Alphabet in crime fiction: re-up

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise gave participants until the end of this week to write a wrap-up post to report our progress in her crime-fiction alphabet game. She's collecting them up at her blog. As it is now Friday evening in the UK I have left it a bit late, but nevertheless, here is my contribution.

I was a bit hesitant to start the task of writing a post every week for 26 weeks, but because I noticed a suitable book on my shelves for "A", I thought I'd at least start. I soon very much got into the swing of it, sometimes referring to published reviews, sometimes writing a small piece about an author and sometimes writing a straight book review. I very much enjoyed both writing my own posts and reading the other participants'.

As usual I took a boring option and decided to write about an author each week who has a surname beginning with that week's letter. Like everyone else, I found Q and X a bit of a challenge, but managed to rise to it.  My complete set of posts can be read in reverse chronological order here. 

Here is my alphabetical list of posts:

A: Hunt by A. Alvarez

B: Desmond Bagley

C: Robert Crais

D: Lief Davidsen

E: Kjell Eriksson, Ake Edwardson and Martin Edwards

F: Karin Fossum

G: Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser

H: The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell

I: Susan Isaacs

J: Mari Jungstedt

K: Gene Kerrigan

L: Asa Larsson

M: Liza Marklund

N: Ingrid Noll

O: Like Clockwork by Margie Orford

P: The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer

Q: Sheila Quigley

R: Liz (Elizabeth) Rigbey

S: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

T: Snow Angels by James Thompson

U: Nicola Upson

V: Andrew Vachhs

W: Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

X: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

Y: A Certain Malice by Felicity Young

Z: Dark Matter by Juli Zeh.

Thank you very much, Kerrie, for such an enjoyable exercise. I look forward to the next one!

Alphabet in crime fiction: Juli Zeh

ZVariously entitled Dark Matter, The Theory of Everything, and Free Fall, Juli Zeh's novel is my contribution to the last letter in the half-year-long exercise that has been the crime-fiction alphabet. I read the book a couple of weeks ago as it is on the list of titles eligible for the International Dagger award this year.

Karen of Euro Crime recently wrote a post containing the UK and US covers and publisher blurbs of this novel, which are very different, and asked readers which they prefer. I prefer neither, not only because I find it intrinsically hard to agree with anything, but mainly because I felt neither blurb helps the book. The UK blurb gives away the first big plot development, never a good idea although ubiquitous in the industry. It is as if these blurb-writers think nobody will read or buy the book unless they give away something crucial, but in fact all it does to me is to induce tedium until I get to a point in the book that continues from where the blurb left off. The US blurb, on the other hand, makes the book sound intellectually challenging or even pretentious, which it isn't. Rather than quoting from either blurb here, therefore, I will provide the first paragraph of my review of the book, which is submitted to Euro Crime and will be out in full fairly soon: 

DARK MATTER is a detective story with a physics theme. The
basic story is an apparently simple one. A happy family consisting of
Sebastian, a professor of physics at Freiburg University; Maike, his impossibly
beautiful wife who helps to run an art gallery; and their ten-year old son
Liam, temporarily separate during the summer holidays – Maike on a cycling
tour, Liam to scout camp, and Sebastian to spend time in solitude working on
his latest theories about the nature of time. 
While Sebastian is driving Liam to the camp, however, a terrible event
occurs. Before he can properly react, Sebastian is sucked into a vortex of
terror and criminal activity, and the contented existence of the family is

The edition of the book I read is translated from the German superbly by Christine Lo.

The author studied international law and creative writing, worked with the United Nations in New York, and now lives in Brandenberg. She has won many awards for her writing.

Dark Matter was published in the UK in March, by Harvill Secker. Here are links to some reviews of the book (most of which contain more information than I would have wanted to know before I read it):

DMatter  The Times

Simon Clarke at Amazon

Crime Time

The Book Bag

The Guardian

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate (though you have only until the end of this week, and the only letter left is Z!)

