Holiday Reading

I was hoping to publish this post in time for the 6th January, marking Epiphany by summarising four books I read over the holiday period. These are in addition to the Scandi novels which were the topic of my previous post. However life intervened so, a day late, here are some of my recommendations if you’re looking for a good read.

The Birdwatcher was rightly acclaimed on its publication in 2016 and I’m sorry it took me so long to read it (the curse of the TBR pile). Sergeant William South is a birdwatcher and policeman who avoids murder cases. However, when a fellow bird enthusiast is killed, his attempts to assist in the investigation reveal murderous secrets in the Kent landscape. I loved the mix of strong setting and unusual plot. No-one  is quite who they seem and South’s back story adds poignancy to the plot. It has an interesting ending (no spoilers) and the lead detective DS Alexandra Cupidi has her own series in Salt Lane coming this year. I also read this over Christmas and it’s a little early to review yet, but I promise you it’s a good one. For those who hadn’t read William Shaw before, he really is an excellent writer.

Readers of this blog will know that Fred Vargas is one of my favourite writers but I’ve been a little disappointed in her most recent books. The Accordionist features her three evangelist characters who play less of a role than in previous books in this series. At the centre is an accordionist, Clement, sought by police for a number of murders. Ex-special investigator, Louis Kehlweiler is asked to help prove Clement’s innocence but isn’t helped by the accused’s learning disabilities and dark secrets in his past. It was an easy story written in Vargas’s trademark style and full of Parisian menace.

Fatal Evidence is a biography of Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, a surgeon and chemist at Guy’s Hospital who was a pioneer of forensic techniques in the nineteenth century. The book describes many of fascinating cases that Taylor investigated and the level of detail that Barrell gives us never threatens to overwhelm the portrayal of a complex individual. It’s a fascinating period. Poison was easily accessible and, until Taylor’s forensic work, its presence difficult to prove post-mortem. Poison is unfairly considered a woman’s weapon. As Fatal Evidence shows, all sections of society were using it: fathers, lovers, spouses, children, professionals. Barrell also describes the influence of Taylor on a succession of crime writers, from Dickens to Sayers. It’s  fascinating read and, if you read one non-fiction book this year, Fatal Evidence should be it.

That’s it. Happy new year agin to everyone and look out for some posts on more of my nordic noir reading and also books I’ve been devouring in advance of Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s festive of crime fiction coming in February,

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Nordic Noir Round-Up

Christmas has been an excellent time to catch up on my Nordic Noir reading. We seem to have had a record year for submissions to the Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction and, as well as old favourites, I’ve been trying to catch up new writers to see what they have to offer.

At 467 pages, The Anthill Murders is Hans Olav Lahlum’s longest book yet. Lahlum’s books are distinguished by his classic-crime style plots and the unusual relationship between criminal investigator Kolborn Kristiansen and Patricia, his intelligent, paralysed assistant. The subject matter is unusual for Lahlum. There is a serial killer at large attacking women on the streets on Norway, thereby giving the narrative a wider canvas than Lahlum’s previous books. Nevertheless, I found the plotting to be very tight and, also, without giving too much away, with a nod to Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. This is probably Lahlum’s best book yet and is translated by Kari Dickson.

The White City by Karolina Ramqvist is the English language debut by a writer whose sparse and moving prose provided a much needed bite of reality over the Christmas period. It’s the story of a woman whose partner, involved in a series of shady dealings, has disappeared. Left with her baby, Dream, in a house that authorities are intending to take from her, Karin tries to track down her husband’s associates to claim his share of any remaining assets. It’s a very short but powerful read and an interesting insight into the partners of those involved in organised crime. I thought the book beautiful written and I hope more from Ramqvist is published here in the future. White City is translated by Saskia Vogel.

Hakan Nesser is one of my favourite writers and he never disappoints. The Darkest Day is the first novel in a new five-part series Inspector Barbarotti. In a small Swedish town, a family are gathering to celebrate two generations of birthdays. When two members of  the family go missing in apparently unconnected events, Barbarotti has to dig deep into family tensions to solve the crimes. The Darkest Day is an unusual book. It’s written in Nesser’s characteristic intelligent style but the resolutely Swedish setting and unusual plot lines are a departure. Although it took me a while to get into the story, it’s a clever and disturbing book. The translation is by Sarah Death.

