British Crime Fiction – Four new novels

I’ve started reading in earnest for this year’s Petrona Award so a lot of my reading has been from the Nordic countries. I’m not neglecting home-grown authors, though. Below are reviews of four crime novels by British writers that I’ve read recently.

the-cellarMinette Walters is a favourite writer of mine. Her debut novel, The Ice House, would probably make it into my top ten crime books. Unlike other writers, her books have got shorter over time but retain the focus on the darkness that’s often hidden behind closed doors. The Cellar is the story of Muna who is kept as a slave by the Songoli. Unable to remember her early childhood, Muna beneath her calm exterior plots her revenge. It’s more a horror tale than crime novel but an excellent and compelling read.

a-suitable-lieI’m a fan of Michael J Malone’s novels and poetry and his new book, A Suitable Lie, marks a change in direction from him. He tackles the difficult and emotive subject of domestic violence in a realistic way and the book was a very moving read. It’s difficult to say more without giving away spoilers but its my favourite of Malone’s works so far as he grapples with a subject shrouded by innuendo and shame.

51fsbbswvxlRebecca Bradley is a former CID detective and her wealth of experience comes across in her books. Made to be Broken is set in Nottingham where a poisoner is wreaking havoc on the city. It’s good to see a police team where the reverberations of a previous case are still being felt and you know you’re in safe hands with Bradley’s writing. The city of Nottingham is well depicted and I loved the clever murder plot.

51yzlijmaqlI read For Reasons Unknown  by Michael Wood as the author was appearing at a festival I was having at my local village. It’s a top-notch police procedural that draws on the authors experiences as a journalist in Sheffield. The writing is superb and the book certainly didn’t read like a debut. Wood is a writer to watch.

Review: Michael J Malone – A Taste for Malice

five_leaves_-_a_taste_for_maliceI enjoyed the first outing of Glasgow detective Ray McBain. Blood Tears combined an emotive issue (abuse inside Catholic children’s homes) with an enjoyable and well-written murder plot. The follow-up has just been published and, in my opinion, is even better than the first. A Taste of Malice has a slightly more subdued feel to it, but again addresses difficult issues involving the abuse of children, this time within the family by someone you trust.

McBain is back at Glasgow CID but has been sidelined and told to keep his nose clean. Desperate for something to do, he hones in on two old cases, where a woman has inveigled her way into a family and found ways to manipulate and torture the children. He goes on a search for the woman, reinterviewing the children involved and following a cold trail. Meanwhile, in Ayrshire, another young family gratefully accepts help from a stranger who enters their lives. However, the mother’s loss of memory is masking deeper problems within the family that are ripe for exploitation.

Michael is an expert storyteller and in A Taste for Malice, we get two distinct plot lines that only merge in the final part of the book. The first, the investigation by McBain, sees him struggling with the trauma from his previous case in the face of Departmental indifference. Only his colleague, Allesandra Rossi, is prepared to assist him as he attempts to dig deeper into the abuse cases. The story of the family struggling to cope with the wife’s memory loss is suitably creepy and it is unclear for a fair amount of the book how the two cases converge. McBain is an attractive character. His childhood scars make him both vulnerable and prickly and his sex life is suitably tempestuous.

The book was an enjoyable and disturbing read. As well as appealing to those who enjoyed Blood Tears, it will also hopefully garner some new readers for this series.

Thanks to the writer for sending me a copy of the book.

A Poem for National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, when we celebrate the work of poets from around the world. The theme this year is ‘stars’ and how the wonder of the universe has been expressed in in poems. More information can be found on the official website.

So what’s a post about poetry doing on a crime fiction blog? Well, the link between poetry and crime fiction is not as tenuous as it might seem. A fair few poets have also been crime writers including Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L Sayers, Cecil Day Lewis, Karin Fossum and Sophie Hannah. WH Auden, fascinated by the detective story, wrote a poem using the elements found in crime fiction as an allegory for an individual’s journey through life. Poets have even made it as detectives – with PD James’s erudite Adam Dalgliesh.

