Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.

 

 

August: Holiday Reads But Also More…

I’m not going to repeat the holiday reads for the first half of the month, as I’ve written a separate post about them, but here are some statistics for the whole month of August.

20 books read, of which 11 labelled as crime fiction. 13 women authors. 5 books in translation, plus one in German and one in French, so 7 foreign books in total. In terms of setting: 3 each in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the United States, 2 each in Greece and France, plus one book set in Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and the Solomon islands. A bit less variety than usual, perhaps, but this is probably because of the ‘easy escapist holiday reading’ mission that I had set myself. And easy usually means the familiar to most of us, right? Yet there have been plenty of more serious, questioning and thought-provoking reads as well.

The Corpse with the Platinum Hair
Keep Your Friends Close
The Waiting Years
The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion
Crossing the Line
See You Tomorrow
Your Beautiful Lies
The Long Way Home
The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos
Scellé plombé
The Year of Magical Thinking
The Bull of Mithros
Devil-Devil
The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb
Mating for Life: A Novel
Fear in the Sunlight
L'Amour Actually
The Black Life
Kafka on the Shore
Tattoo Murder Case

 

 

Finally, here are the most recent books I have read, which have not been mentioned in previous posts. All of them are going to be reviewed more extensively either on this blog or on Crime Fiction Lover over the next couple of weeks.

Tore Renberg: See You Tomorrow – desperate losers in Stavanger

Frederique Molay: Crossing the Line – a medical school cadaver leaves a final surprising message

Friedrich Durrenmatt: Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman – is a policeman ever justified in setting a known criminal up for a crime he did not commit?

Paula Daly: Keep Your Friends Close – family torn apart by their own weaknesses and a ruthless manipulator

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair – locked-room mystery in a Las Vegas VIP suite

Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years – sad story of the fate of wives and mistresses in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – this was going to be my review for Women in Translation month, but sadly I am not going to get around to writing it in August.

My top crime fiction read of the month is Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home and my top read across all genres is a tie between Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

 

Recent Reading: Comfort Fiction

I’ve felt the need for some comfort reading lately. I’d embarked on rather more difficult reads (in translation), but found myself floundering, struggling to finish them. Personal circumstances made it hard for me to concentrate, so I turned to what I correctly perceived to be comfortable offerings from women writers.

Far be it from me to suggest that women’s fiction is comfort fiction. Besides, I’ve never quite understood what ‘women’s fiction’ means. Written by women? For women? Discussing women’s topics such as menstruation, childbirth and abortions? Because all of the other subjects in the world belong to both genders and are of general human value and interest.

Nor is my comfort fiction the light-hearted banter of Wooster and Jeeves, although I have been known to turn to Enid Blyton and other childhood favourites when I have a bad migraine.

No, what I mean by comfort fiction is familiar tropes, fiction from a culture where I know the rules. Fiction which does not surprise or challenge me excessively, which does not make me work hard. If novels were food, this kind of fiction overall would be a ham-and-cheese sandwich: nourishing, enjoyable and, above all, safe. [For individual food comparisons, see below.] These are not books that will haunt me and get me thinking long after I’ve finished them. They are perfect holiday fodder (set in England, Greece, France): books to enjoy, whizz through quickly and then pass on to others.

HerHarriet Lane: Her

This book is like a bag of crisps: easy to read/eat, pleasant taste in your mouth and you can’t stop until you finish the packet. Hugely relatable account of motherhood overwhelm, mourning a promising career and the small delights but also pressures of babies and toddlers… So yes, it is the account of privileged, well-educated, Guardian-reading middle classes (and I might as well stand tall and proud and acknowledge myself to be one of them… most of the time). Emma aspires to something more than her mundane domestic tangles and is starting to question if this is all there is to life. She is a little envious of the self-contained, wealthy, aspirational lifestyle that her new friend Nina seems to offer. Nina has suddenly materialised on her doorstep, ever watchful, ever helpful, unaccountably attracted to the boring company which Emma fears she is providing. Of course, we as readers know more, because we get to see the story from the two different points of view. Clever device, but it does get a bit repetitive: one or two instance of it would have been enough to give us that sense of ominous, impending doom. The devil (or horror) is in the detail here: the quiet chill, the small-scale escalation of fears. Cleverly done, if somewhat implausible.

LongFallJulia Crouch: The Long Fall

A great description of the hedonism of backpacking holidays back in 1980, when Greek island hopping still seemed quite adventurous. The author is good at capturing that sense of vulnerability, loneliness and need for camaraderie that we all have in youth, especially single young women travellers, and she also shows how easily things can spin out of control. The present-day Kate, with her glossy lifestyle and attempt to create and maintain the illusion of perfection, was rather more irritating. I am not sure what the anorexia added to the story, other than perhaps blocking her ability to think straight. The rapid switches between time frames are of course a well-known device to get you to turn the pages more and more quickly, to find out what happened and how they are going to deal with the outfall. The ending did feel a little contrived and predictable, but it was well-paced enough to keep me engaged till the end, even if not entirely satisfied. A meat and potato sort of dish, with some of the spices getting lost in the cooking.