Alphabet in crime fiction: A Certain Malice by Felicity Young

Y  My contribution to the crime-fiction alphabet this week is a review of A Certain Malice, by Felicity Young, which I read last week. 

Sergeant Cam Fraser and his teenage daughter Ruby have moved from Sydney to start a new life in Western Australia after a disaster devastated their family. Cam is in charge of a small-town police station consisting of the previous senior cop, Vince, who is not only unpleasant but possibly corrupt, and three relatively inexperienced staff, including one, Leanne, only a few weeks out of police academy.  The team has to cover a large area where the risk of bush fires is always present and the nearest town is a day’s drive away.

As the book opens, Cam is called out to a fire in the scrub grounds of an expensive girls’ school. Two teachers have reported a fire, so Vince and the local fire fighters have attended the scene. After they’ve put the fire out, one of the teachers discovers a charred body behind a tree stump. Despite Vince’s sneers, Cam calls out the scene of crimes officers. Soon, his suspicions are confirmed: the death was not caused by fire, but by drowning.

Cam’s investigation is a whirlwind of confusion, as both of the teachers who reported the fire seem to go out of their way to tease him and obscure the truth. The headmistress Certain malice  of the school seems nervous and unstable, and her husband definitely has something to hide. As far as the community is concerned, Cam is very much an outsider in the local hard-drinking, macho world he’s now joined– not only this but he has to cope with his very rebellious and resentful daughter.

I really like the way that the strands of evidence get more and more varied as Cam discovers more facts about everyone – facts that seem to him to add to the confusion rather than to narrow down who was responsible for the fire and the murder.  Cam’s past and his troubled relationship with Ruby add an interesting level of emotion to the narrative, as well as his possible interest in one of the teachers at the school. The author has a confident writing style, and ties together all the various aspects of her plot in a convincing, if slightly melodramatic way, at the end. 

This novel was first written in 2005, published by the independent house Creme de la Crime. Since then,  Felicity Young has written three novels featuring Detective Sergeant Stevie Hooper, so A Certain Malice may be her only novel so far to feature Cam Fraser. The author was born in Germany, went to school in the UK, and has lived in Western Australia since 1976.

Author website  

Read another review of A Certain Malice at Reviewing the Evidence (review by Denise Pickles) 

Bernadette’s review of An Easeful Death, the first Stevie Hooper novel, at Reactions to Reading.   

Kerrie Smith’s Euro Crime review of Harum Scarum, the second Stevie Hooper novel.

Kerrie has written about Felicity Young as her contribution to Y in the crime-fiction alphabet (coincidentally).

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Qiu Xiaolong

X As my version of the crime fiction alphabet series is to write about an author whose surname begins with each letter, X is an almost insurmountable challenge. I can resolve it only by moving outside the sphere of crime fiction (Xenophon or Malcolm X – both of whom I have read, incidentally) or by a combination of cheat/unoriginality. I’m going for the latter option, so have just read Death of a Red Heroine, the first novel by Qiu Xiaolong (written in English), winner of the Anthony award for best first crime novel. Both Norman of Crime Scraps and Craig of Crime Watch have previously featured the same author under the letter “Q”, so apologies to them for following in their footsteps. Needs must…my review follows:

Death of a Red Heroine is on the one hand a fairly standard police procedural novel, as Chief Inspector Chen and Detective Yu of the Shanghai Police Bureau investigate the case of a murdered young woman who is found in a body bag in the river, at a remote fishing spot. Although the cause of death is clear, there are very few clues about the identity of the woman. The police department is overwhelmed with cases, so nobody other than Chen seems interested in following up the case of the woman, but Chen feels compelled to continue. Eventually, she is identified as Guan Hongying, literally translated as “red heroine”,  a “national model worker” at the cosmetics stand in the First Department Store. Although written in 2000, the novel is set in 1990, not all that long after the end of Mao’s infamous repatriation programme where “educated scholars” were sent to become peasants and/or to labour camps. These are the days of Deng, in which these people had been largely “rehabilitated” and redeployed to the cities, in order to stimulate the ruined economy resulting from Mao’s policies. Guan is literally a poster child for the regime, selected as a “model” for her fellows and held up as the epitome of how a good communist worker and party-member should live her life. Her fame means that an outcome to the investigation of her death becomes a priority for Chen’s superiors. Chen and Yu are almost completely frustrated, however, as Guan seems QP_1 to have been excessively conscientious about her work and her party activities, and to have had no social life whatsoever. One of the main themes of the novel is how Chen and Yu, aided by an engaging small collection of friends and relations, persist in their determination to find out who killed Guan and to make that person face justice.

