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51CTMC92iIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Parker Bilal’s The Ghost Runner was in my top five reads of 2014. It was an evocative tale of despair and revenge set in the Egyptian desert. For The Burning GatesBilal brings his investigator, Makana, back to Cairo to track down a painting that was stolen from Baghdad during the US invasion. But soon his employer is dead and Makana finds himself the subject of competing attentions from various businessmen whose interests extend beyond the art world.

Bilal’s greatest strength is the quality of his writing. All the Makana books have been very well written and The Burning Gates is no exception. You get a feel of the writer’s craft that has gone into both plotting the book and executing the narrative. Bilal doesn’t shy away from violence and there’s always strong sense of menace in his books. This is particularly so in The Burning Gates where towards the end, it becomes quite a bloodbath.

Parker is excellent at depicting a Sudanese exile mourning his former country and the sense of loss permeates the novel. A recurring thread in the Makana books is the loss of his wife and daughter. It’s revisited again here and it would be nice to see it resolved at some point.

Bilal’s writing is something different to a lot of the crime fiction out there. Once again I recommend reading his novels. He’s proof that crime fiction can be written to the highest standard.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for my review copy.

satellite-people-978023076953301I was a big fan of Lahlum’s first book to be translated into English. The Human Flies is a crime novel set in the late sixties which provides an interesting takes on the locked room mystery. It’s on the shortlist for the 2015 Petrona Award and was one of my top five reads of last year. I was sent a copy of Lahlum’s second book Satellite People in January but I’d been saving it until we’d finished judging the Petrona. It was worth the wait. If anything, Satellite People is an even better book. It’s a perfect blend of classic crime motifs and modern narrative structure.

In Oslo, in 1968, a wealthy businessman dies during a dinner party. He had only the day before contacted Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen claiming his life was in danger. Kristiansen, known as K2, takes charge of the case and discovers that only one of the ten dinner guests could have carried out the murder. But when other family members begin to die, K2 seeks the help of the brilliant Patricia who, from her wheelchair, guides the course of the investigation.

Lahlum dedicates Satellite People to Agatha Christie, ‘the queen of classic crime’. It’s a nice touch, especially given the plot influences contained within the book. I won’t go into detail which of Christie’s novels or their plots are referenced here. Suffice to say that fans will see echoes of Cards on the Table, And Then There were None and Three Act Tragedy and plenty more besides. But while Christie’s devious narratives are mined, Lahlum provides a substance to his characters that are sometimes missing from the crime queen’s books. Kristiansen is once more portrayed as a diligent and enthusiastic detective with a strong sense of justice. His sexual attraction to a possible suspect gives him a more human dimension than in the previous novel. Patricia is the pivotal figure in solving the case and we see her developing from a brilliant child to a perceptive and driven woman.

The effects of the Second World War are examined again in the book. As it is the late sixties, events are in the near past and provide plenty of possibilities for instances of secrets and betrayal. There are lots of twists and turns until we reach the conclusion and Lahlum, for one final time, uses a plot device from Christie for the denouement.

Lahlum has delivered an excellent book and it is easily the best crime novel I’ve read this year so far. We’re being tempted by the news that the third book in the series is currently being translated by the excellent Kari Dickson. I can’t wait.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my review copy.

hummingbirdWe haven’t seen the volume of Finnish crime novels translated into English as I’d have expected given the rise in popularity of Nordic noir. I’m not sure why this is the case. Most of the books from Finland that I’ve read recently have been excellent but it may well be that we’re getting the cream of crime fiction from the country. The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto is a strong addition to the genre. There’s a rawness to the writing that comes from an author willing to take risks with their work.

Anna Fekke arrived as a child in Finland as a refugee from the Yugoslavian wars. She is now beginning a career as a criminal investigator in a northern Finnish town but is assigned to a team that seems oblivious to casual incidences of racism. Her first week is marked by the murder of a woman jogger and Anna’s inexperience as an investigator is exacerbated by her paring with a racist partner. Another murder, soon after the first, suggests the possibility of a serial killer which stretches the resources of the small team.

The Hummingbird is almost two separate narratives that intertwine to provide a substantial read. Firstly we have the murder and its investigation. There’s a serial killer thread which includes the placing of a ‘trophy’ on the victims. However, there’s a nice to twist to this storyline and I thought it well done. The book’s real strength, though, is the character of Anna Fekke and the focus on her coming to terms with her refugee past. You see Anna’s conflicted views towards both her own community which she tries to untangle herself from and also her new ‘home’ in the police which isn’t as expected. She’s a flawed character which adds to the depth of her portrayal.

