More progress on reading books eligible for the 2012 International Dagger award

Books published in translation in the UK for the first time between June 2011 and May 2012 are eligible for the CWA’s International Dagger award, so long as the publisher submits them to the competition. Each year, I try to read most of these books and make my own predictions about the shortlist and eventual winner. (See here for all my posts on the topic.) I do not read those that seem to be sensationalistic, on religious/spiritual themes, or otherwise unappealing (one Swedish and one Libyan novel are out for me because of their themes of torture); because there isn’t time to read all the rest, I don’t read many of the purely historical titles.

Of the list of 75 eligible titles (up from 55 at time of my last post on this topic!) so far known this year listed by Karen of Euro Crime (also at Goodreads when a cover image is available), I’ve read and reviewed 26 (click on title to see my review):

Kjell Eriksson – The Princess of Burundi, tr. Ebbe Segerberg (Sweden, my review from 2007 is of the US edition)
Asa Larsson – The Black Path, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Sweden, my review from 2008 is of the US edition)
Andrea Camilleri – The Track of Sand, tr. Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)
Arnaldur Indridason – Outrage, tr. Anna Yates (Iceland)
Camilla Lackberg – The Hidden Child, tr. Tiina Nunnally (Sweden)
Ernesto Mallo – Sweet Money, tr. Katherine Silver (Argentina)
Johan Theorin – The Quarry, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Sweden)
Jan Costin Wagner – The Winter of the Lions, tr. Anthea Bell (German, Finland setting)
Karin Fossum – The Caller, tr. Kyle Semmel (Norway)
Mons Kallentoft – Midwinter Sacrifice, tr. Neil Smith (@neiltranslator) (Sweden)
Anne Holt – Fear Not, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Norway)
Yrsa Sigurdardottir – The Day is Dark, tr. Philip Roughton (Iceland)
Asa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past, tr. Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Deon Meyer – Trackers, tr. K L Seegers (South Africa, language Afrikaans)
Hakan Nesser – The Unlucky Lottery, tr. Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Marco Vichi – Death in August, tr. Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)
Jorn Lier Horst -Dregs, tr. Anne Bruce (Norway)
Thomas Enger – Burned, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Norway)
Sergios Gakas – Ashes, tr. Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife (Greece)
Claudia Pineiro – All Yours, tr. Miranda France (Argentina)
Stefan Tegenfalk – Anger Mode, tr David Evans (Sweden)
Gianrico Carofiglio – Temporary Perfections, tr Anthony Shugaar (Italy)
K O Dahl – Lethal Investments, tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Jo Nesbo – Headhunters, tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Roslund and Hellstrom – Cell 8, tr Kari Dickson (Sweden)
Kjell Eriksson – The Hand that Trembles, tr Ebbe Segerberg (Sweden)

In my possession, to read:
Friis and Kaaberbol – The Boy in the Suitcase (Denmark)
Kristina Ohlsson – Unwanted (Sweden)
George Arion – Attack in the Library (Romania) (Kindle edition)

Not yet published and/or awaiting purchase:
Bernhard Jaumann – The Hour of the Jackal (Germany)
Petros Markaris – Basic Shareholder (Greece)
Gunnar Staalesen – Cold Hearts, tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Jussi Adler-Olsen – Disgrace (Denmark)
Valerio Varesi – The Dark Valley (Italy)
Camilla Lackberg – The Drowning (Sweden)
Helene Tursten – Night Rounds (Sweden)
Charlotte Link – The Other Child (German, UK setting)
Liza Marklund – Last Will (Sweden)
Mari Jungstedt – The Dark Angel (Sweden)
Jo Nesbo – Phantom, tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Guillermo Orsi – Holy City (Argentina)
Eva Joly & Judith Perrignon – The Eyes of Lira Kazan (French, Nigeria setting)
Hakan Nesser – Hour of the Wolf (Sweden)
Andrea Camilleri – The Potter’s Field (Italy)
Mons Kallentoft – Summertime Death (Sweden)

Maybe/maybe not:
Lars Kepler – The Nightmare (Sweden)
Keigo Higashino – The Devotion of Suspect X (Japan)
Hans Koppel – She’s Never Coming Back (Sweden)
Leif GW Persson – Another Time, Another Life (Sweden)

Even if I manage to read all of these, there will still be 20 or 30 titles I won’t have read by the time the shortlist is announced. And which, so far, would be my winner? Impossible to say, but for a shortlist I would so far vote for Asa Larsson’s Till Thy Wrath Be Past; Deon Meyer’s Trackers; Jorn Lier Horst’s Dregs; Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage; and for the last two slots I could not decide between about six others. And the choice looks set to become even more difficult, given some of the tempting titles that are not yet published.

