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The Lion's MouthI’m a big fan of Anne Holt’s writing and her Hanne Wilhelmsen series in particular. Nevertheless, I found her last book translated into English, Death of the Demon, disappointing in that it was a relatively slight story that failed to engage. However, Holt is back on form with The Lion’s Mouth. She portrays the collective shock that follows the death of the Norwegian Prime Minister and the subsequent investigation. The story is a surprise. Instead of a tale of high political drama, we get intimate portraits of the people around the dead politician and a surprising conclusion.

Norwegian Prime Minster Birgitte Volter is found dead in her office, shot in the head by an unknown assailant. Norway is put on high security alert and rumours circulate about possible attempts on the life of the Swedish PM and attacks on other Scandinavian countries. A massive police operation gets underway to find the perpetrator and Hanne Wilhelmsen, currently working in the US, finds herself unable to keep away from Oslo. She stays in the apartment of Billy T, the physically huge detective with whom she has developed a surprising working relationship. Secrets from Brigitte’s past threaten to overshadow the investigation but may also hold the key to the tragedy.

Although this is a Hanne Wilhelmsen book, the detective plays a relatively minor role in the narrative. Instead we are treated to multiple points of view, principally from the politicians and family of Birgitte. In less experienced hands this might make following the plot difficult but it resulted in a very human story. The politicians, in particular, came across as a disparate bunch of characters desperate to hold onto their positions of authority.

As in previous Holt books we get a strong sense of the judicial system playing out its role. This is unsurprising from an author who served as Norway’s Minister of Justice in the 1990s and her experience adds authenticity to the narrative. However, it is worth mentioning that the book appears to have been co-written. I don’t have a problem with this but I’d have preferred to see the her fellow writer’s name on the front cover as well as the title page

Despite this, The Lion’s Mouth was my first book of 2015 and I hope all my reading to be of a similar quality.

Thanks to Corvus for my review copy. The translation was by Anne Bruce.

BSB-CriminalGoldI know I keep saying this but every time I review a historical crime novel, I wish read more of the genre. An author can make a time and place come alive and this was certainly true of Ann Aptaker’s book Criminal Gold. We’re plunged into the heart of 1940s criminal New York with a thrilling tale of murder and deception.

Cantor Gold has been thief since a young child and by 1949 is a smuggler of fine art. One evening, as she waits in New York harbour to hand over a precious jewel, a woman’s body drops from Brooklyn Bridge. Opal Page is the daughter of the city’s most famous fence and was educated to take her way from criminal society. But she became the mistress of gangster Sig Loreale who hires Cantor to find out why Opal died. But Cantor, a lesbian mourning the disappearance of her girlfriend finds herself open to innuendo and blackmail because of her sexuality.

The character of Cantor is this books main attraction. She’s a wonderful creation. Emotional, sassy but loyal to her friends and acquaintances. It’s this loyalty that propels her to investigate the background to Opal’s death. The descriptions of the treatment of gay women by the police is hard to read but completely believable. Other elements of forties also come alive in the book. The system of theft and passing through stolen goods is fascinating to read about along with the descriptions of people on the margins of society.

The actual crime story is narrated in a straightforward fashion which I always like. It reminds of the golden age crime stories that I read as a teenager. Aptaker has set herself up for a cracking series not only because of the character of Cantor Gold but for choosing a period of time that is fascinating to read about. I’m off to New York in February. It makes me want to take fur and pearls to wear.

Thanks to the author for my review copy.

 

An Event in AutumnFans of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books will know that the series has come to an end. Wallander, for reasons that were narrated in The Troubled Man, will investigate no more cases. However, it appears we have one last story. According to the book’s afterword, An Event in Autumn was originally written for a Dutch publisher to give away to purchasers of their crime novels. It’s not really a novella, more a longish short story but it is, nevertheless, very nice to revisit Wallander’s world.

