Started reading The Quarry by Johan Theorin

I started reading The Quarry by Johan Theorin (translated by Marlaine Delargy) a couple of days ago and so far, 50 pages in, it is just marvellous. Every page is a delight. I’m posting this picture for two reasons: first because it is the first example I’ve seen in a long while of an appropriate sticker! (“Winner of the International Crime Novel for 2010 for The Darkest Room.”) The blurb on the back carries a quote from the Observer: “If you like Stieg Larsson, try a much better Swedish writer”.
Second, this is the first time I have taken a picture (now that I have a device, as I have learned it is called – I thought I was buying a phone!) and uploaded it to this blog. It has taken some days in total to get this far which for someone who was once an expert photographer is a bit galling, but it is done despite the challenges of too many bits of clever technology.
Peter at Nordic Bookblog has already reviewed The Quarry – I haven’t read his thoughts yet as I want to read the book first, but will do so after I have finished it and written my own review.

The Quarry is the third in Johan Theorin’s Oland quartet. I’ve reviewed the brilliant first two novels: Echoes from the Dead and The Darkest Room.
Author’s website (UK version).

Hello and welcome

Hello to old and new readers of Petrona.
Those of you who have bookmarked the old Petrona, or subscribed in RSS, are cordially invited to substitute your old bookmarks for this new version of the blog, which is all archived here.
A complete archive of my book reviews is available here. Please feel free to browse these archives for books reviewed by genre, geographical region, or other criterion.
Thank you for visiting.

Crime fiction to give for Christmas

Give books for Christmas, writes Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise, and who am I to disagree? Giving crime fiction for Christmas, though, seems slightly counter-seasonal. I am never quite sure how the generalist recipient (as opposed to a dyed-in-the-wool addict) really feels when presented with a dark tome.

Nevertheless, Kerrie has urged bloggers to make their recommendations for Christmas gifts from the titles they have read this year, so I’ll give it a go. I’ve divided my selections into two:

Presents for crime-fiction addicts:

ShadowPlay by Karen Campbell (Glasgow, Scotland)

Kind of Blue by Miles Corwin (Los Angeles, USA)

The Last Fix by K O Dahl, translated by Don Bartlett (Oslo, Norway)

The Build Up by Philip Gwynne (Darwin, Australia)

Rupture by Simon Lelic (London, England)

Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Water Blue Eyes by Domingo Villar, translated by Martin Schifino (Vigo, Spain)

I chose the above titles because they are not by standard, well-known authors in the genre, but are distinctive (and not nth in a series).

Presents for “generalists” or those new to the genre:

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai (Julundur, India)

Winterland by Alan Glynn (Dublin, Ireland)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Norfolk, England)

B-Very Flat by Margot Kinberg (“Tilton”, USA)

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, translated by K L Seegers (Cape Town, South Africa)

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pinerio, translated by Miranda France (near Buenos Aires, Argentina)

The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson (Venice, Italy, and England)

I chose these titles because they all tell a very good story, as well as involving a “crime”. Some of them might not strictly be considered as “crime fiction” but I think any of them would encourage a novice to try a few more in the genre!

Do you have recommendations for Christmas presents? Visit Mysteries in Paradise to add your post of choices.

My September Euro Crime and Petrona reviews

RoShadows RoShadows RoShadows Two of my book reviews went up at Euro Crime during September, both of rather good novels. One, River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (MacLehose Press; translator Joseph Farrell) is a classic police procedural set in the Italian countryside. I wrote that it is "a welcome newcomer to the crime fiction genre (in England, at least: it was first published in Italy in 2003). Soneri has many attributes in common with Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbani". The other, Three Seconds by Roslund and Hellstrom (Quercus; translator Kari Dickson), is an "addictive thriller".  I wrote: "the book has two elements. In one, it is a great thriller whose pace never lets up, particularly in the second half. It is full of the sort of detail that made Stieg Larsson so popular, for example the scenes in the library and the way in which the police informer tries to anticipate anything and everything that might transpire once he is incarcerated and can't control events. The other main element in the book, again with echoes of Larsson, is the political corruption of the national police force in Sweden and the ministry of justice responsible for its oversight."

