Book review: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

The Impossible Dead
by Ian Rankin
Orion, 2011.

The second of Ian Rankin’s Malcolm Fox series sees the “complaints” (internal affairs) team sent from Edinburgh to the coastal town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, to investigate three policemen who may have covered up the activities of their colleague, Paul Carter, recently convicted of extorting sex from women he’s arrested. As well as the usual passive-aggressive resistance from the police in the Kirkcaldy station, there are other strange aspects to the case, for example the person who reported Carter was his uncle, a retired policeman himself. While his two younger colleagues are trying to keep appointments with the policemen they have come to interview, Fox goes to visit the uncle who lives in an isolated cottage in the countryside.

As the official investigation is continually stalled by lack of cooperation, Fox becomes more interested in the original case against Carter. Soon, a death occurs that makes his antennae twitch even more. He’s led back to the 1980s, a time of global instability and, in Scotland, extreme protests, bordering on terrorism, by the nationalists. Many of these firebrands are now in power as the SNP (Scottish National Party) became mainstream and Scotland, with the help of the Labour government, achieved devolution. Back in the 1980s, though, there were demonstrations, riots and even packages of anthrax sent to prominent public figures. Involved in these events was a lawyer, Francis Vernal, who died in a car crash at around the time that the nationalists went mainstream. With the help of Vernal’s old friend, Fox begins to find out more about the history of those times, and seeks to find what really happened regarding the car crash, and what happened to some of the activists who vanished afterwards.

Fox is also concerned about his father, Mitch, who lives in a care home. He feels guilty about Mitch being in the home but does not want to have the older man living with him. Fox’s sister Jude is constantly falling out with him and accusing him of not caring about their father. She has given Mitch a large box of old family photos so that when she visits she can go through them with Mitch to help his failing memory. While Fox is doing the same thing on one of his visits, he sees a photo of a man who turns out to be his uncle, who died in a motorbike accident at around the same time as the Vernal crash.

Gradually, due to Fox’s persistence, the threads begin to come together as the 1980s events seem to be at the heart of not only the Kirkcaldy investigation, but also to reach much higher up than that. I was surprised that Fox seems to be completely unsupervised (his boss is always in management meetings), so that even though he has been told not to do the work of the CID (a red-button issue for Fox), he simply carries on. I was also surprised that he has such a low caseload – the Kirkcaldy investigation seems to be the only complaint against the police that the team is investigating. Nevertheless, Fox’s discoveries and the way many small details gradually come together are fascinating to read, particularly the political thriller/spy aspects, which are cleverly set up and not overdone, so I was glad that he was left alone to pursue his own dogged agenda.

In the end, some aspects of the various cases are resolved, others are not, and others are left in the air. Fox’s family life, too, undergoes something of a crisis, and perhaps even a slight reconciliation, which remains to be pursued in future. Fox himself is a bit too much of an enigma to be an entirely satisfying character: he lives alone and enjoys that, has few vices though is prone to self-doubt, is reticent to embark on a relationship, feels guilty about his father and sister – but he is slightly flat. His two colleagues are more sharply drawn, but don’t feature very much after the first part of the novel. Ian Rankin is a very good author whose books are always readable and well-plotted, usually with socio-political themes. Although The Impossible Dead is very good: much better than almost all if not all crime fiction being written today in the UK, I could not help the nagging sense that it could have been even better (particularly if the cliche of a “man in peril” aspect to the ending could have been avoided!). This is not as strong as a “complaint”, more of a slight sense of some of the potential having run out of steam by the end: as a whole, the book is really very good.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of this book are at: The Observer, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Crime Fiction Lover, Reviewing the Evidence and Books Please

BBC iPlayer: Radio conversation between Ian Rankin and Mariella Frostrup about The Impossible Dead.
YouTube video of Ian Rankin talking about the book.

My review of The Complaints, the first in this series of which The Impossible Dead is the second.

Author’s website.

Book review: Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst

Lost and Found
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Back Bay Books, 2007.

