Archive for October, 2011

A Medieval Mystery

Posted: October 29, 2011 in Book Awards, Historical

They live very nobly, they wear king’s clothes, have fine palfreys and horses. When squires go to the east, the burghers remain in their beds; when the squires go get themselves massacred, the burghers go on swimming parties. 

Renard le Contrefait, a fourteenth century clerk of Troyes  from Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies. 

It is nice to know things were not that different in Medieval times from now. 

I have about four weeks to read the remaining four and a half books on the CWA Ellis Peters Historical crime fiction award shortlist, and with all my other commitments I don’t think I will manage to read them all. Therefore I should really be reading and not writing blog posts but I was struck by the fact that even though the award is named for Ellis Peters [Edith Pargetter] who authored a series of books about Brother Cadfael, a Medieval monk, that particular historical period seems to have been rather neglected by the judges. 

Since 2006 thirty six books have been shortlisted for the Ellis Peters, but only two [Ariana Franklin’s superb Mistress in the Art of Death, the winner in 2007; and The Death  Maze by the same author shortlisted in 2008] have been set in the Medieval period.

Attending a school where the athletic houses were named Grenville, Drake, Sydney, Spenser, Marlowe, and Raleigh; our history lessons were not surprisingly rather Tudor orientated.

I think there has recently been a trend at both GCSE and A Level to only study the First World War and Hitler and Stalin, and then a bit more Hitler and Stalin.  This restricted syllabus is in contrast with the syllabus when I attempted A level History in 1970 [I already had a degree in dentistry] when there were three papers English, European and a Special subject. Has this fixation with 20th century history influenced the composition of the Ellis Peters shortlists. Let us examine the period settings of the shortlisted books over the last six years in greater detail. Each shortlist had six books-* indicates winner:

2006: Ancient Egypt, 1830s Ottoman, Late 19th Century Ottoman, Tudor, 1830’s USA, late 1940s California*

2007: Medieval*, pre WWI, post WWII  Tuscany, 19th Century Canada, post WWII Germany, 1830s Ottoman

2008: Argentina 1950/Germany 1932, 1934 England, 1911 England, WWII*, Tudor, Medieval

2009: 17th Century Scotland, WWII, WWII, WWII, WWII, 1934 Germany/1954 Cuba*

2010: Tudor*, Tudor, Tudor, 18th Century England, post WWII USA, 19th Century Russia

2011: 1939 Soviet Union, 1946 Scotland, WWI, Tudor, 19th Century Russia, 18th Century England

Is there a shortage of crime fiction set in Medieval times?

Is it that the crime fiction set in Medieval period is just not as good as that set in more modern times? Or has the high standard set by Ellis Peters, and Umberto Eco’ s The Name of the Rose put the judges off other Medieval authors?  Or is the greater effort to read books set outside our own comfort zone too much of a handicap? If it is great characters we and authors want, and that is surely the reason for the number of Tudor books, there are plenty in Medieval times. What is your opinion? 

I was pleasantly surprised by the results of this poll. I would have liked more voters, but I think that the quality of the voters is more important than sheer quantity. 

Your favourite male SWEDISH* crime writer is Hakan Nesser, ahead of Johan Theorin and veteran Henning Mankell. 

Hakan Nesser’s formula of cleverly plotted police procedurals containing social comment and sprinkled liberally with dry humour is a winner.  He doesn’t get the volume of  publicity that other writers such as Stieg Larsson, or Norwegian Jo Nesbo receive, but his enlightened readers can’t wait for more of his books to be published.

*The other category included one vote for Mons Kallentoft, and two for Jo Nesbo who is Norwegian. I did not make the poll Nordic or Scandinavian because the list of names would have been too lengthy. Thanks to all those who voted.

 A reminder to view the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival  hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. October’s carnival is a bumper package with 16 contributors and 31 blog posts.



Swedish shortlists

Posted: October 25, 2011 in Book Awards, Scandinavia, Sweden

Nu avslöjar Svenska Deckarakademin vilka som är 2011 års fem bästa svenska kriminalromaner respektive de fem bästa till svenska översatta kriminalromanerna. 
Vilka som erövrar priserna avslöjas vid Deckarakademins höstmöte i Eskilstuna lördagen den 19 november.

