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Archive for the tag “crime fiction”

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Anahita Mody?

I have the pleasure of welcoming Anahita Mody today to talk us through her gradual descent into crime fiction addiction. Anahita is a librarian based in West London, a published poet and an avid reader and reviewer on Goodreads and We Love This Book. She studied English and Creative Writing and freely admits to a bit of an obsession with cossack hats, slipper socks and Keanu Reaves – though not necessarily in that order! Anahita is also very active on Twitter, which is how I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.

AnahitaHow did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was younger I started out reading the Point Crime series and the one that really stood out for me was ‘The Smoking Gun’ by Malcolm Rose. However, I got completely hooked on crime fiction when I was nineteen and at university. I read all of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which I loved. Although I’m not a big fan of her last few novels, I think the rest are spectacular and I love her portrayal of Kay Scarpetta as a strong, independent woman but with quite obvious flaws. Since then I’ve read more and more crime fiction and related sub genres. In fact, I try and focus the majority of my reading on it as it’s become my favourite genre.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m a big fan of ‘Domestic Noir’ and find it fascinating to read. The idea that a relationship can seem so perfect yet behind closed doors it is the very opposite intrigues. Also, a lot of the time with those novels, the reader isn’t sure whose narrative/side of the story they can believe and trust. 

I also love captivity crime. ‘The Never List’ by Koethi Zan and ‘Still Missing’ by Chevy Stevens are two of the best books I have read this year. I like the writing technique of using flashbacks as I think it really highlights the change in the character to read them in their original voice and then to read them in their post-captivity voice and the way in which the events in the book have changed them.

Finally, I also love psychological thrillers, particularly Gillian Flynn and Samantha Hayes.

AnahitaShelvesWhat is the most memorable book you have read recently?

It would have to be ‘The Girl On The Train’ by Paula Hawkins, a book that is being published in January 2015. The characters are intriguing and I  had no clue as to what the ending could turn out to be. I also loved ‘Daughter’ by Jane Shemilt. The story is such a simple premise but so many twists and turns, plus an ending that stayed with me for a very long time.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

That’s a tough one! I think it would be Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series that is set in Ireland. I love Paula Maguire. She’s my favourite female character: again, because she is a strong woman and the books have so many plot points that the endings really are a shocker. I think Irish fiction is very underrated. There are so many amazing Irish crime writers: Jane Casey, Sinead Crowley and Tana French.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
liarschairI’m looking forward to reading more ‘Domestic Noir’: ‘The Liar’s Chair’ by Rebecca Whitney and also the new ‘Stride’ novel by Brian Freeman. Not forgetting the new novels from Sarah Hilary and Clare Donoghue, which sound fantastic. My TBR pile is about to topple over but I keep adding to it! I love reading British crime and Peter James’ Roy Grace series is one of my favourites. The ongoing story of what happened to Grace’s wife, Sandy, is so intriguing and shows us what Grace was like in the years he was married.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I’m a huge shopaholic and I completely relate to the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. I love her main character, Becky Bloomwood, as she’s a complete contrast to what I normally read. Working in a library, I try to recommend a good variety of books to people and often find myself recommending books that have been turned into films.
 

I too have a passion for Irish women writers, so it’s good to hear them mentioned here. As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel’s choices – have you read any or all of them? She is very up-to-date with the latest releases, isn’t she?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part. 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mel McKissock?

Melbooks2

Mel McKissock is another fellow crime fiction aficionado that I met via the excellent virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Based in Melbourne, Mel makes almost superhuman efforts to join us at the monthly book clubs, in the early hours of the morning (her time). You can find Mel on Twitter at more sociable hours and she always adds a touch of Australian knowledge to her reading passions.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Like so many other avid crime fiction fans, it was Agatha Christie who gave me my first taste of crime fiction. My parents had a complete set of her novels, and I steadily worked my way through them in my early teens, starting, I think, with ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.’ I moved on to more of the Golden Age crime writers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

These days I enjoy contemporary crime novels. I love learning about new places and cultures, so anything with a strong sense of place is particularly interesting.  I love Scottish noir and Scandi noir, one of my favourite Scandi authors being Karin Fossum, who can bring out the pathos of a crime like no one else. I’ve recently discovered the Jungle Beat series, by John Enright, set in Samoa, and the Edie Kiglatuk series, set in the Arctic Circle, by M.J McGrath. Both of these series have taught me a great deal about their respective settings and I enjoy anything that really immerses me in a whole other world!