Lost and Found is the title of a TV game show, in which contestants race round the world by interpreting clues, both about the next destination and about what object they need to find when they arrive. The participants are couples: although there are several of these teams, the book focuses mainly on a few of them – mother and daughter Laura and Cassie; married “born again Christian ex-gays” Abby and Justin; “goofy” brothers Carl and Jeff; and two ex-child Hollywood stars Juliet and Dallas. Barbara is the rather insecure presenter of the show; she is disliked by the contestants because of her Barbie-doll, robotic personality. Barbara and the producers, whose careers depend on ratings success, have selected the couples for reasons that may not be entirely transparent, and are likely to skew the various contests to encourage inadvertent revelations.

The most interesting aspects of the novel are the stories of the main participants – there are uneasy dynamics within each couple, as well as secrets between the individuals concerned, which we learn about as the competition continues. Cassie and her mother Laura are the most well-developed of these, as the pair try to come to terms with a shocking event in their recent past as well as to re-establish their relationship on a more adult basis than that of a parent and child. Abby and Justin, unsurprisingly, struggle in their separate ways with their past decision to renounce their sexuality and make their marriage work. Juliet is a hard-as-nails young woman, with her eye always on the camera and the chance of reviving her non-career. She is fed up with her partner Dallas, who is not the brightest spark, so behaves manipulatively to improve her chances of victory. Carl is the butt of his brother’s stupid jokes but is concealing his own sadness.

The less interesting aspects of the book concern the game itself. I haven’t watched any reality TV but one can hardly be unaware of some of the things that are now considered acceptable, and regularly occur, on these programmes. Hence the “lost and found” competition is rather tame and dated, indeed it is hard to imagine a popular audience being interested in some of the tasks set even with editing out much of it, for example how long someone can stay awake for, how long they can stand being buried in hot sand, or doing some complex embroidery. I was also a bit surprised at the extent of the programme’s budget! Hence as a satire of a practice that in real life is beyond parody, the book cannot, and does not, really work.

The novel therefore stands or falls on our interest in the contestants themselves, their secrets, and how they resolve their sexual-orientation or emotional dilemmas. Although I was mildly interested in them, I didn’t care all that much – and by the end of the book I didn’t feel that the author had pushed any boundaries, but instead had settled for an inconclusive outcome across the board. I think this novel lacks the bite and emotional power of the author’s debut, Lorelei’s Secret, and the maturity of her third novel, The Nobodies Album. Nonetheless, it is well-written and readable, what one might term a “beach read”, and it’s interesting to see in Laura the sketch for the character of Octavia in The Nobodies Album.

I purchased this book.

Other reviews of Lost and Found: Bookreporter, The Washington Post, Mostly Fiction and The Seattle Times.

Blogcritics interview with the author about this book.

About Lost and Found at the author’s website.

Book review: Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan

Yin Yang Tattoo
by Ron McMillan
Sandstone, 2010

Photographer Alec Brodie is in hiding from his many creditors in London when he receives an offer that seems too good to be true: go to Korea (where he had previously lived for some years) to work on the corporate brochure for the K-N group, a large company, for oodles of money. Using most of his advance to stave off the worst of the looming financial disaster, Brodie nevertheless flies business class to Seoul and has plenty to drink on the plane. On arrival, he’s met and taken to a 5-star hotel, but has to give his own maxed-out credit card as security. Over the next few days, Brodie avails himself generously of luxurious food, drink, brand names and consumer lifestyle, most revoltingly when on his first night he is taken out to dinner to a Japanese restaurant and is fawned on by a hostess who later comes to his hotel room and….yes, you have guessed it.

Brodie learns that K-N is interested in expanding into North Korea, which would be a first for a South Korean business and revive its allegedly flagging fortunes. He is not prepared for the shock of his first assignment, though, which involves photographing a factory and its workers in a fake North Korea as part of an attempt by K-N to attract financial investment. Soon, Brodie is plunged into dangerous territory as someone he knows is killed, and he has been set up as the obvious suspect for the crime. Can he keep one step ahead, and who can he trust from the assortment of hangers on, diplomats, old friends and enemies he’s met during the course of the novel? Will we find out why Brodie was beaten up by the Korean police 15 years previously?

