Review: Michael Ridpath – Amnesia

Amnesia is a new standalone thriller by Michael Ridpath whose previous books have been set in the world of high finance as well as the wilds of Iceland. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author and I enjoyed both the complexity of the plot and the intelligent way in which it is written.

Amnesia begins with an interesting premise. A doctor in his eighties living in a remote Scottish cottage wakes up in hospital after a fall with no memory of his past life. Clémence, the great-niece of a French friend of Alistair’s is persuaded to look after him but discovers a manuscript in his cottage suggesting that he killed her grandmother, Sophie. As Alistair gradually recovers his memory while Clemency reads aloud from the book, what is fact and fiction begins to blur.

Despite being set in the wilds of Scotland, Amnesia has an international feel which perfectly suits the thriller style plot. The historical narrative is set in various parts of France and the Bay of Naples and depicts the life of wealth and privilege which goes awry after a devastating act. The Scottish present day setting gives a sense of isolation and disorientation – Clémence is distanced from the past by the amount of time that’s elapsed and Alistair is alienated from the reality of the acts by the retrograde amnesia he is suffering from.

The characters are well drawn, in particular Alistair’s resilience towards his past actions and his current illness. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, made more so by he sense of fun in the final pages.

Golden Age Crime: Bodies from the Library event and Elizabeth Daly

19275046_10154520783276625_7861947831661637554_nI’m just back from an excellent event which was held in in the British Library on Saturday. Bodies from the Library is now in its third year and attracted a record number of attendees this time around. This is a testament to the organisers and to the continuing popularity of Golden Age crime.

I did a short talk on Elizabeth Daly, a writer from New York whose Henry Gamadge detective novels were published between 1940 and 1951. Her books incorporate many Golden Age themes and below is a summary of my talk. I hope you enjoy it!

I came to Elizabeth Daly through my collection of classic green penguin crime novels. When I first started collecting them, I was looking, in particular, for new women writers from the golden age. The penguin classics introduced me to, among others, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Frances Crane and, of course, Elizabeth Daly.

She’s an interesting person to talk about because, as a writer, I’m always interested in the authors behind the books and it’s quite difficult to find any information on Daly. We do know was that Daly was born 1878 in New York City, daughter of a judge and niece of the playwright, Augustin Daly. After her BA at Bryn Mawr college and MA at Columbia University she taught English and produced plays for her students. Meanwhile her early short prose appeared in periodicals of the time.

It wasn’t until she was sixty that her first full length novel was published. Unexpected Night featuring detective Henry Gamadge.   In the green penguins that I collect, the section for author information doesn’t have anything about Daly but gives a potted bio of her detective Henry Gamadge. Gamadge is an intelligent, well-educated upper-class New Yorker who is an expert on antiquarian books, maps, prints and autographs. He lives in New York’s fashionable Murray Hill district and although ostensibly working as an expert on old papers, he often undertakes investigations connected to his work.

So we’re not talking about the Mean Streets of Gotham. Anthony Boucher said Gamadge, “…is a man so well-bred as to make Lord Peter Wimsey seem a trifle coarse.” Gamadge appears in all sixteen of Daly’s crime novels published between 1940 and 1951 and, as the series develops, he acquires a wife, Clara, children, servants, assistants and pets, all of whom play a role in the stories.

If you can, it’s worth trying to read Daly from the beginning. With each successive book we get to know Henry’s coterie, all of whom become recurring characters and play a role in the investigations. For example, a man David Malcolm is accused of murder in Any Shape or Form. He’s invited at the end of the book to become Gamadge’s assistant. In the next book Somewhere in the House you meet Malcolm’s future wife, who in turn helps harbour a fugitive in The Book of the Crime.

Familiar faces dip in and out of the stories. I’ve seen some criticism of Daly that characterisation is a bit thin. Plot wins over character. I don’t think that’s particularly true if you read the series. You go back to the books because of the series arc as well as the individual crime stories.