An equally important part of the novel is to make the reader experience life in China of the time as it was for the ordinary people. We see events through the eyes of several of the characters, mainly Chen and Yu, but also Yu’s wife and his father, “Old Hunter”, and Chen’s friends “Overseas Chinese” Lu and journalist Wang Feng. By witnessing the way these people live, we understand how much the social intervention of the government and the communist party deeply affects every aspect of their lives. Everyone lives in a tiny room (if they are lucky), whether single or a family. Beds and tables are folded up and put away as appropriate. A “kitchen” is a gas cylinder and a stove in a corridor where everyone in a block of flats has to cook. People have been assigned jobs on a political whim or because of their contacts, not because of talent.  The cost of goods is state-controlled, so everyone is poor (those whose money was taken by Mao had it returned when repatriated by Deng’s administration, but only at the new exchange rate of a fraction of its old worth). Nobody quite knows who has independent thought and who is reporting to the party. Chen himself is a translator of mystery novels (including Ruth Rendell) so earns a bit of money that way. He’s also a relatively well-known poet, and has achieved some fame owing to having his work published in the newspapers.  Throughout the book, Chen and others speak lines of poetry from the ancient world to the modern, beautiful lines that are open to subtle interpretations. This is really their only way to communicate about their emotions, because so many activities are forbidden or illegal. Finally, everybody is enthusiastic about food. People have dinner parties and go to the markets to buy the most amazing variety of zoological specimens, and eat delicacies from all parts of the bodies of these organisms. All through the novel, people communicate via eating and drinking, whether a basic cup of tea made by putting a jasmine flower from the hair into a cup of warm water, or a banquet in a private room in an exclusive restaurant, which costs several months’ salary.

I have to admit to finding this novel rather hard going. The writing style does not flow easily and the book is long – 460 pages. The crime story is satisfactorily resolved, but at the outset it takes Chen about 200 pages to check out a couple of things that I thought he should have done right off the bat, both of which break the deadlock in the investigation. The third obvious thing I thought he should have done does not occur to him right until near the end of the novel, and leads directly to the solution. I can understand that the author needed to pace these discoveries in order to tell the rest of his story, but I didn’t find it convincing that these avenues did not occur to Chen, especially as he translates crime fiction of the calibre of Ruth Rendell, which should have given him some tips. The social saga is again rather repetitive and drawn-out as one reads it, with a very slow pace in the first half. The text comes more alive in the second half of the book, as Yu drops his suspicion of Chen and people’s true motivations are revealed.

Nevertheless, in retrospect I think this book will stick in my mind, if for no other reason than the vividly but subtly portrayed accounts of a society in microcosm: the terrible crimes against the people committed by the government, both in the repression of the workers and the corruption that allows the children of the higher officials to lead lives of pampered luxury next to the squalor of everyone else.  Yet the book is by no means an angry indictment: it is told from the point of view of people who have no other experience, and in many cases indulge in much humour about their predicament. In 1990, the international expansion of China to the West was only just beginning; mobile phones and the internet were not known. Although some of the characters resent their life-situation more than others, they all have their own ways of finding aspects of their lives to enjoy, perhaps a spouse or child, or a favourite recipe, or an appreciation of literary works.

Profile of the author at January Magazine.

Author's website.