Yin Yang Tattoo is an exciting read, replete with many somewhat over-written details about the (popular) culture and environment of Korea, not a country that features in crime fiction so far as I am aware, which are interesting even if they don’t make one exactly desperate to visit that country! The financial part of the plot is certainly topical and apt. Unfortunately for me, though, I found Brodie an odious person with a repellent attitude to women (he is particularly sexist in his terminology about and behaviour to Korean women, including an old girlfriend). As I could hardly bear to read about him (he’s the narrator so the reader is privy to his thoughts and attitudes) I took refuge in hoping that he’d get his comeuppance, but suspected that he would not as he is presented as a “flawed hero” rather than the offensive character I found him to be.

I was sent this book by the author.

Other reviews of Yin Yang Tattoo are at: ROK Drop, Asia Times, Shots and Simon Varwell.

Article about the Korean location, including the author’s graphic video trailer, at Crime Fiction Lover.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

SinC25: Claudia Piñeiro, #7 post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ moderate challenge, I am now embarking on the expert level. I managed to get half-way through this level in 2011, but still have four more posts to go before completion. The challenge:

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

Claudia Piñeiro achieves that very difficult balance between writing an involving novel and making you laugh. Her books are not overtly funny in terms of set-pieces, slapstick and so on, as is the case in much “comic” crime. Nor are they conventional crime novels as such, in that they don’t feature detectives or very linear narratives – though murders do happen! For me, these books work because they are satires on human nature as the protagonists desperately strive to maintain their fragile images of themselves in an excessively consumerist social context. The humour works at the level of a light-hearted treatment of serious, warped issues – most particularly about how our materialism forces us into situations that get ever more extreme.

Two novels by Claudia Piñeiro have been translated from Argentinian Spanish into English by Miranda France, and published by Bitter Lemon Press:

Thursday Night Widows, “written in 2005, when the Argentine currency inflation was out of control and the characters are terrified by the potential effects of the 9/11 atrocity. Not only is the book a fascinating harbinger of the financial crisis that hit so many other parts of the world a few years later, but also, according to the publisher’s blurb, it “eerily foreshadowed a criminal case that generated a scandal in the Argentine media.” Do yourself a favour, and read it.”

All Yours, a “perfectly pitched black comedy” about a woman desperate to maintain her view of her marriage as perfect, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

Three other authors who write similar books and whom I’d recommend?

Teresa Solana‘s two Barcelona-based novels, A Not so Perfect Crime and A Short Cut To Paradise, skewer the social, artistic and literary pretensions of the Catalonian scene, while introducing the oddest pair of brother-detectives in crime fiction.

Donna Moore, in Go to Helena Handbasket, whisks hilariously through every cliché in the many crime-fiction genres. This book does not so much focus on the social or political comment aspects, but there are plenty of gems to pick up if can manage to look while you are laughing yourself silly.

Leigh Redhead‘s Peepshow is about women trapped in the “hostess” industry in Australia – yet ‘trapped’ is the last thing they feel they are. One of them, Simone, has a PI license, and when a body is found in the sea, she decides to use this to investigate the crime and escape into a more appealing work life.

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

Book review: Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland

by Adrian Hyland
Text, 2011

Kinglake-350 is a non-fiction book about the most terrible bush fire in Australia’s history, on 7 February 2009, in the state of Victoria. Unlike other accounts of natural disasters or other real events, Kinglake-350 is as riveting as any novel could be, which is not surprising given that the author is the superbly talented writer Adrian Hyland.

The first half of the book tells the story of the fire from the point of view of many of the inhabitants of this small community north and slightly east of Melbourne. The author has done his research thoroughly, and his approach provides the book with an immediacy that, in the hands of a writer of this calibre, pulls in the reader as we follow the activities of individual local police, community fire-service volunteers, and other inhabitants as they gradually come to appreciate the magnitude of the threat racing towards them. The lack of warning from the authorities is shocking, as people had little if any time to put into place their fire-protection policies or to flee the region, leading to a much higher death count than would otherwise have been the case, in all likelihood. This part of the book is accompanied by several maps to illustrate the geography of the area and the movement of the various infernos that swept across it; unfortunately in the Kindle e-book I read one cannot magnify these maps into legibility, but even so they were useful in orienting me to the path of the fires and why people could not escape down the few mountain roads.

