Book review: The Loyal Servant by Eva Hudson

The Loyal Servant
by Eva Hudson
copyright Eva Hudson
Kindle edn, 2011

When Martin Fox, UK Minister for Schools, is found dead at his desk at the Department of Education one night, it is his colleague Caroline Barber who calls the police. Shocked and upset, she gives a brief statement then commutes to her home in Catford, one of the less salubrious areas of south-east London. A typical evening goes by, in which Caroline is criticised by her mother Jean (who lives in an annexe in the house), is ignored by her three children, and her husband Pete is drunk after his usual evening in the pub. The news of her boss’s death is not on the TV as a more “newsworthy” event has occurred – the prime minister has resigned.

When Caroline returns to work the next day, she finds to her shock that Fox’s death is being treated as self-inflicted. She tries to contact the young detective constable who interviewed her, only to be told that he has been transferred to another division. The inspector in charge of the enquiry refers to a suicide note stuck on Fox’s computer screen, which she knows was not there when she found the body.

Caroline is constantly wrong-footed as she struggles to find out what happened to Fox. Her temporary boss is a very unpleasant bureaucrat who forces Caroline to spend all her time looking for a lost CD-ROM. This CD was kept in a secure filing cabinet and contains the names, addresses, financial background and “special educational needs” status of the thousands of London schoolchildren who are being educated at academies, and hence would be embarrassing to the department if it was found in public. Academies (which are real) are government-encouraged schools run by head-teachers rather than having to adhere to local authority rules. They are therefore very unpopular with the educational authorities – it is Caroline’s usual job to manage the academy programme for the department, so hunting for a missing CD is something of a come-down, not to mention of little interest to her. Instead, she tries to find out what happened to Fox but is thwarted at every turn by police and colleagues alike. She eventually turns to a hard-bitten Fleet Street journalist, Angela Tate, for help in exposing what she increasingly thinks to be a cover-up that may reach to the highest parts of British politics.

The Loyal Servant is a refreshingly unusual novel for these times, reminding me somewhat of the novels written by Janet Neel between 1988 and 2001, in which protagonist Francesca Wilson works for the Department of Trade and Industry. Like Francesca, Caroline is a decent, intelligent woman, determined to do the right thing by her work and, in the little time she has left, by her family. As The Loyal Servant continues, though, it moves into full paranoid conspiracy thriller mode, in which all the characters and elements turn out to be connected. For example, Caroline’s carping mother Jean leads a group of protesters against the academy concept, bringing her into direct opposition with her daughter’s job. Not only this, but much later on in the book it turns out that Pete, Caroline’s semi-detached husband, works for the construction company which has all the government contracts for building the new academies. It also emerges late-on that Caroline herself is not entirely honest with the reader.

Caroline is threatened by a sinister security guard, cannot speak to Fox’s family at his funeral, and is prevented from accessing her own computer files – and worse, as the book continues and a family pet as well as people disappear, turn up, are threatened, attacked, and kidnapped. The many twists and turns of the plot are not always convincing, sometimes seeming to pop up to provide the next step in the narrative rather than for any persuasive reason. The lengths to which the criminals go (which include arson, break-ins, hired thugs and guns) are unrealistic, given that they could have avoided many of the dramatics at much earlier stages of the novel. The characters of Caroline and the journalist Angela, and the dynamics between them, are by far the most interesting parts of the book, bringing it to life and providing some genuine colour compared with the flat presentation of the remaining participants.

The Loyal Servant is self-published. It won the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize in 2001. It is no more or less readable than many books that are not self-published, but it needs proper developmental editing to smooth over and make more realistic various disconnected elements, as well as copy editing (for example, there is a difference between there’s and theirs!).

I purchased this book.

Read other reviews of it at: Crimepieces and Amazon UK (eight reviews at time of writing this post).

About the book at the author’s website.

