer service. It has always encouraged customer rankings and comments on its website, long before most sales sites ever dreamed of it – and I, as a reader, also benefit from this, or I can ignore the social side of Amazon if I like, it is up to me. Buying books at Amazon is simple and pleasant, and if the price goes down between ordering and delivery, they drop it to the lower price (how many “street” booksellers would price-match an ordered book in this way? It has never happened to me).

Like many people, I love browsing in bookshops – an opportunity that is increasingly rare in many UK towns that have only a Waterstone’s branch or not even that. Yet I flinch at paying twice as much for a book today in a “real” bookshop that I know I can get on Amazon tomorrow. I like the fact that if one of my daughters wants an obscure, out-of-print book “The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-national Experiment in Early Twentieth-century Europe (Exeter Studies in History)” I can get it next day from Amazon whereas if I email the publisher direct to enquire how to get hold of it I receive no response after an initial acknowledgement. I like the fact that I can obtain “The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism” the day after another daughter asks me about it one evening – another out of print book that is available for one-third of the list price, new, at Amazon via a third-party seller at no postage cost if you are in Amazon Prime. If I wanted this book and went to a real bookshop, I would not experience this service.

Amazon reminds me of our poor milkman, who tried to stop us cancelling our delivery 15 years ago, when we finally gave up on him. Despite his service promises, he regularly arrived after we had left for work in the morning, hence consigning us to discovering sour milk outside our door in the evenings as there was no method to stop late deliveries, leaving us milk-less (these were the days when all the shops in a 5-mile radius were closed by the time we got home in the evening). He charged twice the price of the supermarkets. He told us that if everyone cancelled their milk deliveries his industry would collapse and the supermarkets would up their prices to more than he was charging. This has not, yet, turned out to be true. Not only that, but we now have the choice of five supermarkets (four of them small ones) within walking distance that sell milk and stay open until quite or very late at night. I hope that I can have the same faith in Amazon. At any rate, excuse me for not joining in the general condemnation of the Amazon-Book Depository merger.

* From PaidContent: Despite industry organizations’ fears that Amazon’s acquisition of UK online bookseller The Book Depository will create a de facto monopoly, the Office of Fair Trading is approving the merger. In the OFT’s view, The Book Depository is so small that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is not buying a real competitor. The OFT found that “Amazon’s share of the UK online book market was strong,” but TBD’s accounted for only “between two and four percent of online retailing” of hardcover books in the UK. The OFT also said that most of TBD’s growth was taking place in overseas markets, not in the UK.

Book review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin
Pan Macmillan, 2011 (first published in the USA, 2010)

This is a marvellous book; one that, after you have read it, makes you want to go out and buy multi-copies to give to all your friends for Christmas, and one which inspires the sentiment: “if you only read one novel this year, make it this one”. Since its original publication in the USA, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has been a bestseller as well as being extremely well reviewed. I hadn’t paid it any attention, though, until it won this year’s CWA Gold Dagger award the day before I spotted a copy in my local library – so I thought I’d give it a try.

The novel is set in rural Mississippi, telling the tale, switching back and forth in time, of two boys – Silas Jones, a baseball player who becomes a poorly paid traffic cop, and Larry Ott, an ostracised countryman and car mechanic. The first chapter pulls the reader in straight away, describing Larry’s lonely lifestyle in his parents’ house; his childhood memories of family tensions; the jobs he’s devised at home and “work”; and his strange welcoming of what seems to be a certain death.

The story unfolds of Larry’s past as he grew up in the impoverished hamlet of Chabot, which boasts a lumber mill and not much else in terms of employment prospects. Larry’s father runs Ottomotive, a car repair shop, but is disappointed in his son’s lack of mechanical ability and treats him as if he’s a wimp because he is always reading (largely horror stories and comics). Larry is very close to his mother, but never manages to make friends at school. His parents have a few hundred acres of land, which do not seem to be used for anything agricultural apart from supporting some chickens. The nearest cabin is owned by Cecil Walker, another drunk who is on permanent disability after a long-ago accident at the mill. He lives there with his quiet wife and her daughter, the sluttish Cindy. This girl vanished when Larry was 16, under circumstances which make everyone in the town convinced Larry must have killed her. They’ve shunned him for 25 years, and he’s had to live with those consequences as well as being shaped by them.

