zagrebYou can read my review of The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr at EuroCrime.

Number ten in the brilliant Bernie Gunther series reminds us once again that mankind is capable of real evil, and the tremendous debt we owe to the brave men and women who fought to remove the stain of Nazism from Europe.

When reading this book I frequently had to remind myself that the most evil characters, and the more terrible events were not fictional creations but real life. The story of what happened during those dreadful years can never be told enough times, and perhaps one day people like Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury will stop “apologising” for winning the war, and eliminating one of the most profoundly evil regimes in history. 

 

The controversial Bombing of Dresden took place on 13-15 February 1945, the apparently less controversial last V2 rocket attack on London took place on 25 March 1945.

 

galvestonwencelaskolymskyprovidenceI managed to read four books in March, three and two thirds actually but I will count it as four.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto [reviewed here]

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson [1960]

Kolymsky Heights also by Lionel Davidson [1994]

Providence Rag by Bruce De Silva

It was  interesting to read Lionel Davidson’s first and last thrillers. He won the CWA Gold Dagger on three occasions, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement award in 2001. Both books were excellent exciting reads in very different styles.

The Night of Wenceslas was full of fun, despite the Cold War setting, as Nicolas Whistler tells the reader of the way he was “persuaded” to travel to Prague, in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia a country from which his parents had emigrated, to obtain a secret formula for an unbreakable glass.  Of course things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Nicolas has a very difficult time despite the amorous attentions of Vlasta Simenova, the girl with the bomb-shaped breasts. 

‘I haven’t any qualifications, Mr Cunliffe,’ I told him slowly and desperately.’Before you go any further, you’ve got to understand that. I am not qualified to do anything. I am also a coward. I don’t know what it is you want me to do, and I don’t want to know. I’d be less than useless to you.’

Kolymsky Heights  is a very different animal. This is a great adventure story, called by Philip Pullman in the introduction the best thriller he’s ever read, and compared by him and others to the The Lord of the Rings, Smiley’s People, Treasure Island and Casino Royale it is indeed a superb book. It is also a very complex story, packed full of detail some of which is inclined to slow the narrative slightly. But the quest by the Native Canadian Jean-Baptiste Porteur, a brilliant linguist among his other skills, to discover the purpose of a top secret establishment is full of excitement and action. The reader is taken from the dreaming spires of Oxford to British Columbia and Canada’s Far North, and then to Japan and Siberia, among the various peoples of that region. 

The house of Dr Komarov had stood a hundred years-a long time for a simple one of wood, but the wood was good. It had seen out Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, and also the entire communist regime.

Providence Rag by Edgar Award winning author Bruce DeSilva is a serial killer novel, but one that is very different and far superior to the usual run of the mill efforts. The book explores the vast gulf between the law and justice, and the chasm between the letter of the law and plain common sense.

In 1989 the police with the help of reporter Liam Mulligan arrest the serial killer, a fifteen year old, who has slaughtered five people including young children. When the cops and reporters are celebrating their success, state prosecutor Malcolm Roberts spoils things.

“There is something you all need to know,” he told the revelers. “Rhode Island’s criminal codes haven’t been updated in decades. When they were written , no one envisaged a child as twisted and dangerous as ****** ***** . The law says juvenile offenders no matter what their crimes, must be released and given a fresh start at age twenty-one. The attorney general is going to ask the legislature to rewrite the law so this won’t happen again. But they can’t change it retroactively. “In six years, the bastard will get out and start killing all over again.”

The narrative jumps forward to 2012 when the killer is being held illegally for crimes that he is supposed to have committed inside the prison. The authorities realise he is a psychopath and are desperate not to release him. Crimes have been fabricated with false evidence by prison officers, and when Mulligan’s reporter pal Mason decides that the Dispatch should campaign for the killer’s release, the failing newspaper is faced with a difficult ethical issue. 

An excellent read although the stupidity of the law is not such a shock to a British reader, where someone can kill five people be released after 16 years, and are then able to build up an arsenal of weapons.      

