Return to Favourite Authors: Simenon and Rankin

Christmas is also about the comfort of favourite authors, who are not going to let you down, no matter what. I turned to two ‘reliables’, each of whom I discovered at a different stage in my life: Simenon in secondary school, Ian Rankin when I first moved to the UK.

maigretdeadmanGeorges Simenon: Maigret’s Dead Man (transl. David Coward)

Maigret is humouring a paranoid matriarch in his office, when a man calls his direct line, in great fear for his life. Not entirely convinced by the man’s confusing story, the good inspector does send one of his men over to the bar where the man claims to be calling from. Alas, too late, the bird has flown. He calls again from somewhere else, and as Maigret and the reader follow the man from bar to café to bar, we start to wonder just what kind of a set-up this is. Then the man is found dead. Who was he and what was he afraid of?

Maigret sets the investigation in motion from his sick-bed initially, so we get to see more of his fellow officers, the prosecuting judge and the other police force that is so typical of the intricate French system. We also get to see a lot more of the patient, protective and discreet Madame Maigret. Above all, however, we are privy to the musings and gut instinct of Maigret himself, although the author does not always play fair. He withholds vital pieces of information and springs them upon us during the interrogation of suspects. It’s more complex and longer than the usual Maigret novels (which are usually of novella size) and there are hints of Simenon’s darker non-Maigret novels in the atmosphere.

The recent TV adaptation makes the links between the Picardie farm murders and the hunted person much clearer from the start, but loses a little in the psychological depth of the Slovakian criminal gang and Maigret’s handling of them.

This is a new translation of the novel, in the highly covetable remastered Penguin Classics edition. It sounds quite modern, without being jarring, and is perhaps slightly less word-for-word faithful than the 1950s translation by Jean Stewart.

ratherbedevilIan Rankin: Rather Be the Devil

Rebus is getting restless in his retirement: merely walking the dog and worrying about his health, even being in a relationship with forensic scientist Deborah Quant, is not quite enough to occupy his time. He reopens a cold case and talks about it to a former police officer who had been investigating it a few years back. When that man is found dead, Rebus becomes convinced that the case is somehow linked to the very current criminal gang turf wars and money-laundering cases that Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are investigating.

This is an entertaining read, with the usual tussles between Siobhan and her former boss, plenty of laconic humour, and an uneasy sort of truce with Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s former nemesis.  Fox also emerges as a more complete and haunted character than I had previously given him credit for. The case is reasonably tangled and then untangled. However, there is one major reservation I have. If you can ignore the way in which Rebus (and his colleagues too) seem to ignore proper procedure and commit all sorts of illegalities (such as impersonating a police officer, walking off with case files and photocopying them etc. – all the unlikely scenarios which annoyed me about TV series such as ‘Marcella’, for instance), you will enjoy it. It is a suspension of disbelief too far for me: fun enough for a one-off, but I don’t think it will be plausible to see Rebus in a next outing.

However, the writing is as sharp and economical as usual. It’s just enough amount of detail to really convey the landscape, society and characters populating Edinburgh and Glasgow. A master class in crime writing, just like Simenon.






Catching Up with Book Reviews: Crime

I’ve fallen far behind with my book reviews, so I will try to remedy that with a quick-fire post containing no less than four reviews of crime novels written by women and set in a variety of locations.

BrasoveanuRodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: Omul de la capătul firului (The Man at the End of the Line)

The ‘grande dame’ of Romanian crime fiction has been compared to Agatha Christie, but in this book at least she shows more similarities to Dorothy Sayers. It features an infuriating, yet charismatic and larger than life main investigator called (appropriately enough) Minerva, who cannot hide her elitism and know-it-all sentiment (she used to be a high-school teacher) this is great fun, though a bit elitist. It was written in the 1970s, so we not only have calls from phone-booths but also Communist censorship in Romania. So, with a topic of espionage and counterespionage, you might expect it to be breast-thumpingly ‘patriotic’ and ideological, but it is quite nuanced and interesting. Not at all what I expected.

atticroomLinda Huber: The Attic Room

Nina’s mother has just died and their content little three-generation-of-women household on the isle of Arran (including Nina’s daughter Naomi) has been disrupted. Then Nina finds out she has received an inheritance just outside London from a man she doesn’t know. Could this really be her long-lost father, as the solicitor seems to believe? But then, why did her mother claim that he died when she was a young child? As Nina gets sucked into her family’s history and dark secrets, the creepy house she has inherited starts to play a big part in her feelings of discomfort and fear.

