Reading Round-Up

I’ve been busy reading for various panels and events that I’m moderating over the coming weeks and also working hard on my own writing. Tomorrow, I’m off to Bristol for CrimeFest, the crime fiction convention which I always look forward to. On Saturday, we will announce the winner of the Petrona Award and more on this will appear on Crimepieces. In the meantime, below is summary of some the excellent books I’ve read over the last few weeks.

That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unswoth  is the story of a spy ring during the second world war who use black magic in an attempt to destabilise Britain. Ross Spooner is the detective who is forced to enter a world of mediums and occultists to discover who is at the heart of the mischief. Unsworth cleverly weaves in the real life mystery of a woman found inside an ancient tree and there’s also a hint of Dennis Wheatly about the dark practices as enemy agents attempt to promote the Nazi cause. It’s a fascinating and unusual read.

Barry Forshaw turns his attention to historical crime fiction for his latest pocket essential guide. I’ve always admired the huge commitment to research that writing  crime fiction set in the past demands and there are some giants of the genre in this book. My natural inclination is to go to the authors I have read and it was great to see substantial entries for Philip Kerr, Kate Griffin and Kate Ellis in Historical Noir. Presented in chronological order, Lindsey Davis opens the book and it ends with the less familiar Gaute Heivoll who writes about 1970s Norway. As always, Forshaw’s books are fascinating to read and provide a handy insight into new authors to try.

Mari Hannah, always a strong writer, has excelled herself with her new book The Lost. A woman returns from a holiday with her sister to discover that her young son has disappeared. Alex’s husband, her son’s stepfather, comes under suspicion but the police investigation reveals a more complex web of lies. Hannah is excellent at continually unsettling the reader and the ending was a genuine surprise. A great start to what promises to be an excellent new series.

MW Craven’s new book, The Puppet Showhas an atmospheric backdrop of the Cumbrian countryside. Police are hunting a serial killer known as the ‘immolation man’  who mutilates and burns his victims. When the name of disgraced detective, Washington Poe, appears carved into the chest of the latest corpse, Poe is brought back from suspension into the investigation. It’s a fascinating premise and Craven delivers a satisfyingly dark thriller.

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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.

My Top Ten Crime Books of 2016

Top ten books of the year have been appearing since the beginning of December but I’ve held off posting mine just in case of a last minute brilliant read. However, I’ve spent most of the festive period reading classic crime, a review of which I’ll post later.

2016 has been a bit of a mixed bag in terms of reading. I have found the submissions for this year’s Petrona to be uneven. Some long running series are feeling a bit tired and Scandi tropes which once felt fresh are increasingly being recycled to the extent that I feel I’ve already read the book. Having said that, the Nordic Noir books that do make it onto the list were a joy to read.

So, here are my top ten books of 2016 in no particular order. If you want to know which one was my favourite, I’ll reveal all in my new year newsletter.

dying-detectiveLeif G W Persson – The Dying Detective (translated by Neil Smith)

Persson is a writer with a sure touch but in this standalone he excels in both plotting and characterisation. It’s a substantial read with plenty to think about and written with Persson’s sly humour.

27152-books-origjpgPD James – The Mistletoe Murder and other stories

There will be no more Dalgliesh novels from James but Faber have provided us fans of the erudite detective with two short stories in this collection. Although they have previously appeared in publications, every story was new to me and the sumptuous cover made the book a  delight to read.

51dWXz1LAoL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Fred Vargas – A Climate of Fear (translated by Sian Reynolds)

Another writer who delights in wry humour, this is Vargas back on form. Adamsberg is without doubt my favourite detective at the moment and the Icelandic setting for part of the story was an added bonus.

30840877-_uy200_David Mitchell – Slade House

I appear to have neglected to review this book. I think I was saving the post for a round-up of supernatural stories that I read over the year. It’s a great mix of crime and spooky events and I greatly enjoyed the way it unsettled the reader.

9781843446408Barry Forshaw – Brit Noir

This is a useful guide to British crime fiction divided by geographic region. The reviews of the merits of each writers books are perceptive and includes lesser known authors for aficionados to discover.

9781784292379Elly Griffiths – The Woman in Blue

One of my favourite crime series, I love the characters and the romantic tension between Nelson and Ruth. Here, the atmospheric setting of Walsingham provided the backdrop to a great plot.

