Book review: Pierced by Thomas Enger

by Thomas Enger
translated by Charlotte Barslund
Faber&Faber, 2012
Henning Juul #2

Pierced is an excellent novel, even better than the author’s very good debut novel, Burned. In Burned, we learnt that Oslo-based journalist Henning Juul has just returned to work at 123 News after being severely burnt in a fire in his flat one night two years ago. His 10-year-old son Jonas was killed in the fire. In Pierced, Juul is contacted one weekend by Tore Pulli, a prisoner whose appeal is coming up. Pulli asks Juul to find evidence that he is innocent of the crime he committed. The hook is that Pulli knows something about the fire in which Juul lost his son, and will tell him about it in return for Juul’s help.

Juul cannot remember anything about the weeks before and after the tragedy, so clings at this straw and spends most of Pierced following up his unusual task, which involves the world of men’s gyms, strip clubs, body builders, enforcers and others who live on the wrong side of the law. At the same time as following some very subtle clues, Juul tries to put together his shattered personal and professional life. His marriage broke up after his son died, his wife Nora leaving him for his work colleague, star journalist Iver Gundersen. Juul’s strange friendship with Gundersen is a continuing feature of Pierced, the dynamics between the men, and each of them with Nora, being one of the pleasures of this novel.

There are other strands to the plots of Pierced, which combine to make the novel a great combination of detection and thriller as Juul is unknowingly in a race to solve Pulli’s case before some Swedish villains get to him in a subplot that is extremely tense and very sad. And why are the Swedes keen to silence Pulli: is it because they were involved in the crime for which he is serving time, or is there another reason, perhaps closer to home for Juul?

Although there is less of the journalism theme, and humour, in Pierced than in Burned, it is endearing that Juul sees the world through the eyes of a wordsmith. He cannot erase his wife from his life “like a typo”, and when he hurts her by bringing up the subject of their dead son, a taboo, he realises that she gets through each day by “applying correction fluid” to her deep grief. There are also some neat crime-fiction references: to Eva Joly, the French (Norwegian-born) anti-corruption magistrate and now novelist; and to a book by R. N. Morris, which provides a clue.

I urge you to read this novel (ideally after reading Burned), and hope you enjoy it as much as I did, even though it is written in the present tense. Its pleasures are enhanced by the excellent, colloquial translation by Charlotte Barslund.

I received this book via the Amazon Vine programme.

My review of Burned, the first book in the series. I see that my review starts with the sentence “I welcome this stunning crime-fiction debut from Norway.”

Publisher’s website: about the book, including a video of the author talking about it.

[Update 17 August: comments are now sorted, somewhat belatedly.] Because of a Word Press bug, comments to this article have been disabled. I hope Word Press will resolve this, but in the meantime, if you would like to comment, please send it to me by email (maxinelclarke AT gmail DOT com) and I’ll post it for you via the blog dashboard.

Book review: Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wahlberg

Death of a Carpet Dealer
by Karin Wahlberg
Stockholm Text e-book, 2012
(first published 2009)
Translated by Neil Betteridge

Death of a Carpet Dealer is mainly set in Oskarshamn, a small coastal town south of Stockholm, from which the ferries to the islands of Oland and Gotland depart and arrive. As the novel opens, however, Carl-Iver Olsson, the titular carpet dealer, is on a rather different ferry, one that travels up and down the Bosphorus to and from Istanbul. And, given the title, it is not giving anything away to reveal that he is discovered to be dead when the time comes for disembarkation.

Chapters alternate from different points of view: the Turkish sections concern two workers on the ferry who may or may not be involved in Olsson’s death; and the Istanbul police, who initially investigate the crime. When it becomes apparent that the victim was Swedish, the Oskarhshamn authorities are informed and dispatch two officers to Istanbul to help and to be present when Olsson’s family identifies his body. After an interlude in Istanbul, most of the action thereafter takes place in Oskarhshamn.