Michelle Peckham reviews the most recent of Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen books, The Mao Case, at Euro Crime.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Diane Wei Liang

W My contribution to the letter W in the crime fiction alphabet is a review of a debut novel, The Eye of Jade, by an author new to me, Diane Wei Liang.

Mei Wang is a determined young woman in modern China. Not wishing to be part of the conventional system of kickbacks and privilege, she quits her safe Ministry job and sets up as a private investigator. Because detective agencies are illegal, she calls herself an information consultant, and hires a young man from the provinces to be her secretary and to make sure her clients pay up.
The Eye of Jade is a delightfully appealing little book, which is really two stories. One is the story of Mei and her family – her widowed mother, her spoilt, rich sister Lu, and a range of “aunties” and “uncles”, only some of whom are related. Through the family’s trials and tribulations, the reader is treated to a wonderful account of life in China – how state intervention affects the rebels as much as the opportunists, the peasants who are looked down on by the city dwellers, the gambling and gaming addictions, the poor “cities” of tents and tenements. Mei’s family story is a great way to learn about this strange country and its many cultural norms that are so different from those with which we are familiar in the West.
The other aspect of the story concerns the investigation. Mei is hired by her “uncle” Chen, in Eye of jade reality an old friend of her mother’s, to find a stolen, ancient artefact. To do this, she has to follow up various leads in the less savoury parts of Beijing, providing us with a richly varied tour of gambling dens, struggling restaurants, market traders and more.
As a detective story, the book does not really work. The plot is weak and not resolved in any serious manner. But as an account of a family’s travails, as Mei unravels what happened to her father and tries to be a good daughter to her unloving mother, and a good sister to the patronising, materialistic Lu, we are treated to a fascinating glimpse of the lives of Beijingers. Mei is involved in a reunion with her old university friends, and with her old boyfriend who has moved to the USA, as well as digging into the past of the Cultural Revolution and various other dubious population-control initiatives.
I give this book ten out of ten for atmosphere and the character of Mei. It is far less strong on plot, but the author has bags of talent and I am sure will develop it in future novels.

Karen Meek's review of this novel at Euro Crime.

Sunnie Gill's review of the second novel in this series, Paper Butterfly, at Euro Crime.

Author's website.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Andrew Vachss

V I first discovered Andrew Vachss back in 1986, by reading his first novel, Flood, on its UK paperback release. At that time there was no internet and no fancy author website, so I just read Flood and many of his subsequent novels, without knowing anything about the author apart from what was written on the blurb of the books (which I still have): "Andrew Vachss is an acknowledged expert in the USA on juvenile delinquency and child abuse. Before becoming an attorney specialising in the abuse of children, he had worked variously as a probation officer, fruit picker, furniture mover, cab driver, credit collection agent, gambler, advertising copywriter and photographer."

The main character in Flood, and subsequent novels, is Burke, who lives under the radar in New York, operating in the shady world of child abuse and worse. "Burke is the great scam artist, the never-suckered city poacher and part-time private eye who operates in a world of the utmost depravity. The only risks he takes are the bets he places on horses. Burke has been everywhere, He has seen war. He knows who to let into his life and who to keep out. His speciality is survival."

In a series of six novels, we follow the adventures of Burke as he helps a woman to find the man who raped her and killed her best friend's daughter (Flood); tracks down a child porn ring (Strega); searches for a gang who kidnap and kill prostitutes (Blue Belle); tries to rescue a Flood_tpb3_lg Anotherlife_tp_lg hooker's kidnapped daughter (Hard Candy); looks for runaways (Blossom); and rescues child victims of an urban voodoo cult (Sacrifice). You get the picture. In most of these books there is at least one female "love interest" (to put it politely), and a small circle of regular characters who band together with Burke to solve whichever assignment he has taken on, or who help him in his frequent encounters with danger as he continues his crusade against child abusers, people-traffickers and so on. The only member of this band I recall is an engaging little man called "the Prof", which is not short for Professor but Prophet. Some of the blurb comments: "Burke is a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, and a very dangerous guy. I've not met a character so though and yet so attractive" (David Morrell in The Washington Post). "Move over Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, you've got company" (Cosmopolitan) (!). "Vachhs writes like a cold switchblade…full of extraordinary and powerful imagery (Time Out). "A brutal, compelling style, intricately plotted and driven by sharp, uncompromising street prose which roars with authenticity" (The Guardian).

