What Got You Hooked on Crime, Bernadette?

After a couple of failed attempts, I’m delighted to finally be able to feature one of my favourite crime reviewers here. Bernadette is joining us all the way from Australia, the land that book publishing forgot, as she humorously says on her blog Reactions to Reading. In an effort to improve international knowledge of Australian crime fiction, she also runs a blog called Fair Dinkum Crime and you can find her on Twitter too.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Me ReadingI guess I can thank (or blame?) a combination of my mum and the librarian at our local branch of the Mechanics’ Institute (it didn’t become a Council operated public library until I was a teenager). Mum always took my brother and me along on her weekly trips to the library, so from early on I became as voracious a reader as she was. Early on I read the Famous Five and Bobbsey Twins, although apparently I derided these at an early age declaring them not to be criminal enough. I then moved on to Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the kids’ stuff. So Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nero Wolfe and Dick Francis followed. I’ve dabbled with other genres over the years – including a pretty intense horror phase in my teens – but I always make my way back to crime fiction.

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

I used to say I give anything a go but that’s not really true anymore. If it ever was. I avoid some subjects all together – gangsters and mafia storylines top of the list – and am very choosy these days about reading books featuring serial killers. I guess it’s still possible that someone will come up with a new take on that trope but most of what I see is derivative and boring. I also avoid books that feature ‘too much’ gratuitous violence. I know that defining ‘too much’ is subjective but I am heartily sick of reading about the hacked up bodies of women (‘cos in the types of books I’m thinking of it is almost always women who are tortured and mutilated).

Other than the above-mentioned things, I try to read a mixture of subgenres but my heart will always be won over by a story with a point. I love a good yarn, and even more one that explores some political or social issue. Books that show me some aspect of life I am unfamiliar with or take me into some part of the world I’ve never been to (even those close to my backyard) or make me think differently about a topical subject are the sort of thing I look for these days.

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

I’ve had a really great reading year so far but if pushed to choose just one I’d have to say Malla Nunn’s Present Darkness is the most memorable. Malla Nunn migrated to Australia from South Africa many years ago (lucky for us) but she sets her books in the country of her birth in the early days of apartheid. Present Darkness is the fourth book in her series and while I’ve thought its predecessors all excellent this one was her best yet. It does exactly what I was talking about earlier – it really gives readers a glimpse of the day-to-day grind and fear and inhumanity of being a black person living under that regime. Plus it’s a helluva yarn.

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’ve spent way too long thinking about this question. Way, way too long. The likelihood of me actually being stuck on a deserted island after having had an opportunity to select some books to take along is really, really tiny. So I know my answer doesn’t actually matter. But still…

For a while my answer was going to be Dick Francis. I have a soft spot for this author, partly due to him being one of my mum’s favourites. For years each time he had a new book out, we would both get hold of a copy and compare notes as quickly as we could. The other part of my fondness is due to the global availability of his books. When I was young and un-arthritic I did a fair bit of backpacking and the biggest problem was finding something to read (I am woefully monolingual). Even when travelling there is lots of down time but in a pre-Kindle world you couldn’t carry a dozen or more books. I have scoured newsstands and second-hand stalls in many countries of the world and can report that if you’re looking for something to read in English in some far-flung part of the globe you can just about guarantee to find novels by Barbara Cartland and Dick Francis (or at least you could in the late 80’s and 90’s when I was abroad). As I’ve never been a romance reader, I always opted for the Francis books and I am eternally grateful to his global appeal.

But I have read them all multiple times so think I would want something a bit fresher on my island sojourn. It is tempting to opt for a long series that I’ve never started – maybe Ed McBain’s 87th St. precinct novels for example – but what if I don’t like even the first one? How depressing to be stuck on an island with plenty to read and no motivation to do so.

So after way too much thought I’ve decided to opt for the novels of Reginald Hill. I’ve read enough of them to know that I like his style a great deal but some would be completely new to me and even those that would be re-reads are still fresh enough. If I were allowed two series/sets of authors I’d throw in the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I’ve only read 2 or 3 of these and very much want to read them all. But there are only 10 and they’re very thin. Not bulky enough for a long stint on a deserted island.

TBRBookshelf
TBRBookshelf

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

I’ve just put all six books shortlisted for this year’s Petrona Award on hold at the library. In recent years I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding my reading horizons via the explosion in translated crime novels from across the globe. But I have a soft spot for this award named in honour of a fellow crime fiction lover who passed away far too soon. Her love of good quality crime fiction in translation has been ably honoured by the previous shortlists and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into this year’s selection.

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

I love historical fiction and not only the kind that involves murder. I think the book I’ve recommended most over the years is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders: plague, a strong female character, a not so subtle dig at religious hypocrisy – what more could you ask for?

Thank you so much, Bernadette, for your very amusing and candid observations; it’s certainly been worth the wait. I love the fact that all of my interviewees seem to assume a lengthy stay on a deserted island and are very much afraid of running out of reading material. As for me, I’d be terrified that I get rescued too soon and don’t have enough time to read everything!

What do you think of Bernadette’s choices? It reminds me that I certainly must read Malla Nunn, about whom I’ve heard such good things. You can see previous respondents in the series here and for future interviewees: well, you know the drill… Please let me know if you’d like to participate. I’m always eager to hear your recommendations.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

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

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

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

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

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

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

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

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‘mass-produced’ authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect’, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

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

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

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

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

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

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I’m increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

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

With my brilliant ‘day-job’ as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of 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.