Silas came to Chabot as a young boy when Alice, his mother, had to leave Chicago. He first encounters Larry with his father Carl in the morning on their daily drive to Larry’s school. Carl gives the mother and son a lift, and the two boys eventually become friends – especially when Larry discovers that Silas is living in a run-down old shack at the edge of the Ott property. The boys spend time together in the outdoors, despite Larry’s instinctive knowledge of his parents’ disapproval (he is white; Silas is black – Chabot is, to put it mildly, segregationist), but as they become teenagers their friendship weakens, culminating in Silas leaving town on a baseball scholarship, and eventually to “Ole Miss” (University of Mississippi at Oxford). Years later, having finished his career as “32”, Silas returns to Chabot as a policeman whose main job is to direct traffic twice a day as the workers arrive and leave the mill. When Larry tries to reconnect with his old friend, Silas won’t have anything to do with him.

Matters come to a head when, in the present day, another girl goes missing – not just any girl but the daughter of the family who owns the mill. Everyone leaps to the conclusion that Larry is responsible, though the police can find no evidence nor make him confess.

Although from the account I have just provided, the book sounds like a crime novel, it isn’t. The disappearance of the two girls is not described directly but rather is part of the book’s background canvas. Instead, the author writes about life in all its tiny details in Chabot, in the countryside, the diners and the “trashy” areas; about the people who live there – not just Larry and Silas but their mothers, Larry’s father, Silas’s colleagues and contacts at work – in such brief but telling prose that they all come alive on the page as real characters. The novel is infused with the love of nature, of the snakes and the creepers, the weed-ridden fields and the creeks where people fish, often through Larry’s eyes, as his character gradually unfolds before us. (Later, Silas’s character also unfolds, and he’s a very different proposition.) The extreme poverty in which almost all the characters live is never emphasised, but again, infuses everything in a million subtle ways. Here is a portrait of a community and an atmosphere that is so telling that the reader is there, experiencing it seemingly first-hand. Here are relationships between parents and children, and the lives of those children when they become adults, that are tellingly depicted, with deceptive simplicity yet with great insight.

The “crimes” in the book are incidental – they drive the plot but they aren’t central to what is being told. There is no mystery as such – the two or three revelations or solutions are not surprises as we can see them coming – the interest is not in finding out what happened, or who committed the crimes, but how they happened, which is conveyed in parallel with the slow revelation of the truth of Larry’s and Silas’s secret histories.

I don’t usually like to compare authors to other authors, but this book has more in common with the writings of John Steinbeck, in particular in the depictions of the exuberance of the natural world amid a poor and deprived human society, than it does with a “crime” novel. What’s more, it has the kind of moral heart that is so beautifully conveyed, with all its tragedy, toughness and hope, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of the novel at: The Washington Post, Mysteries in Paradise, Reactions to Reading, Murder by Type, Spinetingler magazine, Irresistible Targets and Bookreporter.

CWA website: Tom Franklin wins the Gold Dagger.
Harper Collins website: Tom Franklin.
Biography of Tom Franklin.

Book review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know
by Laura Lippman
Orion, 2007.

A woman is driving into Baltimore on the freeway when she skids out of control on some spilt oil. As her car spins around, it catches the fender of an SUV which careers over the edge of the escarpment. A young child is in the back of the car. The woman drives on for a little way, but then stops her car and is picked up by the traffic police. She carries no identification on her and refuses to reveal her name, but in her shocked, injured state, blurts out that she is one of the “Bethany sisters”.

