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It’s been years since I read an Ellroy novel. However, as I’ve booked tickets to see himJames Ellroy in November, I wanted to do some catching up. His latest book, Perfidia, is out now. I’ll be reading it in the next couple of weeks as Barry Forshaw has given it a very interesting review in The Independent. However, Killer on the Road had been on my list to read for a while so this seemed the logical place to start before tackling Perfidia. Reading one of Ellroy’s earlier books, it was a reminder of why I liked his writing in the first place despite finding his work a perennially uncomfortable read.

Martin Michael Plunkett is a fames serial killer finally captured for the murders of four members of a family. While admitting these killings, invesitagors from various US states are convinced he is reposinsbile for a decade long slay of violence. When he announces that he is writing his memoirs Plunkett, who sees himself as the ‘shape shifter’, finally reveals the tortured mind that leads him to the path of terror.

Serial killers are somewhat old hat now and yet this book, written in 1999, has managed to retain its freshness. Part of it is the clinical nature of Ellroy’s writing. We get a mix of forms of prose: straightforward narrative, diary entries, press clippings and, therefore, various points of view. But it’s the insight into Plunkett’s mind that provides much of the grisly fascination to the reader. Genuinely disturbed, there is nothing to redeem the character and we watch in horror as the killings span the decade of the 1970s.

But this is more than an psychological thriller. There are a couple of nice plot twists and the reader is often well ahead of law enforcement agencies. The blurb on the front of the book quotes Jonathan Kellerman stating this is the sacriest book he’s ever read. It had me wanting to check under the bed while I was reading it. Classic Ellroy.

The G FileHakan Nesser is one of my favourite crime writers. His Woman with Birthmark easily features in my top 10 crime novels of all time and I’ve found his output to be of a consistently high quality. His protagonist Van Veeteren has taken a back seat in some of Nesser’s later books but he is back with a vengeance in this final novel of the series. The G File features that most potent of cases, an old investigation that remains tantalisingly unsolved. But, given that it’s Nesser who’s doing the writing, there is plenty in the narrative to surprise the reader.

In 1987, private investigator Verlangen is approached by a woman to follow her husband, Jaan ‘G’ Hennan. When the woman is found dead days later in her empty swimming pool, suspicion naturally falls on Hennan who has a reputation for violence. However, at the time of his wife’s death Hennan was drinking in a bar with Verlangen, the man who was being paid to watch him. Although Hennan is arrested, Van Veeteren, who has his own demons to conquer in relation to the suspect, is unable to find anything to prove the man’s guilt. Fifteen years later Verlangen goes missing, leaving behind a message that suggests he finally found proof of Hennan’s guilt. For Van Veeteren it’s a chance to finally lay ghosts to rest and one last case before he completely retires.

Some books that complete a series are often a disappointment, earning their plaudits as much from the sense of an ending than literary merit. This isn’t the case with The G File. At 400 pages, it’s a long book but the splitting of the narrative onto two distinct parts, that of 1987 and 2002, means that the plot never drags. The character of Verlangen, alcohol soaked yet loving his teenage daughter, which is developed in the first part exerts a strong pull in the later narrative, despite his absence. There is a nice symmetry, typical of Nesser’s writing, that his now adult daughter instigates the search for her missing father.

I guess is must be part homage to the books of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that there have been ten books in this series. We have seen Van Veeteren morph from a serving Chief Inspector to a retired bookshop owner, dragged out of his retirement for one last case. In this final book he displays the tenacity and talent we as readers have grown to appreciate and it is a fitting end to the series. And, without giving away too much of the plot, Nesser still has the ability to surprise.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my copy of the book

The period of the British Raj in India is a fascinating time and I’ve read two books A Madras Miasmarecently that used it as a backdrop to criminal events. The first probably needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is, of course, considered to be one of the first British crime novels. But the moonstone of the book’s title is a large diamond stolen by an army officer which results in three Hindu priests coming to England to reclaim it. It’s an excellent novel and I very much enjoyed rereading it over the summer.

The second book, however, is a recent novel by Australian writer Brian Stoddart. A Madras Miasma features Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Special Crime Unit in the Indian police and his sergeant Habibullah who investigate the death of a young British woman. The dead woman had come to India as part of the ‘fishing fleet’ looking for a husband amongst the officers and other colonial officials. However, British rule in the country is under pressure and, as tensions mount, Le Fanu becomes embroiled in a political scandal reaching to the top echelons of Madras society.

You can usually tell from the first page the quality of an writer’s prose. Brian Stoddart is already the author of a couple of non-fiction books and his writing is excellent. It’s exactly the sort of prose I like to read: tightly constructed sentences within a more free flowing narrative.

The murder plot, the killing of Jane Carstairs, provides a fascinating insight to Madras life at that time. British women, nearing their thirties, would come to India on the search of a husband and the phenomena is both socially accepted and widely derided. Le Fanu is separated from his wife and having a relationship with his servant, Ro, an Anglo-Indian. Stoddart details the problems of women of mixed British and Indian ancestry who are forbidden access to either society. Ro is a sympathetic character whose education hardly helps her progress beyond the restrictions imposed on her.

The political troubles, combined with what turns out to be particularly vicious murder, makes this a page turning read and I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it. For me it’s a sign of a good novel and I’m looking forward to the sequel which I believe is out this year.

Thanks to the author for my copy.

Dark EntriesAlthough I managed to accomplish my intended reading over my ‘holiday’ from Crimepieces, as usual I also got side tracked. Faber have, over the summer, rereleased the short stories and novels of Robert Aickman. He’s not a writer I’m particularly familiar with. I initially dipped into the stories because I fancied trying something that wasn’t specifically crime fiction and I was seduced by the wonderful covers that have been produced for these editions.