Snare is the much anticipated English language debut by Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurdardottir. Sonia is a single mother blackmailed into smuggling drugs through Keflavik airport by associates threatening to harm her son if she doesn’t comply with their instructions. A customs  officer, Bragi, beings to notice the smart young woman travelling regularly through the airport. Snare is a taut thriller with strong characterisation and some frank sex scenes. It’s good to read a book with a realistic lesbian character. The translation is by Quentin Bates.

I’ve had Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito on my shelf for a while and I’m sorry I took so long to get around to reading it as it’s a compelling book. Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a classroom killing which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other friends killed is a shooting massacre. We see the events leading up to both the killing and the trial through her eyes only, including her take on how her legal team handle her defence. Giolito effectively pulls the reader into the story with a single narrator and there are no easy answers as to motives behind the killings. An excellent translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles serves to highlight the occasional childishness of Maja’s justifications for her actions.

Have you read any good Scandinavian crime fiction over the festive period? I’d love to hear some of your recommendations.

Review: Resort by Andrew Daley

Resort by Andrew Daley arrived in my post from Canada and was a book I was looking forward to reading in this cold Derbyshire winter. I’m trying to widen my reading at the moment to include authors whose books are new to me, given the amount of Nordic noir I’m getting through for the Petrona Award. Resort is a classic style thriller following the trail of Jill Charles and Danny Drake,  two actor friends and lovers.  In Acapulco, broke and experienced in the art of scamming other resort residents, they hatch a plan to latch onto a English couple, a decision which leads them to Veracruz in Mexico and Kings Reach correctional institution on Vancouver Island.

It’s a great premise for a novel. Jill and Danny remind me of the Lammies in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, scheming and extracting money from the wealthy by ingratiating themselves to their circle. Their use of affluent resorts, as reflected in the book’s title, is a modern parallel to Dickens’ world, playgrounds for the idle rich willing to splash around cash to prove their affluence and status.

It’s clear from the outset that everything goes disastrously wrong. Sections of the narrative are told from inside prison as Danny tells the story of meeting Jill, and the development of their relationship. Of the two, it’s Danny who is the more sympathetic although an air of dissipation hangs over both of them. They are, however, very sympathetically portrayed and their life of crime is told with an air of humour. They have none of the meanness of the Lammies.

Resort turned out to be a fun and charming read. Despite knowing early on that their scheming ends in trouble, it’s worth carrying on because Daley has plenty of surprises for the reader and a very enjoyable ending.

 

 

Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Every so often a book comes along which is a joy to read and this set of essays by Christopher Fowler is one such offering. Of course, the term ‘forgotten’ is subjective. A writer who is unheard of by one reader is possibly a favourite of another. Fowler begins by asking the question: why are good authors forgotten? He makes a convincing case for possible scenarios. Authors, such as Richard Condon, who become famous for one title who then fade in obscurity or others such as John Creasey, whose output is so prolific that perhaps quantity is at the expense of quality. There are some lovely anecdotes here as Fowler describes trying to track down what became of the writers he discusses.

Of course, there are some authors in the book who I still read. Arthur Upfield, Dennis Wheatley, although his books have dated, and Barbara Pym who is one of my favourite writers. Others such as Baroness Orczy I have tried and given up on. It was fascinating, though, to rediscover authors I did read as a teenager and who are most definitely out of fashion. Eleanor Hibbert, for example who wrote as Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy (and other pseudonyms) was a favourite of mine  as was Virginia Andrew whose Flowers in the Attic had an appeal which is hard to decipher.

A mark of a  good book is when I get my pencil out and make notes in the margin. I’ve now a list of authors who I fancy reading including Winifred Watson and Caryl Brahms whose books I can see I already have on my shelves. The Book of Forgotten Authors would make a wonderful Christmas present for any bibliophile you know and is definitely one of my favourite books of the year.