Gradually, the author intersperses his narrative with scientific descriptions: an explanation for what we know of global climate patterns and their origin; how “natural” fires begin and propagate; the eucalyptus and other vegetation; the psychology and biological response of people faced with horrific dangers; and the relationship of humans with their environment – including why so many people are arsonists. All these sections are gripping; the explanations are admirably clear and comprehensible, unlike many a scientific text – perhaps to me the most fascinating section concerned the contrast between the Aboriginal and the settler-Australians’ relationship with fire and how the different cultures use it to control potentially dangerous natural outbreaks. At the same time, there is immense tension in the story of the Kinglake fires, as we have come to know the cast of characters (particularly Roger Wood, the policeman whose call sign Kinglake-350 provides the title of the book and who is its, for want of a better word, hero) and are desperate to know whether they will survive.

Later, after the worst of the blasts are over but while fires still rage, there are many acts of individual heroism as people are rescued from their houses and cars, as they are treated in a makeshift medical centre, and so on. There were more than a few times that I had tears in my eyes as I was reading.

Finally, the last part of the book summarises the management of the crisis, which was found to be severely lacking from “on high”. Hyland is not interested in assigning blame, however, but in measured (yet occasionally poetic) terms he looks holistically at the causes of this awful disaster. We don’t really have the mechanisms necessary in our society to take the kind of responsibility that can help to ameliorate the conditions that lead to out-of-control environmental catastrophes – and we certainly don’t know enough about the natural processes to be able to predict them with sufficient accuracy. But there are things that could be done – for example the confused response and failed communications when the 2009 fires first started were responsible for much – but more than this, we need to be more connected to the natural world and to live our lives, whether in small or large communities, in awareness that we do not control it. The author puts these arguments very well, while at the same time conveying the lack of process or structure that could make this possible on any enduring, large scale.

Kinglake-350 is a wonderful book, not just as a compulsive 360-degree account of this particular disaster, but in what it says about dealing with any similar incident – floods, tsunamis, volcanoes or earthquakes. The confusion on the part of those responsible for managing or governing from remote locations is a common theme in many of these recent disasters, as are accounts of bravery of those “on the ground”. If everyone read this book then this would be one small step in advancing our understanding of the need to take more collective responsibility for the world we live in, rather than assuming we are the masters of it.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book as part of an Amazon promotion.

Bernadette’s review of this book at Reactions to Reading – which made me want to read it. Other reviews: Aust Crime Fiction (calls the book “mandatory reading”), All the Books I Can Read and The Australian.

Excellent interview with the author about this book and the events described in it, by Meg Mundell.

Wikipedia on the “Black Saturday” bushfires, which spread over 4,500 square km. There were 173 fatalities and 414 serious injuries.

About the book at the Australian publisher’s website (includes an extract and some excerpts from reviews).

My reviews of Adrian Hyland’s two novels: Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road.

Book review: Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

Before I go to Sleep
by S J Watson
Transworld (Doubleday), 2011.

As I am the last person in the UK, possibly the world, to read this book, I shall summarise the plot very briefly as I am sure everyone is familiar with it. A woman in her mid-40s, Christine, wakes up in bed one morning next to her husband in a nice north London house, but cannot remember anything about who she is or what she is doing there. She thinks she is in her 20s. The husband, Ben, explains to her that she has amnesia caused by a car crash, and has been in this state for more than 20 years. Each day is as if she has never been born, and all must be learned anew.