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Only one! Well, it would have to be a prolific author, to keep me occupied. I think it would be a toss up between James L. Burke and his Robicheaux series, set in and around New Orleans, and Louise Penny and the Inspector Gamache series, set in the intriguing Canadian village of Three Pines. Both are a series of long, extremely well-written books with many layers, all of which can stand re-reading.

MelbooksWhat are you forward to reading in the near future?

That’s an easy one to answer, as we have a long weekend coming up here in Melbourne, and I have been keeping a book to savour over the weekend. It’s ‘The Dying Beach’ by Angela Savage, set in Thailand in the 90’s and featuring PI Jayne Keeney. This is the third book so far in this witty and clever series, and I’m really looking forward to reading it over our Cup weekend.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

One book which made a huge impression on me is ‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin, an Australian author. A beautiful, lyrical book, it tells the story of ‘Fish Meggie’, her upbringing at the beginning of the twentieth century in Scotland, and her subsequent move to Australia. As a work of historical fiction, it’s very different to my usual fare of crime novels and I’d encourage anyone reading this blog to take a look at it!

Thank you for your excellent recommendations, Mel! I’m also a fan of exotic settings both north and south. Angela Savage and James Lee Burke are two authors that I am ashamed to say I haven’t read yet, but will certainly follow up with them (you are not the first to highly recommend them). As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel’s choices – have you read any or all of them?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part. 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mrs Peabody?

It’s been a while since I last had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favourite book bloggers about their criminally good reading habits. So it’s doubly delightful to welcome the very well-read and thoughtful Mrs. Peabody to my blog today. Mrs. Peabody is the pseudonym of British academic Katharina Hall, Associate Professor of German at Swansea University and fellow international crime fiction lover. Her blog is a constant source of information and delight. She has also been featured on the Radio 4 series on European fictional detectives ‘Foreign Bodies’ (a series I keep referring to all the time).

Marina Sofia interview photo (1)How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Like many fans of the genre, I discovered crime fiction as a teenager through family copies of Agatha Christie novels. I remember loving the clever solutions to The Murder of Dr. AckroydMurder on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, and still have a soft spot for her work. Those were followed by an encounter with John D. MacDonald’s macho ‘Travis McGee’ novels, whose more worldly content was an eye-opener, although their gender stereotyping annoyed me even then.

After that, there was a bit of a gap. I studied English and German at university, and spent the first decade of my academic career focusing on ‘high’ literature – although I can see with hindsight that I was often drawn to authors who played with crime conventions, such as Thomas Pynchon and Günter Grass. My friend and former colleague Barbara takes the credit for my full conversion to crime. A few years ago she found a German crime novel at the back of a store cupboard at work, and passed it on to me. It was Self’s Punishment by Bernhard Schlink, author of the international best-seller The Reader, and featured a detective who was a former Nazi. That’s when I started thinking about representations of National Socialism and its post-war legacies in crime fiction, and became properly hooked. I’ve been reading and researching international crime fiction ever since, and set up the ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ blog in 2011.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love all kinds of crime, from cosies through to historical crime fiction and noir, but will always favour quality, intelligent crime fiction that’s free from gratuitous/misogynist violence. I have a particular weakness for the following:
 
a) Scandinavian police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany/Finland), Henning Mankell (Sweden), Håkan Nesser (Norway), Leif G.W. Persson (Sweden) and ArnaldurIndriðason (Iceland). And of course TV police dramas such as The Killing. These intelligent, socially-engaged crime narratives have finely drawn protagonists and absorbing plots. I adore them!
 
