Hardboiled with a soft core: crime fiction from the North

It’s not just the capital cities in Europe which provide a photogenic noir backdrop to hardboiled crime fiction. Gunnar Staalesen’s lone wolf detective Varg Veum operates in the northern climes of Bergen in Norway, while John Harvey’s DI Charlie Resnick battles increasingly violent incidents in … well, maybe Nottingham is not quite that far north, if I’m to be honest, only about 130 miles north of London. Both of these strong, silent types are now nearing retirement, so they are showing a more sensitive (or perhaps just more vulnerable) side of themselves.

inheritwindGunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind (transl. Don Bartlett)

Who’d have thought that wind farms and ecology can lead to murderous intent? An ageing Varg Veum proposes to his girlfriend but shows no signs of slowing down otherwise. He still seems able to run and fight his way out of trouble along with the rest of them, while his ability to outsmart his adversary, his tendency to make irreverent quips and cheeky retorts, his talent for getting into trouble remain undiminished. But he is also more self-aware, more likely to recognise his mistakes and try to repair them. And he blames himself for the events and actions which led to his girlfriend being in a coma at the start of the book.

However, despite the thrills and plot twists, the novel is not all about action: readers will find thoughtful characterisation and topical social and economic concerns which are so often linked to Scandinavian crime fiction.

vargveumNot all of the Varg Veum novels have been translated into English, and certainly not in the right order, but I remember reading Staalesen a few years back and thinking his stubborn, wisecrack-filled hero reminded me of Arjouni’s Kayankaya or Harry Bosch. A well-paced, thrilling plot, the usual topical social concerns we have come to expect from Staalesen’s confident pen. The author is a classic in his own country: there is even a statue of Varg Veum leaning against a wall and staring moodily into the distance in Bergen. And I can imagine Varg attending the Bergen Jazz Festival, perhaps together with the detective featured below…

CiHandJohn Harvey: Cold in Hand

John Harvey is an immensely prolific writer, and his jazz-influenced Charlie Resnick series has received numerous awards and high critical praise. I am a newcomer to his work, but I could not help admiring his strong, muscular, lean and yet very poetic prose. A detective of Polish origin who loves cats, Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk? Count me in!

Charlie gets pulled back into frontline policing as gang violence with smuggled weapons escalates in Nottingham. Fellow police officer (and lover/nearly fiancée) Lynn tries to break up a street fight and gets caught in a shooting, in which one teenage girl dies. The girl’s father publicly accuses her of putting his daughter’s life at risk and Charlie and Lynn find themselves struggling to reconcile their personal beliefs with their professional lives.

Life happens – sometimes it is cosy and everyday, sometimes it is brutal and painful, just like real life. Harvey is a master at rendering both the comfort of the common-place and the shudder of deep grief. I am full of admiration for the economy of his prose, capable of conveying so much emotion.

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover John Harvey as a crime writer. I was a regular reader of his old blog (now closed) and his poetry, but he still blogs occasionally here about poetry, music and various other book-related themes.


Friday Fun: Bedrooms You May Never Want to Leave

There is an irony in there somewhere. On those days when you need to accomplish so much, but all you’d like to do is curl up in bed with a good book. I must resist!

A sky full of stars... From Pinterest.
A sky full of stars… From Pinterest.
Brazilian beach house, from Domaine.com
Brazilian beach house, from Domaine.com
In the jungle, the quiet jungle... Safari Look from Domaine.com
In the jungle, the quiet jungle… Safari Look from Domaine.com
Loft in Paris, from apartmenthterapy.com
Loft in Paris, from apartmenthterapy.com
Room with a view and books, from Modern Cottage Design.
Room with a view and books, from Modern Cottage Design.

Combining Business with Literary Delights

Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.

BookBusinessTripBook Buying

In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.

In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.

Literary Conference

The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.


Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!

September Reading Round-Up

Yes, I know it’s already October, but this is written in-between bouts of work and travel. The list below shows that I spent far too much time in airports, on planes and in hotel rooms this past month, as I got a lot of reading done but far less reviewing.

16 books, of which 5 ‘imposed’ for reviews. 8 crime fiction or psychological thrillers. The ones marked with an asterisk are ‘review still to come (hopefully, at some point, in the fullness of time)’.

  1. Linda Huber: The Attic Room
  2. Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None
  3. Tessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right*
  4. Christos Tsiolkas: Barracuda*
  5. Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain
  6. Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountains
  7. Martha Grimes: The Old Silent
  8. Martha Grimes: Foul Matter
  9. Martha Grimes: The Case Has Altered
  10. Martha Grimes: Belle Ruin  (the four above were read/reread for a feature on Martha Grimes for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September)
  11. Fran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder
  12. David Young: Stasi Child
  13. Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses*
  14. Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace
  15. Matt Haig: Reasons to Live
  16. Nicholas Grey: The Wastelanders*

Although I said I would switch to more male writers this month, to make up for an all-female author list during the summer holidays, I ended up with 11 books written by women (albeit 4 of them by the same woman) and only 5 by men. I have a little more testosterone planned for October, as well as more books from Netgalley (where my reviewing percentage has plummeted).

fogislandMy crime fiction pick of the month is And Then There Were None (still one to beat, and one of my favourite Christies – not just mine, but also one of the world’s favourite Christies), closely followed by Stasi Child. I had some great contenders for literary favourite of the month, with Tessa Hadley, Shirley Hazzard and Tsiolkas all in impressive form, while Richard Yates is one of my old stalwarts. However, Fog Island Mountains beat them all – it really hooked into my heart and dug itself a quiet little place there.

Friday Fun: Unusual Houses with Water Features

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a beautiful house must be in need of a perfect water feature, natural or artificial.