The novel is like a switchback, as events are told from the point of view of several connected characters. One of these is Veronika, a 47-year-old doctor who is about to give birth to her third child, and who has taken an old carpet to Olsson’s shop for repair. The shop is run by Olsson’s niece Annelide, who is married to one of Veronika’s colleagues. Olsson’s wife, soon to be widow, is a nurse at the same hospital, working the night shift. And Veronika’s husband Claes is a senior police inspector who is given the Olsson case. Each character has a chapter to reflect on life and his or her concerns, often seeming rather tangential to the plot, before the subject changes to another one. In this fashion, a mosaic-style picture of life in this country area of Sweden is provided (click on map for larger view).

In the second half of the book, the plot becomes more central as some facts are revealed to the reader that were hitherto unknown, coming to a climax at Olsson’s funeral which ends the book. The pace of the crime investigation is pretty relaxed: the full picture of what’s happened and why becomes apparent gradually because of information that is revealed piece-by-piece from the various characters’ perspectives and actions, rather than by any great detective work or puzzle-solving. Even at the end when the police have worked out who is their main suspect and “stake out” the church before the funeral, the person concerned simply exits through a side door nobody thought to cover, unobserved.

Death of a Carpet Dealer is an engaging book if you don’t mind the type of novel that is more concerned with telling the stories of a range of characters, that spends pages on describing scenes and ways of life (in Turkey and Sweden), and provides plenty of information about, for example, hospital procedures, the rug trade and Turkish culture. It’s a readable concoction – the author is a storyteller in a vein similar to Camilla Lackberg – which easily slips by. It is a rather old-fashioned book but none the less a pleasant, easy (certainly not “literary”) read, even with occasional lapses in grammar and spelling.

I received this book free in a promotion by the publisher.

From the publisher’s website: “Death of a Carpet Dealer is one of the seven Karin Wahlberg books featuring Police Commissioner Claes Claesson and his wife Veronika Lundborg, doctor at Oskarshamn hospital. It is a traditional crime novel based on a concrete crime to be solved – no politics, no unrelated action, but lots of ordinary life around the characters. Wahlberg herself is one of Sweden’s most renowned accoucheurs. Her highly literary reads have sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.” I believe it is the sixth in the series, even though it is first to appear in English.

Other reviews of this book: Rhapsody in Books and The Crime House.

Wikipedia: list of the series in reading order.

Book review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce
by James M Cain
Phoenix (Orion), 2011
First published in the USA 1941
First published in the UK 2002

It’s amazing to me that this novel had to wait more than 60 years for a UK publication*. It’s a splendid book, tightly constructed, well-written and, above all, a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman, the titular Mildred. The fact that the novel is written by a man is the clearest proof one needs that one does not need to be the same gender as one’s subject in order to “get” that person and present a full character study.

The 200-page novel is set in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles between Hollywood and Pasadena. Bert Pierce had earlier sold off his family land and has, in the shadow of the Depression, come to grief in his attempt to build “Pierce Homes”, a commuter suburb. He, his wife Mildred and their two daughters Veda and Ray live in one of the ex-Pierce homes, but with no visible means of income, relations are strained. The book opens with the end of their marriage as Mildred makes pies in the kitchen to sell for parties and the like, but Bert slopes off to be with his mistress, eternally absent but amusingly portrayed.

Left alone with two young daughters, Mildred would do anything to give them the life to which she herself once aspired. She struggles to find work, accepts humiliations, and eventually is reduced to serving in a diner – ten years of marriage had not prepared her for anything better, according to the woman at the employment agency. Soon, Mildred perceives a business opportunity, and the novel tells the tale of her rise to prominence and riches through hard work and determination – and not a little to do with her good nature in regard to Bert, his ex-partner Wally, and other, later, characters.

In these bare bones, the author provides not just a perfect, convincing portrait of day to day life in that place and time, but also presents a remarkable picture of Mildred’s inner life, as she lives through setback, awful tragedy, prejudice and rivalry. The lynchpin of all of this is her relationship with her daughter Veda – another sharply observed character study – which starts out as being one of a typically ambitious mother for her daughter but, as the novel nears its end, is revealed as having much darker dynamics than that.

Mildred Pierce is a remarkable novel. It beautifully depicts its time and its setting; it provides some terrifically well-observed minor characters in the men and women Mildred meets along the way of her journey; and above all it is a clean dissection of a tempestuously jealous relationship. None of it has dated a bit, to the contrary, its convincing depiction of the passion and scheming hatred that exist between a mother and daughter has probably never been bettered since. I can’t recommend it too highly as a book with a melodramatic theme but handled in the opposite of a melodramatic fashion.