There is a good story hiding in there somewhere, but I found the plot somewhat predictable and the style a bit long-winded. However, the characterisations are generally strong. I enjoyed the burgeoning relationship between Nina and her solicitor, and her concerns about her daughter.

burntpaperGilly Macmillan: Burnt Paper Sky

Another child in danger, another domestic thriller set-up, but what made this one stand out from the morass of frankly quite average recent surfeit of offerings in this area was the focus on ‘judgement by the press and social media’. Rachel is a single mother, still struggling to come to terms with abandonment and divorce, and she pays dearly for one brief moment of allowing her eight-year-old son to run ahead to the rope-swing in the woods just outside Bristol. She does not live up to the media’s expectations of what a distraught mother should look like or behave, and she is demonised and hounded by strangers and acquaintances alike. Helen Fitzgerald in ‘The Cry’ also touches on this topic, but here it becomes the main focus of the book. We also see the point of view of the investigating team, and how they too struggle to believe the mother.

Strong descriptions, sensitive use of language and great interactions between the characters make this a very promising debut novel for me. Heart-wrenching for any mother, I can promise you, so I had to read it very quickly to find out the worst (or not).

cherryblossomFran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder

The cherry blossom is rather tangential to this story, but the Japanese setting is not, so it was a real pleasure to read it in Japan. It’s the first in a series featuring amateur detective Josie Clark, an Englishwoman trying to survive in the Japanese corporate world in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese and has friends, and she is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue (an all-woman cabaret show with a huge following in Japan). When one of the helpers at the fan club meetings is found dead just outside the theatre, everyone wants to keep a safe distance and let the police investigate. Yet Josie can’t help feeling that the police are just going through the motions, so she uses her Western rebellion and curiosity to dig a little deeper herself. With the help of her wise, if scruffy-looking mentor Tanaka-san, she unravels the mystery in this entertaining ‘cosy in an exotic location’. Perfect for armchair travellers, and reminiscent of Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only in Tokyo’ series.

So there you have it: travelled to Romania, Scotland, Bedfordshire, Bristol and Japan lately, how about you? Coming up: a physical trip to Quebec, so I can feel another bout of Louise Penny coming on… I’ve been trying to find some Quebecois writers in French at the library here, but no luck so far. Nelly Arcan, Marie-Claire Blais, Elise Turcotte, Gabrielle Roy – there are lots of wonderfully subversive women writers from that province.


Glasgow and Laidlaw: As Tough as It Gets

LaidlawJust in case you thought I was turning away from a life of crime, here is a review of the first book in the Laidlaw trilogy. It took me a while to discover McIlvaney (for a while I mixed him up with his son, also a thriller writer), but I will be reading a lot more by him. Not suprisingly, he writes poetry too!

It’s impossible to read crime fiction in the UK without stumbling across William McIlvaney sooner or later. Crime writers rave about him (readers too, but it’s interesting that he is most appreciated by other writers, a specialist read if you like). He is considered the father of ‘Tartan Noir’ and his Laidlaw trilogy has been described as almost Camus-like in its focus not only on the ills of society but also our inner torments. But there is quite a poignant personal story there too. In spite of his obvious qualities, the author’s novels were out of print just 2-3 years ago. Luckily, publisher Canongate had the vision to see that his novels describe not just the 1970s but also our troubled times perfectly. McIlvaney’s star has risen and risen since they started reissuing his work.

The story is fairly simple: a young girl goes out dancing in the evening and is found raped and murdered in a park. The girl’s father is out for vengeance, Laidlaw and his new partner are out to find the killer, and a bevy of Glasgow tough guys and gangsters are involved either in covering up or in avenging the crime. But I wouldn’t read this book for the plot – it’s all about atmosphere.

It took just one or two paragraphs to establish that I was reading crime fiction quite unlike any other I’ve encountered. McIlvaney has a style all his own: not just noir, but also philosophical and very dense. Laidlaw is the knight errant of the Crime Squad: a hero who can be downright annoying at times, as his newly assigned and fresh-faced young partner Harkness discovers. What he brings to his life and career is constant doubt as to what he is doing, and still trying to do it well. ‘Throw him a question as casual as a snowball and he answered with an avalanche.’  Laidlaw has profound compassion and love for the people in the less salubrious areas of Glasgow. A devoted father, he chides his wife for caring just for her own children, not for all children.

Aside from the striking main character, what I really loved about the book is how it brings to life the contradictions of the city of Glasgow in the 1970s: ”home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park’, discrimination against Catholics and homosexuals, while hardened criminals preach a culture of violence, lots of drinking and being suspicious of the police. Compassion vs. division is at the heart of this book, us vs. them, dark side vs. light inside us all. We are shown the contrast between Laidlaw’s murky reality and the world of moral certainties and clear black/white divisions of Laidlaw’s colleague Milligan. Laidlaw may hate him, but he is more complex and better than he is given credit for. At some point, he says: ‘I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms?’ Laidlaw doesn’t have these certainties to protect him, so he is more compassionate but also more vulnerable.

I did find the Glaswegian dialect rather hard going after a while, but the bits in the author’s own voice (or in Laidlaw’s voice) are superbly written and very quotable.

I’m linking this to the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, for Scotland and Europe, as it’s Tartan Noir at its finest.