The Bethany sisters were two girls aged 15 and 11 who vanished from a shopping mall in the suburbs, 30 years ago. They were never found. If the accident victim is indeed one of these lost girls now grown up, Baltimore PD will be able to close the case – and hence detective Kevin Infante is assigned to it. He is unable to do much, because the injured woman is in hospital and, aided by a social worker called Kay, has obtained an expensive lawyer (Gloria) to negotiate a deal – she will tell the story of what happened to the Bethany girls in return for not being prosecuted for the traffic violation. Infante and his colleagues have no idea whether or not to believe her, and start their own search to find her identity.

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints and from several periods in time, alternating between them. One of two main narratives is that of the Bethanys – David, Miriam and their daughters Sunny and Heather. The depiction of their family life – their dynamics, how the parents met, and so on, is highly absorbing – several times the same event is told from the point of view of different family members, so one is not sure what to make of the sisters though the parents are more clear cut (Dad is a pain but Mom is lovely). The second main story is that of the present-day, mostly consisting of different people’s perception of the mystery woman and their memories of the abduction. Kay, the social worker, is the most sympathetically portrayed of these, as she becomes dragged into taking a more personal interest than she feels is wholly professional. Infante, as well as the retired policeman who undertook the original investigation, are also well-drawn and add some variation to the otherwise fairly “domestic” plot. Some sections of the book are set in the times between the disappearance and the present: these sections are the most puzzling to the reader, as incidents are told from the point of view of several young women.

The story of the Bethany girls is gradually filled out, as we find out what happened to the parents afterwards – though we don’t know much about the police investigation at the time or why the parents don’t always share with the police the fact that, over the years, they receive phone calls from someone who does not speak and from someone (the same person?) who makes vague threats. Eventually, the two plots converge and come to a head as Miriam, the mother of the vanished girls, travels to Baltimore to see if the injured woman is in fact her lost daughter.

I enjoyed this novel very much. In the end there is a twist I failed to see coming, as well as a solid police “cold case” investigation that uncovers the true story of what happened in the mall that day, and a convincing explanation for the 30-year gap between the disappearance and (claimed or real) reappearance. Although the author does not address the psychology of those involved in any detail, she provides a plausible account of what the reader might think to be incredible behaviour by the woman making the Bethany claims. What the Dead Know was published before two very widely publicised cases in Austria and in the USA which seem to bear out the author’s line of reasoning.

Although I enjoyed the book, I felt it disappointing in some minor ways. Several characters’ lives are portrayed in considerable detail but either not developed or are dropped, and there are some digressions that don’t seem relevant to, or add to, the whole. The final pages, once all the pieces of this complex puzzle are in place, seemed a little rushed. These slight downsides did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, which I found to be an intelligently constructed plot combined with good solid characterisations and plenty of “then and now” Baltimore atmosphere. This novel stands very well on its own merits, so I find it odd that the publisher should use a cover blurb likening it to The Lovely Bones and Shutter Island – not a comparison I would make – for what it’s worth, I think this novel is better than either. It is certainly better than one of the author’s earlier novels on a similar theme, Every Secret Thing, in my opinion.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of What The Dead Know at: The Game’s Afoot, Mysteries in Paradise, Reactions to Reading, The Mystery Reader, and Mystery Ink.

NPR interview with the author, discussing the real event that formed the basis of this novel.

Authors’s website. The novel has its own Wikipedia entry.

SinC25: Denise Hamilton, #1 post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ moderate challenge, I am now embarking on the expert level:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

Denise Hamilton is the female author who most nearly made it onto David Montgomery’s “top ten” detective novels list. I enjoyed her first novel, The Jasmine Trade, upon its initial UK publication as part of an Orion “new authors” promotion. Eve Diamond, an investigative journalist with the LA Times, struggles to make and keep a career in a city hypersensitive to ethnic and ethical tensions, and is as determined as hell to get to the bottom of things. The plot and outcome of The Jasmine Trade was original and moving– all in all a great debut.

