Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

Book Launch for #DeepDownDead

I started my Christmas reading with Steph Broadribb’s  Deep Down Dead and it gave me a feisty attitude to see me through the tricky holiday period. So I was delighted to attend the official launch for the book at Waterstone’s Piccadilly last night.

I want someone to look at me the way Steph looks at Karen in this picture...
I want someone to look at me the way Steph looks at Karen in this picture…

Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books never does things by half: this was an Americana-themed night, with Bourbon, Hershey’s candy and corn-bread on offer. And, of course, the by now traditional cake (which is not just a pretty icing, immaculately put together, but also delicious).

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Steph herself was in great form, and Martyn Waites got her to share stories of bounty-hunting training in California, exploring theme parks in Florida and how she acquired her shooting skills but needs to update her tasering skills. She also told us about her love of country music and cowboy boots.

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There was such a good turn-out of writers, bloggers, publishers and readers at the event – a testimony to the love and esteem that Steph has built up via her blog at Crime Thriller Girl. Asked whether her reviewing has changed now that she is a published writer herself, Steph said she hoped she hasn’t become either harsher or more lenient, but admitted that she just has far less time to read and review. However, she said book blogging is a wonderful way to get to know people and to push yourself to read more broadly.

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I finally had the chance to catch up with authors such as Quentin Bates, Rod Reynolds, Fiona Cummins, Lisa Hall, Louise Beech, Jane Isaac, Susi Holliday and A.K. Benedict, as well as stalwart bloggers and reviewers such as Barry Forshaw, SonyaLiz Barnsley, Vicky Goldman, Joy Kluver. Plus so many more that I didn’t get a chance to bump into. Ah, well perhaps at a crime festival soon… However, I can foresee it will be harder and harder to keep up with all the releases once I get to know more and more authors, as I feel obliged to read their work so I can make intelligent conversation.

How many writers can you spot in one picture: Quentin Bates, Barry Forshaw, Daniel Pembrey...
How many writers can you spot in one picture: Quentin Bates, Barry Forshaw, Daniel Pembrey…

I tried to dress up for the occasion, but by the end of the evening, hobbling back on the Tube and train, I was somewhat regretting the high-heeled cowboy boots (well, more Spaghetti Western boots).

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Thank you all for a lovely evening, especially Orenda Books for the invitation and Steph for giving us something to celebrate: the book itself!

#TranslationThurs: Holiday Reading – Nordic Climates

Winter holidays are perfect for catching up with the frozen Northern climes and cold cases, and I had great fun with the following two. OK, maybe ‘fun’ is not the operative world, as they were both quite melancholy and thought-provoking, and both left open questions about justice and redemption.

dyingdetectiveLeif GW Persson: The Dying Detective (transl. Neil Smith)

The equivalent of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, featuring Lars Johansson, a retired detective recovering from a serious illness in hospital, bored, and setting out to investigate a cold case with only his research and his brains at his disposal. Of course, unlike the Princes in the Tower, the Swedish author’s case is much more recent, although it is past the statute of limitations date, so the perpetrator will not be punished in a conventional way.

Lars is also much more seriously ill, so it is a battle against death in more ways than one. He fears that his famous ability to ‘see around corners’ is now muddled and compromised.  Utterly compelling and heartrending, the book is not a fast-paced action thriller, but full of good investigative detail so we can follow the logical links. A delight for fans of puzzles and of well-written psychological fiction as well. The only quibble might be the sudden shifts in POV within the same scene – which feel more like a film script than a novel. There are a few references here to Swiss writer Dürrenmatt and his moral dilemma in The Judge and His Hangman : the similarities are plain to see and deftly (humorously) handled.

ruptureRagnar Jonasson: Rupture (transl. Quentin Bates)

Iceland’s modern answer to Agatha Christie continues his triumphant wooing of the British reading public with the latest instalment in the Ari Thor series. (They have been translated somewhat out of order, but this has not impeded my enjoyment of the series.)