 

9781910633359Agnes Ravatn – The Bird Tribunal (translated by Rosie Hedger)

Fans of Karin Fossum will love this story where the tension is slowly ratched up. It’s an example of how crime fiction can also be literary without the writing interfering with the story.

 

The-Crow-Girl-by-Erik-Axl-Sund-665x1024Erik Axl Sund – The Crow Girl

Violent and uncompromising, I loved how it pushes the reader to confront their prejudices in relation to perpetrators of brutality. It’s long but never dull.

 

A-Dying-Breed-lightPeter Hanington – A Dying Breed

A crime novel with a difference. The Afghanistan setting works equally as well as the world of news reporting in London. It gives an insight into the clashes between old and new style journalism. Peter Hannington is a writer to watch.

 

9781509809486chameleon-peopleHans Olav Lahlum – Chameleon People (translated by Kari Dickson)

The review for this excellent book will  be coming in my next Scandi round-up. It has all of Lahlum’s usual themes but his writing never tires. I found the character of the wheelchair-bound Patricia much more sympathetic in this book and there is clearly plenty of mileage left in the series.

So that’s my top ten. Next week I’ll be posting a list of books to watch for Spring 2017. I’ve already read some excellent novels and there’s plenty to look forward to.

Wishing all readers of Crimepieces a happy new year!

Review: Barry Forshaw – Brit Noir

9781843446408Barry Forshaw’s previous two books in this Pocket Essentials series published by Oldcastle, Nordic Noir and Euro Noir, have been excellent overviews of crime fiction coming from these regions. As a British reviewer, it was inevitable that he would turn his attention to the books coming out of this country but I can’t say I envied him the task. British crime writers are a diverse bunch and writing what is billed as a ‘definitive’ investigation was never going to be easy. Brit Noir, however, is an enjoyable and informative analysis of the genre with plenty of insightful comments on the authors included.

Forshaw divides Brit Noir into geographic regions. This not only mirrors the construction of his earlier books but also reinforces what he considers, in his introduction, to be one of the defining feature of the genre: vividly evoked locales. Splitting up authors like this will never please everyone and, as Forshaw acknowledges in his introduction, there are writers such as Ann Cleeves who set their books in more than one location. What was interesting was the chapter on British writers who choose to set their novels elsewhere: a substantial bunch some of whom reflect the British expat experience abroad in their books.

The other three key elements characterising British crime fiction identified are: strong plotting, literate, adroit writing and complex characterisation. It’ll be interesting to hear if readers agree with this conclusion. Forshaw rightly, in his introduction, mentions the legacy of the Golden Age writers. I was also conscious, while reading the book, of how the more recently deceased PD James and Ruth Rendell have influenced the writing of many of the authors included.

Forshaw gives both new and established authors a significant space in what, at 226 pages, is a short book and it’s an achievement to have included so many writers. Brit Noir is a book to dip into but also, as I did, to read from cover to cover. I’ve always considered Forshaw to be an honest reviewer and the book very much reflects his personality. It made the book a stimulating and, at times, amusing read.

I was delighted to included and am looking forward to other reviews which, I’m sure will generate much discussion.

Review: Detective and Antihero

I started reading crime fiction at an early age and a treasured Christmas present from my mother was a copy of HRF Keating’s Whodunit, one of the best crime fiction reference books ever written. The book was both accessible and informative and full of recommended reading for someone like me who wanted to be introduced to new crime authors and their detectives.

9781783205219Intellect books as part of their ‘crime uncovered series’ have published two books focusing on the detective and the antihero. They’re companion books although reading them identified the clear inclination I have in my own reading towards the hero rather than the villain as I was on much more familiar territory with the first book Detective edited by Barry Forshaw. Thirteen case studies are presented featuring examples of  British detectives (Morse, Dalgliesh), Scandinavian (Hole, Wallander) and other European (Montalbano and Adamsberg). I was familiar with all of them which meant reading the chapters great fun. I particularly enjoyed the case studies featuring my personal favourites – Morse and Dalgliesh and the more contemporary Sarah Lund and Saga Noren. The writing is accessible and informative and reminded me of why I love these characters in the first place.

Antihero was a completely different read as I was now on unfamiliar territory partly due to the strong US bias of the chosen characters. I only 51APyblcm4L._AC_UL320_SR236,320_really know Highsmith’s Tom Ripley which was an excellent chapter. But there was enough of interest and reminded me that I really need to read some of Jim Thompson novels. It was good to see an interview with Scottish crime author, Paul Johnston, who was entertaining and articulate on the role of antihero his own novels and those of others.