I bought my copy of this book.

There is an old film of Mildred Pierce (starring Joan Crawford) but there is also a truly excellent remake, starring Kate Winslet, made by Sky Atlantic. It is available on DVD and is a mesmeric adaptation, missing out compared with the novel only in its hesitation in depicting the darkness in Mildred towards the end, when her emotions are more fully revealed to the reader.

James M Cain is perhaps best known as a crime novelist, though he wrote many other books and journalism. His most famous books, in addition to Mildred Pierce, are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. From the preface to Double Indemnity:

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.

* 9 July. Correction. See comment below from Terry Halligan about 1st UK publication in 1943, and my response.

Book review: Murder at the Mendel by Gail Bowen

Murder at the Mendel
by Gail Bowen
McClelland & Stewart 2004, first published 1991
Joanne Kilbourn #2

Joanne Kilbourn has moved to Saskatoon after the events of Deadly Experiences. Two of her three children are at university there, and she herself has a teaching job in the politics department for a semester while she decides what to do with her life and completes her biography of the former state premier. Jo’s best friend from her childhood, Sally Love, also lives in Saskatoon.

The two girls became estranged after the age of 13 when, in an apparent murder-suicide, Sally’s father died and she and her mother were left gravely ill. Jo has never understood why Sally did not reply to her letters after the tragedy, when Sally left for art school in New York and Jo was left in care of Sally’s mother Nina.

Sally is now Canada’s most renowned contemporary artist. She’s a vividly drawn and attractive if headstrong character, formidably intelligent and sure of herself. She lives for her art, and the action of the book begins when an exhibition of her work is shown at the Mendel gallery. The showpiece is a work that is shocking to many, resulting in demonstrations outside the installation and in various personal attacks on Sally. After she reconciles with her friend, Jo realises how nasty these attacks are, and how unhinged a woman whom Sally has dumped as her business partner. Murder is in the air.

In 200 pages, the author provides the reader with a totally absorbing portrait both of the feminist art scene (and movement) and of daily life in Saskatoon as Jo works, spends time with her family, and helps Sally and her family to deal with the various sinister elements that surround them. The tension is built up admirably underneath this apparently normal surface. The book is not without dry humour, for example when a band of feminists attack a party given in honour of Sally:

They were in the reception area, a dozen of them, wearing… that came to their knees, skintight black pants, bomber jackets, big, toothy, gorilla masks. Two of them were wearing gorilla hands, and the rest wore gloves. Gorillas or not, they were Canadians in an art gallery, so they were behaving themselves, waiting to deal with somebody in authority.

Although I worked out the bones of the plot very early on, the tale is extremely well told. The various characters surrounding Sally are bought to life in accurate vignettes. Sally herself is the kind of woman who evokes extreme reactions, but she’s a person I liked a lot from her first entrance in this novel. Although the author writes with a light touch, there is always a sense of sadness and loss underlying the brisk story – both Jo’s grief for her husband (who died two years ago) and the tragedy underlying the central crime plot, which is eventually revealed.

I bought my copy of this book.

Bill Selnes’s posts about Gail Bowen, including reviews of some of her books, Q/A and profile.

Books in Canada: profile of the author and her books, including this one.

Author’s website, including the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries in reading order.

My review of Deadly Appearances, the first book in this series.

Book review: Vengeance in Mind by N J Cooper

Vengeance in Mind
by N J Cooper
Simon and Schuster, 2012
Karen Taylor #4

I had not intended to read the latest Karen Taylor novel so soon after reading the previous two, but when I saw a copy in the library I decided that fate had intervened. Vengeance in Mind is the best so far in this series, I think, and can be read without having read the previous novels: the main elements of Karen’s back-story are easy enough to pick up for newcomers to this intelligent, attractively independent but somewhat impulsive protagonist.

Karen is a psychology academic at the University of Southampton but is also an occasional consultant to DCI Charlie Trench of the Isle of Wight police force. Karen’s varied research interests are usually uncannily similar to a crime that Charlie is investigating, as is the case here. The body of a globally famous, philanthropic businessman is found viciously mutilated in the kitchen of his grand mansion on the island. The only other inhabitant of the highly secure house is Sheena, the person who called the police. Sheena claims to have no memory of what happened between arriving the night before and discovering the body, so Charlie calls in Karen to assess her believability. Karen accepts the job because she just happens to be embarking on a research project about why some murderers mutilate their victims after killing them.