This novel has two mysteries at its core and brings together once more the combined investigative powers of policeman Ari Thor and journalist Isrun, or Thoughtful and Feisty, as they might also be called if they were Snow White’s dwarves. The first case is almost ancient history: an ill-fated attempt in the 1950s to create a new settlement in an isolated fjord near Siglufjordur, which ended with a mysterious death. Stuck in a quarantined town because of a suspected outbreak of haemorrhagic fever, Ari Thor might as well reopen the case when new photographic evidence emerges, although he isn’t too hopeful that anyone will have anything to contribute after so many decades.

Meanwhile, in Reykjavik, Isrun is still trying to progress her career with news scoops and the case of an abducted child and a hit-and-run accident seem to be her ticket to fame. She gets more than she bargained for, however, when it becomes obvious that there might be some political implications to her stories.

The author plays scrupulously fair with the readers, allowing us to puzzle things out for ourselves, giving us plenty of clues, revealing all the legwork, yet still keeping it entertaining. There are some moments of almost unbearable tension(fear of an intruder outside your home, for instance), but, on the whole, the charm of the story resides in the deduction rather than in action scenes. For my full review, see Crime Fiction Lover.

Return to Favourite Authors: Simenon and Rankin

Christmas is also about the comfort of favourite authors, who are not going to let you down, no matter what. I turned to two ‘reliables’, each of whom I discovered at a different stage in my life: Simenon in secondary school, Ian Rankin when I first moved to the UK.

maigretdeadmanGeorges Simenon: Maigret’s Dead Man (transl. David Coward)

Maigret is humouring a paranoid matriarch in his office, when a man calls his direct line, in great fear for his life. Not entirely convinced by the man’s confusing story, the good inspector does send one of his men over to the bar where the man claims to be calling from. Alas, too late, the bird has flown. He calls again from somewhere else, and as Maigret and the reader follow the man from bar to café to bar, we start to wonder just what kind of a set-up this is. Then the man is found dead. Who was he and what was he afraid of?

Maigret sets the investigation in motion from his sick-bed initially, so we get to see more of his fellow officers, the prosecuting judge and the other police force that is so typical of the intricate French system. We also get to see a lot more of the patient, protective and discreet Madame Maigret. Above all, however, we are privy to the musings and gut instinct of Maigret himself, although the author does not always play fair. He withholds vital pieces of information and springs them upon us during the interrogation of suspects. It’s more complex and longer than the usual Maigret novels (which are usually of novella size) and there are hints of Simenon’s darker non-Maigret novels in the atmosphere.

The recent TV adaptation makes the links between the Picardie farm murders and the hunted person much clearer from the start, but loses a little in the psychological depth of the Slovakian criminal gang and Maigret’s handling of them.

This is a new translation of the novel, in the highly covetable remastered Penguin Classics edition. It sounds quite modern, without being jarring, and is perhaps slightly less word-for-word faithful than the 1950s translation by Jean Stewart.

ratherbedevilIan Rankin: Rather Be the Devil

Rebus is getting restless in his retirement: merely walking the dog and worrying about his health, even being in a relationship with forensic scientist Deborah Quant, is not quite enough to occupy his time. He reopens a cold case and talks about it to a former police officer who had been investigating it a few years back. When that man is found dead, Rebus becomes convinced that the case is somehow linked to the very current criminal gang turf wars and money-laundering cases that Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are investigating.

This is an entertaining read, with the usual tussles between Siobhan and her former boss, plenty of laconic humour, and an uneasy sort of truce with Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s former nemesis.  Fox also emerges as a more complete and haunted character than I had previously given him credit for. The case is reasonably tangled and then untangled. However, there is one major reservation I have. If you can ignore the way in which Rebus (and his colleagues too) seem to ignore proper procedure and commit all sorts of illegalities (such as impersonating a police officer, walking off with case files and photocopying them etc. – all the unlikely scenarios which annoyed me about TV series such as ‘Marcella’, for instance), you will enjoy it. It is a suspension of disbelief too far for me: fun enough for a one-off, but I don’t think it will be plausible to see Rebus in a next outing.

However, the writing is as sharp and economical as usual. It’s just enough amount of detail to really convey the landscape, society and characters populating Edinburgh and Glasgow. A master class in crime writing, just like Simenon.