b) Off-the-wall hybrid novels that fuse crime genre conventions with those of sci-fi or apocalypse literature, or with literary forms such as satire. Examples include Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw (Greece), Hugh Howey’s Wool (USA)Ingrid Noll’s The Pharmacist (Germany), Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman (USA) and Simon Urban’s Plan D (Germany)I love these kinds of crime narratives because they’re hugely original, thought-provoking and enjoyable. They push the boundaries of crime fiction in highly creative ways and show just how flexible the genre can be.  
 
c) Crime narratives featuring strong, interesting female protagonists, such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (USA), Elly Griffiths’ ‘Ruth Galloway’ series, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Denmark), Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (Sweden), M.J. McGrath’s ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series (UK/Arctic) and Daniel Woodrill’s Winter’s Bone (USA), as well as the TV dramas Cagney and Lacey (USA), The Killing (Norway), Top of the Lake (New Zealand) and Happy Valley (UK). They show women fighting the good fight in an unequal world and celebrate their abilities, courage and determination. What’s not to like?
 
d) Crime trilogies or quartets, by which I mean a set of three or four novels that create a mind-bogglingly intricate literary universe through their characters, settings and themes (as distinct from longer, more diverse series). I’m thinking here of David Peace’s ‘Yorkshire Noir’ quartet (UK), Leif G.W. Persson’s Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy (Sweden) and Andrew Taylor’s ‘Roth Trilogy’ (UK). I admire these authors for taking crime fiction to a new level and for providing us with an utterly engrossing reading experience.
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the impressive debut novel of a young Australian author who spent time in Iceland as an exchange student: she describes it as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country. Set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas have stayed with me since I finished it a few days ago.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Such a difficult choice! At the moment, I think it would be Leif G.W. Persson’s ‘Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (2002), Another Time, Another Life (2003) and Free Falling, as in a Dream (2007; about to be published in the UK). Collectively, these explore Sweden’s big, unsolved crime – the 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme – against the backdrop of twentieth-century Swedish, European and Cold War history, with a cast of beautifully complex characters and highly compelling narratives. They have a wonderful streak of black humour too, which I suspect I’ll need on a deserted island… When I start talking to myself, I can adopt Johansson’s ironic catch-phrase ‘I’m listening…’. Crucially, they’re extremely long and are the kind of novel you could read repeatedly without tiring of them.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Here’s a small selection of the books I’m keen to read: D.A. Mishani’s Possibility of Violence (the second in the Israeli Avraham series), Natsuo Kirino’s Out (and more Japanese crime fiction by women in general), Jaume Cabré’s Confessions (a Catalan bestseller with elements of crime), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (New Zealand Booker winner drawing on crime conventions), and Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person (a 1970s crime novel by the French 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner). I’ve made peace with the fact that there are too many crime novels out there for me to possibly get through. I’ll simply plod on as best I can and enjoy the one I have in front of me in the here and now.

The-Spirit-LevelOutside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
At the moment, it’s Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s meticulously researched and highly readable The Spirit Level, which uses data from studies all around the world to show how social equality creates a better society for everyone, using indicators such as health, life expectancy, educational performance, teenage pregnancies and crime. The sections on crime are particularly fascinating: the authors describe social inequality as a form of ‘structural violence’ which in turn breeds actual violence – data shows that homicide rates are consistently higher in unequal countries. The book is hugely pertinent for us all, and should be a compulsory read for every politician!
 
What an intriguing list of authors, some well-loved by me and some completely new to me (that’s what I love about doing this series – it opens up worlds)! What do you think of Mrs Peabody’s recommendations – which of them have you read and what did you think of them?

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!

All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a cliché to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichés of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.

Novel No. 2 is waiting for you, Madam…

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that 'engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier'. Maybe that's what I need to find time to write?

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that ‘engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier’. Maybe that’s what I need to find time to write?

Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…

I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?

So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?

After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?

July Reads and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).

Crime/thriller

Miyuki Miyabe: All She Was Worth

BlackHousePeter May: The Blackhouse

This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club.  I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.

Dominique Manotti: Escape

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying-Down Room

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest

Harriet Lane: Her - also reviewed on CFL

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall - also reviewed on CFL

Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover

Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night

An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint.  This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.

playdateLouise Millar: The Playdate

Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.

Poetry:

101 Sonnets

Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.

 

Gossip/Groupie Fanfiction

bowieAngela Bowie: Backstage Passes

Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band

It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.

German:

Hilde Spiel: Ruckkehr nach Wien

French:

Martin Vidberg: Le Journal d’un remplacant  - wise, wry and funny observations (in cartoon format) about life as a supply teacher at a school for children with special emotional needs.

Other:

Courtney Maum: I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You

And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?

Manotti

 

 

The Saga of ‘The Lying-Down Room’ by Anna Jaquiery

the-lying-down-roomWhen reviewing for the Crime Fiction Lover website, I tend to get a little possessive about all the books by French authors or set in France. Since I live in this country for the time being, I feel like all of the books remotely connected with France (and its neighbouring countries – my desire for conquest knows no bounds: Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain) are mine by rights! So you can imagine my disappointment when someone else nabbed the debut novel set in Paris that everybody had been talking about, The Lying-Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Of course Raven did a fantastic job of reviewing it, but this could have been me!

So I sensibly did the next best thing. The book was said to be French crime fiction, so I would read it in French – so there! Unfortunately, I could not find it listed in any French bookshop or library in the area or even online on Fnac. I did some further digging and discovered that, although the author was of French origin, she actually has lived all over the world and writes in English. So I bought the book in its original English, read it, was intrigued by its perfect blend of French sensibilities and English crime fiction conventions, and got in touch with the author to beg her to take part in my series on ‘What Got You Hooked on Crime‘.

So you’ll have guessed that I liked the book, but here’s a proper review of it now.

Serial killer tropes have been so overdone in crime fiction, but in this book it’s a little different. The serial killer seems to be targeting inoffensive, somewhat lonely old ladies, who have been a little neglected by their families. What is odd and frightening is these women are laid out and displayed after death in an almost grotesque ritual arrangement. Inspector Serge Morel, himself a complex character with unresolved issues, is looking into these crimes. Struggling with a Paris sweltering in the August heat, understaffed because of holiday season, he and his team – particularly the feisty, bright Lila Markov – struggle to find a motive for these murders and a connection between the women.

The investigative part of the book follows fairly traditional police procedural lines, albeit with strong characterisations. Yes, the Inspector has his problems: the requisite insensitive, media-hungry boss, a father descending into the chaos of Alzheimer’s, and a secret yearning for his first love Mathilde, which crosses the line into stalking. Yes, he has the obligatory strange hobby or quirky trait that fictional detectives need to have nowadays to stand out from the crowd: in this case, it’s origami. Yet none of it feels forced or formulaic – there is a natural flow to his personal story. Morel’s French/Cambodian mixed heritage is only briefly addressed, but will be more prominent in the next book. But I do hope the next book doesn’t lose Lila Markov, who is bristly, smart and utterly no-nonsense, making up for her boss’s occasional fey-ness.

Where the book then differs from standard police procedural is in offering us alternative points of view, including those of the pair who emerge as possible suspects. The middle-aged teacher Armand has a terrible secret from his own youth, while his protegé César is a mute young boy adopted from a Russian state orphanage. There is so much sadness and veracity in this part of the story – it is not at all sensationalised, but rather suffused with a profound melancholy and sense of helplessness. So different from another book I recently read (to be reviewed very shortly for CFL) about religious cults and the children who survive them.