Karin Alfredsson: Pojken i hiss 54 (Damm)
Arne Dahl: Viskleken (Bonniers)
Lars Kepler: Eldvittnet (Bonniers)
Hans Koppel: Kommer aldrig mer igen (Telegram bokförlag)
Kristina Ohlsson: Änglavakter (Piratförlaget)

Belinda Bauer: Mörk jord (”Blacklands”, översättning: Ulla Danielsson, Modernista)
Deon Meyer: Tretton timmar (”Thirteen hours”, översättning: Mia Gahne, Weyler förlag)
Denise Mina: Getingsommar (”The end of the wasp season ”, översättning: Boel Unnerstad, Minotaur)
Peter Temple: Sanning (”Thruth”, översättning: Johan Nilsson, Kabusa)
Domingo Villar : Nattens mörka toner: Ett fall för kommissarie Leo Caldas (” Ollos de auga/Ojos de agua”, översättning: Lena E Heyman, Ekholm & Tegebjer)

Unfortunately my Swedish isn’t good enough to translate this news about the Best Swedish crime novel shortlist [won last year by Leif G.W. Persson] and the Best Translated crime novel, the Martin Beck award, shortlist [won last year by Deon Meyer]. But even I can work out that the battle for the Martin Beck award will be interesting with nominees from England, South Africa, Scotland, Australia and Spain. My money is on Australia’s Peter Temple for Truth. 

I have started reading the next book in my personal challenge to read the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters Award shortlist. This is The Cleansing Flames by R.N.Morris, and looking back to my review of A Razor Wrapped in Silk, his previous book in the St Petersburg mystery series featuring Porfiry Petrovich- the investigator from Crime and Punishment, I noted that at that time [March 2010] I was struggling with a shattered kneecap. I became so engrossed in the book and for a while forgot about the pain. Perhaps the handfuls of delicious codeine tablets helped as well.

The Cleansing Flames is set in Tsarist Russia in 1872, during a long period of revolutionary turmoil that culminated in the events of 1917. I am particularly interested in this part of Russian history, because my great grandparents and grandparents had the good sense to decide that frequent pogroms and providing cannon fodder for the Tsar’s wars was not a future they wanted for their descendants, and emigrated en masse to the UK. It was a sad irony that the family’s first child born in England [my uncle] was to die fighting in a British uniform in the September 1918 assault on the Hindenburg Line. 

I was a little surprised to find that this is the first time Roger Morris has been shortlisted for the award, although he did get  special mentions for A Vengeful Longing in 2008, and A Razor Wrapped in Silk last year. Hopefully this shortlisting will bring a lot more readers to this intelligent series.  

Last year Roger Morris was kind enough to submit to my online interviews which gave us some fascinating insights into the series. Here are the links to that interview, his own website and the reviews of his books.

The website of  Roger Morris. 

Part One of the Roger Morris interview 

Part Two

Part Three

[Continued from Starting Island of Bones]  

After a brutal prologue with a public hanging at Tyburn in 1751, Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson moves forward to the strange summer of 1783 when the whole of Europe is covered by a fog and haze. At St Herberts’s Island on Derwent Water, Cumberland the owner Mrs Briggs has been encouraged to consider the removal of the long buried bones of the first Lord Greta and his wife to consecrated grounds and the rebuilding of the tomb as a summerhouse. But when the coffins are examined there is a third unknown body resting across them. Mrs Briggs houseguest is the Vizegrafin Margaret von Bolsenheim and she suggests:

‘Perhaps we should summon my brother Charles,’ the Vizegrafin said quietly, then, as she found the others looking at her:’You know he has become quite renowned at ferreting all sorts of information from a body.’…..’And there is a woman, a widow now who seems to involve herself in his interests.’

‘I understand from the newspapers that my brother lives in Sussex now, and goes by the name of Gabriel Crowther. The woman’s name is Harriet Westerman.’

Crowther had sold all his property, including Silverside Hall, now owned by Mr and Mrs Briggs after his brother was hanged for the murder of his father, Sir William Penhaglion, First Baron Keswick. Crowther had departed for the continent to study in seclusion and anonymity. But now the mystery body and the presence of his sister and nephew summon him back to his childhood home, accompanied by the recently widowed Mrs Westerman, her son Stephen , and his tutor Mr Quince. The locals while respecting their betters in society still cling to ancient customs and follow the lead given to them by Casper Grace, a cunning-man, who believes in witches and evil spirits. There are long standing complex family rivalries dating back to the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. But there are also a plethora of suspects when an objectionable Austrian, whose beautiful daughter Sophia Hurst catches the eye of Mr Quince, is murdered. 

Does Island of Bones fulfill the standards the reader should apply to historical crime fiction? 


Education-definitely the dialogue , manners and atmosphere of the time are accurately portrayed.

Good plot-well it may even be a little too complex in places.

