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Caffeine Nights is a publisher that I’ve been meaning to investigate for a while. I have Nick Quantrill’s The Crooked Beat primed to read in the next week or so and in 2015 they’re publishing a fellow reviewer’s debut, Snatched from Home by Graham Smith. The publisher’s books are largely hard-hitting noir tales. It’s not a genre I read much of and, as I’ve mentionedimage before on this blog, the place to go to discover all things noir is the excellent site of Paul D Brazill. I started with Russian Roulette by Keith Nixon which are a series of novellas brought together in a single volume. It’s a great introduction to the author and, if the quality of the writing is anything to go by, shows why noir is such a popular genre.

Konstantin Boryakov is an ex-KGB agent who arrives in the seaside town of Margate. He is immediately plunged into a trail of troubles as he comes up against small time criminals, a loan shark, a nightclub dominatrix Felicity, also known as Plastic Fantastic, and the club’s owner, Ken.

It’s quite difficult to summarise the plot of a collection of novellas, and I often have a similar problem when I review short stories. Perhaps it’s easier to focus on how the various narratives are successfully brought together. Firstly the setting. Margate is a seaside town with a reputation, in the book at least, for seediness and minor criminal activity. It’s not an area that I know well at all and yet it personifies the grimness of many English seaside towns that have lost their sheen over the years. The sense of menace is below the surface but ever present.

The character of Konstantin is also well-developed throughout the stories. He has a morality, of sorts, but this is tempered by the need to protect himself that has come through past failures. He’s at his most interesting when he joins in the fight but the most human when he walks away. I liked best the tales featuring Felicity. She tries to play Konstantin but fails because of his inherent need to move on from trouble.

The tone is resolutely noir and the writing is sharp and funny. It would make a great read over Christmas.

 

mari-hannah-2015-978144724611401There are so many crime fiction novels that I want to read. What I find myself increasingly doing these days is reading one book by an author just so I can get a flavour of their writing style. This generally works well although even this leaves me with a huge reading pile. The other problem is, of course, if you like a writer’s style you want to come back for more. I read Mari Hannah’s debut The Murder Wall in 2012 and she has just published the fifth in the series, Killing for Keeps. It’s impressive to see how much this series has developed.

Detective Chief Inspector Kate Daniels is called to scene of a brutal murder where a man has been tortured to death. It has the hallmarks of a gangland crime and when his brother’s tortured body is discovered in a nearby hospital, it becomes clear that a feud has taken a deadly turn. In a community where the police are seen as enemies, Kate is forced into decisions that could end her police career.

Killing for Keeps is an excellent example of how crime fiction series don’t need to be read in order. It was easy to pick up Kate’s personal story despite missing the intervening books and I found the detective’s turbulent personal life very human and moving to read about. The crime story was hard-hitting and gritty and, fortunately, most of the brutality was kept off the page which I prefer. The police investigation is very well portrayed. Hannah’s experience as a probation officer gives her an insight into the law enforcement world and there are touches which show how well she knows the system.The North-East setting is brought to life, in particular with use of Geordie vernacular but, by moving part of the narrative to Spain, the book was also given an international feel.

Existing Mari Hannah fans will love this latest addition to the series I’m sure but I also hope she gets new readers who enjoy a well plotted and excellently written crime novel.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my review copy.

imageOne of the nicest things about appearing on a panel is getting to read other authors’ books. At the recent Iceland Noir, Amsterdam based writer, David Swatling, was a fellow panelist. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his crime novel, Calvin’s Head, in advance of the event. And, once again, I found myself reading a book outside my usual comfort zone that was both entertaining and very dark.

One summer’s morning, Jason Dekker’s dog, Calvin, finds the body of a murder victim in the park. Dekker had come to Amsterdam to do a thesis on Van Gogh and fallen in love with artist, Willy Hart. But he now finds himself homeless and decides to take advantage of the circumstances created by the man’s murder. However, in doing so, he enters the sights of psychopath Gadget who is looking for his next victim.

From the first chapter, Swatling plunges the reader into a world of vicious affliction, setting the scene for Gadget’s violent tendencies. Sections that feature Gadget are tempered by those written from Dekker’s point of view. These have their own edginess to them as they detail, in part, Dekker’s past sexual exploits as part of the Amsterdam gay scene. It’s a clever move on the author’s part as there is a sense in the book that anything could happen. This is needed, particularly towards the latter part of the narrative, when the plot takes an unexpected turn.

There’s also a fair amount of dark humour in the book. The chapters are interspersed with sections written from Calvin the dog’s point of view. Although these took a while to get used to, I found myself looking forward to them as the book progressed.