From this interesting premise the author develops Christine’s character (the book is entirely told from her point of view). She’s a determined woman who, after Ben leaves for work in the morning leaving helpful notes on the whiteboard in the kitchen (“wash windows”, etc), discovers a note in her handbag. This leads her to a rendezvous with Dr Nash, who tells her that at his encouragement she has been writing a journal of each day for the past two weeks (oddly, for the past 20 years of in-patient treatment, she has not been encouraged to do this). The main part of the book is Christine’s journal (written like a novel, but she is, we learn, a novelist), in which she writes down everything significant that she learns each day, in the hope that she’ll gradually re-learn her past. Nash, like no doctor I’ve ever known, helpfully phones Christine each morning to tell her about the journal and where it is, and is always available whenever she phones him, popping over to meet her in cafes, for example.

Ben is a shadowy character and seems pretty suspicious right from the start, for example he goes out to work each day leaving Christine alone with no carer or other company, and does not leave his work address on the whiteboard. By reading her secret journal each day, Christine learns that Ben keeps much from her, for example the existence of their son Adam, but there are always good reasons for Ben’s reticence. Via her meetings with Nash, which Ben does not know about (Christine leaves notes to herself to tell her not to tell Ben about the journal or Nash), Christine retraces the steps of her past life and hopes gradually to remember it. (She does, however, know some things instinctively, such as how to do the laundry even though she has not seen a washing machine for 20 years, or to be critical of her clothes because they seem suitable for an “older woman”.)

The last part of the book brings us back to the present, after the previous two weeks of journal entries. Christine feels that quite a bit of her memory has returned and has agreed to go away for the weekend with Ben, as she realises she loves him and appreciates his devotion over the years of her mental absence. Of course, all is not what it seems, and there is a violent climax to the story, with an over-hasty aftermath of explanation.

It’s a challenge to sum up this book. It would be very hard for it to live up to its reputation, and indeed it does not. There are so many clunky details about Christine’s memory and living arrangements that one simply has to ignore them. Christine lives in a sort of parallel Britain. Friends and family behave in inexplicable ways, not to mention the various health professionals involved (or, even more bizarrely, not involved) in the narrative. Christine as a character is admirably determined in the present day if not in her past life, but I did not find her realistic in her emotional reactions to some of the information or people she discovers, or thinks she’s discovered. Ben and Nash are both very flat characters. The author does not pursue the neuroscientific line that is sketched out a little, which might have added some interest to the plot. If this book had not been so heavily promoted and hyped, I’d put it down to a readable but minor suspense novel of the “women’s romantic fiction” variety. Why it has been praised so much (many famous authors admire the book, according to quotations on the cover), and why it has been so much more popular than what I consider to be much better suspense books published last year, I am at a loss to know – unless it is the double-whammy effect of a chick-lit/crime-fiction crossover readership! (If you’ve aleady read the book, or don’t mind plot spoilers, this Amazon review sums up briefly why the book just does not work.)

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of Before I go to Sleep: The Guardian, The Independent (refreshingly down to earth and nice dig at one blurbist!), The Book Whisperer, It’s a Crime!, Euro Crime (Lizzie Hayes), Reactions to Reading, and many others.

Author website.

Book review: Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman

Hurt Machine
Reed Farrel Coleman
Tyrus, 2011.

Moe Praeger is a retired cop and sort-of retired PI, now running a wine business with his brother. He is given a diagnosis of cancer at the start of the book, and is advised to “put his house in order”. He reflects on his exceedingly complicated personal life and on his career, which have been described in six previous books in the series. Now, however, Moe’s main priority is to stay alive for his daughter’s wedding (to someone who has turned out to be her biological cousin). It is at a pre-wedding gathering in New York that Moe encounters Carmella, his second ex-wife. Carmella tells Moe that her estranged elder sister Alta has recently been murdered, and asks Moe to investigate. The rest of the novel mostly tells the story of this investigation and what Moe finds out, filtered through his reflections on his state of health and presumed early demise.