The novel is not at all gory or explicit, despite this ghoulish opening. The emphasis is on Karen’s assessment of Sheena and her subsequent actions as she begins to dig into Sheena’s life as the mistress and press secretary of the deceased to try to find if the young woman is a fantasist or is telling the truth. Karen’s investigations lead her into terrible danger, but also an increased determination to find out the connection between the murder and a charitable foundation to help young women who have been trafficked from eastern Europe.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though there is no suspense about the identity of the killer(s) — for Karen it is a matter of following her hunches and persuading the irascible Charlie to take her seriously, and for the reader it is a question of following in her wake as she dashes between Southampton, London and the island following leads and interrogating people she regards as suspects or witnesses, whatever the police may think.

Despite some flaws, not least the tendency of Karen’s regular associates to have friends who can help out in any situation at the drop of a hat (Karen’s boss Max here turns out to have a direct line to a women’s refuge that comes in handy a couple of times, her on-off boyfriend Will suddenly acquires a sister at a useful point in the plot, and a publican happens to know a radio ham just when Karen needs one), the book is a brisk and largely satisfying read. It benefits from less emphasis on the rivalries between Charlie’s team and Karen, and on Karen’s romantic dithering, as in previous novels these inconclusive elements have slowed things up too much. The main gripe I have with Vengeance in Mind is everyone’s dismissive treatment of a second murder victim. But there are some very good moments, not least a scene in which a character experiences a heroin injection and its aftermath, which is compellingly and vividly described. N J Cooper manages an impressive achievement: an unflinching look at nasty events and their underbelly, without being “cosy” or using excessive graphic detail. Without pulling her punches, she knows what is necessary, and what is too much.

I borrowed this book from the library.

My reviews of the previous books in this series: No Escape (#1); Lifeblood (#2) and Face of the Devil (#3).

Crime Time: article by the author about writing (this novel in particular).

Publisher’s website: about the Karen Taylor series.

Book review: A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming

A Fountain Filled With Blood
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur/St Martin’s, 2003
Clare Fergusson #2

The quotation that forms the title of this book is from a hymn by William Cowper, referring to the washing away of sins. The small town of Millers Kill in the Adirondacks (New York state) seems to be a focus for hate crimes against gay men. In the first two described cases, the victims are attacked and viciously beaten by thugs, but are not robbed. The third case seems different, so police chief Russ van Alstyne is unsure whether it is related.

Reverend Clare Fergusson is improbably concerned in all three cases from the outset: she is sitting next to the partner of the first victim when he is informed of the incident by Russ; she’s about to perform the marriage ceremony of the sister of the second victim; and she discovers the body of the third while out walking the dogs that belonged to the first victim. Despite the attractiveness of Clare’s personality and the fluent writing style of the novel, I almost stopped reading it at this point because of these impossible coincidences.

However, I am glad I read on, because the book changes direction. Clare and Russ clash about Russ’s determination to keep secret the sexual orientation of the victims – Clare preaches tolerance and believes that others potentially at risk should be warned to take care. Insatiably curious, Clare manages to inveigle herself into various situations where she encounters possible suspects and motivations for the crimes, which may be connected to a huge spa resort being built just outside the town, and a controversy over the associated environmental impact statement. She and Russ, therefore, constantly bump into each other as their separate investigations add pieces to form a complete picture.

Both Russ and Clare are vivid characters who deal with their attraction to each other in a moral yet adult way – she is a celibate priest, he is married. It becomes clearer in this book, the second in the series, how compatible they are, not least in a dangerous mission near the end involving a helicopter. It’s very hard to write a genuinely thrilling, original action sequence; here the author has done it again after her success in this regard in her first novel. The easily guessable crime-plot, with its somewhat boilerplate suspects, is in some ways secondary – though it is well-constructed, and it provides an excuse for a great set-piece in which Clare wangles an invitation to a pre-wedding party, gets drunk, and finds herself trapped in an embarrassing situation.