Stimulating thought- yes.

Memorable characters-this is the main strength of the book with not only the main cast of Harriet, Crowther, Stephen and Casper, but also some lovely little cameo appearances by the loquacious Mrs Briggs, a pompous Cockermouth lawyer Mr White, and a less than resolute traveller Mr Douglas Dodds.

When his new acquaintance added that the man was a foreigner, Mr Dodd’s wise fears were done away with entirely, and his resolution returned. many people, otherwise reasonable and hospitable, might find a dozen reasons to kill such a man.

Island of Bones is not an easy lightweight read, and it was not ideal entering the series at number three, but it was well worth the effort. I might when I have time go back to read the earlier books in the series. 

Terry Halligan’s reviews at Eurocrime of the first two books in the series Instruments of Darkness and Anatomy of Murder

Author Imogen Robertson’s website and blog.

Sometimes you get nudged into reading a book, and then finding that it is number 3 in a series and wish you had spotted the books earlier and started at the beginning. My good intentions to read the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters shortlist resulted in me picking up Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson. I am now half way through this historical mystery set in late 18th Century England, a period I know little about apart from some studying of the American War of Independence. The author who grew up in Darlington was a TV, film and radio director before becoming an author. She plays the cello, speaks four languages and overcame mild dyslexia to read Russian and German at Cambridge. Almost as interesting a back story as her main characters, the beautiful Mrs Harriet Westerman, and the taciturn anatomist Gabriel Crowther.

I would have made more progress through Imogen’s book if I had not become totally engrossed exploring her website and blog , which are packed full of information about the novels and the period. There is a very interesting video tour of Georgian sites in London relating to Anatomy of Murder, the second book in this series.

Imogen Robertson’s writing style smoothly matches the period and has been described as similar to Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brian, apparently there are a lot of naval connections in Anatomy of Murder. She is certainly a talented writer, who has meticulously researched the period becoming in the process an admirer of Horace Walpole, who in 1764 had initiated a literary genre with first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. 

The dialogue especially that between Mrs Westerman and Crowther is convincing, and one is never shaken out of 1783 by inappropriate slang, such as Downton Abbey’s ‘As if’, and ‘our lot get shafted’ etc. This is much more erudite writing for a unhurried readership prepared to take the time to be absorbed into the atmosphere of the place and period. It is not a fast read but it is an utterly fascinating one. I am hoping the second half of the book is as good as the first.

‘Are you quite sure, Mrs Westerman?’ Crowther asked, opening his eyes a little wider. ‘I have had the urge to horsewhip him ever since I saw the manner in which he tied his cravat.’ Harriet shook her head again and tried not to laugh. 

Terry Halligan’s review of Island of Bones at Eurocrime 

[to be continued]

My reading schedules, as well as my attempts at keeping up with reading several excellent blogs, have been thrown into turmoil by my recent illness and family commitments. But even though I have a mountain of Scandinavian and Italian contenders for the 2012 CWA International Dagger on a my shelves, and also piled up on the floor I have decided to try and readthe CWA Ellis Peters shortlist. 

The winner will be announced on the 30 November so perhaps I can read most of the shortlist and give opinion before then. 

I have always thought that historical crime fiction is the most difficult  of all sub genres to write successfully. The author not only has to produce the normal expectations of a good crime story; plot, characters, dialogue and a crime to be investigated, but also achieve a sensible balance between the mystery part of the story and the historical detail.

Too much history might swamp the crime investigation, but not enough historical facts, or inaccurate period dialogue and atmosphere will spoil the experience for the reader. 

I recently saw a clip from the popular TV series Downton Abbey where the local tenant farmers were talking to the daughter of the lord of the manor as if they were equals. I switched off as it sounded so ridiculous, but came across the next week’s episode where the maid was talking to her mistress like they were a couple of mates down a coffee bar. People from different classes did not talk to each other like that in England even in the 1950s or 1960s yet alone back in 1916. In books and film the character’s dialogue and their attitude has to be sensitive to the correct period, or else the viewer or reader will drift off.

I remember reading a book partially set in wartime Berlin, where the young anti-hero decided to pop down to his local Gestapo headquarters inform them his girlfriend was a member of an anti-Nazi resistance movement and attempted to negotiate a deal. Anyone who has read Hans Fallada’s masterpiece Alone in Berlin would realise the folly of such an approach. The same 17 year old girlfriend was able despite years of Nazi indoctrination, and the strict censorship, to announce to the son of an attendee at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 that Germany had lost the war.  Operation Torch, El Alamein and Stalingrad [as well as Midway in the Pacific] were all many months away, and while Winston Churchill with his  faith in America’s industrial power might have had the inkling that eventually victory would come, I suspect no one in Germany would have had the strategic insight to express such a notion so early in the war. This was a case of writing based on what the author knows about the future rather than setting the story firmly in its period. The author fell into one of the major pitfalls of writing historical fiction of any kind.