See all my posts on the International Dagger.

Euro Crime blog post listing all eligible titles.

Official CWA International Dagger page, containing synopses and articles about the 2011 winner and shortlisted books, as well as archives about past years’ awards.

Book review: Still Murder by Finola Moorhead

Still Murder
by Finola Moorhead
Spinifex press, 1991; reprinted 2002 with introduction by Marion Campbell.

The title of this novel is intended to mirror the phrase “still life”. As in a still-life painting, various disparate elements are presented to the reader, eventually to coalesce into the whole picture. Each element, or “frame” to continue the art analogy, is one person’s perspective on events that happened in a particular place. Gradually, one comes to see the complete picture but none of the individual characters do. Another meaning of the title can be deciphered as: “in love and in war there is killing, but is it still murder?”

The book is a very serious, political one. The author is a strong feminist and her delivery of her message is the overarching impression with which the reader is left at the end. In this sense, the book is similar to the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, in which the authors’ socio-political message is, cumulatively, more memorable than the crime plots of each book, or indeed the characters depicted.

Although written in 1991 and set (mostly) in New South Wales, Australia (pictured), in 1989, I felt as if I must have been living on a different planet at that time. The back-story is about two characters swept up in the Vietnam war: Peter is a young man when drafted into the army, madly in love with a student, Patricia. Both of them are irredeemably traumatised by the experience. Peter is thrown into a maelstrom of brutality, death and danger, and rapidly becomes assimilated into becoming an abuser of the people the army is supposedly protecting. On some level, he is so appalled at himself that he invents a new name for Patricia, Felicity, and it is as this “new person” he’s created that sustains him until he can return home. Patricia, who was pregnant when Peter left for Vietnam, takes up with and eventually marries someone else, at the same time becoming radicalised, protesting against the war and living a lifestyle of free love and expression.

In 1989, an odd event is reported in the press – some marijuana plants are found growing in a local park. This might just have been a quirky, quickly forgotten story about a prank if it were not for a nun who insists that there is a body buried under the plants. The next, and perhaps main “frame” of the novel is told by Detective Senior Constable Margot Gorman, who is sent undercover by her boss to be a nurse to Patricia Philips, a schizophrenic woman in a mental hospital. Margot is a no-nonsense, athletic woman with a strong sexual appetite, who puts up with a great deal of sexism and bullying at work. She’s determined to make a success of her strange assignment, even though she has no idea why she is looking after Patricia. By forming a relationship with the patient, Margot gradually comes to realise that someone has been killed – possibly Patricia’s husband – and wonders if Patricia is under suspicion or if she in fact needs protecting from the killer. Eventually Margot’s cover is blown so she never finds out.

Another section of the book is from the point of view of Patricia. As we live inside her deluded mind as herself or as one of the three main personalities she has adopted, her past comes into focus, and the reader becomes fully aware of the ghastly, long-term effects of the war on those who can never recover from it. And of course, in the process, we wonder whether Patricia is insane or whether her state of mind is a “normal” response to the ordeals she’s suffered in her life, which may or may not have really happened.

There is also a very hefty dose of feminist politics in this book, most particularly involving themes of rape and anti-rape activism in various forms, which to me was less involving than the post-war traumas. In one of the later main sections, Margot is on holiday and decides to find out what is really going on – she succeeds in part and fails in part. The author is admirably determined not to create a typical crime novel, so there is no “final discovery” or closure for Margot, whose last appearance is rather unsatisfactory and lacks credibility (not least regarding the nun’s role and a scene in the bar when Marge goes to meet her boss), but the reader does learn more than most of the characters about what has happened and why.

I did enjoy this novel very much, but it is of its time, reminding me of earlier feminist fiction from the USA by authors such as Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Vida). I found some of it very moving and tragic, particularly the story of Peter. On the other hand, one has to wade through a lot of feminist tract of a nature that is relatively uncommon in mainstream fiction nowadays and to my mind somewhat oversimplifies several issues in its ‘men vs women’ righteous polemic. Margot Gorman is an odd character, in some ways independent and strong, in others passive and dominated. The author has written another novel about her 10 years later, Darkness More Visible, so it will be interesting to find out what’s happened to her and how she has developed in a time when one assumes the police force in Australia has a more enlightened attitude to women.