Hopefully we’ll have further books from Hiekkapelto as the writing is crisp and refreshing. As a small addendum, I think the book cover is one of the nicest I’ve seen in a long time. I rarely pay any attention to them, but I thought this one beautiful.

Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy. The excellent translation was by David Hackston. The Hummingbird has been shortlisted for the 2015 Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction.

51jqinbWG8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I reviewed Simon Conway’s previous book, Rock Creek Park, in 2013 and thought it an excellent read. It is a bio thriller with a twist and I liked the US setting. For his latest book, The Agent Runner, Conway’s narrative alternates between Pakistan and London. It’s a spy story set amongst the violence and mutual suspicion that exists in the espionage world. Once more, I thought the plot excellent and an unusual take on a story that has dominated the news.

Edward Malik is a MI6 operative who has been running a double agent  codenamed Nightingale inside Pakistan. After the killing of Bin Laden by US soldiers, Nightingale’s cover is blown and Ed finds himself in the political wilderness. He returns to the East End of London to live with his father but eyes up a return to Pakistan. But he must evade the scrutiny of Lahore’s legendary spy, Javid Aslam Khan.

Conway is excellent at making what might appear a familiar scenario more personal. The East End of London comes alive in The Agent Runner as Ed returns to the routine of a civilian life after the excitement of Pakistan. Lahore is equally well portrayed, particularly the atmosphere of suspicion and potential for violence. There are a couple of episodes of brutality but nothing too shocking and I found myself racing through the plot.

I know spy stories aren’t for everyone, but if you enjoy a good tale of international skullduggery, you’ll love this one.

 

Deal Noir

10675689_593808147385667_3103059118683959549_nI attended a crime fiction event over the week-end which took me to a part of England that I hadn’t visited before. Deal in Kent is a charming small town on the south coast with what seems like a high proportion of crime writers. One of these, Susan Moody along with event organiser Mike Linane, put together an intensive programme of panels to entertain all us crime readers.

The day kicked off with a panel Those Were The Days featuring writers Richard Blake, David Donachie and Janet Laurence and was moderated by Stephen Bates. This was a session featuring writers that I hadn’t heard speak before. It reminded me how much I like historical fiction and need to read more of it. The panel was followed by Robert Goddard in conversation with Susan Moody. I’ve heard Goddard talk at CrimeFest and he’s always an entertaining speaker. The final event of the morning was A Woman’s Place In Crime Fiction Is …. which featured Helen Giltrow, Erin Kelly, Louise Miller and Laura Wilson and was moderated by M J McGrath. The writers have formed a new group called Killer Women to promote events and signings in the London area. This is a great idea and I look forward to hearing more from them.

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The afternoon began with Catherine Aird in conversation with Simon Brett. I’m a fan of Aird’s writing and it was fascinating to listen to someone with so much experience talk about her craft. The next panel was entitled Freezing To Death which was moderated by William Horwood and featured writers Quentin Bates and Michael Ridpath who set their books in Iceland and M J McGrath whose novels are based in northern Canada. There was an interesting discussion on the inspiration for the protagonists in their books and the challenges of a cold setting. Another interesting panel was The Dark Side featuring Mark Billingham, Martyn Waites who writes as Tania Carver and Alex Marwood. An entertaining discussion centred round the limits of depictions of violence that readers are willing to tolerate.

The day concluded with a discussion on comedy in crime fiction with Ruth Dudley Edwards and Simon Brett and the announcement of the winner of the flash fiction competition.

A great day. It was lovely to meet up with some crime writing, blogging and reading friends and I’m already looking forward to next years event. Thanks to all the organisers.

Petrona Logo

Today the judges of the Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction are delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2015 prize.

 Six high-quality crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist.

 

 

 

They are:

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Arcadia Books; Finland)

THE HUNTING DOGS by Jørn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS by Arnaldur Indriðason tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker; Iceland)

THE HUMAN FLIES by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle; Norway)

FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM by Leif G W Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

 

The winning title will be announced at the annual international crime fiction event CrimeFest, held in Bristol 14-17 May 2015. The award will be presented by the Godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall, co-author with Per Wahlöö of the Martin Beck series.

 

I think we had a number of high quality books submitted this year which has meant an exceptionally strong shortlist. Below are our comments on the books selected.