Perhaps I know quite a lot about certain periods of history [and very little about so many other things] that this makes me overcritical of books set in those particular times. My ignorance about the late 18th century setting of the first shortlisted book I have just started, Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson, should give that author a head start in ensuring I enjoy her book.

I am looking for a good plot with a mystery and a crime, reasonably accurate dialogue, interesting characters, and enough atmosphere and historical detail to set me down in, and teach me something about the period. 

I hope to follow this up by reading Prince by Rory Clements, and The Cleansing Flames by R.N.Morris. 


Posted: October 17, 2011 in Italy

Anna Maria Giusti returns home from a disappointing visit to the alien world of Palermo and finds her elderly neighbour Constanza Altavilla dead. Anna Maria had gone to collect a registered letter that Constanza had signed for and found her lying on the floor with blood near her head. Because of the blood Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice is called, but it seems the woman had suffered a fatal heart attack. This is confirmed by the taciturn pathologist Rizzardi, who mentions certain suspicious marks on the body. Brunetti becomes curious and begins an investigation into Signora Altavilla’s life, her involvement with an organization that helped battered women, and her voluntary work in a nearby nursing home. There is an unexpected twist and turn in the investigation, and Brunetti seems to express doubts as to both some of  Signorina Elettra’s methods, and the functioning of Italian state. 

‘But he’s a man with no education, with a long criminal record, a known thief,’ Vianello said, making no attempt to disguise his astonishment.

‘You could be describing many of the men in Parliament,’ Brunetti said in return, intending it as a joke but then suddenly oppressed by the truth of it.

Drawing Conclusions in the 20th in the Commissario Brunetti series and while it is not one of the best novels in the series it is a pleasantly reassuring read. You  don’t read Donna Leon for fireworks, or extreme action, her books are like a comfortable pair of old slippers stating and restating the problems faced by Italy and Western Europe, and featuring the same cast of characters that you have grown to love or hate over the series. This is not Romanzo Criminale, or a Massimo Carlotto Alligator book, but a quiet gentle, almost meandering, story of basic dishonesty and corruption in a city where it is very  important who you know, or what title your father in law holds. Donna Leon gives us a chilling portrait  of Venice behind the splendid facade where even the good guys have to bend, or even break the rules to function. But the story’s emotions are not all negative with love, loyalty, and remorse also featuring. And Donna Leon is prepared to give us a little controversy. 

‘But why we’re giving money to places like India and China is something I don’t understand. Can’t pick up  a newspaper without reading how powerful they are economically, how the world is going to belong to them in a decade. Or two. So what are we doing, supporting their children?’ Then Vianello added , ‘At least that’s what I ask myself?’

This is definitely a series I will continue to read, not only because the books are enjoyable, well written, and not too taxing, but because those cameo appearances by Paola Brunetti make my day. 😉

Read another review of Drawing Conclusions by Maxine of Petrona at Euro Crime

The CWA Ellis Peters Shortlist

Posted: October 13, 2011 in Book Awards

“The Crime Writers’ Association has announced the shortlist for this year’s prestigious Ellis Peters Historical Award. The six books on the shortlist (more details below) are:

Rory Clements* Prince (John Murray)
Sam Eastland The Red Coffin (Faber & Faber)
Gordon Ferris The Hanging Shed (Corvus)
Andrew Martin The Somme Stations (Faber & Faber)
RN Morris The Cleansing Flames (Faber & Faber)
Imogen Robertson Island of Bones (Headline)

CWA chair Peter James said: “Historical fiction remains as popular as ever and has seen the creation of some of crime writing’s most enduring characters. This year’s books continue that fine tradition.“

The winner will be announced on November 30 at the Athenaeum in London.”

*Rory Clements won last year with Revenger.

Well done to the CWA for announcing the shortlist with almost seven weeks to go till the winner is announced. Interested bloggers will at least have a chance to read the books and comment before the final choice is made. This year there is an interesting range of books; Elizabethan, late 18th century England, late 19th century Russia, World War I, 1939 Soviet Union, 1946 Glasgow. But strangely considering the award is named for the creator of the medieval monk detective Brother Cadfael no book set in that period. Full details of the books here at the Crime Writers’ website.