My reading speed seems to have gone down over the last few months, despite my endless sleepless nights. I seem to start many books and then spending simply ages not quite getting round to finishing them. I have continued reading and writing poetry, but my unofficial NaNoWriMo did not work out. Still, lack of success on the writing front usually means I find refuge in lots of reading, so it’s puzzling that this has not been the case. I have read just ten books (it may seem a lot, but quite a few of them were rather short), but I’ve been even worse when it comes to reviewing. So, with apologies, here are some very succinct reviews in some cases.
Crime fiction and psychological thrillers:
Michael J. Malone: A Suitable Lie
Not really a conventional domestic thriller, although it does turn the tables on domestic violence. It is more of a character study and very effective in describing the cycle of hope, obligation, guilt, fear, love, a whole rollercoaster of emotions.
Although the theme of sexual harassment in college is very topical and disturbing, this is a welcome change of pace to the darker, grittier type of crime fiction. A civilised campus novel, with most people able to converse elegantly with each other (although they still lie, or exaggerate or omit things).
I’ve loved some Harry Hole novels (The Redbreast, The Snowman) and been less enthusiastic about others, but he is undeniably a page-turner. I took him spontaneously out of the library to see just how he manages to build that sense of dread, foreboding, suspense. This story was perhaps a little too convoluted for my taste, but every time there was someone alone in a venue, searching for something, and they would then hear a noise, I jumped out of my skin.
I expect nothing less from Elizabeth Taylor than this beautifully observed study of the foibles of human nature, our innate selfishness, the stories we tell ourselves and others to justify our behaviour. It is a humorous and very poignant look at ageing and loneliness. What struck me most was the dissolution of family ties, how little we really come to mean to those whom we have been conditioned to think of as the nearest and dearest. There are many characters, each one instantly recognisable, yet carefully avoiding stereotypes.
My book of the month is You Will Not Have My Hate, for the emotional devastation it wreaked on me. My second choice, which also managed to squeeze a tear or two out of me, is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
So, cheery Christmas reads next? I don’t really like ‘seasonal books’ but I’d better find something less gloomy or else my insomnia will never improve! And that Netgalley list needs to go down as well!
You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…
Margot Kinberg: B Very Flat
Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).
Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur. It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.
Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)
Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).
This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.
Jo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)
I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!
Augusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)
Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!
Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest
This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.
This is the second part of the summary of panel debates which I attended, and also the final part of the Quais du Polar 2016 posts. You will be relieved to hear that, no doubt, but I really have saved the best till last. You can also listen to all of the panel discussions (in French and English) via this link. You can also read some more scoops about all of these authors on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
Writing Series: Olivier Norek (winner of this year’s QdP prize with Victor Coste), Arnaldur Indridason (Inspector Erlendur), Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole), Sara Gran (Claire DeWitt), Deon Meyer (Benny Griessel), Craig Johnson.
This was in many ways billed as the ‘Dream Panel’, with all the star names of internatonal crime fiction, but in actual fact it was disappointing, because there were too many panellists, there was not enough time to go into any depth and it was a bit of a PR exercise for some of them. The panel was split between those who had always intended to write a series (Sara Gran, Olivier Norek) and those who had started out with just one book (Indridadur, Nesbo, Craig Johnson) or even with a different character (Deon Meyer). Here are the more amusing or memorable quotes:
JN: I chose the name Harry Hole because that was the person that my mother used to scare us with if we weren’t home by 8. Many years later, I did meet the Hole she was referring to, and he was scary even though he was very old by then. As I shook hands with him, I kept saying: ‘But it’s not 8 o’clock yet.’
CJ: I created this overweight, overage, overdepressed character – just like all of us here – well, except for those skinny ones at the other end. He’s not an alcoholic – yes, he drinks a lot of beer, but it’s such bad beer that you can’t get drunk on it, you just get fat. And the way I keep him from aging too quickly is that each book is set in a different season of the same year, so he ages four times as slowly as me…
AI: Erlendur is a bit of a strange name in Iceland, and that was deliberate, because I wanted him to feel foreign, alien, out of time and place. There is an advantage to having Iceland as a background – we have long, dark winters and short, cold summers, and a murder every two years, so I had to get Erlendur to reopen a lot of cold cases. Of course he is depressed and haunted – happy people have no history, it would be the end of the story for writers.
