Two Crime Novels for #WITMonth

Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.

That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.

Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce

Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.

Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?

Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates

This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.

The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.

As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.

So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.

 

 

January Is Good for Thrillers

When the nights are long and cold, what could be better than to snuggle up with very dark, unsettling thrillers?  No? Maybe it’s just me then… And I don’t even feel the compulsion to check that all windows and doors are locked afterwards.  Well, not more than two or three times, anyway!

I will spend more time reviewing the Marseille Trilogy (which is part of my Global Reading Challenge) in a later post, but here are some other suspenseful thrillers I read this month.  My scoring system is perhaps overly strict: 5 star is something that only a handful of books ever, ever get; 4 star means I think you should really, really get your hands on it; 3 stars means it’s a good, solid, enjoyable book; and 2 is OK, average, nothing out of the ordinary.  At least you know you won’t get a waterfall of meaningless 5 stars here! 

Book cover Chris Ewan1) Chris Ewan: Safe House

The only book I have come across so far set on the Isle of Man, it makes good use of its location (the isolation, the village gossip).  It starts with a simple puzzle, which then develops into a very convoluted plot. Plumber and part-time motor racing champion Rob Hale has a bad motorcycle accident.  He is concerned about the fate of his beautiful blonde co-rider, Lena, whom he had just recently met on an emergency boiler repair job in a remote cottage in the forest. However, the paramedics and police assure him that he was the only person found at the scene of the accident.  He is convinced he did not imagine the girl and uncovers a very complex tale of conspiracy.  The twists and turns keep on coming – some of them I guessed fairly early on (I have a bit of a phobia of secret services and can spot them coming from miles away), others did catch me by surprise.  The story does have rather brutal scenes, and the author seems to enjoy giving blow-by-blow accounts of horrific events.  Cleverly done, exciting to read, but a bit too vivid for my squeamishness.  My favourite bits were the more domestic scenes with Rob’s Granddad and dog. 3 stars.

Book Cover2) Quentin Bates: Cold Comfort

This is the second rather than the first book in the series set in Iceland, featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur (a.k.a. Gunna). But that doesn’t matter at all: it’s all about atmosphere and characters in this series.  Gunna is tasked with two cases simultaneously: the manhunt for an escaped convict, and the murder of a gorgeous TV presenter.  She soon begins to suspect that the two events may be related.  Set against a backdrop of the near-total collapse of a country, together with its banking system, the story is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. This is not Scandinavian noir, but has a very tongue-in-cheek English humour about it (the author is English, although he lived for many years in Iceland).  Gunna is a delightful, down-to-earth character, a refreshing change from all the tormented detectives and heavy drinkers populating the northern hemisphere.  The many complicated (and similar-sounding) Icelandic names may pose a bit of a memory challenge, but it was a fun, easy read for an afternoon of similar meteorological conditions to Icelandic winters. 3 stars.

TheA263) Pascal Garnier: The A26

You may remember that Pascal Garnier was one of my major discoveries for 2012.  I completely fell in love with two of his novels translated and published by Gallic Books: ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s the Pain?’  So I was very much looking forward to the third book that Gallic are just about to launch: they kindly sent me an advance copy. However, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it is still impeccably translated and beautifully presented by the publisher, the story itself did not captivate me as much as the previous two.  Yet, to all intents and purposes, this one fits more neatly into the ‘thriller’ category.  There are more bodies, there are strange characters, there is suspense…  But there is less humour than in his other books and I found myself unable to care deeply for the two main characters, the agoraphobic Yolande and her long-suffering brother Bernard.  Perhaps if I had read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more: it certainly has all of the other Garnier characteristics I enjoy: the noir feel, the effortless and fluid style.  But I suppose my expectations were so high, that this one just could not live up to them. 3 stars.

4) Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner

IntoDarkestCornerThis was the scariest of the thrillers I read this month.  It proves that scary can be done in a much more subtle and chilling way, because the atmosphere turns darker gradually, much like Cathy’s relationship with Lee.  The descriptions of domestic abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so realistic, so gruelling, yet they never feel gratuitous.  Certainly not a book to read when you are alone in the house!  The multiple  time frames and similarity of set-ups did puzzle me a little at first, but you soon get into the rhythm of things.  A psychological mind-twister and page-turner, I was hooked, even though I kept thinking I knew what would happen next.  It also shows just how complicated abusive relationships can be, and makes us question how we would react ourselves in a similar situation.  Hard to believe this is a debut novel, as it feels very accomplished and self-assured. 4 stars.