 

 

 

 

 

Deep Down Dead: The Road Trip to Hell and Back

deepdowndeadDisclosure required: I’ve known Steph Broadribb under her online username Crime Thriller Girl for a few years now. She blogs, reviews, tweets and goes to literary festivals, all in the name of crime – so clearly a woman after my own heart! – and has now written a feisty action thriller Deep Down Dead, to be published by Orenda Books on the 5th of January. However, liking a person in real life (or even online life) is not an automatic guarantee that you will like their writing. And I am not a huge fan of action thrillers, or so I told myself…

However, this is an action thriller with a difference: it is written by a woman. So, although we do have lots of page-turning action and fights and dangerous moments, there are also moments of tenderness, doubts, genuine warmth. This is an action thriller with heart and compassion, combining the darkness of film noir with a family story and the ruggedness of a Western.

Female bounty hunter Lori Anderson is clearly related to VI Warshawski or Kinsey Milhone, or such no-nonsense, kick-ass female heroines, but she is also a single mother to a rather ill nine-year-old girl. The medical bills keep lining up, the cancer may come back at any time, so Lori is desperate to take on any job, even those she should steer well clear of. One suspiciously well-paid job involves her bringing JT, her former mentor (and lover) back to Florida. It sounds straightforward enough and, when her childcare arrangements fall through, she ends up taking her daughter with her on a three-day road-trip across several states which ends up veering completely out of control. She hasn’t seen JT in ten years – could he have turned into a criminal in the meantime? Or is he indeed hunting down a paedophile ring, as he claims? The Mafia gets involved, so does the police, and soon they are on the run.

stephbroadribbWe follow Lori and JT in this entertaining and non-stop gruelling journey, with plenty of kidnapping, violence, shooting, car chases, and my own personal highlight: running amok through a theme park. As the stakes get higher and higher, we ask ourselves: are these two bounty hunters using such unconventional methods to cover their own asses, or are they really going to achieve some form of justice? They keep going in spite of the constant menace from all parts and their injuries, but they are not superhuman (as they might be if this were written by a man, perhaps). The author describes all the pain and difficulties the main protagonist endures in quite graphic detail.

There is a danger perhaps that this kind of cat-and-mouse hunt of a novel could become repetitive, but Steph Broadribb just manages to avoid that, adding a new twist to every scene of capture or escape. What I really admire is her ability to absorb and render the American idioms, twang and way of life so believably (the author is British, although she did live for a while in the US). What we have here is all the swagger and tension of a Western: who is going to blink first, who is going to be slower on the draw?

Perfect escapism for this time of year and a great start to my holiday reading.

Emma Kavanagh: The Missing Hours – Review

missinghoursThis was a very good companion on a sleepless night. It’s a police procedural (a nice change to psychological thrillers, which seem to be mushrooming all over the crime fiction landscape at the moment). Yet it also introduces  readers to the lesser known world of K&R (kidnap and ransom) specialists, a growth industry in various parts of the world. People are kidnapped for profit, the insurance brokers and corporates step in and hire experts who will negotiate a good price and a speedy (sometimes not all that speedy) release.

Selena Cole and her husband own such a boutique business, but after her husband’s death in a bomb blast in Brazil a year ago, she has stepped back a little from the helm, leaving her sister-in-law and her husband to take care of affairs. But then one day she simply disappears from the playground, leaving her young daughters to fend for themselves. Very uncharacteristic of her, so friends and family fear the worst. She is found twenty hours later, but has no memory of what happened during those ‘missing hours’. A murder occurred during this period: is it possible that Selena was involved in any way?

Another innovation in this novel is that the investigating team feature a brother and sister couple of detectives, which allows us to see events and the people involved from two distinct but sympathetic points of view. Leah Mackay, mother of twin girls, identifies almost too much with Selena and starts to see links to the case everywhere she goes. Meanwhile, her younger brother Finn is more interested in the murder case, but sometimes allows his own emotions and judgements to take over. The interaction between the two siblings was fun and realistic: it was refreshing to see two partners who are supportive rather than antagonistic, but still able to laugh at each other, without a trace of forelock-tugging.

