Spring Books to Look Out For

Spring is in the air (well not today) and I’ve been reading some excellent books which will be published in the coming months. I know I often say this, but I’m always struck by the diversity of what constitutes crime fiction and in this lot, I went from compelling historical noir to a thriller immersed in contemporary politics.

Star of the North is the debut thriller from D B John who coauthored Hyeonseo Lee’s bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea. In 1998, an American woman disappears from a beach on a South Korean island. She is mourned by her twin sister, Jenna, who works in Washington as an East Asian expert. She’s approached by the CIA and discover that her sister may be the victim of kidnapping by North Korea. As Jenna enters the CIA training programme, tensions escalate between North Korea and the US in the twilight years of Kim Jong Ill’s regime.

The Star of the North is perfect for fans of Terry Hayes’ I Am PilgrimIt’s a substantial read with the recruitment of Jenna entwined with the story of Choa North Korean functionary and Mrs Moon trying to earn a living in the regime. John cleverly plays with the concept to twinship without ever resorting to cliché and Jenna is a rounded and believable character. Star of the North  is out on the 10th May.

Julia Heaberlin’s Black Eyed Susans was one of my favourite books of 2016. Her follow up Paper Ghosts, published on the 19th April, tells the story of a woman who befriends the man she believes kidnapped and murdered her sister and takes him on a road trip to visit spots where she believes he killed other victims. Carl was a photographer and has snapped images of these places but, because of his alleged dementia, claims he has no memory of them. Less dark than Haeberlin’s previous book, I thought Paper Ghosts to be an interesting exploration of memory and loss. Haeberlin is excellent at characterisation, even of people the reader briefly encounters, and it was a lovely read.

I read MJ Tjia’s debut, She Be Damned, last year and was impressed by both the quality of the writing and the heroine, Heloise Chancey. Part courtesan, part detective, she’s a fascinating character who returns in the sequel, A Necessary Murder, which is out in June. A killer is stalking London, a small child is murdered in a privy and another victim is killed outside Heloise’s house. It’s another sumptuous historical thriller from Tjia and I loved returning to her world.

Finally, my favourite book of the year so far, American by Day which is out next week. Derek B Miller has written a cracker of a novel featuring Sigrid Odegard who readers might remember from Miller’s award winning book, Norwegian by Nights. Sigrid travels to the US to look for her brother, Marcus, who has gone missing. His disappearance may be connected to the death of a prominent African-American academic who died after falling from a building. American by Day is written with the author’s distinctive mix of intelligence and humour. Miller shows an excellent understanding of the clash between the Norwegian and American mindset and plays on these differences with a light touch. The story of the crime is never lost but the highlight, for me, was the unfashionable US setting and the excellent characterisation.

 

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My latest reads: The Silent Companions, Marked To Die and The Z Murders

The Silent Companions has been getting excellent reviews and I’d been looking forward to a quiet weekend to read this new novel by Laura Purcell. Elsie, newly married and recently widowed, is pregnant and travels to her late husband’s house accompanied by his cousin, to await the birth of her child. There, she discovers a grim house, the object of mistrust by the villagers, where creepy wooden figures, the silent companions of the book’s title, keep appearing. It’s part ghost story, part historical mystery and a compelling read. There’s an inevitability about Elsie’s fate that keeps you turning the pages and the historical detail creates an atmospheric background to the unfolding drama.

Sarah Hawkswood writes mediaeval mysteries featuring Sergeant Catchpoll and Undersheriff Bradecote. The books are set in the Worcestershire area, a region I don’t know very well but am discovering in Hawswood’s books. In Marked to Die, a deadly archer is picking off his victims and disappearing into the forest, alarming the residents of Droitwich who threaten to take the law into their own hands to discover the culprit. I love the level of period detail in Hawkswood’s work and the life she imbues into her characters. There’s a hint of unrealised supernatural and a sense of fun in the narrative which makes the book a great addition to the series.

The Z Murders is by J. Jefferson Farjeon author of Mystery in White which became a bestseller following its reissue by the British Library. The Z Murders has an atmospheric beginning as traveller Richard Temperley arrives into Euston station on a sleeper train and goes to the smoking room at a nearby hotel at dawn to wait for London to wake. He finds the man with whom he shared his train carriage dead in the room and a woman he briefly saw sitting by the fire has disappeared. Motivated by chivalry and a desire to discover the truth of the killing, he outwits the police and goes in search of the woman. The book has such a promising start and I absolutely loved the description of thirties London. When the chase takes them across the country through Boston in Lincolnshire and on to Whitchurch the narrative is less compelling but it’s still an interesting read.