To celebrate National Poetry Day, below is a poem by crime writer Michael J Malone. I’ve chosen it because I like it, Michael’s a friend of mine, and I think we all need a bit of poetry in our lives.

Privilege

Once above a time, as a boy
I pressed against a fence
watching deer play in enclosed abandon.

My teeth pierced an apple’s firm flesh
and ten noses quivered
at the sweet scent waltzing on the wind.

A young doe
skuffed at the turf
edged towards me
nose hooked on the fragrant line.

While her friends skirted
the unwritten ring of safety
her brown eyes appealed,
her tickled nostrils craved.

While one hand held the fruit
through the chain-meshed fence
the other hovered in awe
over the soft brush of hair
that garlanded her head.

The barrier diluted
she permitted my touch;
satin streaming over rock
peace suffused me.
Once again above a time,
now a man, you offer me
the benediction of your kiss.

‘Privilege’ is from Michael’s poetry book In the Raw

Review: Michael J Malone – Blood Tears

I first read this book in manuscript two years ago when Michael was looking for a publisher. I thought the story was both riveting and tragic, portraying the reverberations years later of child abuse in a Scottish children’s home during the 1970s. The book was published by Five Leaves Publications earlier this year, which gave me a chance to revisit the characters in Blood Tears.

Detective Inspector Ray McBain is a Glasgow detective investigating the death of a murdered man who has wounds identical to stigmata. The victim is quickly identified as a paedophile who once worked in a Catholic children’s home, Bethlehem House. McBain travels to the orphanage to retrieve a list of children who came into contact with the murdered man and removes his own name from this list in front of his new DC Allesandra Rossi. This omission has serious reverberations for McBain as the killings continue and he becomes the main suspect. He is now forced to try to prove his innocence while simultaneously investigating the case from afar.

Blood Tears has been marketed as ‘Scottish Catholic noir’ and in fact this is a very good description of the book. The novel follows the tradition of many other excellent Scottish police procedurals and McBain in particular has a lovely stock of Scottish phrases which made this English reader smile. There is also a strong Catholic theme to the book. The children’s home was run by a religious order of nuns and the current mother superior was a particularly vicious member of the community who remembers Ray as a child. The book is very good at depicting how the terrors of childhood can make a grown man fear for his own sanity. There is also a sense of unfinished business in relation to the Church although Ray’s one attempt to attend a religious service ends disastrously. The darkness that runs through the book provides the ‘noirish’ feel and the interspersed passages from the killer’s point of view show how disturbed the individual is by past events.

The book isn’t all darkness though. There is a grim humour throughout, particularly the passages involving Ray McBain. He is clearly his own worst enemy and yet as the book shows he was abandoned first by his (living) parents and then by the institution that was supposed to look after him. The irony that he then chose to go to a seminary after leaving the children’s home and then ended up in another institution – the police – isn’t lost on the reader.

The book is an excellent début and I would certainly read more the series. I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the manuscript next time…

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at The View from the Blue House and Crimesquad.

The author’s website is here.

CrimeFest 2012: Debut Authors Panel – An Infusion of Fresh Blood

From classic crime to newly published authors. The first panel of Saturday morning at CrimeFest featured five debut writers discussing their novels. Moderated by crimesquad.com’s Chris Simmons, the eclectic panel provided a glimpse of some of the issues and themes featured in the latest crime books.

The first speaker was Thomas Enger whose first book Burned was published in July last year. The novel features Henning Juul, a journalist back at work after a traumatic incident who becomes involved in investigating a murder. Burned is the first in a planned series of six books, most of which have already been plotted. Enger spoke about the importance of mapping out the structure of his books after his previous writing attempts which were more spontaneous, but in his eyes less successful.

Next to speak was Penny Hancock, whose book Tideline is about a woman who abducts a teenage boy and keeps him prisoner in her home. The author explained that inspiration came partly from the guilt most mothers feel at failing their children in some way. The book focuses on the dangers that can emanate from within the home, usually considered to be a place of safety.

The third panelist was Damien Seamen whose book The Killing of Emma Gross is available on Kindle. The book was inspired the true story of a victim of Peter Kürten, the Dusseldorf Ripper in 1929. A number of serial murders took place during the Weimar Republic and the author explained his fascination with the period and the influence of the films of Fritz Lang.