Because Moe is an ex-cop one might think he has contacts to help him, but because of his age most of his old colleagues have died, retired or have been sacked for corruption – and the younger cops don’t want to help a PI. There is one police detective, however, who seems a straight arrow and who does seem prepared to assist, so he and Moe share some information. Moe also knows the cop bars, and finds fellow-drinkers who can provide him with snippets of information. It transpires that Alta was one of two paramedics (confusingly referred to as EMTs throughout, it took me ages to work out what that meant*) who ignored a cook who collapsed in the kitchen of a restaurant where they happened to be at the time. The two women have since been vilified in the media and on the internet, so one obvious theory is that Alta’s death is connected to the earlier event. Moe therefore interviews the surviving member of the pair and begins tracking down the people who have been sending death threats to the women.

Although the story is quite interesting and provides plenty of local colour, the mechanics of the plot are rather pedestrian. For example, Moe decides at the outset that the man who collapsed and was ignored by the paramedics is not relevant to Alta’s death. Half way through the book, getting nowhere or being stonewalled, he decides to pursue this line of investigation, conveyed as if it had never occurred to him. Another way in which the story is spun out is that information available via simple criminal-records checks is only discovered after one part of the double mystery has been solved near the end of the book – and this information would have immediately made that character very suspicious. Carmella, who had asked Moe to undertake the investigation in the first place, not only removes all her sister’s belongings half way through the book and won’t share them with Moe, but also vanishes. As well as being told what seems like a lot of Moe’s back-story from earlier books, there is a lot of summarising of the plots of the previous novels, and explanations of characters who had appeared in them as they crop up in this book.

Despite these inconsistencies and rather obvious methods of filling the pages until a solution is found, Hurt Machine is a readable novel (though could have been better edited), with plenty of local colour – particularly so in Brooklyn and Coney Island. Moe follows up clues that others have ignored, such as why were two paramedics at a restaurant where they could not (presumably) afford to eat? There turns out to to be several mysteries, involving people feeling they have to cover up their true sexual orientation in order to keep up appearances, as well as blackmail, smuggling and money-laundering. One of the perpetrators is easy to guess from the start but the other is more of a surprise. The stories are all tied together well, though some of the revelations are very dark. The “hurt machine” of the title is applied both to the randomness of biology as well as to the damage that humans do to each other – which is, of course, an entirely different form of “hurt”.

*Emergency medical technicians. Another repeated acronym is FDNY – fire department of New York. I hate acronyms that pepper text, and I wish editors would use the good practice of replacing them by a proper word, as otherwise the reader has to break concentration to recall what they mean each time if they are not previously familiar.

I read the free Kindle version of this book.

Other reviews of Hurt Machine: Seattle PI, Mack Captures Crime, The New York Times and The Cyberlibrarian Reads.

Author’s website, where you can find lots of information about the earlier books in the series, videos of the author at various locations where his books are set, and more.

Book review: Dead in the Water by Aline Templeton

Dead in the Water
by Aline Templeton
Hodder & Stoughton 2010 (pb edition, first published 2009)
Marjory Fleming #5

I was slightly confused when selecting this novel as I had already read a book in this series about lighthouses and a drowning (The Darkness and the Deep, #2), but yes, this is a different one! Here, a young woman, Ailsa Grant, was drowned in 1985, apparently by falling off a cliff below a lighthouse. When it turned out that Alisa was pregnant, it was assumed that her father, a brutal man, had killed her, but this was never proved – and is the only unsolved murder on the books of the Galloway police. DCI Marjory Fleming is therefore assigned to solve the case – which is doubly tricky for her, as her father was the investigating officer and her prickly boss the DI at the time. If Marjory finds any errors or oversights, she will not only be attacking the memory of her dead father (with whom she had a difficult relationship) but also putting herself in her boss’s black books.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Marjory attacks the problem with customary vigour, as well as dealing with current crimes such as knife fights on a Saturday night when the young men in the small town of Kircluce get drunk, and policing issues when the crew of a famous TV series, Playfair’s Patch (based on Taggart), turn up to shoot an episode. The protagonist of the series is played by Marcus Lindsay, who grew up in the area in a huge mansion owned by his parents – his father was a Polish air hero of the second world war. Marcus has persuaded Sylvia Lascelles, a famous old star of the silver screen to take a cameo role in the episode. Sylvia was his father’s mistress and a kind of second mother to Marcus, and is only too happy to come and stay at the family pile, even though it is gradually crumbling away through disuse and disrepair. Jaki, Marcus’s young girlfriend and actress in the series who hopes to make her role permanent, also agrees to stay with Marcus at the mansion.