And then there is all the local colour – the small asides and descriptions which place you in Paris and rural France – all done with the insider knowledge of a local, without the sometimes excessive showing-0ff for the sake of the literary tourists. And although it is not exactly French, it is an excellent book to introduce you gently into the world of French crime fiction for those who are unfamiliar with it and put off by its relentless ‘noir’ attitude or quirkiness.

 

Japan, Italy, Spain: Where My Crime Fiction Takes Me

I do love crime fiction set in different countries. I believe that crime novels are great at conveying the small details, the atmosphere, the cultural differences which make up a country. I tend to pack them in my luggage when I venture to a new country, right alongside the travel guides. The last three have taken me to Japan, Italy/France and Spain.

Japan: “All She Was Worth” by Miyuki Miyabe (No information about translator!?!), Oriel

all-she-was-worth

Inspector Honma is a gentle soul, on semi-retirement from the police force since his wife’s death, with the usual single father doubts about his parenting abilities towards his ten-year-old son Makoto. A distant cousin descends on him one snowy evening and asks for his help to trace his missing fiancé. As Honma uncovers more and more unsettling facts about this woman and her past, he reluctantly has to bear witness to the dark side of Japan’s economic boom: the belief in a good life today rather than tomorrow, falling into debt and being pursued by loan sharks, succumbing to the temptation of hostess bars and … possibly… murder. The story is told at a much more leisurely pace than one might be accustomed to from a contemporary Western novel: there is almost something of the Golden Age detective novel feel about it, as one puzzle piece after another is found and carefully slotted into place. We may solve the mystery long before the main protagonist does, but along the way we experience a great fresco of Japan in the early 1990s, when the golden dream was becoming tarnished. All the while, I couldn’t help thinking of the much more excessive recent consumer excesses of the UK and Greece, for example. However, for Japanese standards (a nation of savers rather than credit cards), this must have been pretty explosive stuff at the time. The novel was written in 1992 and does show its age a little.

Italy/France: “Escape” by Dominique Manotti (Transl. Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz), Arcadia

ManottiTwo mismatched Italian prisoners break out of prison: Carlo is a former leader in the Red Brigades, Filippo a petty criminal from the slums of Rome. Yet it’s the latter who survives and who tries to make his fortune in Paris. While working as a night guard, this barely literate young man starts writing down the stories that Carlo told him in prison. The book is published and becomes a bestseller… with very dangerous consequences for Filippo, even though he tries to convince the reading public (and the police) that most of the novel is fiction.

This book has one of the most immediately gripping opening sequences I’ve read in recent memory… and we’re off on this rollercoaster of a ride through Italian politics of the 1970s/80s, the pretentiousness of the French literary establishment and the world of exiled Italians in Paris. Manotti’s work is at once dramatic and thoughtful, cinematic and intimate, politically engaged and also tongue-in-cheek. The characters often take themselves far too seriously, but the author never does: by offering us multiple points of view, she does a great job of pricking their balloon of self-satisfaction and self-deceit. She also does a great job of asking questions about the nature of memory, about the proportion of fiction in our truths, and just what is permissible in the name of success or political survival. A political thriller with a very personal story, this is a book quite unlike most crime fiction you find on the bookshop shelves today. An author who deserves to be far more widely known in the English-speaking world.

Spain: ‘Depths of the Forest’ by Eugenio Fuentes (Transl. Paul Antill), Arcadia

el-interior-del-bosqueAn attractive young woman is killed in a remote nature reserve in the north-east of Spain. Her boyfriend hires private investigator Ricardo Cupido to find the killer, as he fears the police are dragging their feet. Ricardo knows the local area, the secretive, closed nature of its people, but he has to start by uncovering more about the enigmatic and charismatic victim, Gloria, an artist who was equally loved and envied by those closest to her. Ricardo finds himself drawn towards her even after death, but a further death makes him wonder if the murder was at all personal.