The books are aimed, I assume, at an academic audience but are also readily accessible for a readership well acquainted with crime fiction through reading for pleasure. Thanks to Intellect Books for my review copies.

 

My Top Five Reads of 2014

It’s been a strange reading year for me. I read less than I have done in a long while, mainly as I was concentrating on my own writing. It’s actually very hard to do both. I use Goodreads to log my reads and I know I finished 56 books this year which is around one a week.

There were, however, some gems amongst the books. What has surprised me is how much I’ve enjoyed novels written in the English language. You’ll see translated fiction in my list, of course, but I’ve discovered some amazing home-grown writers too.

It was hard to whittle the list down to my traditional five. I apologise for the male bias but that’s the way my reading went this year. I did think about having a top 10 instead. It would have been around a fifty-fifty male-female split. But it has been a ‘top five’ since Crimepieces started. And what’s Christmas without tradition?

1. Thomas Mogford – Hollow Mountain

TM

I’ve come to this series in the third book and I’d love to go back and read the earlier ones. Mogford is an excellent writer. The books are thrillers set in Gibraltar with a hard edge and excellent characterisation. The place comes alive in Mogford’s hands and I wish I’d discovered this author sooner.

 

2. Parker Bilal – The Ghost Runner

Parker Bilal

Another writer that I wish I’d read earlier. The Ghost Runner is set in the Egyptian desert and has the feel of a place existing on the margins of society. The protagonist is a stranger in a foreign country and there’s a feeling of isolation and otherness that make this book a special read.

 

3. K T Medina – White Crocodile

White-Crocodile-cover1

A debut novel set partly in Cambodia. The writing is excellent and a sense of menace dominates the narrative set amongst landmine clearance. I can’t wait to see what comes next from this talented writer.

 

4. Hans Olav Lahlum – The Human Flies

20140619-065221-24741563.jpg

Delightfully retro and with a tightly contained plot, Lahlum’s book was the star translation for me this year. Another writer that I can’t wait to read again.

 

5. Barry Forshaw – Euro Noir 

Euro noir

 

Not a crime novel but an essential guide to what’s available in translation from Europe. There are some excellent recommendations, particularly from countries largely undiscovered such as Greece and Romania. And I love the retro cover.

So a slightly different list than I expected at the start of the year. But that’s the joy of reading. The discovery of new books and writers. Do you agree with my choices? I’d love to hear.

 

Review: Barry Forshaw – Euro Noir

Euro noirBarry Forshaw has published a number of reference books on crime and thrillers but is particularly well known for his expertise in relation to Scandinavian crime fiction. His knowledge isn’t just restricted to the written word. He also writes about film and TV and his books are always packed full of useful information. While Scandinavian noir is now well embedded in the British consciousness, crime fiction from other European countries, including those in the Med and Eastern Europe is less popular over here. While one or two authors from each country might might have a decent readership, for example Fred Vargas from France or Italy’s Andrea Camilleri, many other excellent writers remain unknown. Forshaw’s latest book, Euro Noir redresses this by giving us a tantalising selection of authors that, in his opinion, are worth seeking out.

Of course, a book about Euro Noir wouldn’t be complete without a section on Scandinavia. To avoid repeating the content of his earlier book, Nordic Noir, Forshaw helpfully focuses on the key writers in each of the Scandinavian countries and also identifies emerging voices that we are likely to be seeing on the bookshelves soon. I’m still waiting for the books of Ragnar Jonasson to be published in English. I was lucky enough to read the first couple of chapters of one of his novels and can’t wait to see how the narrative continues.

Of the Mediterranean countries, I was particularly interested in the chapter on Greece, where I used to live. The book gave me some new authors to try, including Alexis Stamatis, and I’m hoping to pick up one of his books when I next visit the country.

The book is ideal holiday reading, especially if you plan to travel to any of the European countries mentioned and are looking for local authors to try while you are there. Like all the best reference books, it made me want to read virtually every writer mentioned. And, on another note, I love the cover. I can just imagine sitting in a street cafe reading it.

Thanks to the author for my copy of the book. Along with my fellow Petrona judges, I have a short section in the appendices giving my own Euro Noir recommendations. What are they? You’ll have to read the book.