Review: After the Fire by Henning Mankell

coverHenning Mankell was, I think, the first Swedish author I read and I enjoyed his standalone books as much as his Wallander series. Mankell died in 2015 and his final book, After the Fire, has recently been published. It features Fredrik Welin who appears in the 2010 novel, Italian Shoes which I haven’t read and I was a bit daunted at starting what might be a difficult book to read without the backstory of the protagonist. As it turns out, After the Fire, works perfectly well as a standalone and was a substantial and interesting read.

Welin lives alone on an island in a Swedish archipelago and wakes up one night to find his house on fire. Although he manages to save himself, he is left with only the clothes he stands in and some money in his bank account. The police suspect that the fire was started deliberately and that Welin might himself be responsible for the destruction of his property. When his daughter, Louise, returns from France to see the remains of the house, old wounds and tensions resurface as Welin struggles to rebuild his life.

I suspected that After the Fire wasn’t particularly a crime novel and, although there’s a criminal act at the heart of the book, it’s as much a novel about loss, family and fragile friendships. Welin is of an age where his friends and acquaintances are infirm or dying and he’s wondering if he has the energy to start afresh. His relationship with his daughter is a difficult read. I found Louise to be incredibly unlikable as a character and nearly stopped reading the book as she’s just so destructive and her motivations are hard to fathom. Better portrayed is Welin’s relationship with the journalist Lisa Modin and his friendship with his former postman Jansson. During the course of the story, Welin has to cope with the gap between what he wants and what others are willing to give him.

Ultimately After the Fire  is a satisfying read and left me with a sense of a life picking up. The relationships portrayed are bleak in parts and verged on the depressing which is unusual for Mankell’s writing. There’s certainly a sense of an older man coming to terms with loss and grief and I’d be interested to read of others’ responses to the story.

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Review: Jane Casey – After the Fire

This is the first post from guest reviewer, Rachel Hall. I met Rachel at the end of last year and she’s an avid reader of crime fiction . She’s agreed to write a monthly guest review and, as you can see, she’s an excellent writer. I hope you enjoy her monthly posts.

Jane Casey, After the FireMy first introduction to DC Maeve Kerrigan and she made quite an impression. In the sixth outing of the series Maeve is part of the murder squad investigating a devastating fire in a tower block on the notorious Maudling Estate in North London. From the outset the estate presents a bleak and unappetising picture

“Murchison House stood eleven storeys high, an uncompromising slab of social cement housing that dated from the seventies and looked it. Five other tower blocks of varying sizes stood around Murchison House like siblings in an unhappy family.”

Taking out the top two floors of the block and claiming three lives it is the presence of one man who points to complexities and sensitivities which demand the attention of the murder squad. As the antithesis of everything so many of the residents stand for, the controversial, outspoken and right-wing MP Geoff Armstrong has no business on the deprived estate. Was he the intended victim of a targeted arson attack or was he simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Most intriguingly, when it is revealed that the fire wasn’t the cause of his demise, the question of whether he jumped or was pushed to his death arises.

Despite reuniting a team all familiar to each other the murder squad has had a change of personnel and DCI Una Burt is now running the show in place of Superintendent Charles Godley who is on indefinite leave. Abrasive DI Josh Derwent is confident, cocky and doesn’t always play by the rules and no one is waiting for him to step out of line more than the new DCI. Pairing Maeve with Derwent and making for a duo who know each other inside out and bring the best out of each other, Maeve has the added challenge of preventing Derwent from becoming his own worst enemy. A well drawn squad of secondary detectives all with distinctive personalities ensure that this novel never becomes solely about Josh and Maeve. It sparks with energy and the readers eye is never detracted from the investigation under focus.

Firstly Maeve and her colleagues have to ensure that Geoff Armstrong was the intended victim of the fire. From the shady crime family, the domestically abused wife and the elderly lady who sees everything there are plenty of equally possible targets amongst the residents of the tenth and eleventh floors. The closer the team examine things the less sense they seem to make. With multiple strands all combining to present a gritty storyline Casey has an appreciation of what is needed to create weighty characters which make for an engaging story.

Amidst the investigation Maeve has some distractions vying for her attention, specifically a raw relationship split which has left her feeling fragile, health worries and the renewed interest of stalker Chris Swain. She has had dealings with Swain in the past, most notably a close encounter at Murchison House and although After The Fire refers to these events I didn’t feel like I’d been left behind by not having read any of the prior novels. It is clear that Maeve is still vulnerable, never taking her safety for granted and it is evident that Chris Swain will watch and wait with patience for his opportunity to strike. Both Maeve and Derwent appreciate that this is an evil which needs conquering once and for all and the one man she can trust to look out for her interests in her senior colleague DI Josh Derwent.

There is a realism to Maeve which goes beyond just scratching the surface and a depth to the character which provides a truly authentic edge and makes for an intriguing protagonist. In the same way that the brilliant Kati Hiekkapelto manages to bring to life Anna Fekete and keep my mind buzzing, Casey has managed with Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with herself in the way that is familiar to so many young career woman and you feel that she has a sense of the bigger picture, of presenting an ‘image’, or front at work.

The relationship between DC Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent is a complicated one and it would be so easy for Jane Casey to fall back on the underlying sexual tension theme and yes, there is certainly a frisson of something. These two spar and parry and bring the best out in each other but they would fight to the death to watch each others backs.. A chemistry undoubtedly, but an unusual and intriguing one for two colleagues.

In Maeve’s interactions with the new DCI,  the author displays a thoughtful appreciation of the sacrifices that are necessary for a woman to get to the top of  a police force and just what a lonely and unenviable position that can be. Likewise in the case of domestic violence Casey recognises the weariness of the officers that make up the unit and how easy it is to become jaded. When Maeve acknowledges that many perpetrators do stay under the radar by controlling and manipulating within limits the work of the officers is brought into sharp focus.   The Justice for Levon campaign has overtones to similar situations which have occurred in London and again Jane Casey does a fine job in portraying the simmering tension that this can bring to such a diverse community.

If you are one of those readers who are confounded by the popularity of the police procedural genre, this is a brilliant example of what attracts a legion of followers. Smart, on the money dialogue, well paced and with a brilliant human interest and relationship element After The Fire will set your heart pumping. For those who need convincing of the appeal of the novels read the likes of Jane Casey and Eva Dolan for a sense of what keeps the genre fresh and fulfilling for so many. With a well researched plot and an understanding of the goings on behind the dark web which have an ever increasing role amongst the criminal fraternity, After The Fire proves that Jane Casey is an author with her finger very much on the pulse!

A compulsive novel in which the clues are all there for the readers, but separating the truth from the lies amid Murchison House and the Maudling Estate is one hell of a job.. As Kerrigan comments points out to Derwent as one stage,

“You’re always trying to get a reaction and it’s exhausting.”

Admittedly this is true but it makes for an incredible sideshow which injects the sparkle into this tale and the rapport and banter between these two make for a formidable partnership. An accomplished story which brings each of the threads to a satisfying conclusion and makes for a wonderful read. Kerrigan and Derwent combine to keep each other on the straight and narrow and this will not be my last encounter with the pair.

An exemplary police procedural and now time for a scramble to order the earlier outings of Maeve Kerrigan pronto.