The Pressure of Annual Releases

I have recently read three very different crime novels, which left me intrigued, delighted and frustrated (in that order). They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times. Because I would rather wait two-three years if it means a more thoughtful, original piece of work is produced, rather than a cut and paste job with stock situations, cardboard characters and clichés ahoy.

This refers of course to the book which disappointed me, which used all the possible tricks to turn a rather ordinary, overdone story into something suspenseful: an unnecessary dual timeline solely designed to increase suspense, but feeling unnatural and irritating; withholding of vital information to create plot twists; an utterly pointless final twist with little bearing on the story; an annoying, whining main character whose behaviour is exaggerated and lacks credibility. Yet there were certain sharp observations throughout the book which made me think the author had talent, but had hurriedly scribbled down a half-baked domestic noir story to satisfy the current appetite for that sub-genre and the publisher’s demands.

The book which intrigued me was Andrée A. Michaud’s Bondrée (Boundary, in English, translated by Donald Winkler). Michaud is Québécois and this novel is very precisely set in time and place: a summer community on the US/Canadian border of Lake Boundary during the summer of 1967. Life seems idyllic: barbecues sizzling, children playing on the beach, families relaxing at weekends, even if the men have to go back to the city to work during the week. Radios are playing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and two teenage girls are flaunting their gorgeous tanned bodies and long curls to confuse and delight the male population of the little holiday enclave. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan are precocious and slightly too forward. In a year or two they would be destined to become bitches, so the gossip goes, but this is their summer of glory, with a third girl Frenchie Lamar trying to keep up with them, but not quite succeeding to emulate their charisma. Meanwhile, twelve-year old French speaker Andrée is entranced by these American teenagers, the sweets they share with her because they think she is cute. She tries to repeat the words they say ‘Littoldolle’ or ‘chiz’ or ‘foc’ (which her mother tries to avoid explaining to her by discussing seals – in French  ‘phoques’ – instead). She is the main narrator, but it is not really a child’s voice, but a scene remembered from the distant past. We also catch glimpses of the story from other points of view.

Then Zaza is found dead, her limbs torn apart in an old bear trap overgrown with vegetation. An unfortunate accident, so everyone thinks, and the holiday-makers band together to search for all remaining animal traps which a strange old hermit called Pierre Landry had set up around the area before he died. But when Sissy suffers a similar fate and her beautiful red hair is cut off, the community has to acknowledge the horrible truth:

A killer was on the loose in the shadow of our cottages, one who had made a zombie out of Bob, and etched into my father’s face lines that hadn’t been there before, outward signs of a kind of stupor, as if he’d received a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head. And that’s exactly what had happened in the clearing, where a dozen men, along with him, had been blindsided by a mysterious weapon.

Stan Michaud is the American policeman who has to investigate the case, helped by Brian Larue, a bilingual single dad vacationing there, who helps with the translating. The story is very slow-moving, perhaps too much so for avid mystery fans, but it is also a subtle coming-of-age story and a description of an Anglo-French community on the cusp of modernity yet stuck in a primeval forest full of ghosts. I was fully caught up in the utterly believable atmosphere, full of nuances and poetic language. The translation did occasionally feel clunky, so I may well look out for this in French. It won the Prix des lecteurs (Readers’ Prize) at the Quais du polar in Lyon this year.

Finally, the book which delighted me is the follow-up to Susie Steiner’s debut, which I reviewed recently. In Persons Unknown, Manon is back in Cambridgeshire, together with her unconventional family: her adopted son Fly, her sister Ellie and her young nephew Solly. She is sidelined somewhat, working on cold cases, but she hopes it gives Fly the opportunity to grow up in a more peaceful environment, where he won’t be treated as a criminal simply because of his race.

But then a man is stabbed to death outside a park near the railway station and the identity of the victim makes it impossible for Manon to ignore the case. Things go from bad to worse and she has to prove that her nearest and dearest cannot possibly have anything to do with this horror. Or could they? This seamless blend of personal and professional is Steiner’s great strength, the way in which she makes us question all of our easy assumptions about family, motherhood and love. Each character seems well-rounded, with real depth, especially Manon, who feels like a frazzled yet slightly more energetic version of ourselves. The target audience for this is the reader who enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of women detectives such as Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series (although I like this one more) or the feisty Sarah Lancashire character in Happy Valley.

Now you may say I am contradicting myself, since Persons Unknown has followed very swiftly on the tail of Missing, Presumed. However, it feels to me like this was a single, complex story that the author had already envisaged, and which she brought out in two installments. It all fits together very well, and there are hints that the third novel also builds on this story. For the sake of letting stories breathe and develop organically, however, I would ask publishers to ease the calendar pressure and allow authors to take as long as they need to make their novels as good as they can.