Julia Spencer-Fleming writes with a light but mature touch, depicting very well small-town characters, concerns, tensions and politics. Based on the evidence of her first two books, this series looks set to be near the top of those being written in the USA today, not least for the excellent handling of the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ relationship of Russ and Clare – a treatment that could serve as a model for other authors who attempt to do the same, but less successfully.

I purchased this book.

Other reviews of A Fountain Filled With Blood: Bookreporter, Kirkus reviews, Kittling:Books, Reviewing the Evidence (Barbara Franchi) and January Magazine (Sarah Weinman).

My review of In The Bleak Midwinter, the first book in the series.

Author’s website (now functioning!) – includes the series in reading order, news, excerpts and offers.

Book review: The Pied Piper by Ridley Pearson

The Pied Piper
by Ridley Pearson
Orion, pb 2004 (first published 2003)
Boldt & Matthews #5

Although this is fifth in a series, it’s the first book by this author I’ve read. The setting is Seattle, and the story concerns the city cops who are investigating the kidnapping of a baby while the parents have gone out for the evening, leaving their two infants in the care of a babysitter. The police quickly connect the case to a spate of similar abductions that have been going on across the country – in fact Sheila Hill, their commander, has anticipated this event by setting up a task force to be ready and waiting.

Over the next 550 pages the reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride as the investigators pore over every detail of forensic evidence in their desperate attempt to apprehend the perpetrator(s). The attempt is desperate because the local police are driven to solve the mystery on their own, without the interference of the FBI taskforce that is already working on the case. It is, of course, impossible to keep them out of it, so the two teams work in parallel with a daily meeting to share what has been found over the past 24 hours. There is a lot of petty politics, in which both sides keep information back, either not logging it at all or waiting until after the joint meeting to do so.

After 200 pages and one further abduction, the case turns very personal in a nasty plot twist. Although the preface and the cover blurb of the book both reveal this twist, I shan’t do so here, as it changes the entire direction of the book as well as the moral perspective of the participants, and would spoil the reader’s experience to know it in advance.

The main strength of this book is the ensemble nature of the storytelling. The novel is in the tradition of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, as we follow the personal lives and concerns of various police officers as well as their working practices. There are thrills and tensions aplenty, in a printed equivalent of Hill St Blues or The Wire, as the case widens out into a brilliantly described narcotics bust as well as many other elements too numerous to describe here, including intelligence-gathering, computers and psychology. At the same time, there is sex and tragedy in spades as the all-too-human cast of characters determine in unpredictable ways how events will turn out.

The main conundrum, that of how the Pied Piper manages to stay one step ahead of his or her sophisticated trackers, is solved in a way that I found extremely unlikely, but even so it works within the piled-on, ratcheted-up excitements and cliff-hangers of the plot. The way in which the investigation is hampered by the inter-agency rivalry is much more believable, and adds to the emotional temperature of the book. Although I don’t think the author needed 550 pages to tell his story, which would have benefited from good editing, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – which at its heart is an excellent crime thriller – and shall definitely be reading more in the series.

I bought my copy of this book. I discovered it via a recommendation by Keishon of Yet Another Crime Fiction blog. Her reflections on the book are here.

I can’t find any other reviews of this book that are worth reading, but I see that the 3-CD audio version is considered to be far too heavily abridged by more than one reviewer.

Author’s website. He’s written many novels including this series – the titles and reading order of which are listed at the website, and at Wikipedia.

Book review: Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsay

Broken Silence
by Danielle Ramsay
Avon (Harper Collins) 2010
DI Jack Brady #1

Whitley Bay, in the north-east of England, is the setting for this debut police procedural. In the opening chapter, a young woman is out at night arguing with her boyfriend, then is killed. DI Jack Brady is still recovering from being shot “almost” in the balls a year ago – we know the wound can’t be all that bad as we first encounter him in bed with a young woman he’s picked up the night before and whose name he does not know. Still on sick leave, he’s called back to work at short notice by his unpleasant boss to replace his colleague DI Jack Matthews, who was in charge of the investigation, but who has abruptly vanished after committing the shockingly careless mistake of throwing his coat over the corpse, thus compromising the forensic gathering of evidence.