The now ageing Wallander has always dreamt of owning a house in the countryside around Ystad. His colleague, Martinsson, tells him about a dilapidated house that he has inherited and which Wallander might want to visit with a view to purchasing. However, while inspecting the garden, Wallander discovers a skeletal hand and the police dig soon reveals the presence of two bodies. All the evidence suggests that the victims have been in the ground for a long time, so Wallander is forced to go back decades in time to discover the origins of the tragedy.

While reading An Event in AutumnI couldn’t help thinking that it would have made an excellent full length novel. The story reminded me a little of Colin Dexter’s Morse book, The Wench is Dead It was not only the historic aspect to the narrative but also the part played by Wallander. He’s always been a character who is fails to take his own health seriously. But in this short tale, there’s a foreshadowing of the trouble that comes in the final book.

There’s a decent plot and it’s a shame it wasn’t given the opportunity to open out in Mankell’s trademark way. There could have been plenty of twists and turns before we reached the final conclusion but the length of the story didn’t allow this. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable both for the glimpses into fifties Swedish attitudes and also for the descriptions of the wonderful Scanian countryside that we got when Wallander visited his father in earlier books.

Wallander fans will have already read the story, I’m sure. There’s an interesting essay at the back of the book by Mankell which confirms that this is it. There are no more Wallander tales and we really have reached the end.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Last Kiss 5The great thing about the crime fiction genre is the breadth of styles that it encompasses. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read books that focus on the domestic, dark noir tales and political thrillers. But some crime novels can be truly creepy and Louise Phillips’s Last Kiss reminds us how scary stories can get. She’s a writer who is completely new to me. However, I wanted to read some Irish crime fiction and her books have been garnering rave reviews.

In a Dublin hotel room, a man is found butchered with a knife and his body arranged in a form similar to the hangman in tarot. Criminal psychologist, Dr Kate Pearson is asked to help investigate the murder and she discovers disturbing links with similar killings both inside and outside Ireland. Cassandra is a murderer who, with one exception, kills only men. However, her latest sexual conquest, Edgar, is someone special and she intends to keep hold of him, even if it entails entering his domestic life.

Standalone thrillers work well because there is a feeling that anything could happen. There is no need to hold onto characters for sequels and there’s a sense of completion at the end of the books. The character of the killer dominates the narrative and there’s a strong sense of menace from the start. The suspicions of her new sexual conquest’s wife, Sandra, make difficult reading at times. She is being manipulated but also has the strength of character to fight back.

With the criminal psychologist, Kate Pearson, we are on more traditional crime fiction territory but the presence of the tarot cards in the victims’ mouths adds an unusual twist. Last Kiss isn’t a book for the faint-hearted but it is lovely and creepy and it’s nice to read something out of the ordinary.

Thanks to Hachette Ireland for my review copy.

23636123Regular readers of this blog will know my view on the length of crime novels. I’ve been reading the genre since I was a child and there were days when I could easily devour two or three books in an afternoon. I appreciate that I don’t have that time now but the length of books has increased to ridiculous levels. One trend that has emerged partly, I suspect in response to this, is the rise of the novella form. These books seem particularly popular as downloads where the length of books is far more fluid. Over the Christmas period I read a trilogy by Daniel Pembrey. The Harbour Master is an example of how well you can tell a story in a shorter form without compromising on character or plot.

Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam policeman thinking about retirement. In the first story, a woman’s body is fished out of the harbour. Her death may be the responsibility of a vicious Hungarian pimp who is feared throughout the city. In book 2, van der Pol is persuaded to accompany a Ghanaian diplomat on his visit to Brussels. But the appearance of a valuable diamond, the theft of a Norwegian painting and the beating of an escort girl in a hotel put him at odds with his boss in the police department. In the final story, a Dutch politician in Belgium is kidnapped putting van der Pol’s career and life in danger.

