Archive for November, 2011

Congratulations to Andrew Martin for winning the CWA Ellis Peters with his wartime novel The Somme Stations featuring railway detective Jim Stringer. View details from the CWA website here

Andrew has been previously shortlisted for this award in both 2007 and 2008. 

I haven’t read this book yet but have it on my Kindle so now I will definitely make time to read it. 

I finished reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a truly memorable book by Tom Franklin yesterday. I think that for me to write much more than a few comments would be superfluous when you can read a couple of comprehensive superbly thoughtful reviews by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, and by Maxine at Petrona.

Set in rural Mississippi the main characters Larry Ott and Silas Jones were briefly boyhood friends. Silas Jones, son of a black single mother, is now the small town’s only law officer, whose main task is to direct traffic when the shift changes at the local lumber mill. Larry Ott, the child of lower middle class white folk, is now the town outcast, because 25 years ago he went on one date with Cindy Walker, and the teenage girl was never seen again. He survives by selling off plots of land, and sits day after day in his garage waiting for business that never comes. Now another white girl, Tina Rutherford, daughter of the mill owner has gone missing, and inevitably suspicion once again falls on Larry. 

Author Tom Franklin is a great storyteller, and this book which recently won the CWA Gold Dagger has everything; plot, characters, social comment, a wonderful sense of place, believable dialogue and a smooth narrative style. The back stories that make up a lot of the book flow smoothly out of the narrative as the reader learns more and more about the flawed characters. Perhaps we all have a little of Larry and Silas in us, and say “well that could have been me if this or that had happened”; and that is why this book is so gripping. 

This sounds very cliched, but I can only say this is a must read, even if you have never been anywhere near the American South. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter  is a moving story all about friendship, racism, fear of the other, cruelty, loneliness, redemption and  hope for a better future. It is more than a crime fiction book, a superb novel about that very difficult journey called life. 

“They’ll sink their teeth into anything you give em, try to make this a damn human interest story. I don’t know about yall, but I don’t want no humans interested in me.”  

Happy Thanksgiving

Posted: November 24, 2011 in notes, Southern States, USA

I thought it was appropriate to start reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin a quintessential American novel just the day before Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays. Sometimes books don’t live up to the hype and ballyhoo, but this one has me gripped from the start. But then I admit to a long love affair with small American towns and their compelling atmosphere, a subtle mixture of hospitality and menace.

I usually find blurbs a bit off-putting, but this one by Ann Hood inside the front cover made me take notice:

It’s about ordinary people like you and me, traveling through that extraordinary journey called life. I just love this book.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter reminded me a little of books by Daniel Woodrell, and Joe Lansdale, not just because it is set in the South but because of the quality of the writing. 

Five reasons you know you are in the South. 

1] Your guide refers to the “Federal occupation”, and when you explain to your puzzled fellow tourists she means the Civil War, you are firmly corrected with a drawled ‘The War between the States’.

2] A well maintained house with a beautifully kept lawn is right next door a virtually derelict shack with overgrown grass and various rusting vehicles all over the place. There is no fence between the properties because that would be unneighbourly.

3] If you take the wrong road in any town you can turn round within a 100 yards in a choice of six large church car parks.

4] You pull in to a restaurant car park, and yours is the only vehicle that is not a pick up truck with a gun rack. 

5] When the pleasant small town you stopped for lunch is revealed to be the site of a huge crystal meths laboratory in a FBI raid the next day. 

[Note on photos: Pittsburg Landing is near Savannah TN, a few miles from the Mississippi state line.] 

Go west young man….

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Argentina, Brazil, Southern States, USA

I have just started reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, a book set in Mississippi. I have driven across various parts of the Border South including Northern Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and immediately recognised  the descriptions of the small towns, and the people who inhabit them.

He passed a clothing store that had gone so long without customers it’d briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock.

I also have two more western hemisphere books to read in the next few weeks. 

A Vine in the Blood: Leighton Gage

Sweet Money: Ernesto Mallo

With only nine days until the announcement of the winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Award, I have realised that I will not be able to read all the books on the shortlist. Luckily Professor Rob Kitchin who blogs at The View from the Blue House has read the other three books, and here are links to his excellent reviews.

The Somme Stations by Andrew Martin

The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris

The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland

And below to my own reviews of the remaining books.