Finally, I was pleased that in the 2002 Spinifex edition I read, there is both an afterword by the author and an independent introduction, as both of these short essays provide some perspective and made the book more comprehensible by focusing on its main issues. Otherwise, the sheer amount of words and digressions that serve to obscure what has happened because of the particular narrator, and the author’s determination to write at a level different from a straight storytelling approach, would have left me a bit confused about some aspects of the author’s undoubtedly sincere messages.

I purchased my copy of this book.

About the book at the publisher’s website, with a short plot summary of this “Spinifex feminist classic and winner of The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.”

Read another review of Still Murder at Reactions to Reading, a post that made me decide to read this novel.

Biography of Finola Moorhead.

Book review: Fallen Idols by Neil White

Fallen Idols
by Neil White
Avon, 2007 (Kindle edition)

Billed as the first in a series featuring detective constable Laura McGanity of the Met, Fallen Idols opens with the shooting of a world-famous footballer on the streets of London. Laura is one of the detectives assigned to the case, and despite her back-biting colleagues soon realises that the most likely place for the killer to have hidden is in the upper floors of one of the buildings opposite. When the police find the correct room, they discover two other bodies, indicating that the crime was premeditated.

Jack Garrrett is a freelance journalist who lives round the corner so is out having a drink when the crime occurs. Recognising the famous victim, Jack collects statements from various witnesses in the hope of selling a feature story to one of the national papers. He’s delighted when he realises Laura is on the investigative team, as they are acquaintances from previous cases and he’s developed quite a liking for her. Soon the two of them have agreed to share information in an attempt to find the perpetrator quickly.

So far, so good. Unfortunately for me, however, the plot began to spin out of control at this point. Not only does he witness the crime and know one of the investigators, but Jack turns out to be the son of an ex-footballer and retired cop who lives in a small Lancashire town. Before too long it is clear that the current case is closely linked to a past event in this very town. And there’s more: Jack’s father turns out to be closely involved in it via not one but both of his former professions. A coincidence or two is acceptable in a crime novel but for me this many was pushing it too far.

The rest of the book continues in similar vein. It is hard to provide justification for my views without providing spoilers, but I’ll try. Laura soon takes a back seat in the investigation for professional reasons and becomes a mere sidekick to Jack, alternating between gasping in admiration or having to be won over to yet another “don’t tell anyone” lead of Jack’s. This is not only somewhat incredible but a pity as she’s a potentially interesting character. Similarly, we are expected to believe that Jack’s father and his then-colleague kept quiet for years about a pivotal event for brushed-over reasons – especially puzzling in the case of Jack’s father. Mid-way through the book we are introduced to an unpleasant local DI and an American hit-man who is so clunky as to be risible. Several other characters pop into the novel in the middle, including a pair of cops, the local newspaper editor, and a cub reporter who is very keen on Jack. These characters serve to spin out the book somewhat but are peripheral.

Jack has been portrayed as a hungry freelance journalist desperate for a story, but he is so laid back about never filing any copy anywhere that I was amazed. When he gets to his home town to follow up his main lead, he omits to follow even the most cursory investigation as he doesn’t attempt to contact or interview the families and friends of those involved in an old crime. If he had done so, there would not have been the need for various scenes involving chainsaws, shooting intruders, stabbing someone with shards of glass, etc. The most obvious of actions is ignored by someone’s defence lawyer, and the Lancashire police don’t keep records of old crimes. Finally, the criminal’s actions are plain daft. If you’re annoyed at someone, then why go to such elaborate means to attack people who have nothing to do with why? And, in one of the various “protagonist in peril” climaxes, why be persuaded to desist by a rationale that you had ignored on previous occasions? And so on.

While the novel is a racy read, and I did get to the end of it, I had basically lost interest in it by about half way through, finding the coincidences and people’s actions too incredible to be gripping. As a light read, the book is fine, and the identity of the criminal might come as a surprise to some readers. If you want an undemanding read with plenty of running around but without too much reasoning, then this is a book for you. If you prefer a crime story with more depth and realism, then sadly this one is not it, despite its promising start and one or two neat jabs at today’s celebrity culture.

I purchased this novel as part of an Amazon Kindle promotion.

About the book at the author’s website, with quotations from admiring reviews, including Euro Crime, which calls it a “masterpiece”, so don’t necessarily take my word for it!