Courtney Maum: I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

HavingFunRichard is a former avant-garde artist who is starting to taste commercial success in Paris but suspects he may have sold out. His French wife Anne-Laure is gorgeous, a successful lawyer, impeccably put-together and keeps a spotless house/cooks divinely. Yet he has been cheating on her with an American journalist, who has now left him to get married. His wife finds out about the affair and all hell breaks loose. Richard mopes and whines for most of the book, but finally sees the error of his ways and, after some self-flagellation and heart-to-heart talks with his parents and remembrance of things past, finds his way back to the marital berth. (That’s not a spoiler, surely – it is evident from the outset what the outcome will be: this is ‘Notting Hill’ or some other British rom-com film territory, after all.)

The descriptions of the boredom and routine that a marriage can fall into are cleverly done, the feeling of being brother and sister, the pit crew mentality of tending to your child: these are all well enough done. But, for heaven’s sake, they’ve only been married for seven years and have just the one child: when did that suffocating routine have time to set in? And why does Anne-Laure have to be quite so perfect to make her husband appreciate her again? She should be angry and slobbish, take to drink and sluttish housekeeping, become irrational and demanding instead of incredibly mature and wise. That would be a proper test of commitment! But you can see that this book was written by a woman and that it therefore contains a huge amount of wish-fulfillment: the erring husband who has to be exhaustively humiliated and come crawling back to his wife begging for forgiveness and attempting many pathetic but well-meant romantic gestures.

There are quite a few enjoyable things about this book which elevate it above run-of-the-mill soap opera type fiction. There are genuinely funny moments, such as the couple to whom Richard sells a painting of real sentimental value, or when his attempt to woo back his wife by drawing graffiti on the pavement outside their house results in his arrest. I enjoyed the often astute observations about the differences between American and French customs, families and lifestyles, even though it sometimes feels like they are coming straight from a magazine article.

In America, wealth is dedicated to elevating the individual experience. If you’re a spoiled child, you get a car, or a horse. You go to summer camps that cost as much as college. And everything is monogrammed, personalized, and stamped, to make it that much easier for other people to recognize your net worth. In France, great wealth is spent within the family, on thefamily. It’s not shown off, but rather spread about to make the lucky feel comfortable and safe. The French bourgeois don’t pine for yachts or garages with multiple cars. They don’t build homes with bowling alleys or spend their weekends trying to meet the quarterly food and beverage limit at their country clubs: they put their savings into a vacation home that all their family can enjoy, and usually it’s in France. They buy nice food, they serve nice wine, and they wear the same cashmere sweaters over and over for years.

Overall, I cannot help feeling that the moments of insight have been toned down, the sharp edges carefully rounded to make this book more appealing to a mass audience. Charming confectionery, but I would have preferred something a little more truthful and substantial.

 

 

 

 

Showcase Sunday: Book Haul

Inspired by Pop Culture Junkie and the Story Siren, the aim of Showcase Sunday is to highlight our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders each week. For more information about how this feature works and how to join in, see the sparkling and fizzy blog of Books, Biscuits and Tea.

This week the theme has been ‘return to old favourites or classics’ rather than new releases, all (new to me) books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed.

In the postbox

didionJoan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

How can you deal with sudden, unexpected grief and loss? A heartbreakingly honest look at the year following her husband’s sudden death and the illness of her daughter.

Joan Didion: Blue Nights

Just after the previous book was published, Didion lost her daughter too.  A haunting, passionate and almost angry memoir of her daughter and of parenting in general.

I think these two will have me in a flood of tears… so the rest of my picks for this week are very light-hearted and easy to read.

PamelaPamela Des Barres: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie.

From the woman who hung out with Jim Morrison, turned down a date with Elvis Presley and was best friends with Robert Plant and Frank Zappa, here is a witty and warm-hearted kiss-and-tell account of the rocking and swinging 60s and 70s, without any of the sleaziness or score-settling that ruins other memoirs. Something to which I suspect my good friend Nicky Wells, rockstar romance writer, will relate.

Downloaded on special offer

Anne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros

artemisAnne Zouroudi: The Feast of Artemis

Two installments in the delightful series set in the Greek islands and featuring the mysterious, always nattily-dressed Hermes Diaktoros. The taste, smells and sounds of Greece truly come to life in her books – the perfect summer read.

Irving Wallace: The Prize

I saw the film, starring Paul Newman as the rather non-plussed Nobel Prize-winning writer, but have never read the book, which sounds like good, juicy, scandalous fun. Another ideal read for the summer.

Sent for review

corpseCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Platinum Hair

I have previously read and reviewed two books in the series by this Welsh-Canadian writer, featuring the indomitable amateur detective and dedicated foodie Cait Morgan. I’m happy to say that Cathy Ace never forgets to get in touch when she has a new book out to ask me if I’d be interested in reading it. Thank you, Cathy, always a pleasure!

 

Some of the Best Review Work I’ve Done

gonefishingnotonthehighstreetFor most of the rest of this month I am forsaking reading and writing for the doubtful joys of money-making, business travel and being criticised no matter what I do (I guess that happens at home with the kids as well, but I know they don’t really mean it).

So I won’t be around to read or comment on blogs too much, nor write much here. Instead, please find enclosed a list of links to some of the best reviews I’ve done to date for the Crime Fiction Lover website. These are not straightforward book reviews (although I’m proud of them too), but slightly lengthier feature articles. Enjoy!

The Best of Dorothy Sayers for Classics in September

Holiday Reads for Most Popular Tourist Destinations

Special Report from Lyon’s Quais du Polar Crime Festival, 2013 edition

Starter Guide to French Crime Fiction 

Women Crime Writers to Watch in 2013

Revisiting Maigret for Classics in September

Five Books Which Got Me Hooked on Crime Fiction