Brady is a mess, a parody of every affliction of male cops in crime fiction. Not only is his sex-life (and his home) unfit for scrutiny but his wife has left him because he had a fling with a colleague, he’s addicted to alcohol and tobacco, and he launches into the investigation determined to cover up any involvement of Matthews, to whom he owes an unspecified favour. As the book progresses, we discover a trauma from Brady’s childhood, witness the reappearance of a drunk old tramp who seems to have a hold on him, and become aware of his longstanding friendship with a local Mr Big. Brady is the epitome of the macho cop, attacking witnesses verbally, never keeping records, being attracted to any female within range, constantly on the edge of enraged breakdown as the burden of all his secrets, as well as his bad leg, take their toll.

Broken Silence is a revved-up curate’s egg. Somewhere in this overcomplicated mélange is a good mystery story with a couple of twists in its tail that cries out for a pared-down telling. The setting of Whitby is vividly, if revoltingly, conveyed. Yet the whole is a mess, written at an easy-reading level to put it politely, and full of clichés, for example we are several times told of Brady’s “olive” complexion (is he green?). Characters enter and depart to play their predictable roles as necessary to the plot (bitter ex-wife, sad ex-girlfriend now married to Brady’s best friend, irascible pathologist, seedy journalist, good cop colleague, bad cop colleague, etc), never staying long enough to become more than cardboard and in at least some cases, seemingly there only to set up themes to be explored in future books. The story is regularly unbelievable, for example Brady interviews an upset teenage girl with no social worker or female officer, and various characters commit crimes with impunity but never feature in the papers – hardly likely, but necessary for the plot.

The novel is a quick and easy read that seems to have commercial potential, but the author is clearly talented so it is sad that she has missed the chance to turn an overly detailed account, more crammed full of drama than a TV soap opera, into the focused, hard-hitting crime novel that it could have been. This is unfortunate, as the theme of the sexual abuse of teenage girls, and its acceptance – even encouragement – throughout society (the professions, the media and so on) is one of the West’s main social problems of today. The book is sincere in its exposure of many issues surrounding this horror, but it is more concerned with the egoistical Brady and his mess of a life, than with this more interesting, and challenging, aspect.

I borrowed this book from the library. It was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2009.

Other reviews of Broken Silence: Reviewing the Evidence, Marc Hooker books and Read Regional.

There is already a second book in the series, Vanishing Point, reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence.

About the author and her books at the publisher’s website.

Book review: Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti

Lorraine Connection
by Dominique Manotti
translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz
Arcadia, 2008 (first published 2006)

“Warning. This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false”. This laconic prologue sets the tone for this marvellously sophisticated, strong thriller, set in a town (I think fictional) called Pondage in Lorraine, northern France. Previously the engine of the country via its iron and steel works, the region has fallen into hard times, now revived somewhat by the Daewoo cathode-ray factory which attracts millions in EU subsidies and is a major local employer. There is something not right about the factory, though. We first see it from the perspective of the workers, with two horrible assembly-line accidents, an unfair dismissal and the discovery by the workforce that its long-overdue bonuses will not be paid for many more months. The result of these provocations is a flash strike, brilliantly described, which ends in dangerous chaos.

The action gradually broadens out from these small beginnings into a huge network of the connections alluded to in the title of the book. The local economy, the police investigation of the strike, the privatisation of ‘Thomson’ (France’s largest military-electronics concern), the Korean methods of doing business, and the heart of the country’s government itself are all gradually revealed to have their places in this grimly corrupt, venal society in which financial, violent and indeed any crimes are entrenched at all scales, from the small to the institutional, abetted at all levels.

As well as this superb plotting and rising to the challenge of making her cruel world utterly believable, Manotti tells a great human story, focusing on some of the workers and the fallout they experience in the weeks after the strike, as well as on Charles Montoya, a failed ex-cop who is sent to Pondage by one of the interested parties in the Thomson buy-out to find out what is going on. Montoya’s arrival and quick discoveries spark a burst of violent responses, one of them in particular very tragic.