Viper is the sixth book in the Commissario Ricciardi series set in Fascist Italy during the 1930s, and this story takes place in Naples during the week before ricciardiEaster 1932.

Viper the most enticing and beautiful prostitute in Il Paradiso, Naples most famous brothel is found murdered. Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione are sent to investigate a case that has several possible suspects; Madame Yvonne the proprietor of the luxurious establishment, Lily- Bianca Palumbo, a jealous rival, and Viper’s only two clients who are dedicated to her in different ways. 

Vincenzo Ventrone the owner of a respectable business selling sacred art to the wealthy of Naples, has a staid conservative twenty year old son Augusto, who thinks his father’s trips to Il Paradiso are bringing shame and financial ruin to the business. 

Giussepe Coppola, a dealer in vegetables, who knew Viper back in her home village when she was simply Maria Rosaria Cennamo, and who had proposed marriage to the beauty. His brother, Pietro is upset at the prospect of Viper joining their family.

The investigation may be interesting, but it is the subplots and characters that make these books one of the best historical crime fiction series around. Firstly the conversations and political jokes between Ricciardi, Maione and pathologist Dr Bruno Modo sum up some of the difficulties of working in a non-democratic state, where a misplaced word or look can get you in deep trouble.

Secondly the love triangle between Ricciardi, a man terrified of love having seen the damage it can do, and the two women who desire him. Enrica, the shy bespectacled woman, who is being taught to cook by Rosa, Ricciardi’s tata, and the beautiful worldly widow Livia Lucani, who seemingly has all the advantages in this battle for the Commissario’s affections.

In this episode Dr Modo argues with fascist bullies, and later is taken away by members of the party to be sent into internal exile.

The idea that Benito Mussolini, because of his appearance was some kind of joke dictator is misplaced. His secret police were every bit as frightening as the Gestapo, and while Hitler had many of his closest associates murdered, Il Duce also executed his son-in-law, Count Ciano. 

On that occasion he’d understood that Fascism was a very complex phenomenon, and that the seemingly fanciful tales that circulated about OVRA-the notorious secret police agency that beat back all anti-Fascist activities, real or imagined with stealthy brutality- were, if anything, understating the case.

Viper is a very good addition to this excellent series, and because of the compelling atmosphere and the number of interesting personal relationships it is a great read.

For Lucia Maione, just like all the mothers in the city, Easter began with Carnival, forty-one days before; and therefore with preparations for the feast of Fat Tuesday, Mardi gras, a feast for which she was renowned throughout the quarter, if she did say so herself: his majesty the lasagne, the dish of kings, with ragu and meatballs; sausages and rapini, the fagatini nella rezza, pork livers cooked in a mesh made of pig’s intestines and laurel leaves, and most important of all, the sanguinaccio, a sweet blood pudding made of cocoa, milk, and pig’s blood garnished with candied citron, a treat that the children dreamed of all year.  

Here is the official Petrona Award Shortlist.

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Arcadia Books; Finland)
THE HUNTING DOGS by Jørn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)
REYKJAVIK NIGHTS by Arnaldur Indriðason tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker; Iceland)
THE HUMAN FLIES by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle; Norway)
FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM by Leif G W Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)
THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

I am rather pleased I managed to pick two out of the six books as I had not read the other four, but any books by Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir are bound to be of a high quality. The summaries of the books [see here] by the authors unknown to me also sound very promising, and interested readers have several weeks to make their own judgement on the contenders before the winner is announced at Crime Fest in Bristol on 14-17 May. 

The shortlist for the 2015 Petrona Award, for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel published in English in 2014, will be announced on P1010564Thursday 26 March. This award is made in memory of my good friend Maxine Clarke, who tragically died in 2012 and was a tireless promoter of good Scandinavian crime fiction, and who provided both inspiration and encouragement  to so many bloggers.