Daly’s best known these days by the fact that she was referred to by Agatha Christie in an interview with Lord Snowdon as one of her favourite authors. A few of the editions that I have from the 1980s make much of this fact. I’ve also seen reference to The Clocks Agatha Christie’s book 1963 novel where Poirot gets bored and starts to dissect the novels of various fictional writers. Christie fans have tried to link the fictional writers to real life ones and this is what Poirot has to say about someone called Louise O’Malley. “Those brownstone mansions in New York…Those exclusive apartments and soulful snobberies, and underneath deep unsuspected seams of crime run their uncharted course.’ If it’s not about Daly it certainly could be.

Probably on the reasons Christie enjoyed her books so much is the complex plotting which incorporates many of the Golden Age themes : forged wills, warring families, jewellery thefts, locked rooms, and, of course, murders that appear to defy rational explanations.

New York Herald Tribune said of Deadly Nightshade (1940): “The plot thickens amazingly toward the end, with a flurry of romantic gambits, and Miss Daly proves herself as deft at juggling hints as the armchair sleuth could wish.”

Gamadge’s work as an antiquarian print expert influences the plots of the books. Many of Daly’s novels hinge on a work of literature  Murders in Volume 2 (1941) features the poetry of Byron, The Book of the Dead (1944) revolves around Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Book of the Lion (1948) involves a lost Chaucer manuscript. Puzzles also feature in Daly’s books. In Death and Letters, a woman being held prisoner by her family gets a message to Gamadge via a crossword puzzle.

The Gamadge books are set in New York society and their environs. They take place in a specific milieu. We don’t see ordinary working people unless they’re servants. So Daly’s not going to be for everyone.  I personally prefer these books that take place in the city however elite it might come across. Her books that take place in upstate NY, such as Nothing Can Rescue Me, have the feel of generic country house mysteries which are less satisfactory than her city based stories.

Daly is excellent at showing the cracks in polite society. Beneath the veneer of prosperity there are warring families with an eye on the wills of elderly relatives and young men preying on wealthy widows. In my favourite Daly novel, And Dangerous to Know, we see a wider stratum of NY society than in other books. Both behind the facades of the brownstone buildings but also the old houses that have been divided up into flats, the NY hotels where the rootless wealthy live in suites and the busy department stores where shoppers hustle for the latest bargain. The death is horrible. A missing girl is found in a flowerbed where Gamadge spots the depression in the earth. Daly never shies away from gruesome deaths and there’s something particularly disturbing about finding a missing girl under the flowers. The novel also has a strong sense of evil throughout.

Daly’s books aren’t ghost stories but for readers who like the unrealised possibility of the supernatural, Daly does like to occasionally add a dash of this into her books. In Evidence of Things Seen, Clara Gamadge’s vacation is disturbed by the apparent visitation of a ghost dressed in a poke bonnet and dress. In Murders in Volume 2 a woman claims to be the same person who disappeared with the works of Byron a hundred years earlier having ‘vacationed on an astral plane’. In Nothing can Rescue Me mysterious messages that appear on a typewriter are claimed by one of the suspects to be automatic writing produced by the supernatural. These elements are usually quickly dismissed but good fun to read.

Daly often embraces the weird. In Somewhere in the House a dead woman’s waxwork effigy has been bricked up in a hidden room for twenty years. Gamadge is asked to attend the unlocking of the room and he’s appalled and, as readers, so are we.

The culprit is often the least likely suspect. To the jaundiced eye this can be a bit tiring and occasionally you can see the denouement coming a mile off. But, I think Daly often manages to pull it off. In The House without a Door and Nothing Can Rescue Me, Daly plays fair with the reader but still manages to surprise with her choice of murderer.

The New York Times Book Review on  Evidence of Things Seen (1943): “So ingenious is the plot of this story that we feel safe in predicting that most readers will be completely fooled and will then wonder how they ever happened to muff the solution.”

