Review: PD James – Sleep No More

Last year we were treated to The Mistletoe Murders by PD James, a collection of of four short stories that had previously appeared in various publications. It was a joy to read over Christmas and a reminder of James’s talent. This yearSleep No More gives us six new stories which will delight fans of the author and again draws us into a world where nothing is as it appears.

The most festive of the stories, ‘The Murder of Santa Claus’ narrates the story of a murder seen through the eyes of a small boy. Like with the first story, ‘The Yo-Yo Murder’ James reminds us that childhood is a curious mix of innocence and kept secrets and that children are adept at making decisions to protect adults.

Like her contemporary, James excels at depicting the disfunctionality within families and the continuing tensions of married life. ‘The Victim’ and ‘A Very Desirable Residence’ are prime examples of this and the author cleverly misdirects the reader throughout.

My favourite of the collection is ‘The Girl Who Loved Graveyards.’ Again with a child protagonist, the story is unusual, poignant and slightly downbeat and I think it’s one of the best I’ve read from the author.

I’m sure fans of PD James will already have this book on their list. It made me return to one of her novels, An Unsuitable Job For a Woman, as I wanted to remain in the unique world she created. James was a remarkable author who influenced a generation of crime writers and I’m sure will continue to do so.

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!

Some crime fiction favourites for autumn

Crime fiction can sometimes feel all about the new: the latest debut, the next bestseller. I try to balance this with reading books from the Golden Age era and also fiction in translation, in particular Nordic Noir. If I was going to be completely honest though, my favourite type of crime fiction comes from none of those categories. What I read and re-read over and over again are crime novels from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. PD James, Ruth Rendell, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Jonathan Kellerman, Colin Dexter.  Is there a term for this period in crime fiction? I’m not sure but there should be because it produced some stand-out authors, many of whom are still writing.

27152-books-origjpgThere will be no more Adam Dalgliesh books but Faber have released a small collection of PD James’s short stories entitled The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories. The book has  an introduction by Val McDermid and although all the stories have appeared in publication before, they were completely new to me. James’s writing is a delight. She gives us plenty of intrigue but never forgets the human element in her writing. The second story, A Very Commonplace Murder, reminds us how much she had in common with Ruth Rendell whereas The Boxdale Inheritance is a classic Dalgliesh mystery. The book would make a gorgeous Christmas present for any crime fiction fan.

51putr9qilSusan Moody is a writer I first met at Iceland Noir and I remember her asking a helpful question at the first ever panel I spoke at. She’s the author of 34 novels which is an impressive output and I was keen to try one of her books. Penny Black  has just been reissued by new publisher, Williams and Whiting and it was the perfect opportunity to give one of Susan’s books a go.

Penny Wanawake is a tall, black, elegant part time sleuth who investigates the murder of her friend, Marfa, a model. Although based in England, she travels to Marfa’s home in the States and with the help of Kimbell, an American detective goes on the hunt for the killer. First published in 1984, the style took me back to the Jackie Collins books I used to devour as a teenager. Great fun.

51sswggqeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_I met Kate Charles at an event in Ludlow and, by complete coincidence, I was in the middle of reading her first book, A Drink of Deadly Wine.  Father Gabriel Neville is  priest of the prestigious St Anne’s Church in Kensington Gardens. When he receives a letter threatening to reveal an incident from his past, he calls on his old friend David Middleton-Brown who he hasn’t seen for then years. It’s a great page-turner with an interesting cast of suspects familiar to those involved in parish life. First published in 1991, the story feels fresh and I’ve got a whole series to discover.

CRIMEPIECES is on holiday

Not a physical holiday unfortunately. After a trip back to Greece in June where, incidentally, this blog began I now need to spend the rest of August finishing the edits to my own book ‘In Bitter Chill’. So I’m taking a two week break from blogging and will be back in September with a bunch of new reviews.

I am, however, off to Oxford tomorrow for the annual Mystery and Crime Weekend at St Hilda’s College. It’s an event I’ve been meaning to go to for years and given the subject of this year’s lectures, ‘Crimes of the Past: War and Other Evils’, I think it will be a fascinating weekend.

As well as editing, I’m going to use my break to catch up on some books that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. It’s a mixed bag, not just crime fiction, and includes:

– Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: a rich book looking at representations of terror in fiction, art and ritual

– P D James’ The Maul and the Peartree: another non-fiction book I’ve been dying to read for a long time.

– Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone: one of the first true detective novels. I first read it as a teenager and want to see how I feel about it now.