I haven’t been reading as much Nordic crime fiction lately, but I did read several excellent novels last year that are eligible for the award. I would be very surprised if at least one of the following didn’t make that shortlist:

The Hunting Dogs: Jorn Lier Horst translator Anne Bruce

The G File Hakan Nesser translator Laurie Thompson

Borderline: Liza Marklund translator Neil Smith

Falling Freely As If In A Dream: Leif G.W.Persson translator Paul Norlen

The Second Deadly Sin: Asa Larsson translator Laurie Thompson

[photo of Maxine at Crime Fest with one of her favourite translators Don Bartlett]

Galveston: Nic Pizzolatto

Posted: March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

galvestonI finished reading Arms And The Women by Reginald Hill, and Viper by Maurizio De Giovanni earlier this month. More on Viper next week, and then moved on to read Galveston by Nic Pizzolato [creator of the hit TV series True Detective]. I haven’t watched True Detective, because it is only on Sky Atlantic, not one of the 230 odd stations I have on my cable!

The novel was really very good despite the fact that the tough guy on the run tagging along with a much younger woman, and child/children is a repetitive theme in several American novels.

Galveston won the Prix du Premier Roman so I was expecting something better than average, and was not disappointed.

“Why’d you take the silencer off? I asked.

Rocky shrugged and followed something out the window. “I thought it looked meaner without it.”

I said, “You ever been to Galveston?” She shook her head.  

Roy Cady, who admits to being  a bad man, has had a past fling with the lover of his criminal boss. He hears from a doctor than he has terminal lung cancer, and then he and another of her ex-boyfriends is sent on a job, being specifically told not to take a gun he rightly suspects a trap. Emerging from a blood bath he teams up with attractive young blonde Raquel, known as Rocky, and goes on a road trip from New Orleans to Texas, having killed the three bad boys who were about to kill him. On the way they pick up Rocky’s “little sister” Tiffany. The first person narrative by Roy, sometimes jumps forward twenty years from 1987 to 2008, and the reader learns what happened in those intervening years. The reader’s mood, like Roy’s, will change from despair and pity to hope for the future as the story draws to a surprisingly pleasant conclusion for a noir novel.

I do have a weakness for Country Music, years ago there seemed to be little else on the radio when driving across the vast spaces of the American South West, so I chose some appropriate  accompanying music for reading this book. Galveston by Glen Campbell and one of my favourites Amarillo By Morning by George Strait. 

Amarillo was gas stations and storage units, low end strip clubs between motels, pounding winds. You could drive and drive but there would still be only the plains and the water towers and the small derricks bobbing up and down like seesaws.

[It does make a bit of a change from my usual Puccini and Verdi, which melodiously plays when I am reading Andrea Camilleri, or Maurizio De Giovanni.] 

” Look, though. It works both ways. Tomorrow you could get rich and fall in love.” I’d never believed that, but I tried to sound convincing.  

cc2zagrebricciardiarmsMy reading in February included A Colder War by Charles Cumming, a very good spy thriller, and The Lady From Zagreb, the tenth book in the Bernie Gunther series. My review of Philip Kerr’s  novel will appear on Euro Crime in due course. I also got about halfway through the excellent Viper by Maurizio De Giovanni, but we were going away for a few days and Viper’s cover includes an image of a dead prostitute sprawled over a bed.

I therefore decided to take  Arms and The Women [2000] by Reginald Hill to read at our luxurious bed and breakfast. This is a 611 page reg hillblockbuster, but a brilliant read, and I am now totally engrossed at page 237 by those quirky characters, Ellie Pascoe, Peter Pascoe, Andy Dalziel, Wieldy and Novello.

My reading over the last few years of Reginald Hill’s body of work has convinced me he is one of the greatest crime writers produced by this country since the war. I wonder if the failings of the later Dalziel and Pascoe television series have contributed to him not being rated as highly in some circles as some less deserving writers. That pesky WH Smith poll still really annoys me; Peter James 1, Val McDermid 3, Ian Rankin 4, Ruth Rendell 13, P.D.James 18, and Reginald Hill 48! 

Unfortunately once the television series lost Edgar Wield and Ellie Pascoe it never had that special quality retained in the novels. 