So, how can you read the author in the UK? The House Without the Door (1942), Nothing Can Rescue Me (1943) & Evidence of Things Seen (1943) were published in the vintage green penguins and these are pretty easily found in second hand bookshops. Bantam books in the US reprinted some of the series in the 1980s and they’re slightly harder to find but they also do appear in bookshops. However luckily for us, US publisher Felony and Mayhem have reprinted the whole series and the physical copies are available in the UK from Amazon. Unfortunately they’re not available on kindle although they are on the US site so there’s clearly a rights issue which is a shame.

 If you like the Daly mysteries and are looking for more Gamadge books, as a footnote, Elizabeth Daly’s niece Eleanor Daly Boylan wrote five continuation novels featuring Clara Gamadge, Henry’s wife. Set in the late eighties and early nineties, after Henry’s death Clara moves to Florida but, in the first book, is persuaded back to New York to help solve a mystery. They’re in the tradition of contemporary cosy mysteries and perhaps not as complexly plotted as Daly’s books, but I think they take the elements of Elizabeth Daly’s sense of fun and I think they’re certainly worth a read.

Thanks to all who enjoyed the talk and mentioned that they’d be seeking out Daly to read. I hope you enjoy her. Do let me know how you get on.

A short interlude

I’m aware that it’s over three weeks since I last posted on Crimepieces.  First of all, to make my excuses, here’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve been finishing the first draft of my fourth book. The photo doesn’t give much away, I’m afraid, even the title but it’ll be the fourth book in my DC Connie Childs series. The narrative is split between the present day and the 1950s and it’s been fascinating to research this interesting decade.

At Crimefest in Bristol the 2017 Petrona Award for Scandinavian crime fiction was presented to Gunnar Staalesen for Where Roses Never Die. A really excellent book. I’ve now started to read for the 2018 award, beginning with The Thirst by Jo Nesbo. It’s a substantial book at 537 pages and Nesbo is always eminently readable. Translated by Neil Smith, the prose has you turning the page but, be warned, it’s the most violent Nesbo yet. The killer has a way of dispatching his victims that’s gruesome in the extreme and Nesbo cleverly uses the rise of social media, and Tinder in particular, to frightening effect. Lovers of Harry Hole will  be delighted but it won’t be for everyone.

I’ve also read two new books, one coming later this month and one early next year. Both were excellent. Kathy Reichs is best known for her series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. Two Nights marks a departure for her.  Her new protagonist, Sunnie Knight, is an ex police officer who is hired by a wealthy woman looking for her granddaughter. A bomb explosion killed other members of the family but the girl was lost in the confusion. Sunny heads to Chicago with enemies on her trail to track down the girl. The book is different in style and tone from Reich’s other books and is perfect for fans of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Her new protagonist will easily carry a new series and I’m looking forward to reading more. Two Nights is out on the 29th June.

I then had a reading break as a number of books I picked up were put down again, unable to get beyond the first couple of pages. We all go through reading slumps like this, I guess. However, mine was revived by an excellent book, The Confession by Jo Spain. It’s a bit naughty including it here, as it’s not out until next year but it really is excellent. A woman watches her husband being brutally attacked and the next day the assailant hands himself in. We know who did it but not why and the narrative gradually reveals the reason behind the attack. I won’t say any more except that you’re in for a treat next year.  It was a delight to read. You can follow Jo Spain on Twitter @SpainJoanne.

I hope I’ve managed to pique your interest about some of these books including mine! We’ve three months to wait until A Patient Fury is out but I have some lovely things happening around that time. More soon.

I’ll also be appearing this month in the British Library at the Bodies from the Library event to talk about Elizabeth Daly. I’m a big fan and if any readers of Crimepieces are too do please let me know.