While this odd trio somewhat uncomfortably coexist in the long intervals between filming, Marjory and her team investigate the knife crimes, which seem to point to some Polish builders, and the old case of Ailsa’s death, causing the police to meet Alisa’s horrid mother and an unpleasant couple who knew the girl while she was alive. One night, Marcus is attacked in his garden by someone with a knife – could the old and the new cases be linked? Ailsa’s mother is convinced that Marcus was the father of Ailsa’s unborn baby, even though he can prove he was in America all that year.

As well as trying to solve these cases, Marjory has a set of domestic challenges to cope with on the farm where she lives with her family. Eventually, she has to make a tough choice between loyalty to her son or to her job, a decision that seems to push her over the edge somewhat and – despite the fact that she solves both sets of crimes and pulls a useful political rabbit out of the hat – she ends up in a quandary about her future. To be resolved, no doubt, in the next book.

I am enjoying reading this series. Dead in the Water has a good solid plot, though the police characters (apart from Marjory) are little more than cardboard cut-outs. Marjory’s domestic situation is also a little blandly presented. The sense of location and the mystery elements are good, though, and the solutions, while to some extent depending on information not being provided to the reader until very late in the book, are satisfying. It is a pity that the character of Marjory’s psychologist friend Laura seems to have been written out, but a couple of the characters in this novel, in particular Jaki and the brother of the dead girl, are well drawn.

I borrowed this novel from the library.

Other reviews of Dead in the Water are at: Euro Crime and Reviewing the Evidence (two reviews).

Previous books in the series (with links to my reviews):

Cold in the Earth
The Darkness and the Deep
Lying Dead
Lamb to the Slaughter

About the Marjory Fleming series at the author’s website.

My favourite books reviewed in 2011

I am going to have to make my list a top 20, I am afraid, as I find it impossible to choose a “best” from the books I reviewed last year. Of these books, 9 are translated. Thirteen are by men, seven by women. There is a fairly good geographical spread: USA (5), Sweden (3), South Africa (2), Norway (2) and one each for Iceland, England, Estonia, Italy, Ireland, Argentina, Japan and Denmark. The list is in no particular order: each title is linked to my review at Petrona or Euro Crime.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
The Quarry by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Till Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson, translated by Laurie Thompson
Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce
Trackers by Deon Meyer, translated by Laura Seegers
Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by Lisa Hartford.
Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Anna Yates
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
The Drop by Michael Connelly
The Rage by Gene Kerrigan
All Yours by Claudia Pineiro, translated by Miranda France
Any Human Face by Charles Lambert
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida, translated by Philip Gabriel
Burned by Thomas Enger, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Open Season et seq. by C. J. Box
Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Purge by Sofi Oskanen, translated by Lola Rogers

So hard was it to winnow the list to 20 that I’d also like to mention some other books I very much enjoyed this year: Witness by Cath Staincliff, Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes, Ashes by Sergio Gakas (tr Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife), Headhunters by Jo Nesbo (tr Don Bartlett), The Hand that Trembles by Kjell Eriksson (tr Ebba Segerberg), Misterioso by Arne Dahl (tr Tiina Nunnally), Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar (tr Sonia Soto), Why Don’t You Come for Me? by Diane Janes, Prime Cut by Alan Carter, The Caller by Karin Fossum (tr Charlotte Barslund), The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (tr Laurie Thompson), The Last Lie by Stephen White. Even with all these added, there are some that I am sad to omit from this post!

My favourite reads of European books in 2011 are listed at Euro Crime, together with the choices of the other Euro Crime reviewers. The aggregated favourite books, authors and translators are collected by Karen in this Euro Crime blog post.

All the books I reviewed in 2011, ranked from 1-5 stars. Of these 128, 49 are by women (single authors), one is by two women and four are by a man/woman duo. Forty-six in total are translated.