Although I enjoyed subsequent Eva Diamond novels (Sugar Skull and Last Lullaby), by the fourth, Savage Garden, I felt the series was becoming a bit formulaic and have not read any more of the author’s books since then (2006). Checking out the author’s website to see what she’s published since Savage Garden, she has written another Eve Diamond novel, Prisoner of Memory; edited two short-story collections (LA Noir and LA Noir 2); written another standalone novel, The Last Embrace, set in Los Angeles again but in 1949; and, most recently, written a novel called Damage Control, “murder and scandal in a wealthy political family” in southern California.

I’m quite keen to try Damage Control, but in nominating the required three other authors writing similar novels, I’m going to stick to the journalism theme because I’ve only read the Eve Diamond (journalism) novels by Denise Hamilton so can’t compare any of the others to anyone.

Mari Jungstedt: Swedish novels set on the island of Gotland, TV journalist Johan Berg investigates crimes in parallel to the police and usually collaborates with them to share knowledge and hence find the solution. He has an on-off-on relationship with Emma, a local schoolteacher.

Elaine Viets wrote four novels about New Orleans journalist Francesca Vierling between 1997 and 2000. As well as being witty investigations of crimes, they offer clever insights into the ethics and management of newspaper publishing, as well as a window into the world of the “rehabbers” of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Highly recommended if you like brisk, humorous books with a bite. (Viets has more recently focused on her Mystery Shopper and Dead End Job series, which are very “pink”.)

Liza Marklund is author of one of my top favourite series, about Swedish newspaper journalist Annika Bengztrom. Annika exposes a range of crimes including conspiracies among the political elite and the trafficking of young women, as well as dealing with a complicated personal life.

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

Book review: Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio

Temporary Perfections
by Gianrico Carofiglio
translated by Anthony Shugaar
Bitter Lemon Press 2011 (first published in Italy 2010)

Those transient and rare occasions when everything seems to work, where we hesitate to look back or forward because we know that what has been or what is to come cannot match this moment – these are the temporary perfections that infuse the pages of Gianrico Carofiglio’s fourth novel in his series about Bari lawyer Guido Guerrieri. Guido has expanded his practice to accommodate two new colleagues, and as the novel starts is slightly regretting his move from his traditional old office to the newly renovated yet bland location that, perhaps, signifies membership of the professional establishment from which he prefers to remain apart. He has to go to Rome to present a case in court: at the airport his taxi driver has some books open on the front passenger seat, leading to a literary conversation between the two men. We don’t see the taxi driver again after he drops Guido off at his destination; this vignette is typical of this novel, which in its many small encounters and digressions epitomises the philosophy of the title.

The plot proper is a departure for Guido in that it is not a legal case in which he is defending someone accused of a crime. One of his friends introduces him to an elderly couple whose daughter Manuela went missing six months ago. It turns out that the couple are not actually elderly, they’re the same age as Guido (mid-forties), but have been transformed by grief and anxiety. The police are closing the case for lack of any leads, so the parents persuade Guido to look into it again for them, in case anything has been missed. Despite misgivings, Guido takes on the assignment, meeting up with the investigating officer, an old friend, to discuss the case and to find out if there are any possible new avenues to explore. There aren’t, but Guido decides to re-interview all the people who knew or last saw the girl in the few days before she went missing. Guido’s reinvestigation is the main focus of this book, but along the way there are many digressions, either reflections by Guido on his past or in encounters he has in court or in social situations. The most vividly portrayed of these side-issues concerns the Chelsea Hotel, a bar that Guido frequents (it’s a gay bar, but he discovered this fact rather late), and his friendship with the owner Nadia, an ex-client of Guido’s from a time when she was tried for running a call-girl operation. Nadia and Guido are two lonely people, both lost in their own worlds and sort of making the best of it, but failing to connect on some level despite their apparent compatibility.