Review: Barbara Copperthwaite – The Darkest Lies

I read a very early draft of The Darkest Lies and it’s always interesting to see what an author does with a manuscript in the revision process. What I remember from reading the earlier draft was the excellent sense of place and the grip of the narrative as the predator in the shadows became apparent. The finished book, published last week by Bookouture, more than realises its potential and it was a gripping read second time around.

Teenager Beth Oak goes missing in a Lincolnshire marshland village, devastating her mother Melanie. When Beth is found unconscious, battered and on the brink of death, Melanie undertakes her own investigations. Villagers, however, aren’t keen to talk and Melanie’s attempt to uncover buried secrets bring her own life into danger.

The Darkest Lies is a creepy read that suitably mirrors the landscape in which it is set. Melanie is in the midst of a nightmare with a dying daughter and surrounded by neighbours that she no longer trusts. She’s forced to consider the actions of Beth and circumstances which encouraged her daughter to keep secrets hidden. The split narrative works particularly well here as we discover from Beth’s viewpoint how  easy it is to become unwittingly sucked into danger. The Darkest Lies is a taut psychological thriller which keeps the reader genuinely guessing until the end.

Review: Barry Forshaw – American Noir

I’ve reviewed all the previous books in this enjoyable series by Barry Forshaw published by Oldcastle Books: Nordic Noir, Euro Noir and Brit Noir. You get a useful overview of the genre in the introduction, individual entries for writers of note, a section on film and TV and a ‘top thirty’ of the best books.

American Noir was a slightly different read for me  because, as I looked through the entries, I realised  that there were a raft for writers I hadn’t heard of. I read a lot of female PI books in my twenties: Marcia Muller, Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton and am a huge fan of, and continue to read, Jonathan Kellerman and James Lee Burke. Perhaps because my early reading erred towards the British Golden Age rather than US noir, I appear to have missed out on a number of contemporary authors writing in that genre whose books sound fascinating.

It was good to see the inclusion of some writers I did recognise and are less well known here: Nevada Barr, Paul Doiron and Sarah Gran. There are also some interesting entries for writers I don’t necessarily associate with the crime novel such as Joan Brady and Paul Auster and for writers such as Tami Hoag and MG Gardiner who I have stopped reading and need to revisit their more recent works. It’s the mark of an excellent guide that you want to read or re-read the authors that are featured.

Forshaw states in his introduction that  it was hard to fit all living writers in the pages and helpfully guides readers to his Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. There you will find Lawrence Block whose Matt Scudder books are one of my favourites.

American Noir is a delightful addition to the series and fans of the crime fiction genre will love it. I’m looking forward to dipping in and out of it in the future and adding to my already toppling TBR pile.

Review: Johanna Gustawsson – Block 46

Johanna Gustawsson won two prestigious French awards for her first novel, Block 46. I saw her recently at a crime fiction festival, Newcastle Noir, and she gave an insight into the writing of the book. Block 46 is a distinctive thriller drawing on the traditions of both French and Swedish crime fiction. The mutilated body of a young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a marina. Her body bears the trauma of a distinctive form of torture that follows a similar pattern to that inflicted on two young boys in London. Linnea’s friend, true-crime writer Alexis Castells, travels to Sweden to find answers to the murder which she feels is being hampered by a set of assumptions that the Swedish police force are using as the basis of investigation. It’s only when Alexis  teams up with Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, that links to the Second World War become apparent.

The book is a dark, brutal thriller that oscillates between the modern day investigation and Block 46, the death unit in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Linking a fictional modern day crime to an historic mass murder is a bold move and contributes to the darkness of the narrative. I think the story succeeds by the use of a neutral tone in the translation which allows the reader to keep a slight distance from the acts of violence. Nevertheless, the depictions of the killings aren’t for the faint-hearted although readers of crime fiction in translation will probably find the violence no stronger than that of Pierre LeMaitre or Jo Nesbo.

It was good to see two women paired as a duo. I see the book is being billed as the first in the ‘Roy and Castells’ series and, as an investigating team, the series promises to be a strong one especially with a writer who is so articulate about her own writing.