DM: I was adamant I did not want a series with the same guy being put through hell in every book, but Benny just insinuated himself back into the story. So sure was I he was only going to appear in one chapter, that I made him drunk in the first book and then had to work with that cliche. But I don’t want to take him too much out of Cape Town – he shares all my passion for that most beautiful city in the world.
SG: I wish I could claim great foresight and cleverness in choosing Claire DeWitt’s name, but it only occurred to me much later that Clarity and Wit or Wisdom are the paths she seeks in life and detection.
ON: Victor is the name of my younger brother, and my character is morose because he is like a sponge absorbing all the dark atmosphere of his experience with criminals. I was exactly like that when I was a police officer, working in Dept. 93, which is the most notorious in France, with twenty times the crime rates of other places. Yet at the same time it’s a lab of creativity – the birthplace of French rap, streetdance and graffiti art.
An Hour with David Peace
This was the best session I attended: perhaps because it gave us the opportunity to explore things in more depth, but no doubt also because he is such a thoughtful and modest author, focusing far more on the work itself than on his own person. Here are just a few of the interesting things he said:
About reading aloud as part of the writing process:
Yes, I always do that eventually. In the case of ‘Red or Dead’, I was also fortunate enough to have tapes of Bill Shankly speaking, which his ghostwriter lent to me, so that enabled me to get a feel for his rhythm of speaking and thinking. But I also wanted to use repetition and ritual to show how he made the team effective, through constant daily effort and training every day. Besides, I want readers to read with their whole bodies, not just their head, so I try to make it a living experience for them, to make them feel they are part of the text.
About always writing about losers and underdogs:
I suppose I do, retrospectively one might say I’ve written nine books about failure. But that’s because I believe that a team learns more in a defeat than in a victory, and I try to understand who we are as human beings in my books, and for most of us it’s a history of defeat, loss and failure.
About writing social commentary:
I see more of what I do as painting portraits of a certain time and place. I don’t differentiate that much between fiction and non-fiction – you can never get away from the subjective, history is dishonest if it presents itself as objective and true. There are always multiple narratives, and I try to reclaim those stories that often get lost. I find John Dos Passos a great inspiration for recreating living history, and White Jazz by James Ellroy also succeeds in doing that – it’s one of my favourite novels and I dream someday of writing something that is half as good as it. Crime is interesting because of what is says about the society and time in which it took place. I have no interest in serial killers – he is the least interesting aspect of a story, I am more interested in how the victims became victims, how the deaths and fear affects people and the investigators.
About his political beliefs:
I don’t think anybody is interested in that. [Upon being told they are] I feel like a taxi driver sounding off about things… Yes, I am a socialist as part of my DNA. I just believe that everybody is equal, a very simplistic view of socialism, and we should all behave as such. We just choose not to do it. The working class community I come from, built around certain industries, no longer exists. I don’t intend to show a nostalgic picture of it – there was plenty wrong with it too – but I think people nowadays are yearning for a return to basic decency.
Old World, New World: Parker Bilal (Egypt/Sudan), Colin Niel (French Guyana), Caryl Ferey (Argentina/Chile), Nairi Nahapetian (Iran), Olivier Truc (Lapland)
The panel moderator was late for this session, so Caryl jumped in and pretended to replace him. This was a very good-humoured and fun panel, perhaps because most of them knew each other and everybody spoke French (including the very cosmopolitan Parker Bilal).
PB: Makana is a Sudanese exiled in Cairo and that POV of an outsider is very useful. I try to paint a picture of the region and look at the roots of the Islamic crisis we see nowadays.
CF: I am largely self-taught, never listened to much in school, so I have to really read up on things once I decide upon a country to set my novels in [he has set books in NZ, South Africa, Argentina and now Chile.] I love to read those things that no one else bothers about: Ph. D. theses, geographical and historical texts, and then go and visit those countries and be able to ask better question.
NN: I came to France as a child, but after 15 years I was allowed back into Iran and started doing factual reports on it (as a journalist). But I found myself veering more and more into fiction – especially once I was no longer allowed back into the country. I try to combine the Persian style of storytelling with about 1% of facts – the opposite of journalism, which is about the maximum of facts. Of course, in Iran there is the ‘moral police’ in addition to the normal police, and I try to describe daily life, far removed from the image you get of the country from the Western media.
