As it’s the summer, my reading is slightly different from usual as I’m spending the time either catching up with authors’ latest reads or making headway with my TBR pile. Elly Griffiths is one of my favourite crime writers and I was conscious that I had an unread Ruth Galloway novel on my shelves. In The Dark Angel, Ruth travels to Italy at the request of one of her friends, archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli. Accompanied by her friend, Shona and young daughter, Kate, Ruth finds that Morelli is convinced his life is under threat. Griffiths excels at relationships and I love the on-off tension between Ruth and Nelson. This is a series that gets better and better.
Elly Griffiths also has a standalone book, The Stranger Diaries, out in November. It’s a modern gothic thriller set around a school which was once the residence of writer RM Holland. Clare Cassidy teaches English in the school and is appalled when one of her colleagues is found murdered. The book is told from the point of views of Clare, her daughter Georgia and Harbinder, the detective in charge of the case. Ss we’ve come to expect from Griffiths, it’s a compelling read and I loved the cast of characters she’s created.
I heard Andrew Taylor speak at Alibis in the Archives in June and was inspired to read his bestselling novel, The Ashes of London, set in the aftermath of the Great Fire. James Marwood, son of a traitor, is struggling to look after this impoverished father and earn a living. Tasked to search for Catherine Lovett, whose father was accused of regicide, he discovers a more deadly plot than the hunt for a missing girl. I loved both protagonists – it’s rare I like two points of view equally – and the period detail is wonderful.
The Anatomy of Ghosts is set in the late 1700s at a Cambridge College. Frank Oldershaw is involved in an initiation rite which goes wrong and he loses his mind, claiming to see the ghost of murdered Sylvia Whichcote. His mother calls on John Holdswoth, an author of a rationalist text on ghosts but living in impoverished circumstances, to investigate. Taylor brings to life a closed, incestuous world in this book which is again rich in period detail and compelling relationships.
Are you enjoying the blazing heat? I have to confess that it has slightly impacted on my reading. It is hard to hold a book (especially a hardback) and fan yourself at the same time so I’ve been watching a lot of films and crime dramas. However, I have immersed myself in a historical series (the subject of my next post) and three great crime novels.
Shari Lapena’s Agatha Christie style thriller, An Unwanted Guest, was published this week. A group of travellers are trapped inside a luxury lodge in the Catskills by a snow storm. When a woman is murdered, the remaining residents begin to inspect their fellow guests’ histories, looking to identify the killer, and decades old secrets begin to emerge. As more murders take place, alliances begin to fracture, until a spectacular denouement brings the killer to justice. Lapena, always a great storyteller, has written a compelling narrative. I loved the fact that we’re presented with a discrete group of suspects and there’s a Golden Age feel the unmasking of the culprit. A perfect read to cool you off this summer.
Estate agents traditionally get a bad press but Mary Torjussen does an excellent job in The Girl I Used To Be of showing the pressures of a professional woman juggling her own business and family life. When Gemma wakes up in a hotel room after having dinner with a client, she discovers that she has no memory of how the evening ended. This is another page turner and Torjussen provides a satisfying portrait of a woman who doubts her own suspicions and is determined to protect her family.
Don’t You Cry by Cass Green opens with recently separated Nina who nearly chokes at a restaurant during a blind date. She is helped by a waitress, Angel, who then turns up at Nina’s house in the middle of the night, closely followed by a relative carrying a baby. A dark night of terror and violence follows as Nina begins to doubt those close to her. Cass Green excels at characterisation and delivers a satisfying antagonist and a cast of engaging characters. Don’t You Cry is out on the 6th September.
I’ve been reading the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon since I was a teenager and many of them I’ve read more than once. I’ve found the series divides crime writers. Some, like me, love the books and others have never got into the series. I think the structure isn’t for everyone. The culprit is often known, or easily guessed, and as much effort is put into extracting a confession as to discovering who is responsible for a crime.
The books I read as a teenager were the old style green penguins. I never thought about the translation or the translator, in fact, I tended to forget I was reading fiction originally written in another language. Times have changed, however, and Penguin are gradually reissuing all 75 Maigret novels with new translations.
The first I read this month was Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse, translated by the excellent Roz Schwartz. A retired manufacturer is shot dead in his flat after playing chess with his son-in-law. Maigret struggles to find either a motive for the crime, or anyone prepared to speak ill of the dead man. Only the frozen nature of the dead man’s wife hints at family turmoil not immediately apparent. It’s not one of Simenon’s best but a good insight into Maigret’s tenacious and dogmatic approach to solving cases.
More satisfying is Maigret’s Doubts about a train-set enthusiast working in a toy shop who is convinced that his wife is about to kill him. I remember reading this book years ago and Simenon has an eye for the absurd both in terms of setting up the crime and the eventual denouement. Women don’t always come across that well in Simenon’s books and are usually seen through the eyes of male protagonists. However, there’s a nice insight into Maigret’s domestic life as he worries about his wife’s minor illness and a sense that he’s not the young man he used to be. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside.
Maigret and the Old People isn’t the most catchiest of titles and, given that Penguin have changed a fair few of the original names, it’s surprising that they’ve kept this one. Again I can remember reading this years ago and it’s an unusual tale of a retired diplomat found dead in his apartment, Maigret’s investigations reveal an age-old love affair which appears strange to the modern reader but fits in with Simenon’s wry look at relationships. It reminds me why I enjoyed these books so much as a teenager. They’re occasionally racy and always appeared as something different from the British Golden Age writers I was also reading at the time. This translation is also by Shaun Whiteside.
I’ve had a month or so of reading non-crime novels but I’m about to attack my backlog this week. However, I haven’t been neglecting crime entirely. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a podcast called Death in Ice Valley which I’ve found compelling.
On the 29th November, the charred body of a woman was found at the isolated Isdalen Valley in Bergen. Next to her body were Fenemal sleeping pills, empty bottles and various items of her clothing. There was no identification and the labels from her clothes had been removed. Although investigated by the police, the woman’s identity was never discovered and the autopsy concluded that the woman had died from Fenemal and carbon monoxide poisoning.
I first became aware of the case from crime writing friend, Gunnar Staalesen. Gunnar won the Petrona Award in 2017 for his book, Where Roses Never Die. His Varg Veum books are set in Bergen and I saw him talk about the case at an event. The woman’s death has recently been subject of a podcast by the BBC World Service and NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster. If you enjoy listening to high quality journalism, I can highly recommend it.
The series opens with Norwegian investigative journalist, Marit Higraff, and British BBC radio documentary maker, Neil McCarthy, giving the background to the case. There are some fascinating details: the pair of rubber boots that the woman bought in Stavanger, the seller remembering that she smelt strongly of garlic, and the suitcase discovered in an Oslo locker which contained, amongst other things, a coded note which has only partially been deciphered. This is what is already known but is fascinating not least because the images are shared in a Facebook group so you can see them for yourselves.
However, the journalists extend the investigation well beyond the original and there are some great potential insights once the woman’s jawbone is located and subjected to modern testing. The predominant theories are that either the woman was a spy, or a prostitute. She carried numerous fake passports but neither scenario fits the facts. As a spy she drew too much attention to herself and her choice of Christian lodgings mean it’s unlikely she took clients back to her rooms. Even her age remains unclear – this is a woman who appears to be without a history.
I can’t give too much else away without completely spoiling the series, and you might want to avoid the Facebook group until you’ve listened to all ten podcasts. Gunnar Staalesen makes an appearance in many of the episodes and suggests a realistic scenario toward the end of the podcasts. I’m feeling slightly bereft now the episodes have come to an end.