Criminally Good Parallel Reads

No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.

Zoe says they are verrrry good reads too.

The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.

Will Carver: Good Samaritans

Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.

Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario

Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.

Doug Johnstone: Breakers

And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clich√©s and sentimentality.

G.D. Abson: Motherland

If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.

Mari Hannah: The Scandal

I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.

Mick Herron: London Rules

So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.

Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.

Crime Fiction You Can Rely On

When it’s holiday season and foggy outside, you want comfort reading. During the Christmas break, I turned to tried and tested crime novelists, whose books I was sure I would enjoy. And I wasn’t disappointed!

afteryoudieEva Dolan: After You Die

A mother stabbed to death, her disabled daughter left to die of starvation upstairs. The family had previously complained of harassment: did the police not take things seriously enough? Not a refugee or immigrant in sight here, in this third crime novel by Eva Dolan looking at life in or near Peterborough.

Investigators Zigic and Ferreira from the Hate Crimes Unit take a break from xenophobia and political corruption to investigate a case of disability-related hate crime. Dolan proves she is equally at home in a village setting as she is in the grimy town centre, and her deliberately restricted domestic canvas conveys a palpable sense of claustrophobia. As always, a tight, well-written story, with a great deal of sadness at its heart. Never one to shy away from topical discussions, this time the author looks at cyberbullying, attitudes towards disabled people and assisted death.

nightblindRagnar Jonasson: Nightblind (trans. Quentin Bates)

After describing Jonasson’s debut novel Snowblind as a ‘charming combination of influences, which feels very fresh and will appeal to those who find cosy crime too twee and Scandinavian Noir too depressing’, I was looking forward to the second book to be translated.

The publisher Orenda Books chose to translate the books out of order, so this one takes us 5 years into the future, with the main character Ari Thor now settled in the isolated town he was nervous about initially. He is back together with his girlfriend, who works at a nearby hospital, and they have a baby boy. Siglufjördur is now less cut off now with the creation of an additional tunnel, but it remains a close-knit community, shattered by the murder of a policeman. Drug-dealers, corrupt politicians, a woman on the run from an abusive partner and a mysterious inmate in a psychiatric hospital all tease us with hints and possibilities. Ari Thor remains an intriguing character, at times naive and obstinate, at other times clear-eyed and thoughtful, trying to do his best by everyone. The great strength of this series is the setting, of course: local landscapes and the quirks of a small community are impeccably described and form an integral part of the action.

silentroomMari Hannah: The Silent Room

A standalone from the creator of the Kate Daniels’ police procedural series. This one has more of a thrillerish feel to it, and of course a new set of characters, but it has the trademark depth of characterisation and good storytelling that we’ve come to expect of Mari Hannah.

The story starts with a bang: DS Matthew Ryan’s disgraced boss Jack Fenwick is ‘sprung’ from a security van hijacked by armed men. Ryan himself is suspected of aiding and abetting the fugitive, but he believes his former boss was being set up and may have been kidnapped. In an effort to prove his own innocence and find out the reasons behind Fenwick’s disappearance, he enlists the help of former colleagues who are prepared to subvert the rules. I particularly enjoyed calm, collected Special Branch officer Grace Ellis, who cannot bear the boredom of early retirement, nor the slandering of her former colleagues.

Although the trail does lead to Norway and beyond, this is not your bog-average international conspiracy thriller or all-action, all-out action man stuff – which is a good thing in my book. I am not often entranced by thrillers, because it’s all plot, fight, shoot, run, improbable coincidence… but this is much subtler and less graphic than that. There are chilling moments of real menace, though, to keep lovers of ‘normal thrillers’ happy, as well as sadness. It’s a bravura mix of action, puzzling motivations, and all of the main (and many of the secondary) characters are so well drawn, the dynamics between them completely believable.

So, if you are looking for exciting, entertaining but also thought-provoking crime fiction reads, I can heartily recommend any one of these three authors. Have you read any of their books? And do you also turn to reliable reads during the holiday season?

Fiction Pick of the Month April 2013

pick of the month 2013I read nine books in April, but am a little behind on the reviews.  It was an interesting and very varied month: I got introduced to new authors, new countries and new points of view.

Louise Penny: Dead Cold

Stefan Slupetzky: Lemmings Zorn (in German)

Mari Hannah: Deadly Deceit – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com

Marcus Malte: Garden of Love (in French) – troubling, unusual storytelling, playing with your mind and perception

Esi Edugyan: Half-Blood Blues

Martin Walker: The Crowded Grave – beautiful sense of place and an easy, fun read despite the grim subject matter (ETA separatists, terrorist plots etc.)

S.J. Bolton: Dead Scared – thrilling read about a spate of suicides amongst Cambridge students

Quentin Bates: Chilled to the Bone – review coming up on Crimefictionlover.com

Petros Markaris: Liquidations à la grecque (Greek original, read French translation) Рveridical, if depressing portrayal of a country and a city in profound crisis

Not a single bad read among them, which is unusual. And my pick of the month is the only not-quite-crime-fiction read of them all: ‘Half Blood Blues’, for the self-assured, inimitable voice of a black jazz musician. ¬†The plot was somewhat predictable and yes, there is a bit of a mystery about it, although perhaps not quite enough to call it crime fiction. ¬†It felt very much like ‘Amadeus’ and Salieri’s jealousy of the seemingly effortless genius of his younger rival, Mozart. ¬†It also very nearly won a Booker Prize, which just proves once more that genre distinctions are meaningless and that crime fiction can be very literary, and literary fiction can be very criminal too!