Although I really liked these books, I think they must have got a bit repetitive after a while. The author may have thought so too, for he wrote two other books and then returned to Burke with Down in the Zero – in which "PI Burke is back for another horrifying journey into the seamy underworld where childhood doesn't exist". This book was written in 1994, and was my last encounter with the author. Checking out his seriously strange website, I see he has written many more in the Burke series in the interim – eleven to be precise, as well as a lot of other things, including appearing on Oprah. The latest Burke novel is called Another Life, and perhaps, on reading its blurb, it is rather strange timing that I have returned here to Andrew Vachss after his books have been sitting on my shelves for (in the earliest cases) more than 20 years:

"Another Life is the end of a journey that began with Flood, Andrew Vachss' first novel featuring career criminal Burke and his Family of Choice. "I didn't set out to write a series. Who but a terminal narcissist would?" the author says of his 1985 debut. But twenty-three years–and seventeen Burke novels–later, Andrew Vachss is finally bringing down the curtain on a series that has been described as "urban nightmares" by Publishers Weekly, and "strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff" by the Chicago Tribune. Anyone who has felt a part of the family that includes recurring series characters Max, the Mole, Michelle, the Prof, Terry, Clarence, and Mama–characters the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says "are as sharply defined as if they were etched in steel"–will want to be there for the end of the journey, as best-selling, award- winning author Andrew Vachss ties up the loose ends, and sends his Family of Choice off to … Another Life."

There are free excerpts of most of the books, either in e- or audio format, at the author's website, The Zero, as well as a host of other sinister and unsettling material.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Footnote on the V in this post. I found to my shock that there is no V in the royalty-free letter series I have been using to illustrate my crime-fiction alphabet series. Why I did not check the alphabet first to make sure all the letters were there, I don't know. I've therefore had to choose a different font for V, which I find rather disturbing. Normal service will be resumed next time.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Nicola Upson

U The charming Nicola Upson is the author of two (so far) novels about an unusual detective – Josephine Tey. This dramatic device is doubly nested: Josephine Tey was the pen name of Elizabeth MacKintosh, who, although she lived only to the age of 55, wrote several crime novels, including the acclaimed The Daughter of Time (rehabilitating Richard III), The Franchise Affair (in which a girl accuses two older ladies of abducting her) and Brat Farrar (is the handsome young man really the heir to a fortune?). MacKintosh had another pen name, Gordon Daviot, under which she wrote many plays and novels. A brief biography of this fascinating, talented woman, whose books and plays I have enjoyed,  can be found at Nicola Upson's website.  The second "nesting" comes in the fictional character of Tey as created by Upson: although not a detective as in the novels by her fictional counterpart, she is presented with murders to solve – and so Josephine Tey, writer of crime fiction, features in "her" own crime fiction.

Nicola Upson in her first book, An Expert in Murder (I quote from my Euro Crime review), "imagines Josephine Tey visiting London in the 1930s, both for a performance of Richard of Bordeaux and for a business meeting to plan a touring version of the play and the opening of her next effort, a life of Mary Queen of Scots. On the train from her home in Inverness, Josephine meets and befriends Elspeth, a young fan, whom she arranges to meet later in the week, after a performance. On arrival at King's Cross, Josephine goes to stay with the Motley sisters, real-life theatre designers but in AN EXPERT IN MURDER, also cousins of Josephine's long-term companion, police inspector Archie Penrose (said here to be the model for real-life Josephine Tey's fictional detective, Alan Grant). She soon discovers that Elspeth was cruelly murdered just after the train arrived at King's Cross." (read on here.)