Atmosphere galore in this novel: the claustrophobia of small-town rural Spain and the ominous wilderness of a great forest are both equally well described. The style is ornate, lyrical, with detailed descriptions, very different to the more spare Anglo-Saxon style, but beautifully written. A book to savour slowly, to let melt on your tongue. Once again, we are transported into other points of view and get to see both Gloria and the forest through multiple sets of eyes – a technique that is seldom used in UK/US crime fiction.

fuentesBut what I love about this author is the layers of meaning he instills in his books: superficially, they are simply a murder mystery, but underneath that they are character studies, and if you dig a little deeper still, you find the exploration of old mores and traditions, of cultural values, of natural forces fighting against humans.  Cupido himself is an attractive character, thoughtful but not unduly melancholic, although a bit of a loner. Here he is described by another character: “He was about thirty-five, very tall, with clean-cut features and profile, although he gave the impression of not knowing how to make the most of his good looks. He never allowed himself a broad smile… He appeared calm by nature, but by no means impassive; he was sceptical, but not pessimistic…’ I certainly want to read more about him in other books.

 

Where have you recently ‘travelled’ via your books?  Please share with me your favourite discoveries, as there is nothing I enjoy better than to explore new locations through an author’s eyes.

 

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Crime Thriller Girl?

CrimeThrillerGirlIf you haven’t yet discovered the wonderful blog of Crime Thriller Girl, you are in for a treat.  She not only provides you with thoughtful reviews of the latest crime fiction releases, she also does author interviews and is fully up-to-date with any crime festivals or other literary events. She seemed like an obvious candidate for my ‘Life of Crime’ series, so I hope you enjoy the revelations about her reading passions as much as I did.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

As a kid I loved reading the Famous Five, and later Sherlock Holmes – usually read by torchlight under the covers when I was staying at my grandparents’ house, as they had a wonderful bookcase packed full of mystery books which I loved browsing through. The Hound of the Baskervilles was (and still is) my favourite Sherlock book, and I guess you could say Sherlock is how I first got hooked into the genre. I can still remember the image on the cover of the first copy of Hound of the Baskervilles I read – a terrifyingly huge hound with a green glow around it. I don’t think I slept for a week!

As a teenager I was addicted to old re-runs of Columbo and The Saint, and read John Grisham’s legal thrillers at a rapid pace. Then I discovered the novels of the great, late Michael Crichton, and read every one of them – what a master of creative story-telling he was! I think it’s from reading his books that my love of thrillers was born.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love a great action thriller. Something fast-paced, with lots of twists and an emotional hook thrown in always grabs my attention. There are some fantastic series in the subgenre – Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox, and Jeff Abbott’s Sam Capra to name a few.

DistanceWhat is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Gosh, that’s a tough one, there’ve been so many! But, sticking true to my love of thrillers, there are two debuts I’ve read recently that are really stunning: ‘The Killing Season’ by Mason Cross, which is the first book in his Carter Blake series about a mysterious American gun for hire, and ‘The Distance’ by Helen Giltrow – the first book in her Charlotte Alton series set in the UK with a wonderfully strong female lead who navigates skilfully on both sides of the law.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’d have to say Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. It has everything I love about thrillers. Besides, each book is set in a different location and sees Reacher face a different kind of problem, so even if it’s the only set of books I have on the island, I’ll still have quite a lot of variety!

That said, if my rucksack was big enough, I’d also sneak in the Charlie Fox series by Zoe Sharp, and the Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham onto the island! Both are awesome.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m really looking forward to reading Steve Mosby’s new book ‘The Nightmare Place’, which has just been released. Also Jessie Keane’s new novel  ‘Lawless’, that’s coming out later this month, and the new thriller from Simon Kernick ‘Stay Alive’, which is already out and about which I’ve heard great things.

jillycooperbooksOutside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

To be honest, I mainly read crime and thrillers. Outside of the genre, I’ve read everything by Stephen Fry and would recommend all his books, they’re brilliant. Aside from that, it’s whatever might catch my eye when I’m browsing in a bookstore. Oh, and I suppose perhaps I should admit my guilty pleasure – Jilly Cooper – I’ve been a fan of hers since I sneaked a read of my Mum’s copy of ‘Riders’ back when I was a teenager!