OT: I’ve always been attracted to meeting people and having in-depth conversations, but my editor would never agree to my immersing myself in the field for 6 months. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do some documentaries about the Sami people and about the reindeer police. Fiction appeals far more to emotions than reason. It’s not truth itself which is important, but the texture of reality. You have to use the facts in service to your story.
CN: I worked for many years in French Guyana, a fascinating region with many ethnicities, 50% unemployment, booming population growth, cocaine trade constantly recruiting people and refugees from the civil war in Suriname being rejected by most of the country. The French administration refused to call them refugees: they were called people temporarily displaced from Suriname, as if that label made things better. I rely on facts and use a lot of sources other than personal experience, but ultimately it all has to be credible rather than true. We have to feel close to the characters described, even if they are living in very different conditions from us. I really want to present a mosaic of the cultures and characters inhabiting that territory and how much more complex things are than the easy stereotypes we like to use about a country. You might call my technique ‘pointillism’, presenting a gradual portrait of a country, without taking sides or judging or trying to prove something – that’s not the scope of fiction.
Almost a month ago exactly, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft of my novel. I printed it out and set it aside – yes, literally in a drawer – to marinade in its juices until I felt ready to tackle it again. Meanwhile, the end of school revelries, birthdays, professional obligations, family demands swept over me, pulling me under, all but drowning me in waves of joy and salt, of midsummer madness and unknowable sadness.
But now it’s just me and those 150+ pages of single-spaced writing eyeballing each other. I already know I have to take out some scenes, add others, move things around. I know I will wince when I see redundant adjectives and adverbs, will frown at repetitions, will fiercely attack typos and careless grammar. I am sure so much will escape me still…
And in the meantime, I continue to read and review crime fiction. Many writers say that they stop reading in their genre when they are writing a book, but I’ve been writing this book for 12 years now! Still, the reason for avoidance – to steer clear of contagion and envy – is becoming obvious. Gone are the days when I could read a thriller purely for fun. Now, if it’s a bestseller, like Simon Kernick or JoNesbø, I wish I could have that pace in plotting (even if they are light years removed from my own style). If it’s the wit and prose that win me over, like Stav Sherez or Patricia Highsmith, I flame up in desire to achieve that standard. And if it’s poorly written, I wallow in pools of self-pity: that I am unlikely to get published, when there is so much crime fiction already out there.
Yet none of these writers, admired or envied, are there with me. None of my friends, online or off, can be there with me. I step into the ring of fire, all alone. I know nothing about grilling except for the eating. I probably have the wrong weapons with me: my glasses, my pens and my notebooks. This time, it’s a battle to the death – and only one of us can emerge victorious.
Inspired by fellow crime addict Kerrie from the Mysteries in Paradise website, I compiled a list of all the books I had read in June. Imagine my surprise when I realised I’d actually read a lot more than I expected, probably thanks to Crime Fiction Lover, who keeps sending books my way to review. Yes, the vast majority of them are crime fiction:
Jo Nesbø: The Snowman
Jo Nesbø: The Redeemer
Jo Nesbø: Headhunters
Camilla Läckberg: The Stonecutter
Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland
Sophie Hannah: A Room Swept White
Victoria Hislop: The Thread
Janet Hubbard: Champagne: The Farewell
Magdalena Nabb: Death of an Englishman
Mari Jungstedt: The Dead of Summer
Anna Jansson: Killer Island
D.A. Serra: Primal
Some of them have already been reviewed on this blog or on the Crime Fiction Lover site. You may notice a certain repetitiveness: Jo Nesbø features a lot, because there will be a special on him on the Crime Fiction Lover website later in July. But which one was my pick of the month? Well, it was a close call between ‘Primal’ (review and author interview will be coming up soon) and ‘Headhunters’. In the end, ‘Headhunters’ won out, because the set-up was so absurd, the humour so wicked, the characters so vile… There was more than a touch of Patricia Highsmith about it, I felt. Now I can’t wait to see the Morten Tyldum film version (perhaps less so the upcoming American version).