The sign of a good book is that I immediately want to visit the place where the narrative is located. Although the principal setting is Amsterdam we are also treated to descriptions of Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam. There’s some interesting information on the history of these cities but also their differing roles within modern Europe. You’d think it quite difficult to make political Europe interesting in a crime story. But the bureaucratic machinations were handled with a light touch and the incidental descriptions about the various cities were fascinating.

Van der Pol is clearly a maverick style policeman but this never stretches the limits of plausibility. In particular, his clashes with his superior, Joost, have the ring of truth of anyone who has come up against their boss. Assembling the three novellas into a collected edition is a good idea as the stories run on from each other and, by the conclusion, there’s a sense of a wider narrative being completed. There’s also, I think, another van der Pol story coming in 2015 so that’s something to look forward to.

The style of writing was so enjoyable, it prompted me to download another story by the author, Simon Sixsmith, A Ghost Story. For those who like something with a supernatural twist, this really is an excellent read too.

The Silent GirlsThere’s something compelling about murder in a rural setting. Statistically, these are the safest areas to live in and yet we read so much that takes place in what appear to be law-abiding places. Sometimes you just need to suspend your disbelief. Other times, the writer does good job at showing what happens behind closed doors. Eric Rickstad’s The Silent Girls is one such book.

In the small US town of Canaan, Vermont young girls have been disappearing. Private detective Frank Rath is hired to look for the latest missing girl, Mandy, whose mother is convinced she hasn’t just simply run away. The case has disturbing echoes for Frank who is bringing up his niece, Rachel, after the brutal murder of her parents years earlier. Now their killer is up for parole and Frank, absorbed in the hunt for the missing girls, also attempts to prevent the freeing of an earlier murderer.

Eric Rickstad is a very good writer which elevates this book above the average mystery. He manages to convey the isolation and brutality of elements of this seemingly peaceful country town. It’s a difficult trick to pull off the role of a private detective in modern times where police investigations are tightly controlled. He manages it by adding the personal element of Rath’s family history. The detective comes acres as both protective and vengeful on behalf of the girls he is trying to find.

The ultimate subject is a difficult one to tackle especially, I would imagine, in the US. I’ll leave it for readers to discover what it is as to say here would reveal too much of the plot. But he has my admiration for addressing it within a crime novel.

The Silent Girls will appeal to crime fiction readers who like a well constructed mystery that doesn’t shy away from addressing a complicated subject. Highly recommended.

 

Buried AngelsCamilla Lackberg was one of the early Scandinavian crime writers that I read. Her debut, The Ice Princess, is, in my opinion, an excellent novel. As the series developed, however, I stopped reading the books. The focus on the domestic life of the protagonist alongside the crime story wasn’t particularly to my taste. However, I had been tipped off by a Twitter friend that Lackberg had returned to form with her latest novel, Buried Angels. And he was right.

In 1974 a family in Fjällbacka, Sweden disappeared leaving only the baby daughter, Ebba alone in the house. The case has remained a mystery unforgotten by the local community. The adult Ebba returns to the property with her husband to renovate the house and mourn the loss of their child. However, their house is subject of an arson attack within days of their arrival. Detective Patrick Hedstrom is assigned to the investigation but has to contend with his wife Erica’s fascination with the tale of the family’s disappearance.

There is something compelling about the missing. A disappearance can leave confusion and loss for generations and Buried Angels mines the sense of mystery relating to the family’s vanishing. There was an overlap in a couple of the characters’ story which made parts of the narrative a little claustrophobic. Two of them have lost children, for example. However, the domesticity that had become slightly irritating seemed in proportion to a narrative that focuses on family and their dysfunctional relationships. In many ways the book is an update on the traditional mystery. There’s a confined area, a strong cast of suspects and a big reveal at the end.

The book’s strength is in the mystery that is pulled out until the last chapter or so. The writing, as usual, is clear and sharp and I managed to warm to Erica as a character once more. Lackberg is definitely back on form.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy. The translation was by Tiina Nunally.

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