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Book review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

Mixed Blood
by Roger Smith
Serpent’s Tail, 2009 (Kindle edition).

The reader is plunged right into the action of this scorching (in several senses of the word) novel, by being introduced to John Hill, his heavily pregnant wife Susan and their 4-year-old son Matt, as the family prepares dinner in their beautiful, rented Cape Town home. Their peace is rudely shattered when two armed thugs burst into the room and grab Susan, threatening her with a gun.

The Hills live in an exclusive, gated community on the hills above the city. Many houses are still under construction, including the one next door. The man guarding this house witnesses the invasion – he has noted Hill (who is Amercian) as Hill is the only person he’s ever met who has called him “Sir”. The man is called Benny “Mongrel”, named after the gang which took him in as a young man. As a baby, Benny was thrown onto a garbage dump by his mother, but the crying newborn was rescued by a street woman who looked after him. That occasion, we are told, was the last time in his life that Benny cried. He’s lived a life of being abused and being the abuser, spending time in prison and dishing out violent attacks on guards and fellow-prisoners alike. He has a brutalised face and is covered in tattoos that proclaim his criminal past. Now, however, he is older and wants to go straight. After leaving prison he’s taken a miserably paid job as a night security guard, spending his time with the old dog that has been assigned to him, an animal whose loyalty and friendship gradually breaks down Benny’s locked-in emotions.

The story is non-stop, switching between Benny’s and John Hill’s (not his real name) perspectives as they pursue their hopeless agendas. Another main character soon enters the fray – Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard, perhaps the most corrupt and fattest cop in detective ficton. His nickname comes from his preference for eating gatsbys, baguettes stuffed with steak, eggs, chips and other similar ingredients. Barnard is infamous among the “flats”, the extensive slums in which “half breeds” (as Barnard thinks of them) live their lives of drug addiction, crime, prostitution and welfare scams, necessitated or driven by extreme poverty. He was a senior cop under the apartheid regime, and has not changed any of his views since then. He’s built up a file of information on his colleagues, so manages to live his life exactly as he wants, exacting cruel punishments and, aware that he’s getting no younger and that he can only keep ahead of the game for so long, on the lookout for any opportunity for self-preservation.

His possible nemesis is soon introduced to us in the form of Disaster Zondi, a sort of internal affairs cop from Johannesburg, who is running an anti-corruption investigation. He’s an old victim of Barnard’s, and knows that it will be a real challenge to find any evidence or witnesses against him, given his network of intimidation.

The novel constantly switches between these and other protagonists, showing us the awful brutality, misery and desperation in which almost all the population live. A few people live a pampered life, heavily guarded and protected from the other 99 per cent of their fellow-citizens. This book is not about them or about the professional classes, but is about the awful cycle of violence and cruelty, in big and small ways, that almost everyone suffers. Benny, for example, lives in a shack in which he can’t stand up and in which he can touch the walls by stretching out his arms. He is allowed to empty his slop bucket once a week. When his supervisor tells him he’ll lose his job if he does not get clean and press his shirt, his (equally poor, one assumes) neighbour charges him for borrowing her iron.

The pace of the book and the sheer number of events (either in the present or as back-story) never allows the reader to get mired in the misery or to dwell on one single aspect of the shocking state of this society. For every action or character that we start to condemn, there is a mitigating experience that shows us all too well how someone has reached the point they have (except possibly Bernard who is almost completely unsympathetic instead of, like all the other characters, only partially so). The plot is so fast, as all the players interact in predictable and unpredictable ways, that one is simply carried along to the inevitable conclusion. As well as this, there are innumerable little touches, such as the origin of characters’ names and nicknames, that pull the reader right into this maelstrom of a world. A fantastic book, and one I highly recommend for its heady mix of social conscience, great sense of place, and exciting plot.

I purchased this e-book as part of an Amazon promotion.

About Mixed Blood at the author’s website. This page includes quotes from many reviews, with links to them. Blog reviews include Mack Captures Crime (it was Mack who encouraged me to try this author), International Noir Fiction, Crime Beat and Krimiblog. There are also links to many newspaper or magazine reviews, as well as admiring comments from some well-known authors.

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November reading and reviews

I read only ten books in November; in fact not even that as, unusually for me, I did not finish three of them. I wrote reviews of those I did finish, as well as having a few other reviews coming out at Euro Crime. First, the Euro Crime books I reviewed:

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, about which I wrote: “I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just those who enjoy crime fiction but to those who like a well-written story containing rounded characters, genuine emotion, and providing insights into a vanishing way of life that is unknown to most of us. It is at least as good a novel as the author’s impressive debut, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, and in many ways, even better.”