Book review: Killer Instinct by Zoë Sharp

Killer Instinct
by Zoë Sharp
Murderati, Inc (Kindle edn, 2011)
First published by Piatkus, 2002
Charlie Fox #1

Ten years since its first publication, the first book in Zoë Sharp’s series about Charlie (Charlotte) Fox reads as freshly as if it were written this year. Charlie is a young woman who lives alone in part of an old gym in Lancaster – she has three showers but no bath – in the north-west of England. She makes a living by teaching women’s self-defence classes, and seems a pretty tough character with her leathers, motorbike and punchbag hanging in the corner of her room.

The plot proper begins when Charlie visits an old haunt, a nightclub that has been refurbished and renamed as the New Adelphi. Charlie used a room at the old club for one of her classes, but as her friend Gary, the barman, tells her, the new management does not like the image of female self-defence and so Charlie has to seek another venue. Slightly embarrassed, Gary gives Charlie some complimentary tickets to the new club: when Charlie’s motorbiking friend Clare realises there is karaoke in the offing, she can’t keep away. The two women head off for an evening out which turns out to be far more action-packed, and tragic, than they’d anticipated.

The novel cracks on at a fair old pace, as Charlie becomes embroiled in helping the new owner, Marc, with his flawed security arrangements. She also helps Terry, another friend who owns a mobile video van. Terry has accepted a laptop computer in part-exchange for some rental money he is owed, but it is password-protected. Charlie, who is very well-connected in the friends department, asks another devoted pal to help her crack the password, to puzzling effect. In another subplot, the owners of a women’s refuge where Charlie teaches one of her classes seek her help to deal with a man who is hanging round the grounds after dark and scaring the residents.

While the multilayered plot unfolds, parts of Charlie’s back story are revealed: she’s been in the army but has been forced out for reasons that later become apparent. The skills which she’s learnt are highly useful in this book, though, as she is threatened, discovers a murder, and is attacked. Are all these events connected, or are they due to different perpetrators? Charlie has her suspicions, which in the absence of any realistic support from the police, she follows through via more threats, another murder, and more attacks to a violent climax or two in the New Adelphi nightclub, where the layers of plot become unpeeled in various dangerous ways.

I enjoyed Killer Instinct mainly for the character of the independent Charlie, who is very well drawn with just the right balance of toughness yet vulnerability based on her past in the army and, further back, in her childhood with the parents from hell. She is cut from the same cloth as V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, yet her history is more vivid and involving. The depiction of her daily life in Lancaster is also well told, with a great sense of atmosphere. The plot, which starts out well, becomes rather unbelievable in the end as virtually everyone in the book seems to be central to it in one way or another. And some of the details seem wrong – for example is there really a computer programme that could crack a seven-character password in a few minutes? Despite the quibbles, I am sure I shall be reading more of this energetic and engaging series. However, I could have done without having the comparison with Lee Child rammed down my throat, in a blurb, a foreword, an afterword and an acknowledgement. As a reader, I prefer to make up my own mind and not be forced into making comparisons.

I downloaded the Kindle version of this book in a promotion (free of charge).

Other reviews of this book: Honest Indie Book Reviews (although the book is not self-published), Reviewing the Evidence, Lesa’s Book Critiques and Tangled Web.

The author’s website – about Charlie Fox and the series in reading order. (Includes many approving excerpts from reviews, yet more Lee Child comparisons and even some look-alike Lee Child book jacket designs!)

Book review: A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez

A Dark Redemption
By Stav Sherez
Faber&Faber, 2012
Carrigan and Miller #1

DI Jack Carrigan is a maverick loner, unpopular with both his superiors and his junior colleagues in the Met because of his habit not only of going his own way in his own investigations, but also in taking home with him the work-in-progress of other detectives’ cases – providing unwanted advice. In a variant on this well-worn theme, the reader sees him as a man haunted by a traumatic event in his past when he visited Uganda with two university friends immediately after graduating. Only two of the three men returned; whatever happened in Africa has affected them ever since.