Up until about two-thirds of the way through this book, I was quite captivated by its meandering charms, its refusal to conform to the usual format of the crime novel and instead show us so much of Guido’s thoughts and observations – and nice sense of humour, not least with “Mister Bag”. (Yes, it is an American translation.) The investigation itself is rather one-dimensional, in that each of the missing girl’s friends is called into Guido’s office to go over with him what they remember of their relationship or encounters with her, but I was happy to be carried along by it.

It is when Caterina, Manuela’s best friend, enters the plot that I began to feel uncomfortable about the book. Guido is attracted to the girl even though she’s pretty tedious and he’s the same age as her parents. This does not stop him agreeing to go with her to Rome to talk to Manuela’s flatmate, without telling anyone, and with inevitable consequences. As he spends more time with Caterina, it becomes more obvious that she’s shallow and petulant, yet Guido seems to be able to ignore this because of her physical charms and flirtatious manner. At the same time, Nadia is not only of a similar age and temperament to Guido, but is an interesting and deep person, yet he does not seem interested in her. He does, however, reflect later that she did not, in his opinion, deserve to be labelled as a criminal for procuring young girls for older men for a hefty commission because, according to Guido’s thoughts, nobody was harmed – a view with which I strongly disagree.

I thought a lot less of Guido as a character for these reasons. And sadly, the plot is a bit of a let-down too. There are many leads that Guido could have followed up but did not, limiting his interest to about three people who know Manuela. The book is 280 pages long and on page 245 one of these people remembers something that he/she had forgotten to mention to anyone before which immediately leads Guido to work out what has happened to Manuela. This leads to a sad ending to the novel, but unfortunately its poignancy was somewhat marred for me by my lack of sympathy for Guido’s views and actions about women. He is a character with much to like about him, particularly his literary digressions and his ponderings on the morality of his ethics in defending sleazy types and on the Italian legal system, but if he’s going to be knocking around with girls half his age (and agonising about it, even more boring) and concluding nobody is harmed when teenagers are involved in prostitution with old men, I’ll have to think hard before reading any future books about him, even though I’ve enjoyed the previous three novels a lot — as before, in this one the settings are so well described and the writing so pleasant to experience.

I purchased my copy of the book.

Other reviews of Temporary Perfections are at: The Game’s Afoot, The New Statesman (almost a parody of what one might expect of a New Statesman review!), Shots (brief), Crime Time, The Bookbag (a positive and well-written review) and the Washington Post (which calls the book a “captivating, intellectual novel”).

Gianrico Carofiglio’s books in series order at Euro Crime (includes links to reviews of them).
My reviews of The Past is a Foreign Country (a very good standalone novel), and the previous three in this series: Involuntary Witness, A Walk in the Dark, and Reasonable Doubts.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

Book review: Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo

Red April
by Santiago Roncagliolo
translated by Edith Grossman
Atlantic, 2010; first published in Spain 2006

Red April, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize this year (2011) and the Premio Alfaguara de Novela prize in 2006, is a highly recommended book. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to read it partly because of the cover (!) and partly because I already know something of the political history of various South American countries, via direct experience (Venezuela) or by reading (Venezuela again, Argentina, Bolivia and, without so much repressive violence, Brazil). Many years ago, reading the works of Isabelle Allende, starting with the searingly marvellous The House of the Spirits, was a rewarding but horrifying experience for me, only exacerbated by non-fiction such as The Open Veins of Latin America and various works of Che Guevara. Essentially, I’d had enough of the hopelessness of it all. (Not quite as good as her brilliant debut, but perhaps more relevant to the book under discussion here, is Allende’s second novel, Of Love and Shadows.)