So I hope regular readers of the blog also enjoy a restful holiday and I’ll leave you with an illustration that I discovered in PD James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It’s a 1936 Punch cartoon entitled ‘The British Character: Love of Detective Fiction’  I think it sums up the bedtime reading for us crime fiction fans. And I’ll see you all in September.

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Classic Crime: Christianna Brand – Green for Danger

Picked up as part of my vintage paperback haul, the overwhelming opinion from other crime fiction enthusiasts was that Green for Danger by Christianna Brand was a classic of the genre. I found the biography of the writer inside the front cover fascinating. Christianna Brand worked a nursery governess, night club receptionist and model in Bond Street dress shops until she turned her hand to writing after she began  fantasising about doing away with an irritating colleague.

Green for Danger is set in Heron’s Park military hospital during the Second World War. A disparate group of seven protagonists are introduced to the reader in the opening chapter, through the device of a postman delivering their letters to the hospital. These include a consultant and his anaesthetist, a surgeon and a nursing Sister and three VAD volunteer nurses. These hospital workers constitute the group of suspects who come under the suspicion of Detective Sergeant Cockrill when the postman, Joseph Higgins, dies during an operation. Although his death is initially ruled an accident, Sister Marion Bates declares that she has proof that Higgins’ death was murder, and soon she is also killed.

The book was a good solid read although I think I found the first half of the novel more enjoyable than the second. The build up to Higgins’s death was expertly done, with enough information given about each of the future suspects to see the individuals beyond their professional guises and as people with personal histories that were relevant to the murder. The tension was gradually built up and came to a head with the second murder.

The second half of the book, dealing with Cockrill’s investigation, dragged a little although much was made of the interweaving relationships between the characters. Clearly hospitals have always been a hotbed of romance and broken relationships. When the eventual culprit was revealed it was slightly too melodramatic for me and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the explanation. The greatest strength of this book though was the depiction of working in a wartime hospital; taking shelter from the raids, working tiring shifts and coping with whatever casualty is admitted. The book was also good on the position of women in the hospital, enjoying their freedom away from conventional society but becoming entangled in difficult love affairs.

Overall it was en enjoyable read and I can see why it has become a classic.It reminded me a little of PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale and I’d forgotten how hospitals can provide such rich pickings for crime fiction plots. The book was made into a 1948 film starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill and has also been highly praised.

Review: PD James – Death comes to Pemberley

PD James has been a staple of my reading since I was a teenager. My introduction to her was Shroud for a Nightingale which has remained my favourite and I have re-read it a couple of times over the years. At the age of 91, PD James could justifiably consider her writing career to have reached its conclusion, and in fact her last book The Private Patient had an end-of an-era feel to it. Therefore I was surprised (and slightly dismayed) to hear that she was going to write a murder mystery set in Pemberley, the home of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

I have to say upfront that I’m not particularly a fan of prequels, sequels or any tinkering of the classic texts (for example new Sherlock Holmes stories) by writers other than the original. I appreciate that they sell well, but surely creating new characters is part of the challenge of any writer, not utilising a ready-made ones. However, Pride and Prejudice is, after Persuasion, my favourite Austen novel and a mix of PD James and Jane Austen was just too irresistible.

As I would expect from PD James, the book was eminently readable. The book lacked a proper detective which was a shame but as we would expect from James the solving of the crime was nicely done. The writing style she adopted for this book was unusual, a cross between her own and Jane Austen’s, although predominantly Austen. I thought it a fairly faithful recreation of the feel of the original books although it did lack Austen’s sardonic gaze. Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship, for example, was slightly saccharine, whereas Austen would have added a drop of bitter lemon.

I found some of the characterisation a bit hit and miss too. Naturally the chief suspect in the murder of the dashing Denny, an officer in Pride and Prejudice, is the scoundrel Wickham. This is fair enough. But James clearly doesn’t like the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam and his portrayal in the book as the slightly predatory suitor of Georgiana I found wrong. I also didn’t like the reference to Anne Elliot, the heroine of Austen’s Persuasion. Austen is no Balzac. Characters don’t generally cross over novels and I found the references to a different book out of place.

Nevertheless, it was a delight to revisit the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sure how much the book would appeal to those unfamiliar with the original although the first chapter is in effect a precis of the original plot. Judging by the discussions on blogs and twitter it seems Jane Austen fans have taken the book to their hearts and it has proved a hit with crime fiction fans too. It was a very enjoyable read over Christmas and made me think I ought to dig out my old copy of Pride and Prejudice despite its miniscule print.

For other (crime fiction) reviews see crimesquad.com and Reviewing the Evidence.