My reviews at Petrona during September include some very good novels: An Empty Death by Laura Wilson; Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translator Philip Roughton); The Woman Before Me, a talented debut by Ruth Dugdale (winner of the CWA debut dagger); Midnight Cab by James Nicholl; and U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton, among a few others. See here for the month's archived reviews. I also reviewed my first (and so far only) Kindle book during September: Silent Counsel by Ken Isaacson.

I'm not going to pick a favourite from these as it would be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but I can certainly recommend any of them as a very good read indeed.

Book reviews by region and more

Book reviews by country (of author and/or of setting):

Book reviews by continent:

Other categories:
Categories by genre (police procedural, noir, journalism, legal, psychology, etc)

New UK paperbacks for October

Hypothermia  Always ahead of real-time, the Bookseller of 25 June features paperbacks that will be in the UK shops in October. Most excitingly among these is Red Wolf by Liza Marklund (Corgi), the next Annika Bengzton novel, which follows a month after her Postcard Killers (with an American coauthor). We have had to wait a while for the next Annika book, after Bomber, Studio 69, Prime Time and Paradise, and I, for one, am looking forward very much to Red Wolf (which apparently will be followed by 10 or 12 others). If it is as good as Paradise, I'll be very happy.

Another translated novel due in October is Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Vintage), which will be accompanied by a reprinting of three of the earlier titles in this excellent series. Hypothermia is on the shortlist for this year's CWA International Dagger award, the winner to be announced next month.

Other crime novels to look forward to in October are Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill (Quercus). The Bookseller says "Siri, the elderly coroner, is a wonderful character and the colour and strangeness of the country really shine through in these strange little stories. Think Mma Ramotswe, and then some." We can also look forward to Blood Vines by Erica Spindler (Sphere), Dead Like You by Peter James (Pan), Silent Scream by Karen Rose (Headline), Dead Man's List by Mike Lawson (Harper), Among Thieves by David Hosp (Pan), Self's Murder by Bernhard Schlink (Phoenix) and Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsey (Avon), this last title shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger (2009), featuring detective Jack Brady of Whitely Bay.

Book Review: The Complaints by Ian Rankin

The Complaints is the second novel by Ian Rankin after his final (?) Rebus book, and is an order of magnitude better than the first post-Rebus exercise, Doors Open. The Complaints is a far more substantial and engaging novel, introducing a new character, DCI Malcolm Fox, and a new Edinburgh police department, “The Complaints”, formally the Complaints and Conduct department. Fox and his small team investigate other policemen who might have strayed from the straight and narrow. Hence they aren’t liked, and form a tight little group – not, as it turns out, without its own tensions. A subdivision of The Complaints is “The Chop Shop”, whose official name is the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) department.  The Chop Shop operates in a darkened room down the corridor, in which two officers (never one) look at child porn on the internet or on captured computers for strictly limited times, and try to break the paedophile rings responsible – a constant game of catch-up with technology and sophisticated avoidance tactics by the perpetrators.

That’s the background for this multilayered novel, where anyone could be investigating anyone.  In the opening pages, Fox and his team are putting together the final details of a case they’ve recently closed, in which they’ve caught a popular and experienced policeman, Glen Heaton, who for years (we are told) has been on the take and trading favours among a network of criminals. As Fox divides up the paperwork between his team, he is called into the Chop Shop and asked to investigate a young policeman, Jamie Breck, who has used his credit card to register at a child porn site run out of Australia, and who is in the same police division as the disgraced Heaton.