Book review: The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Nobodies Album
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Hodder & Stoughton (Sceptre), 2010.

The Nobodies Album is a beautifully observed novel, full of layers and originality. Its main theme is about endings: Octavia Frost, the narrator, is a writer who has suffered a tragedy in her personal life 20 years ago. In some ways, this event was an end for her; but in others, it enabled a new beginning. The event itself is not a mystery, but as the author chooses not to reveal the details until near the end of the book, I won’t give anything away here.

Octavia’s books have been successful and shortlisted for awards, until her most recently published novel which did not do so well. She is finishing her new book, and is uncharacteristically nervous about her publisher’s reaction, mainly because the book is very different from anything she’s done before (or possibly anyone). The (fictional) book consists of new endings to the seven novels Octavia has previously published, and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Nobodies Album (also the title of Octavia’s new novel) are the interspersed original and new endings to these books, which I found imaginative both in concept and in execution. All these endings, it transpires, are interpretations of the tragedy Octavia herself has suffered; we are invited to read the old and the new endings in terms of the emotional journey Octavia has travelled during this time.

The story of the (fictional) book and its contents provides the framework for the plot of The Nobodies Album. About to deliver the manuscript to her publisher in New York, Octavia discovers that her son Milo, a rock musician, has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend. Octavia is estranged from Milo, but upon hearing the news she immediately travels to San Francisco, where he lives, in an attempt to see him to see if she can help. As part of this process, she meets some of Milo’s circle and, rather self-consciously, decides to find out for herself whether her son did commit, or could have committed, the crime. Another layer concerns Octavia’s reflections on Milo’s childhood and the cause of the breach between them, which raises issues of the nature of fiction – are fictional characters “fiction” or are they elements of characters from real life – and if so, how much, and are their actions those which the author wishes had happened in real life, and if those characters recognise themselves, how do they react? (Octavia herself experiences this conundrum from both perspectives.)

These themes, while pretty serious, are never handled heavily by the very talented author. She writes extremely well, drawing in the reader both to the current mystery, during which Octavia learns about her son as an adult and finds out things she didn’t know about him and about herself in the process, and to the gradually revealed story of Octavia’s family’s past. Occasionally, we read passages from the new book, usually in the form of a cover synopsis of the original publication, the original ending, and Octavia’s new ending. The particular extract occurs at a time when that book is relevant to the narrative; this is subtly done but very cleverly casts a double perspective on the events that Milo, Octavia and the small group of Milo’s associates are experiencing, with an eventual fusion of the story of the past, the murder case resolution, and what happens about Octavia’s book.

There is so much to like about this book; it is one I really do urge you to read. It is well-written, intelligent yet accessible, original and distinctive. It is a crime novel in one sense but the crime plot is more of a background to the themes of relationships between parents and children, and of dealing with loss in the literal sense or in the sense of estrangment — and whether or how it is possible to change the “endings”, or way in which events of the past control those of the present, and start afresh. It’s quite the best book I’ve read for some time, and is the first entry of my list of favourite books reviewed in 2012. I discovered it because of a recommendation by Jackie of Farm Lane Books blog, who made it one of her favourite books of 2011, and I am so glad I did. (I had some years ago read the author’s intriguing debut, Lorelei’s Secret (US title: The Dogs of Babel), but had lost track of her since then.)

Jackie’s review of the novel is at Farm Lane Books (contains links to some other blog reviews). Other reviews can be read at: The New York Times and Mostly Fiction.

If I haven’t convinced you to read the book, here’s a short extract from Liesl Schillinger’s NYT review:

In “The Nobodies Album,” with a light but sure hand, Carolyn Parkhurst joins together four disparate literary forms: the family drama, the short story, the philosophical essay on language and, yes, the whodunit. Her weave is smooth, a vigorous hybrid of the old-fashioned, the modern and the postmodern. She reminds us what an act of will and imagination it has always taken for a writer to convert nobodies into somebodies in any genre, whether at the desk or in the world.

This is the second of two books I bought as a Christmas present to myself.