The Best of January’s Reading

January is always a productive time for crime fiction. Along with new publications, we also get advance review copies of Janus-Vaticannovels not hitting the bookshop shelves until spring and sometimes the summer. I reviewed a mixture of these, from Peter May’s recently published Entry Island to Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn which is out in March. I also caught up on some of my reading for the The Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime fiction. Of everything I read, it was Welsh’s book that made the strongest impression. I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction anyway but the quality of Welsh’s writing made this a compelling read.

The six books I reviewed for Crimepieces were:

1. The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson

2. A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

3. The Disappeared by Kristina Ohlsson

4. Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo

5. Entry Island by Peter May

6. Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason

Review: Peter May – Entry Island

The books that made up the Lewis trilogy: The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chess Men by Peter May were a entry-island-jk-lst128984fascinating glimpse into life on a remote Scottish community. A combination of the bleak but evocative setting and intriguing and thought-provoking subject matter gave the series a legion of fans. May has now written a new standalone crime novel, Entry Island, which draws on some of the themes of his previous books.

Detective Sime Mackenzie is sent to Entry Island, a remote community 850 miles off the mainland Canadian coast. A wealthy inhabitant of the island has been murdered and the obvious suspect is the dead man’s wife, Kirsty Cowell, who was found with blood on her clothes. Mackenzie is accompanied by a French speaking team from Montreal that includes his former wife. At Entry Island he suspects that events are far more complicated than they originally seemed although his judgement becomes clouded by a shocking discovery about the break-up of his marriage, and signs that he and the Kirsty share a common ancestry.

Moving the setting to a remote Canadian community was a wise move for May. It breathes fresh life into his writing while allowing many of the themes he likes to explore, such as secrets from the past that carry through to the present, to be revisited. There were a couple of times when I thought I was reading the same story as the Lewis trilogy. Sime’s parents, for example, are killed in an accident which is reminiscent of Fin Macleod’s tragic history. May excels in split narratives although, in this book, I did prefer the present day murder hunt to the slightly extraneous story of Kirsty and Sime’s ancestors. The hunt for the killer on Entry Island is a classic murder mystery with a decent list of suspects and a satisfying conclusion.

My resolution this year is to read more standalone crime novels as I’m getting a little tired of series, although there are some that I’ll read the latest addition anyway. This was an excellent start to my ‘standalone resolution’.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.

 

Review: Peter May – The Chessmen

The ChessmenHappy New Year to all readers of this blog. A brand new year and a new crime book to review, The Chessmen by Peter May, which is published tomorrow. The third book in the trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, it brings to a conclusion the story of Fin Macleod, a former policeman whose son had been killed in a hit and run accident on the Edinburgh streets at the beginning on The Black House. In the trilogy Fin embarks on a journey of self discovery that sees a return to the isle of his childhood and him gaining an adult perspective on key moments in his formative years. It has been a characteristic of this series that extraordinary events that could seem too incredible, are incorporated into this island setting with ease.

In The Chessmen, Fin Macleod is now employed by Lewis landowner Jamie Wooldridge as head of  security. There is a large scale poaching problem and Fin is confident that an islander is involved in the running of the operation. However, his immediate concern is his teenage friend Whistler Macaskill who has been living rent free in a croft cottage and undertaking poaching on a small-scale. Fin owes his life to Whistler and they share a family secret going back generations. Whistler’s erratic behaviour threatens Fin’s job and his physical safety. However, when a loch suddenly drains in the night, the plane of another teenage friend, missing Roddy Mackenzie, is found in the loch. With his head bashed in, it is clear that his death wasn’t an accident and there is a decades old murder to be solved.

The temptation when writing the third book in a trilogy must be to wind up the narrative threads in the previous novels. Although this happens to a certain extent, the main thrust of The Chessmen is thankfully a new mystery, that of the downed plane. There is something spooky about a body that has lain undiscovered for years, with shades of Donald Campbell in Coniston. As I have come to expect from May’s books, the solution is partly parochial combined with broader social themes.

Fin remains the troubled character that we first met in The Black HouseAlthough his life has changed immeasurably, we get a  sense of the eternal restlessness of Fin and of a life touched by tragedy. The other characters that we have come to know in the series also settle into new roles although in this novel I didn’t feel as engaged with the destiny of Donald, Marsaili and Fionnlagh as I had in the previous books. The setting though, as always is the major draw of this novel, and we get to see the wilds of Lewis’s remote mountains and lochs.

It’s a shame that this series has come to an end as I looked forward to each instalment. However, it does seem to have reached a natural conclusion and it will be interesting to see what Peter May decides to write next. I suspect he has attracted new readers (me included) through this series.

I received a review copy of this book via Maxine Clarke at Petrona which sadly will be her last gift to me.

Review: Peter May – The Lewis Man

The Lewis Man is the second book in the trilogy by Peter May set on the Isle of Lewis. After the excellent The Black House, I was looking forward to the return of Fin Macleod and the myriad of island characters encountered in the first book.