Another of Carrigan’s habits that makes him unpopular with colleagues is that he is expert at being the first detective at a crime scene when the uniformed branch put out a call, hence being able to run the subsequent case. His eagerness brings him to a run-down block of flats in Bayswater, where he eventually discovers the horribly murdered body of one of the residents, a young woman.

Carrigan’s immediate superior, Superintendent Branch, calls upon DC Geneva Miller, previously busted down a rank in a disciplinary action. He tells her that in return for seconding her to Carrigan’s investigation to keep an eye on him and report back, he will reinstate her to the rank of Sergeant. Reluctantly, she agrees. Geneva is a young woman with her own demons: a Czech dissident poet for a mother who strongly disapproves of her daughter’s profession; a broken marriage; and a neurotic tendency to scratch her arms and hands to produce sores.

These two obsessives, Carrigan and Miller, together with Carrigan’s relatively unfriendly team, pursue the case with vigour, soon discovering that the victim was a student at the London School of African and Oriental studies who was writing a thesis on the rise of rebel groups in her native Uganda, documenting individuals’ inevitable brutalization and cruel practices. The tension builds up: the powers that be at the Met want the crime classified as a sex attack; Miller is convinced that there is a political angle but finds both Carrigan and Branch reluctant to listen to her.

A Dark Redemption is at its strongest in the depiction of the Ugandan community in London; in the non-judgemental yet up-front accounts of suffering and terror in Uganda; and in the nascent friendship between the two protagonists as their mutual suspicion gradually eases. Both characters have plenty of undeveloped back-story that no doubt will be revealed in more detail in future books in the series. The novel is less strong in its plot, which depends too much on the detectives being blocked in their enquiries or on them not being given information because of interference from government and embassy officials.

Carrigan’s and Miller’s largely separate unravelling of the secrets about the dead woman and her possible relationship with other Ugandans in London is well-conveyed – I particularly liked the interview with her thesis advisor. But it is not a stretch to guess who is behind the crimes, which all comes out in rather a weak climax. I would have enjoyed this book much more despite some plot weaknesses and other (minor but irritating) inconsistencies if it had not resorted to unnecessarily graphic descriptions of horrific murder and torture, in particular of the young woman who is at the centre of the case. The book could have provided the relevant information and packed the same emotional punch without the evilly gruesome details.

I thank Sarah of Crimepieces for sending me this book. Her review of the book is here.

Other (pretty much 100 % positive) reviews of A Dark Redemption: Reactions to Reading, The Game’s Afoot, It’s a Crime! and Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford), where you can also read an interview with the author.

About the book and the Ugandan background at the author’s website.

Book review: White Heat by M J McGrath

White Heat
by M J McGrath
Mantle (Macmillan), 2011

White Heat is dominated by its setting: the High Arctic of Ellesmere Island and the (fictional) Craig Island immediately to the south, under Canadian jurisdiction but on the whole left to the devices of the Inuit and the few others who live there. (The book contains a map of the region to which I referred frequently.) Too far north for snow, living is hard on the ice-clad tundra. This novel is centred on two settlements in the south of Ellesmere Island, where the Inuit struggle to make some kind of a living, many of them succumbing to alcoholism and depression. A few, such as Edie Kiglatuk and her stepson Joe, have broken away from the stereotype. Edie is a part-time teacher at the local school who supplements her income by guiding tourists who want to hunt and explore this harsh, challenging domain. Joe is studying to be a nurse: all Edie’s spare money goes towards his educational fund.

The first half of this novel is a stuttering, unfocused affair. Edie takes a couple of tourists for a trek on Craig island, but disaster strikes. The incident is covered-up by the local council for reasons that Edie can’t fathom. Later, another two men book Edie and Joe to take them separately on a trip on the island. Edie’s client is Bill Fairfax, a descendant of the Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax, who wants to see if he can find his ancestor’s last resting place. Edie is shocked when she sees the identity of the other man, who Joe is set to guide. Again, a disaster happens. In another subplot, the reader follows the daily life of policeman Derek Palliser, a man who would rather spend time mooning over his lost love Misha, or doing research on the behaviour of lemmings in the hope of publishing a breakthrough scientific article, than doing any police work. He therefore ignores Edie’s concern, which leads to yet further tragedy.