Nevertheless, persuaded by various excellent reviews as much as its literary prizes, I decided to try Red April. It turns out to be a reverse Kafkaesque novel which opens with Felix Chaclanta Saldivar, a prosecutor in the provincial Peruvian town of Ayachuo, writing a brief but perfectly constructed report on a death in his jurisdiction. The corpse is burned beyond recognition and, via knowledge acquired at the post-mortem, has had its arm removed (before death). Chaclanta’s main problem, from his perspective, is that the police and judicial authorities (the military) will not perform their part in the bureaucracy: they will neither contribute their part to the official report nor acknowledge receipt of it when Chaclanta sends it on.

Chaclanta, a mild man we are led to believe, has a one-track mind on this topic, refusing to let the matter lie despite the fact that all the relevant authorities are too busy protecting their jobs, indulging in politics and cover-ups, or just plain lazy because they resent their postings away from Lima (the capital) to this provincial outpost. It is Chaclanta’s persistence, and the official reactions to it, that form the bulk of this “innocent abroad”-style narrative in which Chaclanta ignores all the evidence of oppression, injustice and violence around him in his goal of dotting his is and crossing his ts in his report – a goal that takes him to various locations (a remote village on election day, a high-security prison and so on) so we can witness the full corruption of the society in which he lives and observe the scales gradually falling from his eyes.

Apart from this slightly artificial method of narrative, Chaclanta’s personal life becomes clearer as the book continues. He has an obsessive relationship with his mother, which is rather repetitively described. He lacks ambition, we are told, hence his wife has previously left him and he’s been transferred to Ayachuo from a higher-profile job in Lima. His chance meeting with a waitress seems to offer him the opportunity for a fresh start, if only he could either find any time to spend with her or summon up the courage to take the relationship beyond that of a customer and a diner at the restaurant.

After a while, in a story punctuated with the discovery of more deaths and a more complete picture of the hierarchies of oppression in April 2000 in Peru – with the Indians at the bottom, the poor Peruvians slightly higher but not much, and the professional classes concerned with the twin aims of self-preservation and personal promotion – Chaclanta comes to a sudden realisation that the deaths are connected and may not be the action of random “terrorists” whose threat hangs like a miasma over everything. Chaclanta deduces that the perpetrator must be one person or group and the method of killing is related to an ancient legend. To his horror, he also believes that the victims are the very people he has met and questioned during his investigation. This galvanises him into various out-of-character actions which comprise the end of the novel – not least of which is a major misunderstanding that, by Chaclanta’s refusal to listen to any contrary evidence, leads to a predictable end for the most (only?) likeable character in the book. The ending, with the revelation of who has been writing the illiterate, “killer’s view”, letters that punctuate the main story, is unconvincing and flat, undermining the serious message of the novel – a message in which the method of the murders can be seen as an allegory for what has happened to Peru itself.

So what to make of Red April? Many reviewers have praised it for its political and cultural perspective on this cruel period in the country’s evolution. I personally learned nothing about these aspects that I did not previously know, but if you didn’t have any prior knowledge then I am sure Red April would be compelling on this account. As a crime novel, however, it is not of the quality that is common in the best of the genre – not least in the crazy plot resolution (perhaps meant to be a satire in itself, I am not sure). The translation seems excellent (apart from those “mind of the killer” passages but probably nothing could have saved those). There are quite a few gruesome descriptions which though hard-hitting are not offensive in context, as well as some tragic accounts of atrocities (and suffering mothers). In summary, although I don’t think Red April is a bad book by any means, it failed to engage me as I could not sympathise with the main character or become involved in the plot – although not a long book, it is a slow one – and I have to admit I am rather puzzled as to why the book, perhaps a 3/5 for me, has won a prestigious “mainstream” fiction award.

I borrowed this book from the library, but was previously sent a copy by Kim of Reading Matters blog. Her excellent review of the book is here.

Other reviews of Red April: The Complete Review (provides links to many other reviews), The Guardian (good review providing some details of the events in the background of the book), The Game’s Afoot, International Noir Fiction, To Be Read…, Mysteries in Paradise, The BookBag and The Crime Segments.