In The Lewis Man, Fin has left Edinburgh CID and is drawn back to the island of his childhood with plans to renovate his parents’ derelict croft. A body has recently been discovered in one of the island’s peat bogs and despite the belief that the corpse could be thousands of years old, the discovery of an Elvis tattoo places the murder of the teenage boy in the 1950s. Fin is asked by George Gunn, the island’s policeman, to see what he can discover about a missing teenager from that time and DNA evidence soon links the body to Tormond MacDonald.

Tormond is the father of Marsaili, Fin’s childhood sweetheart, and is suffering from dementia. As Fin delves into the life that Tormond has been so at pains to leave behind, secrets emerge and true identities are obscured. Fin also has to cope with the repercussions of having a teenage son, who is himself a father, and the limitations that island life imposes on those who harbour ambitions beyond those offered on Lewis.

The book was a very good read with once more beautifully evocative descriptions of island life, with this time the focus on the treatment of orphaned and abandoned children in the 1950s. Part of the narrative is written from the point of view of Tormond whose dementia makes him unable to distinguish the past from the present. The treatment meted out to the young Tormond and his slightly brain damaged brother in a children’s home on the mainland makes depressing reading and I suspect is an accurate reflection of the homes that have thankfully now been closed.

I enjoyed the murder investigation although there were some parts when I thought the reader was well ahead of Fin which was probably deliberate but jarred a little. There were also some sections that didn’t quite ring true. Anyone who has looked into their family history would have been able to point Fin the direction of some resources that would have helped him in his researches into Tomrond’s past. Most of which could have been done over the internet but wouldn’t have made such a good story.

But overall the book was an enjoyable read of a time when the harsh physical environment was matched by some unpalatable practices when dealing with orphaned children. And plenty to look forward to in the forthcoming The Chess Men.

The book has also been reviewed by Petrona, Eurocrime and The Lit Witch.

The best of February’s reading.

February can be summed up as quality not quantity when it came to crime fiction reading. After a glut of Scandinavian crime fiction in December and January it was great to read some excellent books by British writers including Elly Griffiths and R J Ellory.

However, my book of the month is a tie between Stav Sherez’s A Dark Redemption and Peter May’s The Black House. I loved Sherez’s book because it cleverly combined the horror of modern day demonic crime in London with the political violence of East African insurgent groups. I’m already looking forward to the next in the series. Peter May’s book, the first of a trilogy, created some memorable characters to the backdrop of the picturesque Isle of Lewis. Again it should make a great series.

The 8 books I read for crimepieces were:

1. City of the Dead by Sara Gran

2. A Simple Act of Violence by R J Ellory

3. Bereft by Chris Womersley

4. A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez

5. Skin and Bone by Kathryn Fox

6. The Black House by Peter May

7. The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

8. Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

February was also marked by a cold snap across Eastern Europe including Greece. The picture is the view from my balcony in Athens. Meagre by British standards I appreciate but Greek houses are not insulated….

Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting a meme summarizing the crime fiction recommendations for February 2012.

Review: Peter May – The Black House

Every now and then you pick up a book that is impossible to put down. You start reading it and then everything else falls by the wayside until the story is finished. Sometimes, however, the quality of writing isn’t up to the pace of the narrative and you feel guilty for a wasted day. This wasn’t the case with Peter May’s The Black House which combined excellent plotting with some beautiful descriptions of the Isle of Lewis . It was a book I read purely because of an excellent blogger review from Maxine at Petrona and I’m kicking myself that I nearly missed it.

DS Fin Macleod of the Edinburgh police is mourning the death of his young son and the breakdown of his marriage. He is sent to the Isle of Lewis, the place where he was born and raised to see if a recent murder in Stornoway is connected to a similar killing in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t set foot on the Isle since his aunt’s funeral years earlier and the trip is infused with memories from the past and an event that caused a savage break with the island.

There is so much going on in this book that it’s hard to know when to stop with the precis of the plot. It is rooted firmly in the crime fiction tradition. There is a murder, with a possible link to another event and an investigation that takes many twists and turns. The detective has many of the characteristics that we would expect from a lead character, although interestingly no side-kick. His associate in the murder investigation is his memory which propels him into the past. I was very impressed by how the passages in the past were presented. The narrative changes from the third person to the first person and back again, marking the shift in time. This is another book written for the intelligent reader.

The story is wonderful. It describes an upbringing in a time that is almost lost. It wasn’t idyllic given the tragedies in the young boy’s life but the narrative effectively conveys the friendships and feuds that make up a childhood in a small rural community. The description of the hunting of the gugas (the annual gannet hunt on the island of Sula Sgeir) provided an interesting metaphor for the clashing of traditional ritual and modern progress and was also an atmospheric backdrop to the tensions in the plot.

It’s hard to find any criticisms of this book. I suppose the sheer amount of events that happened in the life of Fin almost but not completely stretched the imagination. I wasn’t completely convinced over by the repressed teenage memories that weren’t revealed until the book’s conclusion but again this didn’t detract from the plot. It was a great find and thanks to Maxine at Petrona I now have the second book in the series, The Lewis Man ,to get my teeth into. I just need to clear a day to read it.

Other (universally glowing) reviews are at Eurocrime, Bookgeeks and The Lit Witch.