The translator is Maxim Jakubowski.

Review: Graham Smith – Watching the Bodies

I’ve not read any books by Graham Smith before but he’s a well regarded crime fiction reviewer and runs the popular Crime and Publishment course at his hotel in Gretna Green. Watching the Bodies  is a novel set in the scenic state of Utah. It’s an area that once visited and I remember struggling to find any books set in what proved to be an atmospheric landscape with remnants of the frontier lifestyle. In Smith’s book,  Jake Boulder is asked by a PI acquaintance to help track down the killer of Kira Niemeyer, the daughter of a wealthy Utah family. Her father has no faith in the local police and is convinced that Kira had many secrets which might hold the key to her killing.

Jake is a Scot by birth and boasts about this proudly throughout the book. It makes him an  outsider in Utah society but his job as a doorman at the Joshua Tree bar means he knows many of the faces about town. Watching the Bodies is a thriller with a twist in the tale, in this instance how the murderer selects his victims. It never becomes too gory, partly because of the fast pacing and also through the inclusion of light touches in the narrative, mainly in relation to the ineffectual local police force.

There’s an interesting relationship between Jake and his mother which I enjoyed reading about. The tough guy versus the matriarch makes for a thought-provoking dynamic and gave the reader something different to digest. An enjoyable book and a great start to a new series.

Review: Kwei Quartey – Gold of Our Fathers

Today’s review is courtesy of Tom Priestly, a regular reader of Crimepieces and a connoisseur of crime fiction. He’s reviewing an author I haven’t read before but, as usual, Tom’s review makes a compelling argument for me to read it!

Gold of Our Fathers is Kwei Quartey’s fourth crime novel; they all feature detective Darko Dawson and are set in Ghana. As a detective fiction aficionado and an African of sorts myself (with just the first six years of my life spent in Uganda and Kenya) I am always on the lookout for crime novels from Sub-Saharan Africa; but apart from excellent South African ones, they are few. So, finding the series by Quartey was a triumph, for all four of his Dawsons to date are very good, and they get better every time. The plots are well-constructed, the characters very real, and — one of the series’ best features — they present extremely interesting insights into modern life in Ghana. What is especially enlightening is the scope — each one so far has had a different setting: Wife of the Gods about traditional beliefs in a small village the Volta region in the South-East; Children of the Street, life in the slums and the very rich districts of the capital, Accra; Murder at Cape Three Points, at an oil rig off the South-West coast; and the book reviewed, about open-cast gold mining in the Western, Ashanti region. Every time, the traditions and beliefs, the buildings, the clothing, the food are all carefully described, and I now know more about Ghana than very many other countries.

Quartey writes about Ghanaians and foreigners with equal objectivity. His first two ‘Dawsons’ feature locals only, the next two show some of the exploitation by people from overseas. The oil rigs are the result of Western business intrusions; the gold mines are almost exclusively concerns of Chinese interests, and some of the suspects in this case are Chinese — legal and illegal residents. Other possibles on Dawson’s list this time are Ashanti villagers who sacrifice the ancestral farms for better earnings (life otherwise being hand-to-mouth), and decidedly shady if not corrupt members of the local police. Meanwhile, Dawson has to cope with moving his job and his family to this new centre and organizing an office which is in complete chaos. He is no saint but his honesty stands out, as does his methodical approach to sifting through the list of suspects and the many clues. Quartey can be faulted, in this novel as in previous ones, by providing his leading detective with a chance flash of insight from a remark, on this occasion by both his young sons; but this is a common fault among writers. Unusual among fictional detectives are his good relationships with his immediate family and his (almost) complete non-dependence on alcohol or other drugs.