I haven’t read the Dalziel and Pascoe books in order, but when I started in 2010 to read them again after a long break I began with the  last in the series Midnight Fugue [2009], a pastiche of the TV series 24. In 2012 I read On Beulah Height [1998] and then went back to Deadheads [1983] and Underworld [1988]. I had a Dalziel and Pascoe addiction by now, and they became my holiday reading material of choice. In 2013 I read Bones and Silence [1990], Recalled to Life [1992], Pictures of Perfection [1994] , and The Wood Beyond [1995]. Last year I jumped forward, perhaps put off a little by the sheer bulk of some of the next books in the series, to The Death of Dalziel [2007] and A Cure for All Diseases [2008], a pastiche of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Reginald Hill did love his Jane Austen.

You would think you might become bored reading so many books by the same author with the same characters, but Reginald Hill alters his approach to each novel keep each book fresh, vital and full of humour. 

I will return to Viper, which is also a very good read, when I have finished Arms and the Women.  

P1020051I have always considered crime fiction awards and polls very useful for introducing readers to writers and books that they haven’t read.  Even if one doesn’t agree with the choices made by the judges, or general public, the results are usually quite fun. But they do have to adhere to certain basic standards like sanity. If we judge the best crime writers simply on all time sales there is obviously only one winner with Agatha Christie a long way ahead of the number two, and James Patterson back in third place.

Do you know who number two is? 

WH Smith has a list 107 crime fiction authors in order of merit, and I do worry about my ageing eyesight, because I cannot see Colin Dexter’s name anywhere. Some of the voting was quite astonishing with S.J.Watson, who up to date has only published one book, at 65 ahead of Stieg Larsson 68, Lindsey Davis 69, Elizabeth  George 70. That one book may be very very good, but surely S.J. has to produce more than one book to merit a position among the best crime writers of all time.

Television exposure does not seemed to have helped some fine authors with Ann Cleeves at 90, Ellis Peters at 89, Andrea Camilleri at P102004884. I am ashamed to find that I haven’t even read any of the books by the numero uno on the list, Peter James. His detective Roy Grace works in Brighton, a town I used to know very well, as three of my mother’s sisters lived in Hove, the adjoining seaside resort. I will have to remedy my omission as “he won the crown effortlessly by an incredible number of votes.”

He must be very good to streak ahead of  Agatha Christie at 5, Raymond Chandler at 47, Michael Connelly at 32, Reginald Hill at 48, and Patricia Highsmith at 52. I would suggest that if the poll had asked readers to name their “favourite” five crime fiction authors it might have produced a more interesting result. 

By the way the number two  all time best selling crime fiction author was Georges Simenon. 

 

Well for once the postie didn’t ring our bell today. He probably thought his delivery time was too early in the morning for retired old age pensioners, but he did leave two very nice parcels on our doorstep. 

cc2Well timed as I had just finished this morning reading A Colder War by Charles Cumming. I had made slower progress with this exciting spy drama, number two in the series featuring disgraced agent Thomas Kell and his former boss the glamorous Amelia Levene, simply because of the wonderful early spring weather we have been having on the English Riviera.photo

When MI6’s top man in Turkey is killed in a plane crash Kell is called back again to track down a possible mole. After a suitably slow start, with Kell mixing work and pleasure [no spoilers], the action and the trade craft becomes fast and furious as Kell journeys from Ankara, and Istanbul, to London and Odessa to track down the mole. An excellent read with an ending that makes you want to read the next in the series. I am usually not keen on endings that leave the reader wondering what happens next, but this is cleverly done and probably more authentic than a nice cosy finish. My copy had bonus content including the author’s interesting essay on The Changing Face of Spy Fiction, making A Colder War a very good read. 

But what was in those two parcels?

ricciardizagrebIn the first was thanks to Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions a copy of Maurizio De Giovanni’s new Commissario Ricciardi novel Viper. I have read and reviewed the first three books in this fine series, but the next two sit unread on my shelf. But I have now promised myself that I will read Viper first, and catch up with the others at a later date.

Karen from Euro Crime knowing that I have read all of the previous nine Bernie Gunther thrillers very kindly arranged for the folks at Quercus to send me an uncorrected proof of The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr, the tenth book in the series. 