These are not the only characters and events that populate the first half of the book. Almost every small contribution to the story is accompanied by detailed background information about the history, practices and psychology of the Inuit: how they are oppressed by the Canadian authorities and how their culture is in danger of collapse as much as from opportunists or self-destructive personalities within it as from any external factors. Although this background is interesting in its own right, it serves to distract from the narrative, resulting in a disconnect between the reader and any of the characters or their dilemmas. Two very sad events occur during this part of the novel, one told from Edie’s perspective and the other from Derek’s. Unfortunately, these descriptions simply fail to engage as the characters are wooden, particularly Derek in his reaction to the crime committed against him.

The second half of the book describes Edie’s actions, as she is by now convinced that there are serious crimes occurring that are being covered-up or ignored. In the absence of any help, she determines to investigate herself, despite the hostility of most of those around her. In time-honoured tradition, she obtains evidence and tenaciously follows up leads, one of which takes her to Greenland and into considerable danger. The canvas of the novel broadens still further, to include possibly evil Russians, scientific research programmes, and an international oil company. Eventually the very many strands come together as it becomes clear what is behind the confusing plethora of events.

Overall, I found that this book did not work for me as a novel. The author has previously written non-fiction books, including one about the “Inuit betrayal and survival in the High Arctic”; this pedigree is evident throughout the novel, impeding any sense of engagement with the characters (though Edie comes more to life in the later sections) or the rambling plot, elements being raised and then dropped unsatisfactorily, or clues suddenly being discovered that had been overlooked for the previous 200 pages. The endless details about survival on the ice, the unpleasant diet of the characters, the politics and history of the Inuit, and so on, are too much of a distraction. I found it quite an effort to read to the end of the book for this reason. White Heat is not an apt title for the novel, so far as I am concerned.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other, universally positive, reviews of White Heat at: The Telegraph, The Independent, It’s a Crime, Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford), and The View from the Blue House. A lone dissenting voice (apart from mine!) is at Reactions to Reading.

About the book at the author’s website.

Books set in similar regions that I enjoyed more, and found more emotionally involving about the Inuit or other far northern cultures, are: White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones, A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Ice Trap by Kitty Sewell and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida. Asa Larsson beautifully addresses similar issues in some of her novels, for example The Black Path.

Book review: Lifeblood by N. J. Cooper

by N J Cooper
Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 2010
Karen Taylor #2

Karen Taylor is an academic psychologist at the University of Southampton and a consultant forensic psychologist to the UK’s Department of Justice. She made her debut in No Escape, set on the Isle of Wight, a location that features heavily in this second outing. As the book opens, Karen is to interview Randall Gyre, on probation after being convicted of attacking a young woman some years before. The interview is part of a project of Karen’s, in which she aims to see if it is possible to predict whether released violent criminals will re-offend.

Gyre is a charming psychopathic type. Karen warns her bosses that he should never have been released, to no avail. Before long, he has failed to turn up to his probation appointments and cannot be found. Then, a policeman is discovered, murdered in his flat. Is Gyre now attacking those who he holds responsible for his conviction, or is the death unrelated? Karen, inevitably, becomes more involved in this case as it escalates, advising both her rather unpleasant superiors at the department, and the police as they investigate an increasing number of possibly related crimes.

Lifeblood is a brisk novel with a solid plot – though I correctly guessed the identity of the villain right from this person’s first appearance in the book. Even so, the theme of violence against women, and the subsequent difficulty of getting rape charges to court, and the even greater difficulty of obtaining a conviction, are well-depicted, mainly by sections about one or two of Gyre’s previous victims and what they’ve done with their lives since.