SinC25: Progress so far and preparing for the ascent

Pretty soon after starting it, I realise I messed up on this Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge – probably because I don’t really understand these challenges! I’ve completed the easy and the moderate levels, so have the expert challenge left to do:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend

I realise that what I should have done was to have started out on the expert challenge, because by completing the easy challenge (one post about one woman author, recommend 5 others) and the moderate challenge (five posts each about a woman author, recommend 1 other in each), I’ve used up a large number of authors already, and it’s a lot to come up with 10 more to post about and 30 others to recommend! But I’ll give it a go.

Before I attempt this Everest, I’ll just recap on my previous SinC25 posts (which are collected here).

I decided that I’d try to write a post about an author from a different country each time. For the easy post, I chose Unity Dow, from Botswana. For the 5 moderate posts, I chose:

Diane Setterfield, US author, setting England.
Similar author/book: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
Catherine Sampson, English author living in China, setting England (first two novels) and China (second two novels).
Similar authors: Liza Marklund (Sweden) and Diane Wei Lang (China).
Saskia Noort, Dutch author (and setting).
Similar authors: Claudia Pineiro (Argentina) and Simone van der Vlugt (Holland).
Katherine Howell, Australian author (and setting).
Similar author: Sue Grafton (USA).
Miyuke Miyabe, Japanese author (and setting).
Similar author: Dominique Manotti (France).

I’d like to clarify that “similar” author does not mean “always writes the same type of book”; rather it means that there are elements of the books I’ve highlighted in these posts that are also present in some books by the “similar author” chosen. In other aspects, the paired (or tripled) authors are very different.

I wonder how I’ll get on with this 10 plus 30 part of the challenge? I’ll have to drop the concept of writing about an author from a different country each time, as I’m not that well read. Do you think I’ll make it? (Suggestions that might help are very welcome!).

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

Book review: Headhunters by Jo Nesbø

by Jo Nesbø
translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 2011, first published in Norway 2008

After writing several novels in his internationally successful, award-winning series about Oslo police detective Harry Hole, Jo Nesbø has temporarily changed direction and written this “standalone”. It grips from the outset, though I was concerned after a couple of chapters to realise that the book is about art theft. I was reminded of Doors Open, Ian Rankin’s immediate post-Rebus effort, which I found disappointing. But I had no reason for concern: Headhunters is a dazzling, relentlessly paced thriller, combining classic noir elements with Nesbø’s trademark intricate plotting that constantly challenges the reader’s wits and attention span. What a refreshing read! (Thanks in large part, of course, to translator par excellence Don Bartlett, who must have had particular fun with this title for reasons I can’t go into in a spoiler-free review.)

Roger Brown is one of Norway’s leading headhunters – someone who finds top-level appointees for companies when openings arise; we quickly learn via Roger’s interview of a possible “headhuntee”, Jeremais Lander, that the reasons for his success are due to his adoption of FBI interrogation techniques and the way in which he double-bluffs his clients and his targets to up the commission he receives for his efforts. Readers new to Nesbø need to pay close attention to the questions Roger asks Lander.

Roger is married to Diana, a beautiful woman whom he met while both were students in London. He’s totally in love with his wife, who runs an exclusive art gallery in Oslo’s “best” street for the purpose; the couple live in a very expensive house with all the right brand names in the kitchen and every possible designer accessory to luxurious modern living. Roger’s brilliance at his work – he is said never to have been unsuccessful at persuading a client to hire the candidate he has chosen – covers up his various insecurities about the strength of his wife’s love for him if he does not indulge or anticipate her every whim; his sensitivity about his height; and his unhappy relationship with his father, a chauffeur in the diplomatic service. The bottom line for Roger is that he’s, if not broke, in that state of juggling his credit-card borrowing to maintain his self-created image and avoid facing the prospect of the inevitable crash as his debts mount up and he spends more and more on his wife – a need related to Roger’s guilt at pressuring her to have an abortion, as he does not want to have children.