Fox also has a crisis in his personal life. His sister Jude, always struggling to make ends meet, is regularly abused by her partner Vince, an occasional brickie. She’s now got a broken arm, and Fox is torn – he wants to help and be close to his sister and to his father, Mitch, who is now in a care home paid for 
TComplaintsby Fox. At the same time, he is furious at Vince and wants to protect Jude without alienating her by interfering in their relationship. He does not have much time to ponder on his dilemma, however, because a dead body is found near a canal – which turns out to be Vince. Before he can draw breath, Fox’s own actions begin to look suspicious, not least because the lead detective investigating Vince’s murder is Heaton’s boss and desperate to reinstate his colleague at Fox’s expense. Before he knows it, Fox is suspended – together with the man he is supposed to be investigating for internet porn, Jamie Breck. The two form one of those uneasy partnerships beloved of crime fiction, to find out what is really going on and to repair their lost reputations.

Ian Rankin delivers a twisty, solid plot in The Complaints, but the book is much more than that. Everything has a paranoid veneer to it, as the people Fox encounters aren’t sure if he is investigating them or knows more about them than he’s telling, and Fox himself can’t work out who to trust as more and more awkward facts come to light, and as he begins to wonder why he is in the trouble he’s in. Perhaps predictably, Fox decides to undergo his own unofficial investigation into Vince’s death, which not only brings him into direct conflict with police officialdom, but also leads him to suspect that everything is tied up into one big picture, including his own fate.

As well as the clever plotting, Fox is preoccupied about his family relationships – he constantly worries that in putting his father in a home he has let him down; and he struggles to maintain closeness with his sister rather than judging her, and to keep the little family together. His own brief marriage failed some years before, again causing him to reflect on his own needs and priorities.  Fox lives alone and seems pretty bored, constantly fighting the temptation to drink (he’s an ex-alcoholic who gave up the booze some years before the book opens) and finding nothing to do with his off-duty hours except watch old TV shows and meet his colleagues at the pub (having to drink an endless stream of apple and tomato juices).   Fox is, in fact, very like Rebus with a few details changed, but there is plenty of scope for his character to develop into more than an "alternative Rebus". I wouldn’t be at all surprised, in fact, if Rebus doesn’t pop up in a future “Complaints” book, as he certainly inhabits the same fictional landscape as Fox.

Seasoned crime-fiction readers will spot a few signals to deeper mysteries near the start of the book, and will be wondering if they are going to be picked up in the later stages (they are).  I really liked the swirling, concentric circles of the events that Fox gradually comes to realise exist – and I enjoyed his dilemma in working out how to attack the various problems assailing him given all the walls of mistrust between various departments and personalities, and his natural desire not to incriminate himself or knowing how far to trust Jamie Breck, the suspected paedophile but apparently nice guy – or anyone, including his colleagues in the Complaints team, his own boss and even the two staff of the Chop Shop who fingered Jamie. 

I hope to encounter Fox again – perhaps next time he’ll be conducting a “standard” Complaints investigation instead of being involved himself. Yet it is the depiction of the personal experience of what it is like to be investigated, as well as the processes of the investigations themselves, that make the novel an effective introduction to this new series. 

The Complaints at the author's website and the publisher's (Orion) website.

Read reviews of the novel at Euro Crime (Pat Austin), The Times (Marcel Berlins), The Guardian (P D James) and The Telegraph (Jake Kerridge).

Swedish Book Review: Crime Fiction Special part 3

In my third and last post about the Swedish Book Review (2010:1) crime-fiction special (part 1 and part 2), I will write a few words about the essay "Selling Ice to the Eskimos? Swedish Crime Fiction and the World of Publishing", by Paul Engles. Some crime-fiction bloggers and reviewers, myself included, answered a questionnaire by Paul which he sent out as part of his MA in publishing at the London College of Communication. The article in the Swedish Book Review is adapted from the dissertation, which can be downloaded in full as a PDF.

Paul's article asks why Swedish crime fiction is so popular in translation. He starts with the apparently common argument that "detective stories and thrillers are the only places in literature where you can find 
Trees  social criticism", citing Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series which had the stated intention of describing and criticising changes in society from the 1960s to the 1970s. Subsequent Swedish crime authors Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson are clearly of that ilk also, with their strong social messages about immigration, corporate greed, slavery (these days called "people trafficking") and other sores on the contemporary landscape. And, not mentioned here, many other Swedish authors address these themes, such as Liza Marklund, Karin Alvtegen and Kjell Erikssen, among others. 