Trust No One by Alex Walters, featuring “a welcome addition to the current trend for strong, independent female protagonists.”

The Unlucky Lottery by Hakan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson, complete with “trademark bleak humour that permeates the book throughout, as the hard-pressed police team attempts to hold cold reality at bay.”

The Terrorists, the last Martin Beck novel by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. “The last of the ten books in the classic Martin Beck series was first published in 1975. Today, in 2011, it is as fresh and intelligent as it must have been when first written. Even though the plot is about international terrorism, a topic prone to the latest gadgetry, the book does not seem dated because what is important about it is the plot, characters and ideas that the authors wish to convey.”

At Petrona, I reviewed:

The Drop by Michael Connelly

Lethal Investments by K. O. Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett

I’ll Walk Alone by Mary Higgins Clark

The Hand that Trembles by Kjell Eriksson, translated by Ebba Segerberg

White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones

Lying Dead by Aline Templeton

Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Scandinavian Crime Fiction, eds Nestingen and Arvas (non-fiction)

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

The geographical spread is not as great as I would have liked, with 4 from the USA (one of these was mainly Kenyan in setting, the others were set in LA, New York and Alaska), 3 from Sweden, 2 each from England and Scotland, 1 from Norway, and 1 “Scandinavian mix”.

My book of the month? There are some strong contenders here, but it is fairly easy to choose The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, which I enjoyed very much indeed. Runners up are The Drop by Michael Connelly, The Terrorists by Sjowall & Wahloo, and The Hand that Trembles by Kjell Eriksson.

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The Times recommends Christmas books

Very few people will know what books The Times is recommending for Christmas reading this year (other publications use the phrase “best of year”) – the only way of knowing is to read Saturday’s (26 November) print edition or to subscribe to the paper online. (One cannot even point to articles via a URL unless one is an online subscriber). Hence, I thought I’d share the choices with you in this blog post.

Crime – selected by Marcel Berlins.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (published this year in the UK but last year in the USA). “Franklin’s portrayal of small-town paranoia and racial politics is superb, as is his moving treatment of his main, damaged characters”. I have no argument with that assessment of this superb novel (My review is here.)

White Dog by Peter Temple (published this year in the UK but in 2003 in Australia). “The plot is pacy, full of twists and occasionally wayward, but what counts with Temple is his dashing feel for the less respectable side of stuffy Melbourne’s society and local politics.” No argument from me there, either! (My review is here.)

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina. This book actually is published for the first time this year, and is the only “home-grown” novel of the three. The book, according to Berlins, covers “the class system, the disintegration of families, the moral status of sex workers and the treatment of troubled juveniles. And it’s all totally entertaining and not a bit heavy”. I agree that the book is a good read, if somewhat slow for the first two-thirds in the leaden sense, but I don’t think it is by any means the most insightful or telling treatment of these social issues I’ve read this year. (My review is here.)

The Dead Witness, ed. Michael Sims. A collection of 22 short stories of detection, some classic, some rare, some new, including “what is claimed to be the first detective story by a woman – Mary Fortune – in 1866.”

Thrillers – selected by Peter Millar.

I am never very sure of the difference between a crime and a thriller novel, but perhaps it is indicative of some difference between them that I haven’t read any of these selections, whereas I’d read all three of the crime novels chosen!

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr – Agatha Christie meets the Third Reich.

The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland – Spy thriller set in Stalin’s Russia, again with WW2 theme.

Sequence by Adrian Dawson – “Dr Who meets Dan Brown meets Time Traveller’s Wife“, LA setting.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – “money-market madness” & “a computer that thinks it knows better than bankers” (!).

The Drop by Howard Linskey – PI investigates amid Geordie gangsters, “makes Newcastle upon Tyne feel like the Los Angeles we came to know thanks to Raymond Chandler.”

The “mainstream” fiction recommendations by The Times’s literary editor Erica Wagner, are: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, There but for the by Ali Smith, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Death of Eli Gould by David Baddiel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, Collected Folk Tales by Alan Garner and Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt. This last title is the only one of these books I’ve read but I did not enjoy it very much, even though The Times calls it “lyrical and urgent”, and comments on its “gorgeous” cover, as if that bears any relation to the contents!

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