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.
I’ve had an eclectic book month as I’ve been reading for various events plus I’ve been trying novels that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. There’s something about the summer that encourages me to free up time to look beyond familiar authors and I’ve been racing through some interesting books.
Tomorrow, I’m at the Derby Book Festival chatting to Jo Jakeman about her debut novel, Sticks and Stones. It’s a fascinating story of three women involved with the same man, the violent Philip Rochester. When he threatens to make his estranged wife, Imogen, homeless she locks him in the cellar and finds unexpected allies in Ruby his former wife and in Naomi, his current girlfriend. With strong prose and complex characters, Sticks and Stones is a summer psychological thriller to get your teeth into.
Next week-end, I’m at Alibis in the Archives, in one of the most beautifully located libraries in the UK. I’ll be giving a talk on Derbyshire crime fiction and there’s plenty to discuss from Sheridan Le Fanu to present day crime writers. I’m a fan of Kate Ellis’s writing and, in her books, she usually fuses past and present. In A High Mortality of Doves, she turns her attention to 1919 Derbyshire and a community reeling from the effects of the Great War. Mutilated women are discovered around a village and tales of a soldier seen near the murder sites brings Albert Lincoln up from London to investigate a complex crime. Written with Ellis’s attention to detail, she provides a clever twist which adds rather than detracts from the story.
On the subject of Derbyshire, I finally got around to reading Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s not crime novel but set in a Derbyshire town where a thirteen year-old girl has gone missing. It’s probably the book that most sums up Derbyshire for me: the well dressings, the changing of the seasons and the communities where nothing and everything happens. I absolutely loved this books which deservedly won the 2017 Costa Novel Award.
While we had an unexpected period of hot weather, I read a Christmas mystery. Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith was first published in 1933. It’s a country house mystery where the patriarch, Adrian Gary, is murdered on Christmas Day morning by one of his six surviving children. The murderer is revealed early on but Meredith uses an ingenious plot construction to take us through the impact of the crime and the slow unveiling of the killer. It’s a clever, soberly written mystery and a perfect read if you’re missing the winter already.