Of course, this line of argument is true up to a point only. Crime fiction is not the only fiction or literature addressing social issues; it seems extraordinary to me that anyone could state that it is. However, the plot- and excitement-driven nature of the genre allows an author such as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell to make really rather extensive political and social commentaries against an exciting or character-driven plot, and not lose the readership! And of course, many other crime-fiction authors write about such issues without being from Sweden (Andrea Camilleri, Simon Lewis, Peter Temple and several hundred others). Therefore, I don't see Scandinavian crime fiction as being unique in this regard, though at the moment there do seem to be some highly readable and compelling authors from the region (Indridason (Iceland), Fossum (Norway), et al.)

So what's the success factor? (If there is one.) Could it be the "translation"? Paul Engles quotes from an essay by Milan Kundera in which Kundera identified a "ringing the echo of lovely lunacies" of classical authors who, because translated, have influenced authors writing in other languages. Again, I am not convinced this argument holds up, because if you go back far enough, everyone was writing in a different language from living authors today (Latin, Ancient Greek, etc). 

In the final paragraphs, Paul comments that among the literary agencies and publishers, crime novels in translation are increasingly becoming the route to commercial success, and the literary translated genre is suffering in comparison. (Recall the last Nobel laureate for literature, whose novels had to be hastily translated (or republished) after the announcement.) There seems to be no trend for readers of translated crime fiction to go on to explore translated literary fiction, writes Paul. 

Swedish Book Review: Crime Fiction Special 1 (Kerstin Ekman)

Swedish Book Review: Crime Fiction Special 2 (Arne Dahl, Staffan Bruun and Viveca Sten)

Lots of Scandinavian crime fiction in translation, at Euro Crime.

New UK fiction for August

Ceder  We have seen a paperback preview for August in the UK, but what can we look forward to for newly published fiction in that same month (if you can stand it)? The most recent Bookseller (7 May cover date, received at Petrona Towers 8 May) reveals some of the titles to which we can look forward.

For those interested in translated fiction, we can eagerly anticipate Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder, translated by Marlaine Delargy and published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, a debut novel in which Inspector Christian Tell investigates an unusual murder in a small town on the Swedish coast. The spectacularly crass cover words above the title read "Move over Wallander". Sigh. Not the author's fault, of course.

Another promising title is Silence by Jan Costin Wagner (Harvill), in which Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa (first encountered in the lovely Ice Moon) investigates the disappearance of a young girl. The case has similarities to an unsolved murder 33 years previously. This one is translated by Anthea Bell.

I can't detect any other translated crime fiction in the Bookseller list (it isn't straightforward as they don't state whether or not a book is translated in their blurbs), but of interest to "placeists" might be The Dogs 
JCW2of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury), another debut which is the first of a planned series set in Rome, featuring Chief Inspector Alec Blume (not a very Italian name). In this novel, the spouse of an elected member of the senate is found murdered and Blume discovers "worrying shortcuts in the enquiry".

Another interesting title is Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn (Macmillan), apparently a follow-up to A Beautiful Place to Die (reviewed here by Bernadette)  set in South Africa in the 1950s. In this new novel, Inspector Emmanuel Cooper discovers a body in the docks and is "led into Durban's murky underworld".

Another novel that looks of interest is Faithful Place by Tana French (Hodder), a psychological thriller that seems not to be part of the series that formed her first two novels. This one is about a 19-year-old who planned to run away to London with his girlfriend. But she did not turn up and he didn't hear from her for 20 years, when he gets a phone call saying that her suitcase has been found. Sounds an intriguing hook. I might well check this out, despite being a bit disappointed in The Likeness, her second novel, after the promise of the first, In The Woods.