Manotti has written an unflinching, knowledgeable and tough book, convincingly cynical about the way businesses and countries are run (nobody reading it could be surprised about the current financial meltdown in Europe). She is extremely good at depicting the adaptations individuals make to this world in which they find themselves, in particular the workers of North African origin. The combination of passion, politics and sheer ruthlessness that runs through all walks of life is confidently and persuasively presented. Although there is little to be happy about by the end of the book, the author provides a glimmer of light in one character, who cleverly manipulates the convoluted situation to win (one hopes) a better life elsewhere. A perfect crime novel, so well written and beautifully translated, all within 200 pages.

I borrowed this book from the library. It deservedly won the CWA International Dagger award in 2008.

Other reviews of this book: Crime Scraps, Euro Crime (Laura Root), The Game’s Afoot, Reviewing the Evidence (Sharon Wheeler) and International Noir Fiction.

Wikipedia: fascinating article about the rise and fall of Daewoo.

Three other books by Manotti have been translated into English. I’ve reviewed two of them: Rough Trade and Affairs of State (both excellent). Rough Trade, set in Paris, is the first of a series about Inspector Daquin. The second, Dead Horsemeat, has been translated and is reviewed by Karen at Euro Crime. Affairs of State is a political thriller set within the Mitterrand administration – highly recommended!

Book review: The Last Girl by Jane Casey

The Last Girl
by Jane Casey
Ebury Press, 2012
Maeve Kerrigan #3

No mention is made by the publisher inside this book that it is the third in a series featuring DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met – a good detective in an institutionally sexist and occasionally racist (she’s Irish by origin) organisation. The main plot of The Last Girl does not depend on anything in the earlier novels, so it can be enjoyed without having read them, but recurring characters have been established previously and some themes continue through the books.

The main plot concerns a brutal murder of a woman and her teenage daughter in their home in Wimbledon Village, an area of London inhabited by the richer end of the professional classes, hence the reader is treated to an undercurrent of social comment as Maeve and her aggressively macho boss DCI Josh Derwent briefly interview the surviving members of the family – the father and the twin sister of the dead girl – and go through the house searching for evidence.

The story continues in a traditional theme: Maeve and Derwent drive around London interviewing the few relatives and friends of the dead. The father, a criminal defence lawyer, is portrayed as an odious person with no time for his surviving daughter and with a few people in his past who probably bear him a grudge because of the cases in which they were involved. The narrative is well-written but exceedingly slow, as it takes the detectives more than 250 pages to visit a half-dozen or so witnesses and suspects. If they had looked on Wikipedia at the outset of their investigation, they would have known of the existence of a surprise character who enters the novel at this point, causing its focus to shift from interview mode to celebrity gossip/”characters in peril” mode, leading to the inevitable dangerous climax and a wrap-up chapter of exposition explaining the secrets that led to the crimes.

Interwoven with the main plot are one or two subplots, one involving the romance between Maeve and her erstwhile colleague Rob. The couple is now living together but Maeve is commitment-shy, leading her to some immature behaviour concerning Rob’s possible interest in another woman as well as to her reluctance to confide in him (or anyone) that the stalker from the previous novel, The Reckoning, may be back. The other subplot concerns the police’s attempts to stem the gang warfare that is getting out of control on London’s streets – again, this story began in the The Reckoning but here is dealt with in a way I found not credible, including a trip by Maeve and her uber-boss Godley to visit a crime lord in prison, and a coincidental link between this case and the deaths being investigated by Maeve.

Despite the (rather many) flaws and missing elements in this novel, the fact that the solution to the main mystery does not depend much on the work done by Maeve and Derwent, and its excessive 500-page length, it is an enjoyable read because the author can write well. The sketches of the people interviewed reveal interesting dilemmas about legalities, crime and justice, as well as questions about human nature. It is hard to escape the sense that the book has been written with an eye to a film version, though, as it is far stronger on description and events than it is on motivation and sustained characterisation.

Thanks to Michelle for sending me this book. Her review of it is at Euro Crime.

Another review of this book is at the Irish Independent.

My review of the first book in the series, which I enjoyed: The Burning. I have read, liked, but not reviewed the second, The Reckoning – see this review from the Irish Independent for more information. The author’s strong debut novel is a standalone, which I have reviewed: The Missing.

Euro Crime’s reviews of all Jane Casey’s books to date.

Author’s website (whose homepage is strongly reminiscent of J K Rowling’s!).