 

THE HUMMINGBIRD: Kati Hiekkapelto’s accomplished debut introduces young police investigator Anna Fekete, whose family fled to Finland during the Yugoslavian wars. Paired with an intolerant colleague, she must solve a complex set of murders and the suspicious disappearance of a young Kurdish girl. Engrossing and confidently written, THE HUMMINGBIRD is a police procedural that explores contemporary themes in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

THE HUNTING DOGS: The third of the William Wisting series to appear in English sees Chief Inspector Wisting suspended from duty when evidence from an old murder case is found to have been falsified. Hounded by the media, Wisting must now work under cover to solve the case and clear his name, with the help of journalist daughter Line. Expertly constructed and beautifully written, this police procedural showcases the talents of one of the most accomplished authors of contemporary Nordic Noir.

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS: A prequel to the series featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson, REYKJAVIK NIGHTS gives a snapshot of 1970s Iceland, with traditional culture making way for American influences. Young police officer Erlendur takes on the ‘cold’ case of a dead vagrant, identifying with a man’s traumatic past. Indriðason’s legion of fans will be delighted to see the gestation of the mature Erlendur; the novel is also the perfect starting point for new readers of the series.

THE HUMAN FLIES: Hans Olav Lahlum successfully uses elements from Golden Age detective stories to provide a 1960s locked-room mystery that avoids feeling like a pastiche of the genre. The writing is crisp and the story intricately plotted. With a small cast of suspects, the reader delights in following the investigations of Lahlum’s ambitious detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen, who relies on the intellectual rigour of infirm teenager Patricia Borchmann.

FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM:

It’s 2007 and the chair of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson, has reopened the investigation into the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. But can he and his dedicated team really solve this baffling case? The final part of Persson’s ‘The Story of a Crime’ trilogy presents the broadest national perspective using a variety of different techniques – from detailed, gritty police narrative to cool documentary perspective – to create a novel that is both idiosyncratic and highly compelling.

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has said ‘I really love making people’s flesh creep!’, and she is the supreme practitioner when it comes to drawing on the heritage of Icelandic literature, and channelling ancient folk tales and ghost stories into a vision of modern Icelandic society. In SILENCE OF THE SEA, an empty yacht crashes into Reykjavik’s harbour wall: its Icelandic crew and passengers have vanished. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates this puzzling and deeply unsettling case, in a narrative that skilfully orchestrates fear and tension in the reader.

 

The judges are:

 

Barry Forshaw – Writer and journalist specialising in crime fiction and film; author of four books covering Scandinavian crime fiction: NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR and the first biography of Stieg Larsson.

 

Dr. Katharina Hall – Associate Professor of German at Swansea University; editor of CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI for University of Wales Press; international crime fiction reviewer/blogger at MRS. PEABODY INVESTIGATES.

 

Sarah Ward – Crime novelist, author of the forthcoming IN BITTER CHILL (Faber and Faber), and crime fiction blogger at CRIMEPIECES.

 

3853Childhood trauma is powerful theme in crime novels. Children are, of course, the victims of violence and the impact of crimes committed against them can last well into adulthood. It’s a theme explored in my own novel In Bitter Chill and I was interested to see how Black Wood by Susi Holliday would approach what looked like a similar premise. However, what writers put down on paper is influenced by their upbringing and own experiences. Holliday has produced a book set in a small Scottish town that is uniquely hers.

Claire and Jo were involved in an act of violence in Black Wood that left Claire paralysed and Jo with a ambivalent attitude towards the world. When a man walks into a bookshop where Jo works she recognises him as one of the people involved in the childhood event. People are reluctant to believe her memories and even Claire urges her to move on. But a balaclava-clad man is attacking women on a nearby railway track which Jo is convinced is connected to the man’s reappearance.

Holliday is excellent at characterisation. Jo’s personality extends beyond the cliché ‘feisty’. She’s obnoxious in parts and hangs on to friendships with a dismaying neediness. But friends are also attracted to her energy and remain loyal to a certain extent. There are multiple points of view but these are well demarked and the narrative easy to follow.

I grew up in a small town and can always identify with the claustrophobia of relationships in a closed circle of friends. Holliday is a very good writer and I particularly enjoyed the long descriptive passages. Not all debut writers have the courage to write these and books can be dialogue heavy. Not so here.

SJI Holliday is a writer to look out for. Black Wood is a standalone so it will be interesting what direction her writing takes her. Thanks to Black and White publishing for my review copy.

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