 

 

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March Reading Summary

The reading mojo is on its way back this month, although it has been quite heavily loaded on the crime fiction side of things. Out of the 15 books I read this month, 10 were by women writers and 12 were crime-related. That is the sort of comfort reading I crave, although I have also ventured into self-help, true crime and historical fiction.

Women on the cliff of change:

Katie Kitamura: A Separation – even this has a mystery at its heart, although of course it is about much more than death.  When the narrator’s husband goes missing in Greece, she does not have the heart to admit to her in-laws that they have been separated for six months, so she travels there to find him… and in the process finds herself.  A full review to come on Shiny New Books.

Rachel Cusk: Transit – Kitamura’s book reminded me very much of Cusk’s Outline, so I moved on to the second in the trilogy. This is also a series of vignettes about the people the narrator encounters as she sets to buy and renovate a property in London. A more subtle, less self-centred book than Kitamura’s.

Marie Darrieussecq: Men – read this one for France in the #EU27Project, about a French actress’s ill-fated passion for a black actor/film director as they prepare to film in the Congo.

Women in crime:

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

Andrea Carter: Treacherous Strand – crime solved by a female solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – urban thriller set in hipsterland Shoreditch – gulped it down in one night, review to come on CFL

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

Non-Fiction:

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?   – Psychologist Lerner examines why it’s so hard to offer a heartfelt apology and how to repair relationships and restore trust. Witty, candid and with some great personal examples, it’s a delight to read even for those who shun self-help books.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief – Deliberate revenge or tragic accident? Garner examines the court case of Robert Farquharson, who in 2005 drove into a dam with his three children. I expected this to be more of an examination of the background and family life which led to the tragic event described, but it really is a detailed account of the trial (plus appeal and retrial) and the reactions of the author and the people around her to the unfolding of procedures. Interesting, because it shows how subjective the law can be in court, how easily swayed public opinion (or the jury’s opinion). A great companion piece to Little Deaths.

Books for Review:

Matt Johnson: Deadly Game

Dylan H. Jones: Anglesey Blue

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road

Just for fun:

Stephen May: Stronger Than Skin – psychological thriller from the man’s perspective, which makes a nice change. I admit that one of the two time frames, the Cambridge setting of the 1990s, played a big part in my decision, although I did not feel truly transposed into that world. A story of obsessive young love and more mature realisation of responsibilities and limitations. I did enjoy the poke at the pretentiousness of middle-class, middle-aged life, in particular through the unconventional character of Lulu, the photographer girlfriend of a former pupil of the main character Mark Chadwick. Goodness, that sounds complicated – I should have started that sentence elsewhere!

Terry Pratchett: Snuff – even when I pick something amusing from the library, there is still a crime element involved, as Sam Vimes finds a corpse waiting for him when he goes on holiday in the countryside.

 

Seeking Comfort in Crime Fiction (1): Susie Steiner

In times of unrest, I always find comfort in a few well-chosen and lovingly recommended books. I turn to favourite authors and locations like the Quebec of Louise Penny, or I try out something completely new that I’ve seen other authors enthuse about, like Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series. Of course, poetry is always there to nourish and enlighten me. This is the first of three posts about comfort reading.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

From the blurb: Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

When I first read the blurb of this book, I thought: ‘Not for me. Sounds far too similar to far too many recent releases, nothing special to attract me.’ How wrong I was! Luckily, I got intrigued enough by an exchange of tweets between Sarah Perry, Adele Geras and others to give the author a chance – and I am so glad I did.

It breaks all the rules of crime fiction with which agents and publishers hit us around the head. It does not start with a dead body, in the heart of the action. It has multiple viewpoints, not all of which take the story forward, but merely add nuances to it. It focuses on the characters and the private lives of the investigators more than on the plot. The plot ‘twist’ is not that surprising and the villains are not that hateful. And yet, and yet…

It is great fun to read: clever, humorous, sarcastic at times, sharply observant of human nature with all its foibles. It is Jane Austen writing crime thrillers – and not at all of the cosy sort. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is immediately relatable – not dysfunctional, not a drunk, not heavily traumatised, but just starting to feel the pangs of middle age and the fear of loneliness. Her dating mishaps are both sad but also hilariously cringe-worthy. And the author pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Cambridge students or London professionals with connections.

It’s an unusual police procedural, because it really takes its time to discuss department funding and interactions between team members, rather than rely on clichéed shortcuts. It felt more like the TV series Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey. Having given up on the book Tennison recently (although I loved Prime Suspect), because it had too many irrelevant details, I really connected with this one instead and stayed up all night to finish it. Not because it was full of ‘unguessable’ twists, but because it was so life-like, caring and well-written. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Manon and Fly and, luckily, I won’t have long to wait. The second book in the series Persons Unknown is due out in May 2017.