The second novel in the series, which I have not read, is An Angel with Two Faces, set in Cornwall, where tragic events occur while Josephine is working on her second novel. The author gave a lovely reading from this novel at a recent book event at Waterstones, and from that extract, it sounds very good, and "Josephine Tey-like".

More about the author.

Karen Meek's Euro Crime review of An Expert in Murder.

Jane Jakerman reviews the same book at The Independent; Mark Lawson at The Guardian, and Joanna Hines, also at The Guardian.

Angel with two Faces reviewed by Jane Jakerman at The Independent.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Snow Angels by James Thompson

T For my contribution to the letter T I have reviewed Snow Angels by James Thompson.I thank Dorte of DJ's Krimiblog for her generosity in sending me the book.

Inspector Kari Vaara is in charge of a small police station in remote Lapland, in the north of Finland. His new wife Kate, who is American and ten years younger than Kari, is a senior manager of one of the local luxury winter sports resorts in the area. They are about to celebrate Christmas together when, shockingly, the brutally murdered body of a lovely film starlet is found in the snowy hillside, just outside the small village where Kari was born and raised. As Kari processes the crime scene and questions the locals, who include his own parents, he realises that the case is more horrific than he at first thought, and in addition a media time-bomb.

Kari is an extremely competent investigator, carrying his crime-scene kit in the boot of the car. Rapidly, he and the three or four detectives who have not yet left for their Christmas vacations start their investigation, following up leads with a quick efficiency driven by the ghastly nature of the crime. Sufia, the victim, turns out to have been staying at the exclusive resort Kate manages, and from the state of her room seems to have been indulging in alcohol-fuelled sex binges. The dead woman’s phone and address book soon lead Kari to suspect Seppo, a local playboy who is the long-term companion of Kari’s first wife, Heli. At this point, Kari’s boss, the disembodied national chief of police in Helsinki, tries to remove Kari from the investigation, but because of the remoteness of the crime-scene and the lack of available replacements in the holiday season, Kari manages to stay in command.

Snowangels Events begin to spiral out of control. Kate is injured, and the circumstances of the murder are coming closer and closer not only to Kari but also to his dependable colleague Valtteri. Sufia’s father, who comes with his wife to identify and claim the body,  is bombastic and demanding, adding to the emotional pressures on Kari. His head is constantly whirring with permutations and possibilities for who might have committed this awful crime, and how. At the same time, the local population feels the annual strain of the almost 24-hour darkness, and Kate begins to crack up at living in such an isolated place in a country where she can’t speak the language.

There are many terrific things about this book. First and foremost, it’s a great and believable account of life as it is lived in this part of Lapland: one really becomes immersed in the lives and attitudes of these tough and hardy people who live in such a harsh environment. Kari is also an interesting, introspective character, though I found his wife Kate exceedingly irritating. The investigation is exciting and puzzling for about three-quarters of the book.

I’m afraid I found that the whole edifice fell apart somewhat at the end. I just could not believe in about half of the various scenarios that either happened or were supposed to have happened. The murderer and the method of the crime don’t ring true to me, and the role of the father again seems somewhat false. The Helsinki-based police chief becomes less convincing, especially at the end, and there is one scene where Kate seems to be a completely different person from her character and demeanour before and afterwards. For me, though, the most glaring omission in the book is that we don’t feel for the victim. Sufia never comes alive in any sense: the fact that she was mutilated by her family as a child is told in an upfront manner but nobody sympathises or seems to think it is a barbaric crime – it is just presented as a cultural ritual that everyone undergoes. The young woman has been killed in a horrific way, again described in unflinching terms, but we never get to know much about her life or why she ended up making the choices that she did. This makes a big gap at the heart of this novel.

The author, James Thompson, is an American who has lived in Finland for ten years, according to the publisher information accompanying the book. He writes so well and convincingly of a country he clearly loves and a way of life of people that he has observed extremely well. However, something about the way in which the protagonist “talks” to the reader about the way the Finns think and act seems rather as if it is being observed objectively from the outside, and analysed, in a way that someone who really is Finnish would not do, as these things would be second nature.