In Karen’s personal life, as before, she is torn between handsome, nice but boring boyfriend Will, and handsome, nice but less boring police officer Charlie. After two books this dithering is becoming a bit tiresome, so I hope Karen makes up her mind in the next one. The university scenes are well-done, as is the subplot about the run-down chalet on the island owned by Karen’s family – which could intersect with the Gyre investigation by a route unanticipated by Karen or the police. Apart from her romantic dithering, Karen is an attractive, independent protagonist, whose professional interactions are invariably interesting to read. The patronising, buck-passing attitude of her male senior colleagues makes the blood boil, but she deals with them by refusing to be pushed around, doing her job well and showing them up. I look forward to reading about her next case.

I bought my copy of this book.

My Euro Crime review of No Escape, the first novel in this series.

Euro Crime review of Face of the Devil (by Lizzie Hayes), the third novel in this series. A fourth book, Vengeance in Mind, is published in the UK this month (April 2012).

N J Cooper has previously written two crime series under the name of Natasha Cooper and other books as Clare Layton – see Euro Crime for details and links to reviews.

About the author and her Karen Taylor series at her publisher’s website.

Book review: The Mistake by Wendy James

The Mistake
by Wendy James
Penguin/Michael Joseph (Australia), 2012

The central premise of this compelling novel is that a teenager, Jodie Evans, becomes accidentally pregnant after getting drunk at a party. Out of her depth, she disguises her pregnancy, which is fairly easy as the third trimester occurs over the summer when her fellow-student flatmate is away, then books into a small hospital. After she has the baby, she tells the matron that she wants to have the infant adopted. The matron knows a suitable couple who want a child and is able to cut some red tape for Jodie so that everything is done quickly, but the process is not legal. Jodie is simply pleased to put the whole mistake behind her and to get on with her life.

All would have been well: Jodie marries her childhood sweetheart Angus Garrow, second son of a rich farming family in the small town of Arding, New South Wales. Angus becomes a lawyer; the couple have two children, Hannah and Tom, and live a privileged life with Jodie at the family’s centre as the prefect wife, mother, domestic goddess and devoted charity volunteer. It all begins to unravel when Hannah goes on a school trip to Sydney and breaks her leg. The hospital where she is taken is the same as the one where Jodie gave birth. One of the nurses is still there and, via her complete lack of medical ethics, is able to recognise Jodie, pushily offering to help her find the baby she gave up 24 years ago, despite Jodie’s lack of enthusiasm for the project.

When Jodie and Hannah arrive home, Jodie confides in Tom, who is no angel in the marital fidelity stakes so takes the story in his stride. What neither parent anticipates is what happens next: there is no record of the baby ever having been adopted, and no record of her name anywhere – the matron concerned died some time ago. The nurse therefore informs the authorities, the police become involved, and a nationwide appeal is launched.

The main thrust of the book is to examine the effects of this uncertainty on Jodie, her family and the community in which she lives. As the days and weeks go by, the reader is privy to some of Jodie’s and Tom’s memories of their childhood and youth, so some gaps in their narratives are filled in and they become more real as characters. Jodie is horrified by the internet sites and discussions about her case; she is pilloried in the media, increasingly unable to communicate with her family or they with her, ostracised by people she considered friends, and unwelcome in her volunteering roles. Tension is created by the possibility of an inquest on the missing girl and how Jodie, who at least has managed to cope by withdrawing, will deal with being in the public eye.