Roger’s imaginative way of keeping afloat financially is a clever one, yet it is one that plunges him into bleak despair when he makes a shocking discovery. Before he can even react to his find, let alone decide what to do about it, he’s immediately plunged into yet another crisis that requires drastic measures. Every action Roger takes, however sensible it may seem to him and, it has to be admitted, to the reader (this is not one of those books in which one is mentally yelling at the dumb protagonist to take some elementary precaution), makes everything worse, escalating to a degree where it seems impossible to imagine how he can escape by the skin of his teeth to enter the next fire or frying pan. The author is simply amazing at pushing the pace forward, as Roger is not only a victim of the circumstances he finds himself in owing to his greed and others’ deviousness, but also to survive he has to struggle to regain the upper hand in the game of bluff that has been his life, and at which he had thought himself to be a supremely talented player. There are only a few characters in the novel, yet the twists and turns of the plot are both breathtaking and clever, leaving me in delicious confusion about who was fooling who, and who was going to come out on top, as the author turns the tables repeatedly on his readers as well as his characters.

If you’ve read Nesbø’s earlier novels, you’ll know that the author likes to puncture his narratives with inventively gruesome and horrific scenes, often laced with black humour. Brace yourself on this front if you read Headhunters! This is not a novel for animal lovers or for those of a sensitive disposition. For me, the “over the top” scenes work well in Headhunters (unlike the Harry Hole novels) because they are so integral to the plot, both in explaining what was previously mysterious and in driving events forward. The most extreme of these scenes concerns the most disgusting hiding place of all time – which also means that Roger has to witness a truly revolting but funny event – yet not only is this perfectly acceptable in the context of the novel, but both the hiding place and the horrible observation turn out later to consist of several crucial plot elements. Similarly, Roger’s method of escape from another of his apparently hopeless situations is nastily gory but strangely acceptable.

Headhunters has several obvious differences from Nesbø’s usual style. It is written (mainly) in the first person, so Roger’s thoughts and feelings are directly experienced by the reader, and one feels plunged into the story as a participant rather than observing it from outside, as one does in the Harry Hole books. Headhunters is shorter, funnier and lighter than the Hole series, written in a much more pacy, thriller style. Nevertheless, the books have in common the fantastic complexity of plot at which Nesbø excels. If you really do pay attention to every word, you might be able to work it all out, because this author is not one who cheats his readers (though there was one small but pivotal point which I thought would not have worked as described). You’ll have to read the book to find out whether Roger manages to stay ahead of the game or not, and whether he is doomed or redeemed. It’s a fizzling, clever story, never letting up on its imaginative twists both small and large, yet by creating a three-dimensional character in Roger, with his past and present insecurities, the reader is embedded for the duration – aided by the impeccable translation of Don Bartlett. And I should not forget to mention that there’s lots of local atmosphere, incidental yet telling details of milieu, and fascinating “windows” into the snob values of Oslo in particular and Norway in general.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Read other reviews of Headhunters at: The Independent on Sunday (Barry Forshaw), Nordic Bookblog, Publishers’ Weekly (brief) and A Bookworm’s World. These reviews contain details of the plot that I deliberately don’t include in my review. [Added later: DJ’s Krimiblog review of the Norweigian edition.]

Headhunters is “soon to be a major motion picture” according to the book’s cover (images in this review are from the film). From the author’s website: “The film adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s novel Headhunters premiered in Oslo on Friday [29 August 2011]. Even before the opening, the film had become the most widely exported Norwegian movie in history. The film will be screened on every continent.” See Scandinavian movies for a trailer and more details about the film.

Jo Nesbø at Euro Crime (reviews of all the Harry Hole books so far translated and essential for the correct reading order) and Wikipedia. About Harry Hole at the author’s website (with blurb of each of the books, including of those not yet translated).