I did enjoy this well-written novel and will be eager to read another by this author. However, I felt that there were several flaws in Snow Angels which a couple of rewrites might have improved; the author is not very good at writing female characters; and the solution to the mystery was over-elaborate and clunky.

Other reviews of Snow Angels can be found at:

DJ's Krimiblog

Material Witness

International Noir Fiction

Kittling: books

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Last Light by Alex Scarrow

S For my contribution to the letter S, I have written a review of the book Last Light by Alex Scarrow.

Last Light is a very exciting thriller based on the premise that the world’s oil supplies run out. Andy Sutherland, a consultant geologist originally from New Zealand, is commissioned to write a secret report about the vulnerable parts of the supply chain. While delivering this report, his nine-year-old daughter Leona accidentally sees some of the people who commissioned it.

Ten years later, Andy’s marriage is essentially over. Ever since writing the report he has been convinced that energy supplies must soon collapse, and has tried to persuade his wife Jenny to move to the country, become self-sufficient and prepare for the worst. Eventually she has had enough of his paranoia and, soon after Leona goes to university and the younger child, Jacob, departs for prep school (on the proceeds of Andy’s fee for writing the report), the couple decide to split. Andy goes to Iraq on a consulting project and Jenny goes to Manchester by train for a job interview which, she hopes, will be the start of a new life for her and her son.

That day, however, massive explosions occur at the Holy Mosque in Mecca and in other places of worship in Saudi Arabia. Within hours, a religious civil war has broken out.  Crippling explosions at oil refineries and pipelines in Georgia, the Gulf and Venezuela soon follow. In the UK, the Prime Minister and his immediate advisors assess the situation and realise that the country has only about two weeks’ oil reserves left. They decide to recall all the military from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to maintain order, and close down all the train and air services. Major roads are closed. Rapidly, the country degenerates into chaos and anarchy as electricity fails and food supplies run out.

The novel focuses on the efforts of the fractured family to reunite at their house in Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Each member of the family faces almost insurmountable dangers in attempting their journey. Andy is in a hostile country with a small unit of British soldiers, trying to make their way through dangerous terrain to any friendly base. As Andy picks up fragments of what is going on in the world from half-heard radio reports and phone conversations snatched when the signal is good enough and while he still has a battery, he realises that the events he Last light outlined in his report are really happening.  Jenny is stuck in Manchester with no means of transport, surrounded by increasingly hungry and violent people. Leona is in the most danger of all the family, although she does not realise it, because of what she witnessed as a child. And Jacob isn’t allowed to leave his school without signed permission from his parents (a nice touch). The novel switches perspective between Andy, Jenny and Leona as they struggle towards safety, each of them increasingly aware that their destination may be far from being the refuge that they hope for.

Last Light is a breathlessly exciting novel told at an incredibly fast pace. The author conveys with great believability the speed with which British society breaks down in the face of this disaster. No stiff upper lip or World War Two spirit here. The characters of the Sutherland family and the people they meet over the time of the novel are extremely well depicted, and the reader is constantly urging them on in their seemingly impossible task of meeting each other again. However, the novel is far less successful as a “global conspiracy” thriller. The hired assassin elements are clichéd, and the explanation for who is behind the report Andy wrote, and why, seems almost to come from a different book altogether. Even so, I highly recommend this nailbitingly exciting novel.

Last Light was published in 2007, and is explicitly a homage to 9/11 and 7/7, as well as considering what might have happened had SARS or avian flu epidemics actually happened on the extreme scale of the predictions. The book was published before the global financial crisis took over the headlines, and it would have been very interesting to see how the author would have incorporated that into his plot had he written it a year or so later.