The Mistake is undoubtedly a powerful book, one that I was compelled to read to find out what happens in the end. Jodie is the main character and therefore has to be both convincing and involve the reader in order to carry the book. This is mostly achieved successfully, though she does to some extent remain an enigma and one or two of her childhood recollections and the unlikely reappearance of a lost friend push the book slightly too much towards the “women’s commercial fiction” genre for me. The Mistake is not really a crime novel – one obvious (to me) lead is not followed up until near the end of the novel — but it does force us to confront some moral issues and admirably resists the temptation to take any easy options. There is also a real punch at the end. If you can get hold of a copy of the book (unfortunately not on sale outside Australia) it is very well worth reading as an honest, unflinching account of the shallowness of much of society and the compromised nature of what we like to call morality.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for kindly sending me a copy of this book. Her review of it is at Fair Dinkum Crime.

The final straight and speculation on the 2012 International Dagger

It’s December since I last provided an update on my reading of books eligible for the CWA International Dagger award. Books published in translation in the UK for the first time between June 2011 and May 2012 are eligible, so long as the publisher submits them to the competition. (Only one book per author can be submitted.) Each year, I try to read a good proportion of these books and make my own predictions about the shortlist and eventual winner. (See here for all my posts on the topic.)

Of the list of 79 eligible titles (up from 55 from last year) for this year listed by Karen of Euro Crime (also at Goodreads when a cover image is available), I’ve read and reviewed 42 (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)
Sissel-Jo Gazan – The Dinosaur Feather, tr Charlotte Barslund (Denmark)
Roslund and Hellstrom – Cell 8, tr Kari Dickson (Sweden)
Kjell Eriksson – The Hand that Trembles, tr Ebbe Segerberg (Sweden)
Lene Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis – The Boy in the Suitcase, tr Lene Kaaberbol (Denmark)
Kristina Ohlsson – Unwanted, tr Sarah Death (Sweden)
George Arion – Attack in the Library, tr Ramona Mitrica, Mike Phillips & Mihai Risnoveanu (Romania) (Kindle edition)
Paulus Hochgatterer – The Mattress House tr. Jamie Bulloch (Austria)
Charlotte Link – The Other Child, tr Stefan Tobler (German, UK setting)
Mari Jungstedt – Dark Angel, tr Tiina Nunnally (Sweden)
Jo Nesbo – Phantom, tr Don Bartlett (Norway)
Hakan Nesser – Hour of the Wolf, tr Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Andrea Camilleri – The Potter’s Field, tr Stephen Sartarelli (Italy) (review pending)
Keigo Higashino – The Devotion of Suspect X, tr Alexander O Smith with Elye Alexander (Japan)
Harri Nykanen – Nights of Awe tr. Kristian London (Finland) (review pending)
Maurizio De Giovanni – I Will Have Vengeance tr. Anne Milano Appel (Italy)
Antonio Hill – The Summer of Dead Toys tr. Laura McGloughlin (Spain) (review pending)
Jens Lapidus – Easy Money, tr. Astri von Arbin Ahlander (Sweden)
Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar, tr Ebba Segerberg (Sweden, my 2010 review is of the US edition)

I shall try to read a few more titles before the shortlist is announced on 25 May at Crime Fest, but several of them are not yet available in the UK. There will be some that I shan’t read, for reasons of time or taste.

So what would make up my personal shortlist? Assuming one is only allowed seven novels, I will plump for:

Karin Fossum – The Caller (Norway)
Antonio Hill – The Summer of Dead Toys (Spain)
Jorn Lier Horst – Dregs (Norway)
Arnaldur Indridason – Outrage (Iceland)
Asa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath Be Past (Sweden)
Deon Meyer – Trackers (South Africa)
Johan Theorin – The Quarry (Sweden)

Unfortunately, there is something of a Scandinavian bias, but that’s my honest opinion. It also reflects the proportion of books published in the UK during this year’s eligibility period. If I were allowed another couple, I’d choose Hour of the Wolf by Hakan Nesser (Sweden) and The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri (Italy).

I have chosen these because they all work well as crime novels: several of the eligible books are not what I’d call “crime novels” but are “fiction with a crime in”. I have also excluded a few which I enjoyed reading very much but which I thought were let down by their plot resolutions. But it is a very strong year; I’ve really enjoyed reading almost all of these books – it’s a pity not to be able to include Anger Mode, Burned, All Yours or Ashes……or Sweet Money, Phantom or Dark Angel….tough choices!