Well, well, Jilly Cooper – who’d have thought that of a hardened thriller fan! There’s nothing like a little variety after all. Thank you very much for sharing your reading pleasures with us, Crime Thriller Girl, and enjoy yourself at Theakston’s Crime Festival in Harrogate later this week!

For previous replies in this series about reading passions, see here.  And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

 

It’s Grim Ooop North…*

While I was working in the north of England, it just seemed appropriate to be reading crime novels set in the north (Northumberland, upstate New York and Canada’s Northern Territories). Each of these novels has a strong sense of place, and there’s desolate rural wind blowing through their very different landscapes (as well as the usual village gossip).

CarnalSam Alexander: Carnal Acts

I have to admit I struggled with this one, because it was almost unbearably graphic and misogynistic (not the author, but many of the characters). I suppose it was bound to be a disturbing read, with topics such as sex trade, Albanian mafia and both traditional and modern slavery. Fiercely independent former London cop Joni Pax is an interesting character, but I found her ditsy hippy Mum a bit overdone, while her detecting partner Heck Rutherford promises to be intriguing but does not yet quite stand out sufficiently for me. It’s a thrilling enough read, but I found the story a tad predictable yet not quite fully plausible. Stylistically, also, it feels lazy, with abundant clichés, as if the author is on holiday and allowing him or herself a bit of downtime with this book.  However, I have to admit I admire Arcadia’s clever marketing ploy to discover the real writer beneath the pseudonym. And, like everyone else, I’m dying to find out #WhoIsSamAlexander. [And won't I be biting back my words if I discover it's one of my favourite crime authors?]

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes

TrustEyesWhat if you committed a crime and thought you’d got away with it, but discover a few months later that anyone with an internet connection could have witnessed it? A brilliant premise for a novel which reminded me of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’. Linwood Barclay is the poor man’s Harlan Coben – and I mean this in the best possible way. In his breathtakingly exciting novels, all of which start with some kind of paradox, it’s not people with superhuman abilities or international spies who have all the adventures. No, it’s the average Joes, modest citizens like you and me, who find themselves suddenly in an impossible situation, completely out of their depth. In that respect, he reminds me more of Sophie Hannah or Nicci French… and there is a strong family component to his writing as well. This is an author who really ‘gets’ complex family dynamics. This tale of two dissimilar brothers (Ray the successful illustrator and his schizophrenic, housebound, obsessive brother Thomas who sees something he shouldn’t have online) goes much deeper than just a crime story – and there is quite a thrilling, multi-stranded plot here, make no mistake about that. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Barclay himself has a brother with mental health problems, and although he says the character of Thomas is not based on his brother, the frustrated love the two brothers have for each other rings very true indeed.

BoneSeekerM. J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker

I absolutely loved the near-anthropological descriptions of life in the Inuk community of Ellesmere Island in Canada in ‘White Heat’, McGrath’s debut novel featuring Arctic hunter and unwilling detective Edie Kiglatuk. Anybody talking about strong women should take Edie as a role model: diminutive yet tough as nails, caring yet unsentimental, thoughtful yet able to whip up a good bowl of seal blood soup. In this second novel the author has corrected some of the weaknesses of the previous novel: this one has more diverse characters, is faster-paced and avoids over-long nature descriptions. Yet somehow I enjoyed it slightly less than the first, perhaps because there is a whole government conspiracy to unravel as well as a crime to solve. (I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theories.) The description of young Martha, however, the girl who hopes to escape from her community and see the wider world, is very poignant and memorable indeed.

 

* Nobody is quite sure of the origin of this phrase, but it seems to have been fairly well established as a trope in British culture since Victorian times at least. The North stood for all that was sooty, industrial, coal-miney and dark. Funnily enough, for us Southern Europeans or those in the Balkans, the North always stood for prosperity, non-corrupt democracy, fair-mindedness and social progress.

 

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