There is a fascinating afterword to the novel by the author, about how and why he came to write the book. “It’s not really a book about Peak Oil – that was merely the starting point for me. No, it’s a book about how lazy and vulnerable we’ve allowed ourselves to become. How reliant on the system we are.  How little responsibility we are prepared to take for our actions, for ourselves, for our children.  …..And here we are, the ghastly events of 7/7; the increasing prevalence of gang-related gun crime in London; legions of disaffected kids packing blades to go to school; a media that night and day pumps out the message – screw everyone else, just get what’s yours; reality TV that celebrates effortless transitory fame over something as old-fashioned as ‘achievement’; corporations that rip of their employees’ pension funds; politicians of all flavours putting themselves and their benefits first. All these things, I suspect, are the visible hairline cracks of our broken society that hint at the deeper, very dangerous, fault lines beneath. And all it’ll take is some event, some catalyst, for the whole thing to come tumbling down.”

The author also recommends a website, Life after the oil crash , for those interested in knowing more about 'Peak Oil' and what might lead to the kind of crisis described in Last Light.

I thank Material Witness for recommending this novel to me.

Alex Scarrow's blog

Alex Scarrow's website (with brother Simon)

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.

Alphabet in crime fiction: Rigbey

R Every now and again, you read a book that is truly original – not perhaps the best-written book ever, or the sort of book that will win literary prizes, but a book that really sticks in the mind for years. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow is one example, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo another. For “R” in this series, I am choosing such a book – Total Eclipse by Liz Rigbey, which I read back in 1995. It’s a novel I’ve kept since then and shall definitely read again one day.

The story is about a group of astronomers in northern California, one of whom, Julia, is accused of murder.  Despite the seemingly cast-iron evidence against her, Lomax (another of the group, and in love with Julia) decides to prove her innocent of the crime. The rest of the novel tells the story of this task. This is a very exciting novel indeed. It was so refreshing to read a convincing novel about scientists, by an author who had certainly done her research. Another aspect that struck me at the time (but perhaps would not seem so strange 15 years after the novel was written) was that all the characters Lomax encounters on his journey to uncover the truth are female, representing a range of professions. The outcome of the novel perhaps does not quite match up to the suspense and the telling of it, but it's nevertheless a superb read. 

The Wall Street journal said of this novel: “gripping, creepy, moving and suspenseful….This one-of-a-kind book is a comedy of manners, a sexually charged romance, a science problem, a detective story, a courtroom thriller – and one heck of an impressive debut”.

Of course I eagerly awaited Liz Rigbey’s next novel, which came along in 2003, called   Summertime. This novel was also very good, about a woman’s search to find out why someone Summertime  murdered her father, a retired geology professor, and in the process discovers hidden truths about her own past. Although I recommend this book as a superior thriller, it does not have quite the impact of Total Eclipse.

Looking to see if Liz Rigbey has written any more books since then, I see she (now called “Elizabeth” Rigbey) has written one other novel, The Hunting Season, in 2007. From the blurb: “The rugged Rocky Mountains are a place some go to hide inside, some to escape into and others to hunt in. Dr Matt Seleckis has never been one for the woods: he remembers his childhood vacations there with his mother and father; and the looming threat of an unexplained death. Now Matt lives in Utah with his wife and young son. Yet the prospect of a hunting trip alone with his father is bringing back dark, unwelcome memories of a certain vacation, of his beloved parents. And of a hushed-up tragedy that he’s sure concerns him. But with the arrival of these unsettling memories comes the creeping realisation that in nature, death for the unwary lies around every corner.” One I shall be ordering!

Liz Rigbey does not appear to have her own website, and it's not that easy to find reviews of her novels.

Maxim Jakubowski writes a brief review of Summertime at the Guardian.

Total Eclipse at Amazon UK.

Fantastic Fiction has the author listed twice, once as Liz (reviews of Total Eclipse and Summertime) and once as Elizabeth (reviews of Total Eclipse and The Hunting Season, but not Summertime).

Publisher website (Penguin) for Summertime and The Hunting Season. Total Eclipse was published by Orion, but does not feature on the publisher's current website.

Crime Fiction alphabet series at Petrona.

Mysteries in Paradise, home of the crime fiction alphabet. Visit this link if you would like to participate.