See all my posts on the International Dagger.

The definitive post on the eligible titles at Euro Crime blog.

Other recent posts about this year’s eligible books are at The Game’s Afoot and Reactions to Reading.

Book review: Broken Harbour by Tana French

Broken Harbour
by Tana French
Hodder & Stoughton, 2012.

Broken Harbour tells the detailed story of a police investigation over the course of a few days. It is a long book, more than 500 pages of smallish type, so the pace is not fast, but the tale is an absorbing one. Events are seen from the perspective of Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy of the Dublin police, a self-perceived tough man. A call has come in about a serious crime – a family has been found dead in their house, seemingly horribly murdered. Kennedy, to his delight, is assigned the case and chooses the rookie detective in the team, Richie Curran, as his partner, partly because Kennedy thinks he can more easily control him and hence the course of the investigation.

Kennedy runs a tight and thorough case, no details of which are spared for the reader as the pathologist and the forensic team do their work. (There is no gratuitousness in these descriptions, however.) The victims lived in a new housing complex at Brianstown, previously known as Broken Harbour, where Kennedy has memories of spending happy family holidays when a child. There is an element of doom to Kennedy’s memories, though, increasing as the detectives’ work continues. Comparisons between Broken Harbour and Brianstown are a constant theme, as the present-day estate has been abandoned half-built, with the few residents stuck with debts greater than the value of their houses; many of them are out of work, and the houses themselves are gradually falling apart. The old Blue Harbour, in contrast, was (in Kennedy’s memories) a warm, human place, if poor.

A dense, slow-paced novel such as this has the space to explore several themes. One of those is the relationship between Kennedy and Curran. Kennedy is a solitary man whose marriage has broken up for a particular reason, and who has no close friends. Curran evolves from a gangly novice into a genuinely insightful partner; the two men exchange theories, and Kennedy finds himself liking his young colleague, giving him plenty of professional encouragement. As well as this pleasing element, Kennedy’s memories of his boyhood past are complemented by his relationship with his two sisters today, again conveyed in moving fashion. There are also plenty of neat vignettes, for example the (mainly telephonic) relationship between Kennedy and the IT specialist who is working on the computer found in the victims’ house.

The truth of what happened in the fateful house becomes clear as evidence is collected and examined, as the few witnesses are questioned, and as Kennedy and Curran home in on a clear suspect. In the last 100 pages, someone behaves totally out of character on two occasions, for reasons merely to do with the plot. Apart from this one disappointment, the author never wavers from a powerful, convincing and tragic account, as the reader eventually comes to realise the full picture of both the present-day tragedy and the tragedy of Kennedy’s past. The author conveys with precision and empathy the thin skin between an apparently successful, optimistic environment (whether at the national level or the emotional, individual level) and the disillusionment and despair of cold reality. At the same time, this is a solid crime novel with some twists in its tail. A highly recommended read, which is enjoyable whether or not one has read the author’s previous books in this very loose series.

I obtained this book free via the Amazon Vine programme.

Broken Harbour has also been reviewed at Shots ezine (Gwen Moffat)

The books in this series, in reading order, can be found at Euro Crime, with links to reviews of the earlier novels. As I mentioned in my review, these novels can be read independently or in sequence, as the “series” is very loosely connected.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

Book review: Phantom by Jo Nesbo

by Jo Nesbo
translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 2012
Harry Hole #9

Harry Hole, an ex-detective from the Oslo police, has been living in Hong Kong for three years. He returns to his native city when he hears that someone close to him has been arrested for the shooting and killing of Gusto, a young junkie/drug-dealer. His ex-boss seems keen to encourage Harry to return to his old job, but Harry simply wants to investigate this one particular case.