The author is a trained psychologist, but she does not drown the reader in excessive detail. Instead, she has developed an elegant, pared down way of describing thought processes and reactions, telescoping them over a long period of time.

And then life moved on, and somehow, without me knowing it, I got whipped into pregnancy and babies and a family and home, and yet still I am held hostage, there on that cold kitchen floor, holding a bottle of Rioja, wanting to die.

Some readers have objected to the introduction of the kidnap and ransom case files which are interspersed throughout the book. They felt that they interrupted the flow of the story. I actually quite liked them, it felt a bit more experimental and a nice change from the ‘perspective of the serial killer’ chapter so prevalent in many recent books. They introduced a matter of fact, non-emotional reporting element, which upped the ante, making us aware of the globalisation of crime.

 

Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies

I’m a latecomer to the charms of Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s slick, compelling novels. Winner of the 2015 Davitt Award for Australian crime fiction for adults, Big Little Lies was originally published as just Little Lies in the UK, just to confuse matters further. I saw it being highly praised by bloggers I trust, like Cleo, That’s What She Read  , TripFiction, Elena and on the Shiny New Books site. Margot even featured Big Little Lies in her ‘In the Spotlight’ series, which gave me the final push to pick it up at the local library.

big-little-lies-liane-moriartyIt is perfect for parents everywhere, although the Australian setting gives it an extra twist. [No hedge fund manager parent in Britain would have sent their child to the local state school.] Anyone who’s taken a child to school in recent years will laugh or wince in recognition: the author packs in so many cringeworthy moments – the yummy mummies and their gossip, the PTA power, the party invitations being handed out in the playground, the petitions going round the school, the overwhelmed teachers and principals. It’s perfect book club fodder: there’s even a book club featured in its pages! And I love the expression: ‘Oh, calamity!’

Yet underneath the humour and instantly recognisable ‘types of parents’, there is real drama, tragedy and moments of subtle psychological insight. I detected a certain similarity in style with fellow Australian Helen Fitzgerald: fearless, candid, humorous but underlying seriousness. In this book it’s all about bullying and lying (to one’s self and to others), about maintaining a façade when your heart is breaking, about the everyday worries so many of us experience and yet we have to carry on. The characterisation is pitch-perfect. I could perhaps relate to the warm-hearted but sometimes terribly interfering and loud Madeline slightly more than to her two friends, shy Jane and inexplicably vague golden girl Celeste, but I enjoyed reading from each character’s point of view and even secondary characters revealed unexpected depths.

The most memorable recent books I’ve read which fit into this category are: Claire Mackintosh’s I See You, Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, Tammy Cohen’s When She Was Bad. They rely not so much on plot twists and gradual reveal (although they all have them), but on the ‘chattiness factor’. I have a theory about why books such as these are so popular. I call them ‘chat crime’ (to coin a new phrase) and they straddle comfortably genres such as chick lit and psychological thriller. They are the comfort food of crime fiction:  enough suspense and mystery to keep you turning the pages, but also recognisable situations galore, characters in predicaments which you can relate to. Easy, smooth style, slides down the reading throat a treat, and very moreish. You feel you could read another one like it in quick succession. I also wonder what percentage of readers of psychological thrillers are women between the ages of 26 and 46 of a certain level of education and affluence, who will recognise themselves very easily in these pages. It feels like the stories we all tell each other when we get together on a ‘Mums’ night out’.

Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.
Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.

I am by no means belittling this kind of crime fiction. I enjoyed it immensely (and cried a little at the tales of Madeline’s woes with Abigail, her teenage daughter from her previous marriage) and read it in just one day. And we all know that the prose which feels most ‘natural’ and ‘unworked upon’ is the hardest to write! I’m just aware that I need to alternate this kind of reading with other, more challenging literature (written from points of view which are less familiar to me). Otherwise it’s just too easy to get trapped in your protected little bubble, like the parents of Pirriwee Public School.

I hear the book is being filmed as a TV mini-series, featuring Nicole Kidman as the statuesque Celeste, Shailene Woodley as fearful Jane and Reese Witherspoon as feisty Madeline.