According to a reviewer (of another author) in The New York Times Book Review, “Ever since the days of Agatha Christie, the great divide in the British detective story has been between plot and character,” implying that most or all British crime writers since Christie have not properly combined both. I disagree: she died 40 years ago, and given say five minutes I could produce a long list as a strong counterargument. My point here, however, is that Kwei Quartey does pay equal and suficient attention to both plot and character, and combines them with a third element, one that for me personally is almost essential: a strong sense of place. After reading — as a single example — two books by Jim Kelly, I feel almost at home in the part of Norfolk along the coast eastwards from King’s Lynn: if I ever go there I will recognize the sounds, the smells, the views. And this is true of Quartey’s Ghana also.

Readers who may be put off by too many strange names and phrases and foodstuffs in unknown languages can be reassured: Quartey provides what used to be traditional — a list of characters, at the front — and also a glossary of quoted words in three of the languages of Ghana. They will find a narrative which moves briskly along, a little excitement, and a well-devised set of clues. Kwei Quartey is a doctor in California: I very much look forward to his next, Death by His Grace, about religious (mal)practices in Accra, and hope he can find time away from the cares of his practice for more trips back home to Ghana and for writing!

 

Review: Donna Leon – Earthly Remains

I was always slightly embarrassed when I admitted that I’d never read a Donna Leon book. There are more crime fiction authors than I have time to read but when the publisher William Heinemann offered me Leon’s latest book Earthy Remains to review, my only question was: do I have to have read any others in the series? By my reckoning, this latest offering featuring Commissario Brunetti is the twenty sixth book in the series and there must be a fascinating backstory to the characters that I couldn’t possibly catch up on. I was, however, assured that Earthy Remains could be read as a standalone. And what a joy it was.

I’m going to break my reviewing habit of giving a precis of the novel and just extol its delights. Firstly it’s a gloriously nuanced read. In a crime fiction world of twisty plots and surprises ready to jump out of you at every corner, here we have a mystery presented evenly without fanfare and, yet, I was totally gripped. This was largely due to Leon’s gradual immersion of the reader into the crime. We care that Brunetti has been dispatched to one of the islands on the Venetian lagoon and follow the development of his friendship with Casati, his father’s former oarsman. Therefore, we care about Casati’s disappearance and the impending sense of  doom that shrouds the search.

Leon also gives a textbook example of how to integrate setting into a crime novel. Like the best of the Scandinavian crime writers, she presents a plot that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. We get insights into Venetian rowing, laguna biodiversity and the keeping of bees and it’s all interwoven into the mystery  with a light touch. The crime itself is realistically unspectacular and although all the seeds are sown years earlier, there are no trite conclusions or pat endings.

I’m sure there are readers of Crimepieces who are huge Donna Leon fans and don’t need telling how wonderful a writer she is. For those of you who haven’t tried Leon’s work, I can assure you that you can start with Earthly Remains. It was a wonderful read.

Giveaway: Five Maigret Novels

I’m doing a giveaway today because it’s Easter Monday, my birthday (although I’m trying to forget my age), and last night I enjoyed watching Rowan Atkinson in Maigret’s Night at the Crossroads.

I’m a huge Maigret fan and I have a lot of the green Penguin editions that I loved reading as a teenager. Although my favourite TV adaptations are the French ones featuring Bruno Cremer, I thought Atkinson did a decent job.

I have five books from the new Penguin translations to give away. They are:

Cecile is Dead 
The Shadow Puppet
The Saint-Fiacre Affair
The Hanged Man  of Saint-Pholien
The Dancer at Gai Moulin

To win, all you need to do is sign-up to my newsletter by clicking on the photo below.

You get four newsletters a year so you won’t be inundated with e-mails. The competition is open to everyone. If you’re already signed up to my newsletter, just let me know the title of your favourite Maigret book in the comments below.

The winner will be chosen, as usual, by a random number generator. The competition closes at 6pm on Thursday 20th April. I’ll announce the winner here and on my Facebook page.

Good luck!

*Congratulations to Margaret from Books Please who won the competition*