The best of January’s reading.

January, a miserable month for us living in the northern hemisphere, was redeemed by some excellent crime fiction reading. I read 10 books for crimepieces and perhaps because there was a stong Scandinavian presence, the common theme seemed to be murders set to the backdrop of freezing winters. However, the highlight of my month was set in a much warmer climate, the Australian Desert. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland combined sparky writing with a great sense of place and one of the best female detectives around.

The books I read in January were:

1. Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood. (completed as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge).

2. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

3. The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner

4. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George

5. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland

6. V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton (also reviewed for crimesquad.com)

7. The Mask of Glass by Holly Roth

8. The Final Murder by Anne Holt

9. 1222 by Anne Holt

10. Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft

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

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Review: Sue Grafton – V is for Vengeance

Like Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton is a writer whom I have been reading for years. What is remarkable about Grafton is her consistency in terms of her output and the quality of her writing. A is for Alibi first appeared in 1982 and she has more or less produced a book in the ensuing series every year or two. As readers of her books will know, they remain set in the 1980s and yet none of her books have a dated feel to them. The lack of mobile phones, internet and modern forensics are unmissed because the investigative aspect is so well written.

V is for Vengeance is set as usual in the fictional town of Santa Teresa. The book starts with the killing of a young college student who borrows money from Lorenzo Dante, head of a family steeped in organised crime, and then suffers heavy losses at a poker table. The relevance of this segment isn’t revealed until much later in the book. The action shifts to Kinsey Millhone who helps apprehend a woman shoplifter who then kills herself the following day. Kinsey is perplexed by the disproportionate reaction to what is a minor misdemeanor and her investigations begin when the shoplifter’s fiancée hires Kinsey to look into the suicide. In a parallel plot, Lorenzo Dante begins to look at way of getting out of the family business and away from his violent younger brother. When he encounters the glamorous Nora who is saddled with an unfaithful husband it seems their mutual desires might coincide.

I thought the investigation into the suicide of the shoplifter Audrey Vance absolutely fascinating. I’ve always associated shoplifting with schoolchildren and minor celebrities and had absolutely no idea that it was such big business and comes under the auspices of organised crime. The book is a mine of interesting information about this, such as the fact that when in a small shop the salesperson greets you it is often a way of deterring thieves who shy away from any personal contact. And I thought they were just being nice. The cutting off of tags around a kitchen table and the moving around of the stolen items was really fascinating and it seems that far more goods are stolen than shoplifters prosecuted.

Kinsey is her wonderful self and devotees of the series will need no summary of her virtues. All I will say is that once more I’m reminded of how influential the character of Kinsey Millhone has been on scores of later female detectives. Her character predates Kay Scarpetta and Barbara Havers although not, interestingly WI Warshawski who is was created virtually at the same time. The lovely Henry appears only briefly and I hope Grafton is saving him up for a larger part in her next book.

The only part of the book I had mixed feelings about was the Lorenzo Dante/Nora relationship. I loved Nora, she reminded me of those women you find in the novels of Jonathan Frantzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. Glamorous women whose polished appearance hides fractured marriages and unsavoury pasts. It was Lorenzo Dante I had a problem with. He’s just too nice for a Mafia boss and I felt the evil of the whole enterprise was glossed over.

But this is a minor complaint. I thought it was a better book than her last U is for Undertow and I felt Kinsey was back in her metier in a case embracing the underbelly of urban life.

There is a review of the book at Reactions to Reading and an interesting take on the audio book at Narrator Reviews.

Location, location, location

I’ve been thinking a lot about the settings of crime novels recently. I think this is partly because I have recently read so many books where the location of the crime has seemed as crucial to the book as the plot. I’ve just finished Lawrence Block’s excellent A Drop of the Hard Stuff for example which revisits an old case of the detective Matt Scudder and contrasts present day New York to the city of the early eighties. Block’s Matt Scudder thrillers are imbued with the spirit of New York and those of us who have read his books for years have seen the city change through the writer’s work. Likewise, I finished Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man over the summer. The nearest I’ve been to Ystad is Malmo although I would love to go there one day as Mankell’s books have brought the town alive to me. And it’s not just old favourites. Cold Justice by Katherine Howell, recommended by Bernadette at http://reactionstoreading.com/ made me think nostalgically of my visit to Sydney a couple of years ago. And these literary references can develop a life of their own. Oxford runs Inspector Morse tours, Shrewsbury has a Brother Cadfael trail and Edinbugh a two-hour Rebus walk.

But there is something to be said for the fictional place too. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and the village of St Mary Mead I can envisage in my head. Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham is less easy for me to explore geographically but I can identify the type of Sussex town she is referencing. And Peter Robinson’s Eastvale seems to embody all those North Yorkshire towns with their cobbled squares and undulating surrounding countryside. I suppose the advantage of fictional places is that you can shape the place to fit the action. If you need a bridge, invent one. A church with a crooked spire? Put one in the north of the village. And these fictional places aren’t just small. Sue Grafton’s Santa Theresa is a sizable city although I’m not sure how closely it resembles the real life Santa Barbara.

So which do I prefer? I suppose I would have to say genuine locations mainly I suppose as they can make a book come alive. But I suspect my teenage years reading Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell have left me with an abiding affection for the invented place.