There are lots of other books due for publication in August of course. I'll mention just a few of them here: Dictator by Tom Cain (Bantam), the third installment of the Sam Carver series started in Accident Man; Tigerlily's Orchids by Ruth Rendell (Hutchinson) which seems to be one of her standalones; Bad Boy by Peter Robinson (Hodder), nineteenth in the Inspector Banks series; The Reborn by Lin Anderson (Hodder), the latest in the Rhona MacLeod (forensic scientist) series; Free Country by Jeremy Duns (Simon and Schuster), sequel to Free Agent; and Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday), the fourth novel to feature Jackson Brodie who first appeared in the renowned Case Histories.

Book review: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Pineiro

Widows Thursday Night Widows

Claudia Pineiro, translated by Miranda France

 Thursday Night Widows is a remarkable novel.  Without taking any editorial or judgemental line on the characters it describes, it relates the story of some wealthy Argentinian families who live in an exclusive gated community, or Country Club, outside Buenos Aries. The estate is a desirable destination for well-off people when they feel restricted by their apartments in the city, when they want to start a family, and enjoy the fruits of their considerable wealth.

The story is told from the perspectives of many of the female residents, most often Virginia, a wife whose husband Ronie has lost his job and shows no inclination to find another one. Hence Virginia has turned her hobby of tipping off acquaintances when a property is about to come onto the market into a profession. As an estate agent, she is first to know whose marriage is in trouble or who is on the brink of financial disaster, and also acts as a gatekeeper to keep out unsuitable potential residents (the racism is very ugly).

The wives in this novel do not work in the sense of having a regular job. They all have maids who take their children to the nearby exclusive school which teaches its lessons in English. They have servants, gardeners, drivers and nannies, whom they treat with casual nastiness. One of the wives is an alcoholic; another becomes a kind of “landscape architect”, a role that mainly consists of telling the neighbours what sort of (expensive) plants they should buy; and another is a depressive who joins a local artists’ group. All of them are united by the tennis and golf club, by the social mores of their neighbours, and by “the Association” that makes everyone keep to the (increasingly ludicrous) rules of the Country Club by the threat of either social ostracism or a hefty fine.

Inevitably there are some shoots of resistance in this utopia, mainly from the younger generation.  Juani, Virginia and Ronie’s adolescent son, persistently gets into trouble with his school for his honesty and lack of hypocrisy. Romana, his friend, is an unwanted adoptee, and she also tries to live according to her own principles. Her story and character are perhaps the most attractive, and sad, in the book. There is also a lovely section in which one of the wives, now a divorcee, is reunited with a former maid sacked by her husband.

Thursday Night Wives is written with deceptive lightness, creating a closed world in which I was fascinated, as it is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Because the author refuses to judge any of her characters, however unsympathetic, the reader is almost unaware of the grossly distorted morality of these ludicrously pampered  women, with their wasted, empty lives bought at the expense of other people. The men are somewhat more detached as characters, but for them, too, appearance is all – the master of the tennis court or golf club is the highest of the social stratum, and it is taken for granted that they all earn vast quantities of money that their wives can spend at will.

It is the cracking of this front that forms the “crime” in this novel. Although there is no way out of the chains that many of these compromised people have made for themselves, at the end of the book a few of the characters have the choice of returning to reality – a choice that I hope they will take.

This novel is a hilarious yet telling social satire, extremely readable and well translated by Miranda France.  Although only just published in English, it was written in 2005, when the Argentine currency inflation  was out of control and the characters are terrified by the potential effects of the 9/11 atrocity. Not only is the book a fascinating harbinger of the financial crisis that hit so many other parts of the world a few years later, but also, according to the publisher’s blurb, it “eerily foreshadowed a criminal case that generated a scandal in the Argentine media.” Do yourself a favour, and read it.

Reviews of Thursday Night Widows at:

Spider Euro Crime – Karen Meek (thanks, Karen, for the book!)

Crime Scraps – Norman Price

International Noir Fiction – Glenn Harper

Publisher’s website (Bitter Lemon Press)

Fresh Fiction

New Internationalist

About the film adaptation, including trailer.