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Vintage Crime Box

Kate from the classic crime fiction site, Cross Examining Crime, sent me one of her vintage boxes in the post a week or so ago. She sells them on her Etsy site either as a one off gift or as part of a subscription.

It was very exciting book post filled with crime fiction goodies and gorgeous coffee. The picture to the left is the box as it arrived. On the right is a shot of the box after I opened the packaging to see what mystery books I’d been sent which I couldn’t wait to read.

Skeleton in the Closet by A B Cunningham is set in a Kentucky valley where a skeleton is unearthed by two young boys. Sheriff Jess Roden investigates the killing, using his knowledge of the land and its flood patterns to calculate that the woman had been in the ground for five years. He quickly establishes the identity of the victim, who wrote a note to her mother to say she was going leaving and wouldn’t be in touch for a long time. The book was published later in Cunningham’s career and is adeptly written. By far its greatest asset is the character of the sheriff whose humanity and tenacity ensure that the killer, who comes as no surprise to the reader, is brought to account.

A more substantial read was the unfortunately titled Slay the Loose Ladies. I can see that the title was changed from Puzzle for Wantons which is no better, which is a shame as it’s a very good read. Admittedly the premise  is grim, women who are intending to divorce their husbands gather at the house of rich Lorraine Playgel who invites along their errant husbands and the women begin to die. The book is humorous and dark, and the wealthy Nevada setting works perfectly.

Patrick Quentin was the pen name under which four authors wrote books featuring detective Peter Duluth. Duluth and his wife are wonderful creations and in the best tradition of husband and wife detective teams. Duluth gets more jaded in later books but here, on leave from his navy posting at the end of the Second World War, he’s a delight.

I’d never have picked up a book from either of these authors unprompted which goes to show the benefits of Kate’s excellent gift box. Do check out her Etsy site!

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Nordic Noir Round-Up

Reading continues for the 2018 Petrona Award judging session which is taking place in April. Here’s a summary of some of the contenders.

The Dying Game by Asa Avdic is an unusual read. Set in 2037, the Protectorate of Sweden is a dictatorship whose status isn’t recognised by the US or Western bloc countries. Anna Francis is a government official, intelligent and capable, who is sent to the remote island of Isola. Her mission is to pretend to have been murdered in front of a group of invited guests who will then be observed to see how they react. With shades of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Dying Game has an interesting premise but a confusing plot which nevertheless keeps the reader interested until the end. The translation is by Rachel Wilson-Broyles.

Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect is also set in the near future, here a paranoid Denmark. Susan Svendsen is gifted with an unusual talent:  people are compelled to confide their secrets to her. This talent is magnified when she’s with her husband, the renowned composer Laban, who has a similar effect on people. After a trip to India, all of her family, including  their twin children, are facing prison sentences. Susan is given the opportunity of an amnesty for their crimes, if she uses her talents to find out details of the secretive Future Committee. The Susan Effect is a very well written thriller which highlights what it feels like to be on the outside of ordinary society. The near future setting just about allows some of the slightly stranger plot points to work and this book is well worth a read. The translation is by Martin Aitken.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died is a departure for this author whose previous books have been dark thrillers. Jack Kaunismaa is a mushroom industry entrepreneur who discovers he is dying due to prolonged exposure to toxins. He decides to investigate his wife and associates to uncover who has poisoned him, without revealing his diagnosis and comes under a barrage of assaults from those who wish him dead. The Man Who Died is a darkly humorous book which requires the reader to suspend reality for a moment, which is no bad thing.The translation is by David Hackston.

Finally, a Finnish offering with a twist on a couple of classic crime motifs. In Cruel is the Nighttwo couples meet in an expensive London apartment. Robert and Mikko have been friends for years but, as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that their lives and that of their wives are intertwined and beset by long-held grudges. By the end of the evening, three are dead. In a clever, contemporary take on Christie’s  And Then There Were None with a dash of a locked room mystery, Karo Hämäläinen paints a portrait of wealthy lives and murderous intent. The translation is by Owen Witesman.

 

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