Feverish Amounts of Reading

If there’s one upside to being ill (and having that illness drag out so long that you can no longer find anything amusing to tweet about!), it’s that you are forced to lie in bed and do nothing more strenuous than read.  So I am ahead of myself in all of my reading goals, although not quite up to date with the reviews.  Or with any other interesting blog post themes which I had planned.

Anyway, on to some simple arithmetic (my brain is still not able to cope with anything more strenuous).

I have read 10 books so far in February, all but two of them while I was ill:

1) Linda Gruchy: Death in Spiggs’s Wood – have reviewed it for Crime Fiction Lover

2, 3 and 4 I wrote about  in my review of four women writers  (I read the remaining one back in December)

5) Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast – I will review in more depth for the Translation Challenge

6) Fred Vargas: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec – I have been a Fred Vargas fan for years and finally got to read and review one in translation (review will be up shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Borisvian7) Boris Vian: Les morts ont tous la même peau – (The Dead All Have the Same Skin Colour)

This is one complicated, angsty, nihilistic and multitalented writer (and also jazz musician, songwriter, playwright, journalist, inventor) – the kind that France seemed to produce so many good exemplars of in the early to mid twentieth century.  Troubled by his lack of financial success or critical recognition as a writer, he wrote a series of potboilers under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, in which his love of American crime fiction is evident.  In this book he is both celebrating and subverting the ‘hardboiled’ genre of writing.   It’s the story of Dan, a nightclub bouncer, who has kept his black roots well hidden and passes for white in a racist society. When his (black) brother Richard appears out of the blue to threaten his happy little status quo, the life he has built together with his blonde wife Sheila and their son, Dan goes on a rampage to protect himself and his lifestyle.  A disturbing and violent book, it nevertheless raises questions about identity, how we choose to define ourselves and how we respond to social pressures.

8) Franck Thilliez: Fractures

A psychological thriller by one of France’s most popular up-and-coming writers of  ‘polar’ (crime fiction).  He specialises in thrillers with a medical slant to them (either mental health issues or deadly viruses or bio-experiments) and is set to become better known in English-speaking countries too, as one of his books ‘Syndrome E’ has just been translated and optioned for film rights in the US. ‘Fractures’ is perhaps not one of his best, but a riveting read nevertheless (despite quite a few gruesome scenes) and with an interesting subject: multiple personality disorder.

Good Deed9) Steve Christie: Good Deed

This is a debut novel, a madcap chase through most of Scotland’s cityscapes.  It starts out with a simple enough mistake: Lucy Kennedy stops for a coffee at a service station just outside Dundee and leaves her car unlocked. Two opportunistic thieves steal something from her car. So far, so normal. Except that Lucy is a drug mule for a very unpleasant Scottish crime lord and his even less scrupulous fixer, Vince. And they will stop at nothing to get back their stolen goods: 2 kilos of pure cocaine. Detective Inspector Ronnie Buchanan of the Grampian police in Aberdeen is soon engaged in the man-hunt of his life, following the trail of Vince’s devastation and mind-games all over Scotland.

The plot twists and turns relentlessly, with lots of violent scenes, narrow escapes and tricks that the two main protagonists play on each other. Perhaps there is almost too much plot in here, a natural mistake for many first-time novelists, and this can be at the expense of the characters.  All in all, an amusing read (reminiscent of Colin Bateman’s ‘Divorcing Jack’), but could have done with some more judicious editing.

10) Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Down Under

MurderDownUnderMy contribution to the Global Reading Challenge for Australia, this classic crime novel introduced me to the philosophical, patient and methodical half-caste Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police.  The inspector uses his holiday to help out one of his protegés from the Western Australia Police and investigate the disappearance of a farmer whose car is found abandoned near the rabbit fence of the large government wheat farm.  Bony goes undercover as a farm labourer, to encourage people to talk freely to him, and soon finds himself involved in a second mystery, that of the enigmatic Mr. Jelly and his lovely daughters. The claustrophobia of a small farming community is perfectly rendered, although I found the casual description of pervasive racism of the 1930s and of the death penalty a bit shocking.

I had never heard of Bony before, but he completely charmed and captivated me. The author does tend to raise him to almost mythical status and give him all the virtues of both races: the wisdom, patience and close observation of nature (tracking skills) of the Aborigines, as well as the analytical abilities and eloquence of a highly-educated white man. Yet the story still feels fresh today, proving that you don’t have to use ‘heart in your mouth’ moments on every page, but can instead take time to build well-rounded characters.

One final thought to conclude this rather rambling post: does the way we feel (physically and mentally) have an impact on how we read books? I found, for instance, that I had enough fever and wild imaginings in my head, and so had no desire to encounter any more hectic pacing and convoluted plot lines. Instead, I was drawn to humour, well-drawn characters and a more cosy atmosphere. Comfort read, perhaps?