Now I don’t mind if it rains, my reading for the rest of February is planned out.   

17-john-le-carre-books-blog480As I commented earlier as I am reading some hefty non-crime fiction books alongside my usual crime fiction diet I will only be making the briefest comments on the books I read, unless there is something particularly interesting to note.

Since my last review I have read:

Entry Island: Peter May:- Neither of the two plot strands in this long book were particularly original, but the descriptive writing was excellent. The historical back story set in 19th century Scotland was exceptionally good, and a little bit superior to the modern day story set on Entry Island off the coast of Canada. 

Duet in Beirut: Mishka Ben-David translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg:- After a failed mission in Beirut agent Ronen is dismissed from Mossad, and when his former commander Gadi discovers he has gone to Beirut to redeem himself he follows to prevent another disaster. There is some discussion about the morality of targeted assassinations that inevitably lead to tit-for-tat killings, and a lot about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, a situation that is complicated by Ronen’s wife having been Gadi’s lover in the past. A good read with much more about planning an operation rather than the actual action.

The Golden Egg: Donna Leon:- The Guido Brunetti books are usually enjoyable, and his close family life with Paola and the children make such a interesting contrast to that of so many other detectives. But this was such a miserable slow paced story that even a devoted Donna Leon fan was struggling at times. 

From Eden To Exile: Eric H. Cline:- The author discusses the archaeological evidence that might explain some biblical mysteries. An interesting read although no easy answers were found.

This Dark Road To Mercy: Wiley Cash:- A gripping story told from several perspectives set mostly in the author’s home state of North Carolina. This book deservedly won the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger.

A Mad Catastrophe: Geoffrey Wawro:- One of many books published in 2014 on the centenary  of the outbreak of the Great War. This long book deals with the disastrous conduct of the war by Austria-Hungary in 1914 on both the Serbian and Russian Fronts. Full of unpleasant details of ludicrous offensives that lead to horrendous losses, and the ultimate fall of the Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties. With a few exceptions most Great War Generals seem to have been out horse riding, playing polo, or chasing women when their military schools covered the tactical lessons of the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and the Russo-Japanese War. The Great War was a dreadful tragedy that cast a long dark shadow over the last century, and we are still living with the results today.

I also tackled two very different spy thrillers A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre, and A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming [winner of the 2012 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger] which was my favourite read in January. The contrast between these books was fascinating, and in some ways surprising as the veteran was surpassed by the comparative newcomer.

I haven’t read John le Carre since The Looking Glass War [1964] back in 2010, a novel nowhere near as good as the Karla trilogy, or Theforeign country Constant Gardener. Since then I have re-watched the TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and seen the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman, and am now watching the TV version of Smiley’s People with the brilliant Alec Guinness. The amusing thing about The Looking Glass War was that the three sections were introduced by quotations from Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and Rupert Brooke,  a choice hardly representative of  le Carre’s political stance today.

The problem with A Wanted Man is that the narrative is so turgid, and lacks the subtlety of the Karla trilogy and many of the earlier books. I read a ranking of le Carre’s novels somewhere on the internet that puts A Most Wanted Man at 20 out of 22.

I think this book could have been so much better. The author hints that the “most wanted man” Issa Karpov, a Chechen who has been tortured by the Russians,  might not be everything he seems, and there might be a clever twist to the story; but unfortunately there isn’t and the ending is both predictable, and abrupt. What was most disappointing was that most of the characters seemed more like walking political statements than real human beings. I will be extremely interested to see what the movie starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as German intelligence agent Gunther Bachman makes of the book. 

Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country also begins slowly, but it has plenty of trade craft and action as it follows disgraced agent Thomas Kell as he attempts to track down the missing newly appointed head of MI6, Amelia Levene. This is more nuanced novel with some intriguing little twists in the plot, and a very exciting ending. This was a book  that definitely deserved the award of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. I enjoyed it so much that I am now reading the sequel A Colder War, which also features Thomas Kell.