Cedar Hill, from Project Whitespace.
Cedar Hill, from Project Whitespace.
Floating house on lake, from Project Whitespace.
Floating house on lake, from Project Whitespace.
Chateau Perche, from PrestigeProperty.ch
Chateau Perche, from PrestigeProperty.ch
Sloping House, from Porject Whitespace.
Sloping House, from Porject Whitespace.
Watertower, from AEarchitects.
Watertower in London, from AEarchitects.

OK, this one above stretches the notion of ‘water feature’ somewhat, but many disused water towers in Britain have been imaginatively converted. The one below even has a pool on the 4th floor.

Water tower pool in St. Albans, from Planet Property.
Water tower pool in St. Albans, from Planet Property.

And let’s finish off with a classic villa in Tuscany, which probably required just as much renovation work.

Casa Olivi, Tuscany, from casainitalia.com
Casa Olivi, Tuscany, from casainitalia.com

Friday Fun: Where I’d Like to Read

As usual, when I have so much work to do and business trips coming up, I dream of a secluded spot where I could do some reading, thinking and writing. Here are a few of my favourites. Could they become yours too?

For the swanky. From Architectural Digest.
For the swanky. From Architectural Digest.
For the eclectic collectors. From artinspire.com
For the eclectic collectors. From artinspire.com
For the lazy or view-addicts. From decoist.com
For the lazy or view-addicts. From decoist.com
For cosying up as the chill sets in. From Decorista.com
For cosying up as the chill sets in. From Decorista.com
For gardening gurus. From Good Housekeeping.
For gardening gurus. From Good Housekeeping.
For Japanophiles. From schnormeiergardens.org
For Japanophiles. From schnormeiergardens.org

Dirty Little Reading Habits

I saw this fun tag on the blog 50 a Year and could not resist joining in. It’s all about those silly little rituals us gourmand and gourmet readers like to build up around our favourite activity.

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

I can read anywhere, in any position, even if my legs and arms get pins and needles. But I will always read at least a page or two (usually a lot more) propped up on lots of pillows in my bed at night, just before going to sleep. It helps me fall asleep more easily and forget about any of the day’s less glorious moments.

Bookmark or a random piece of paper?

I do prefer a bookmark and have quite an extensive collection of them scattered all over the house. However, bookmarks have a secret life of their own and have been known to disappear suddenly when you need them most (especially on planes). So I’ve been known to use boarding passes and even banknotes as an emergency bookmark.

Can you stop reading any time, or do you have to stop in a certain place?

Always at the end of a chapter. I hope that any choking child or burning house will have the courtesy to wait until I’ve reached that perfect point of interruption!

cherriesDo you eat or drink while reading?

As a child, during my summer holidays, I would read perched up in a cherry tree, so I did develop some fruit-eating habits whilst reading a book. Later in life, this led to quite a bit of reading/snacking marathons (on crisps and chocolate, mostly), because I didn’t want to interrupt the story for a proper sit-down meal. I try not to do it so much nowadays, not just for my own health, but also for the health of the books (no nasty chocolate smears on the pages or greasy thumb prints).

Can you read while listening to music/watching TV?

I say I can, but it does mean that the music/TV just gets completely drowned out and I have no idea what is on in the background.

One book at a time or several at once?

Am I really weird that I do have more than one on the go at any given time? I usually have about three in the mix, so that I can choose what to read depending on mood, time of day, how much time I have to read etc. I always have a crime novel close by (that’s my comfort read, even if I like them quite dark and gruelling), something in a foreign language (too much hard work to read it without occasional light relief) and then a literary novel or a volume of poetry or something non-fictiony. I don’t usually read three in the same genre and language at the same time: that would cross those dainty little wires in my brains.

From leapfrog.com
From leapfrog.com

Reading out loud or silently in your head?

I am almost a speed-reader (not really, I haven’t done any proper training, but I am quite fast), so far too fast to read out loud! However, I do love to read out loud if given half a chance. I used to bore my poor mother to death reading from the Mallory Towers series and The Little White Horse when I was a child, and I really enjoyed bedtime stories with my own children. Sadly, they won’t let me ‘perform’ for them anymore. I miss those cuddly, sharing moments.

Do you read ahead and skip pages?

Only if the book is really, really boring but I have promised to read it for reviewing purposes and I am trying to find its redeeming feature. Sadly, in most such cases, I will end up refusing to review it.

In my misguided youth, I may have peeked at the very last sentence of a book if I cared a lot about the characters. Unfortunately, the final sentence usually doesn’t give a lot away… and then I would have that on my conscience for the duration of the book. Not worth the guilt, I say!

Break the spine or keep it new?

Most of my books look virtually new and unread, so I expect to see them returned in that very same condition when I lend them to others. (!!!) Alas! I’ve often learnt that a bookworm friend might have very different reading habits from mine (bent-down corners, broken spines, even scribbles and greasy pawprints, to name just a few pet peeves).

But, before you think I’m too anal about it, I have to admit that I do have some well-thumbed, less pristine books in my collection. These are my faithful old companions that have followed me across borders for over thirty years now and have been re-read many, many times.

No, not my books! From RestorationSOS.com
No, not my books! From RestorationSOS.com

Do you write in books?

(Whispers) I used to. I feel really bad about it still.

I might do it in textbooks or reference books (the ones I own, of course, not the ones I borrow from the library, of course), but not in novels. I have a notebook to scribble my thoughts in for later reviews, but I don’t always have it to hand, so the best thoughts just fly away…

I’d love to hear all about your own secret little reading habits, if you want to let me know in the comments below. Or, who knows, maybe even join in the tag on your own blog?