There’s a fantastic sense of place in the novel and it’s an Amsterdam beyond the usual tourist haunts. It’s hard to compare Calvin’s Head to any other book I’ve read recently as it’s outside my usual fare. This is entirely a good thing and I’ll definitely be reading more from this writer.

 

I’ve been meaning to read Dreda Say Mitchell for a while. Her books bookshelf-vendettahave a reputation for being cracking reads and I like the idea of a strong female protagonist. Vendetta is the author’s latest book and published at a perfect time. In the news much has been made of the Met Police’s policy on undercover cops who have strayed beyond their remit. Vendetta provides us with an interesting take on the implications of what might happen if someone is unmasked as a mole within a violent gang.

Mac, an undercover police officer wakes up one morning in a hotel with little memory of the previous evening. He finds his lover’s corpse in the bathroom and the gash to his head suggests she may have been defending herself from his attacks. Mac goes on the run but fears that he has laid a trail that will lead both his girlfriend’s killers and the police investigating the crime to him.

Vendetta’s greatest strength is its fast paced narrative. Barely does Mac escape one foe before he’s plunged headlong into the next disaster. This could be wearying for the reader but in fact, Dreda does a very good job of keeping us gripped to the end. Relentless action can also, in some books, be at the expense of characterisation. However, I found Mac to be a credible representation of what a man in his position would be likely to do if under attack. The most compelling character, though, is Rio Wray. She’s one of the strongest police detective characters that I’ve read in a long time and her ambition and drive are perfectly placed in the book.

Vendetta is a bit of a departure for me in terms of the type of crime fiction that I read. But it was good to read something that I wanted to race through. Lee Child is quoted on the cover and I’m sure Vendetta will also appeal to fans of Child’s Jack Reacher books.

Thanks to Hodder for my review copy.

Chain-of-EventsI’m a fan of crime novels set amongst cataclysmic events. Of course, as crime readers, we are used to the opposite. From the country house murder in golden age crime fiction to the cold climate of Scandinavian thrillers, it is the thought of evil that runs against the natural order that gives us the biggest shiver. But there is something to be said in setting a crime in the middle of circumstances so monstrous that they are almost imaginable. I’ve reviewed a few of these books on this blog: Ben H Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy, Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn and The Healer by Antti Tuomainen. Now we have a debut by Swedish writer Fredrik T Olsson that envisages a different type of scenario that threatens to wipe out the human race.

William Sandberg was a respected cryptologist but a series of family tragedies lead to a failed suicide attempt. When he disappears from his hospital room, his ex-wife Christina refuses to believe he has vanished voluntarily and sets out to discover the identity of the kidnappers. Sandberg finds himself in an ancient castle in a mountainous country and is given mysterious code to decipher. A chance meeting with someone inside the citadel reveals the true nature of the DNA sequences that William is studying and the potential implications of his failure to decode the messages.

Olsson comes from a screen writing background which is immediately apparent in his mastery of how to keep a reader hooked into the narrative. The book is, literally, a page turner and, although long, I can imagine it being possible to finish it in one sitting. There are multiple points of views which, again, I’d expect from someone with the writer’s background. These also work well, the characters are well drawn enough to be distinguishable, but sometimes depth of characterisation is sacrificed to momentum.

Although a Swedish crime novel, Chain of Events is much more located in the international thriller genre. The pandemic that threatens to wipe out civilisation needs a fair amount suspension of disbelief and yet the writer also manages to make the chase to decode the biological time bomb fun and interesting. The ending is, perhaps, a little pat but that’s the problem with dystopian narratives. Once you stare over the abyss, how can anything be the same again?

Thanks to Sphere for my review copy. The translation was by Dominic Hinde.

 

 

Iceland Noir 2014 Round-Up

My last post gave an overview of the panels from the first full day of Iceland Noir. As I didn’t manage to make all of the discussions on Saturday I thought I’d use this post to round up the highlights of the rest of the event.

1959521_10152439616361625_7891572099963381108_nOne panel that I did manage to make was my own at 9am. Moderated by Quentin Bates it also featured debut authors David Swatling, originally from the US and now living in Amsterdam and Icelander, Sverrir Berg Steinarsson. We started off by reading extracts from our prose and then talking about how our books came into being. An interesting motif was that all three of us used personal experiences in our past to shape the course of our narratives. ‘What if this had happened to us?’, I suspect, is a common approach used by new writers but I wonder the extent to which it is jettisoned in later books. It was wonderful to appear on a panel in a capacity as an author and thanks to everyone who got up at the crack of dawn to make the event. I really appreciate everyone’s support.