Aickman’s stories almost defy definition. They are tales of supernatural events and unexplained happenings usually set in a world that on the surface appears to be reassuringly normal. The first book I read, Dark Entries, had six stories including the one I was most familiar with ‘Ringing the Changes’. In the introduction to the book, Richard T Kelly argues that women in Aickman’s stories generally get off better than the men for whom he reserves particularly grisly fates. While this The Wine Dark Seais true, women often seem to be the catalyst many of the strange occurrences while those around them either struggle to understand what’s happening or are wilfully blind to the events.

In the Wine Dark Sea, the eight stories follow a similar vein and includes the chilling ‘Your Tiny Hand is Frozen.’ These later stories of Aickman are more substantial and, in my opinion, more confident in the skewed world the writer portrays. There’s a timelessness to the stories so that, even when they’re set on a fiction Greek island, the readers struggle to distinguish between the familiar and the surreal.

Aickman apparently referred to his fiction as ‘strange stories’ which just about sums up these books. There’s rarely a resolution to the tales leaving the protagonists, and the readers, in a unsettling limbo. This is completely satisfying.

CRIMEPIECES is on holiday

Not a physical holiday unfortunately. After a trip back to Greece in June where, incidentally, this blog began I now need to spend the rest of August finishing the edits to my own book ‘In Bitter Chill’. So I’m taking a two week break from blogging and will be back in September with a bunch of new reviews.

I am, however, off to Oxford tomorrow for the annual Mystery and Crime Weekend at St Hilda’s College. It’s an event I’ve been meaning to go to for years and given the subject of this year’s lectures, ‘Crimes of the Past: War and Other Evils’, I think it will be a fascinating weekend.

As well as editing, I’m going to use my break to catch up on some books that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. It’s a mixed bag, not just crime fiction, and includes:

- Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: a rich book looking at representations of terror in fiction, art and ritual

- P D James’ The Maul and the Peartree: another non-fiction book I’ve been dying to read for a long time.

- Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone: one of the first true detective novels. I first read it as a teenager and want to see how I feel about it now.

So I hope regular readers of the blog also enjoy a restful holiday and I’ll leave you with an illustration that I discovered in PD James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It’s a 1936 Punch cartoon entitled ‘The British Character: Love of Detective Fiction’  I think it sums up the bedtime reading for us crime fiction fans. And I’ll see you all in September.

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I read so much crime fiction that I sometimes think it has lost the power to shock me. I know this hasn’t spilled into real life as I find isbn9781444734461-detailsome of the crimes that I read in newspapers horrific. However, when it comes to fiction, very little distresses me these days. For a book to stand out it either has to be innovative, for example Pierre LeMaitre’s Irene, or well written such as K T Medina’s White Crocodile. However, Silence of the Sea, the latest book by the queen of Icelandic crime fiction, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, truly gave me the chills and I was rightly dreading the ending. It’s, without doubt, her best book yet.

Ægir travels to Portugal to deal with the paperwork to repossess a yacht  from a millionaire hit by the financial crisis. He takes his wife and twin daughters along for a holiday but when an accident incapacitates one of the crew, Aegir agrees to help sail the yacht back to Iceland. However, the crew resent the family’s presence and an air of malevolence hangs over the ship. A portrait of the wealthy wife of the former owner fascinates the twins and they claim to have seen the woman wondering the ship. When a body is found in a freezer, it unleashes a chain of events that imperil the family. Weeks later, the abandoned yacht arrives in Iceland with no trace of the occupants. Lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir is employed by the parents of the missing father to discover what became of the family.

Silence of the Sea brings together two strands of this author’s writing. It’s the latest book in the series featuring lawyer Thora but also has echoes of I Remember You, Yrsa’s supernatural thriller. For much of the book, it’s not clear whether there are paranormal forces at work but the eeire emptiness of the vast ocean adds to the sense of impending doom.

The book is part locked room mystery and, hopefully without giving too much of the plot away, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Both narratives work equally well: that of the fate of the ship’s passengers and Thora’s subsequent investigation. I found the book to be both compelling and shocking and was, ultimately, glad to reach the end.

Thanks to Hodder for my review copy.

White-Crocodile-cover1For a debut novel to stand out, it has to offer something special to the reader. I’ve read few crime books set in Cambodia and it’s not a country that has ever tempted me to visit. However, in the tradition of the best reading, I was completely pulled into the world created by K T Medina. White Crocodile is a story of violence and revenge against the backdrop of mine clearance in a country still recovering from conflict.

The white crocodile of the title refers to the symbol of fear and death according to a Cambodian myth. Its legend is evoked by locals in response to a series of fatalities in an area which is being cleared of mines by a humanitarian charity. Tess Hardy has taken a job with the organisation in order to investigate the death of her ex-husband, Luke. Although her marriage was characterised by violence, in her last conversation with her ex she could hear fear in his voice. When she arrives in Cambodia, she discovers that teenage mothers are disappearing from local villages and are later found mutilated and killed.

White Crocodile has a compelling narrative that grabs you right from the start of the book. At the outset there is a suspicious explosion that maims one of the other mine clearers and it’s not clear if Johnny is a victim or implicated in the conspiracy that surrounds all the killings. As the plot develops, Tess’s personal history, the killing of the outcast women and a murder investigation in Manchester are interweaved into a compelling narrative.

Medina cleverly makes sure that Tess Hardy is on equal footing with the other protagonists. She is a mine clearer in her own right and saves the life of Johnny using a mix of bravery and knowledge of  land mines. This means that in a setting of vulnerable women, despite Tess’s abusive past, she seems an intrepid and determined seeker of truth.

White Crocodile is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thanks to Faber for my review copy.

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