Over the next few days, Harry begins to uncover the details of the Oslo drug scene. He soon finds out that the main supplies are controlled by “Dubai”, so named because he employs street boys wearing Arsenal football shirts to sell his product (“Fly Emirates” is written on the shirts). Dubai is also known as the Phantom because nobody knows who he is or where he lives: he is said to wander the streets like a ghost. The product his “employees” sell is “violin”, a synthetic product derived from morphine that is more addictive than heroin – Harry receives a chemistry lesson about the drug from a couple of doctors at the nearby Radium hospital, where it is made and prescribed to terminally ill patients.

Harry’s mission is to find who really killed Gusto. He soon finds himself overwhelmed with suspects, from the head of the drug squad and/or his second in command (two old adversaries), to an ambitious councillor, through to Gusto’s relations as well as various rival drug-dealers and low life. Gusto himself has an active role in the novel as he experiences his final moments and looks back on the events of his life. The two narratives come together to form a typical Nesbo climax, which leaves readers on tenterhooks.

Phantom is a great, page-turner of a read, uncluttered by the over-complication that sometimes slightly mars earlier novels in the series. Don Bartlett, as ever, provides a superb translation, sensitive to Harry’s particular brand of humour as well as to the seamy lowlife and their in-jokes about London football clubs and the like. Yet there are certainly some oddities, even flaws, in the novel. Harry, for example, is so fixated on his mission that he does not seem to do anything or even care about some of the widespread corruption he uncovers. He is too much of a superman in his unpreparedness for meetings with people he knows may have cause to want him out of the way, and indeed some of the methods he uses to pursue his goals, such as getting the city’s power supply instantly turned off so he can attempt to escape when cornered by some baddies, or sewing up his own cut throat and chin. The author sets up some situations purely, it seems, to provide an inventively horrible (if mercifully fairly brief) set-piece rather than to advance the plot or provide insights about the characters. Yet, Phantom is a telling book, with a powerful message about what addiction can do to people’s lives (three young lives in particular), and conveying with equal depth the blindness, and therefore dangers, of love.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for lending me this book.

Read other reviews of Phantom at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), Crimepieces, The Independent, The Crime Segments, Crime Watch, The Game’s Afoot, and many more.

Euro Crime: the Harry Hole series in order, with links to reviews of each book.

And for a bit of light relief: the digested read by John Crace. (Warning, full of spoilers.)

Author’s websites: UK and everywhere (including UK!).

Bookgeeks: Defending Jacob by William Landay

I recently received a very kind invitation from the website Bookgeeks (@bookgeeks) to review books for them. I’ve agreed to contribute occasional reviews, beginning with Defending Jacob by William Landay, “a compelling contribution to the legal crime-fiction genre” as I summarised it. My review begins:

Newtown, Connecticut, is a showcase for post-suburban USA, combining a small-town rural atmosphere with cultural and social gentility. It is full of professionals who, when it comes to starting a family, have fled from Boston or New York for a slightly more affordable dream of space, safety and prosperity. But what lurks beneath the surface?

To read the entire review, please visit Bookgeeks. I’d be delighted if you’d like to leave a comment about the review, either here or at Bookgeeks.

I’m showing two covers of the book here: above is the UK edition (which I read); below is the US edition. I prefer the US cover by a long way.

Bookgeeks is a comprehensive website for readers of all types of books. The reviews themselves are divided into categories, each with its own RSS feed: crime & thrillers; contemporary fiction; non-fiction; fantasy, SF & horror; historical fiction & classics; comic & graphic novels; and poetry & literary criticism. As well as reviews, the site features regular interviews, columns and competitions. Bookgeeks is part of something called the Bookswarm network, which among other things has a crime writing website called Bookdagger, providing news and features about crime fiction, as well as more competitions. The well-known crime-fiction author Martin Edwards writes Bookdagger’s monthly crime column, which is always worth reading.

Bookgeeks: my review of Defending Jacob by William Landay.