The rest of the day’s panels that I attended were excellent and I particularly enjoyed Making it spooky – supernatural in crime fiction. I’m a big fan of ghost stores and the panelists James Oswald, Johan Theorin, Michael Sears and Alexandra Sokoloff did a good job of making their books sound suitably creepy. I hope to catch up reading all of these novelists soon.

For lunch, some of us fans of the Icelandic TV series The Night Shift were given a treat when its director, 10372141_10152440305741625_7631086047442752839_nRagnar Bragason, joined us for lunch along with actress and writer Sólveig Pálsdóttir who appears in series two. It was wonderful to meet the creator of such an excellent TV series and he was later interviewed by Andy Lawrence whose write-up of the discussion will shortly appear on his website, Euro But Not Trash. The series is set in a petrol station on the outskirts of Reykjavik and some of us fans later managed a trip to the location in an homage to the series.

icepicksmallSaturday evening involved dinner at the excellent Iðnó restaurant. The IcePick Award was given to The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker for the best crime novel translated into Icelandic. The book has divided critics. I enjoyed it and think it must have been a difficult choice to make in a very strong shortlist. More details of the award can be found at Mrs Peabody Investigates.

On Sunday, a group of us took a coach with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir to locations featuDSC_4280red in her novels, in particular, My Soul to Take. It was a fascinating day, good to get out of Reykjavik and we paid an unexpected visit to a lava tube cave. The picture to the right contains lots of well-known writers. See if you can spot anyone.

So, the end of an excellent event. Thanks to Quentin Bates, Ragnar Jónasson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Lilja Sigurðardóttir for all their had work to make it such a successful event. Next year will be Shetland Noir, followed by a return to Iceland in 2016. I can hardly wait.

 

Iceland Noir 2014 Day Two

imageThe first full day of Iceland Noir 2014 took place at the Nordic House in Reykjavik on Friday 21st November. It was an intensive  day of panels, six in total, and I manged to attend every one. Below is a very brief summary of a very interesting day.

The opening discussion, Nordic Perspectives, was led by journalist Jake Kerridge and featured Hans Olav Lahlum, Michael Ridpath, David Hewson and Lilja Siguðardóttir. Talk focused on the background to the books and the reasons for setting the novels in that particular time and place. This was followed by a panel on translating crime fiction, a particular interest of mine. It was moderated by academic imageJacky Collins and featured Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Mari Hannah, Bogdan Hrib and Vidar Sundstol. Most had positive experiences of being translated and it was interesting to hear which languages these authors would like to be translated into. I look forward to reading Mari Hannah in Dutch soon! The final discussion before lunch was adapting crime fiction for stage and screen. Moderated by William Ryan it featured Lilja Siguðardóttir, David Hewson, Peter James and Alexander Sokoloff. It was a lively discussion on how the vision and essence of a book can be lost in adaptation. Interestingly though, there seemed to be near universal agreement that Thomas Harris´s Silence of the Lambs worked well both as a novel and film.

Lunch was followed by a panel on The Golden Age of crime Fiction. Moderated by Agatha Christie´s Icelandic translator, Ragnar Jónasson, other panelists were Peter James, Susan Moody, Hans Olav Lahlum and William Ryan. The crime writers of  the inter-war period in the UK are still influences on many of these authors’ works and I was, once again, reminded of how popular Edmund Crispin’s Gervaise Fen is. The second panel of the afternoon was on location featuring Romanian author Bogdan Hrib, Jefferey Siger who sets his books on Mykonos, US writer Annamaria Alfieri and Billie Rubin from Germany. All the featured authors clearly felt a great affinity with their chosen locations which must come across in their writing.

A discussion on setting in Nordic landscapes came next. Featuring imageJohan Theorin, Vidar Sundstol, Ragnar Jónasson and Antti Tuomainen it was moderated by Jacky Collins. Although the panel touched on how integral the landscape was to their stories, what I found interesting was how their upbringing within these settings was also a major factor in shaping the authors’ novels.

The final event of the day was a walk around Reykjavik featuring readings from various locations that feature in crime novels set in imageIceland. Despite the bracing weather, it was a fascinating event and I particularly enjoyed hearing extracts from writers who are yet to be published in English. The small excerpts that had been translated by Quentin Bates showed us what we are missing.

So, as you can see, an intensive but excellent day for us and a treat to see so many authors in one place. If you’d like more information on any of the panels, many attendees were Tweeting from the event under the hashtag #icelandnoir. An update on day two, including my own panel, tomorrow.

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