Michael J Malone’s Blood Tears will be released on the 6th June. His view was that the Catholic experience in Scotland hadn’t been properly addressed in crime fiction and his book, in part, addresses the abuses that took place in Catholic orphanages in the 1970s. Michael is a published poet but he explained that to maintain momentum in a crime book he needed to change the way he approached his writing.

The Fall by Claire McGowan is the story of three characters involved in the case of a man accused of a murder in a London nightclub. Claire explained that she had been influenced by the social divisions that exist in modern day London and wanted to reflect this in her book. Written with three narrative voices the book addresses, through the medium of a crime, the class and race divisions that polarise under pressure.

It was an excellent panel with the authors explaining the process that saw them reach publication. Most writers had written at least one manuscript that remained unpublished but the authors were divided on the extent to which the acquisition of a publishing contract had influenced their writing.

The uniting force between the books seemed to be the location of the novels, which for the most were essential elements of the narrative, and in the case of Penny Hancock was almost a character in the book. I have both Blood Tears and Burned on my reading list after the panel and hope to read all of the books in the near future.

Thanks to Pam McIlroy for the top photo.

CrimeFest 2012 – Forgotten Authors Panel Recommendations

CrimeFest 2012 is taking place in Bristol this weekend, and I just know that my reading list is going to have expanded massively by the end of the week-end. There are some great panels taking place featuring established writers such as PD James and Sue Grafton, alongside début novelists including Michael J Malone, a fellow crimesquad.com reviewer whose first crime novel Blood Tears is being published next week.

Yesterday afternoon, there was a wonderful session entitled Forgotten Authors where the panel recommended crime writers whose books have fallen out of favour. Chaired by Martin Edwards, his nomination was JJ Connington, the pseudonym of British chemist Alfred Walter Stewart. Martin described him as a ‘fair play writer’ who wrote books where all the clues were present for the reader to find. His suggested reading was Murder in the Maze. 

Peter Gutteridge’s recommendations were CS Forester and Ira Levin. Forrester is, of course, famous for his Hornblower series but Payment Deferred, an early crime novel by the writer was recommended for its ‘suburban noir’ theme. Ira Levin is now chiefly remembered for the film adaptations of his books including Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives. A Kiss Before Dying, also adapted twice for the screen, was recommended for the bombshell that awaits the reader early on in the book.

Dolores Gordon-Smith’s recommendation was Austin Freeman. Julian Symons once described reading Freeman’s books as ‘like chewing dry straw’ which the panel considered to be a little harsh. Freeman is considered to have invented the inverted detective story, where the perpetrator of a crime is revealed early on and the narrative then charts a detectives attempt to solve the mystery. Mr Polton Explains was one recommended book from this author, written in 1940 in a London air-raid shelter.

John Curran’s first suggestion was Andrew Garve who also wrote as Roger Bax and Paul Somers. His books were set all over the world and he excelled in constructing innovative plots. Particularly recommended was A Touch of Larceny, later made into a film starring James Mason. Curran’s second recommendation was Helen McCloy who also wrote intriguing plots, many involving psychoanalyst Dr Basil Willing. She Walks Alone was commended as an Agatha Christie style thriller.

Caroline Todd, one half of the writing duo Charles Todd, recommended two authors. The first, Evelyn Anthony, had a varied career switching from historical fiction to Cold War stories and then thrillers. Her famous book The Tamarind Seed was made into a film starring Julie Andrews and Omar Shariff. The second recommendation was Raphael Sabatini, once famed for his adventures such as Scaramouche and Captain Blood but who has now slipped into obscurity.

So some great recommendations from an interesting panel discussion. During the question and answer session it was asked why these writers, most of whom were once immensely popular, have dropped into obscurity. The consensus was that there is a random element as to which writers survive to become classics although some styles of writing did go out of fashion.

An excellent panel and Abe Books should be doing some some trade with me in the near future. Have you read any of these authors and do you think their obscurity is undeserved?