Prince by Rory Clements

The Cleansing Flames by Roger Morris

Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

Rob gives The Hanging Shed: Gordon Ferris his highest mark; and I think The Cleansing Flames: R.N.Morris with its blend of humour, philosophy and tension is a winner over Island of Bones by a short metatarsal. 

But  will the judges have other ideas? They do love their Tudors. 


Posted: November 21, 2011 in Book Awards, England, Historical

London, 1593:

Kit Marlowe is found stabbed through the eye and John Shakespeare, investigator for Sir Robert Cecil, is called to the scene. It is believed Marlowe was involved in distributing propaganda against the foreign immigrants from the Low Countries and France. Shakespeare does not believe witnesses that it was an accident and when the first of a wave of bombing attacks against the Dutch immigrants begins he senses a connection. But Sir Robert Cecil wants Shakespeare to make contact with Spanish exile Antonio Perez, a guest of the Earl of Essex and once the most powerful courtier in Spain, who has important information to sell. So Shakespeare sets off on that mission leaving his associate Boltfoot Cooper to discover the source of the gunpowder used in the attack on the Dutch. From then on the action is fast and furious with the Vidame de Chartres, an effete French nobleman, the English priest hunter and torturer Richard Topcliffe, Lucy a beautiful black whore, Dona Ana a sultry Spanish seductress, as well as devious Scots with secretive plots all making appearances in a complex tale that left me breathless. Author Rory Clements won the CWA Ellis Peters last year with the second John Shakespeare story, and Prince has been shortlisted this year. His research appears to be meticulous and the atmosphere of Elizabethan London is evoked with all its poverty, brutality, intrigue and depravity. 

Personally I was rather disappointed in what after a promising start, became just another swashbuckling adventure yarn with chapter after chapter ending in cliffhanger situations. The political messages about immigrants, taking Englishmen’s jobs and trade, with obvious reference to the present day, was repeated ad infinitum as if the reader would not be able to grasp the message unless they read it several times. 

This is the way [poverty] English men and women live and die, while the Dutch strangers wrap their wives in New World furs, fuck their English maidservants and drink Gascon wines.

‘...You are one of us now, an apostle of the Free English Trainband….’

I may be mistaken but this could be an allusion to the modern day English Defence League, which resulted in one reviewer referring to Shakespeare’s foes as ‘certain right-wing political groups’ and Boltfoot joining a ‘right-wing group’.

Was this connection something the author wanted readers to make, if so it was totally anachronistic as the terms right and left were never used until the French Revolution, and the anti-immigrant band in Prince make reference to their leader being a new Wat Tyler or Jack Cade. This reminded me of  London dock workers marching in support of an extreme right wing politician Enoch Powell in the 1960s, and a comment made after the last Scottish elections about the victorious Scottish Nationalist Party. A mixture of nationalism and socialism, what could go wrong?

‘These two people were the only ones outside the Escorial who understood it in its entirety. Its success depended on no one else understanding it.’

In 1593 I would have thought most people in the land would well understand where the main threat to England’s security originated, but that is just my opinion.

I am sure Prince, which has excellent reviews, will be enjoyed as a rip roaring historical adventure yarn, but the four hundred and thirty two pages of action packed narrative left me rather exhausted and bewildered.  

The svenska översatta kriminalroman [Martin Beck Award] for 2011 has been won by Denise Mina with The End of the Wasp Season. This award has been won previously by some of the elite of the crime writing  world including Deon Meyer [shortlisted again this year], Andrew Taylor, Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum, Alexander McCall Smith and Thomas H. Cook.

Best Swedish Crime Novel 2011

Posted: November 20, 2011 in Book Awards, Sweden

Arne Dahl has won the award for Best Swedish Crime Novel 2011 with Viskelen [Chinese Whispers]. I hope this means we will get some more of his books translated into English. Viskelen is the first part in a new quartet of books about international crime and the controversial Europol unit formed to combat it, more details here.

My review of Misterioso, Arne Dahl’s first book in the Intercrime series, translated by Tiina Nunnally.


Cuckoo in the nest

Posted: November 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

Why are we seeing articles with the Best mysteries/thrillers of 2011 lists in November? Why don’t people wait till the year actually ends?

This is week 46 out of 52 weeks, which means there is more than 10% of the year to go, but some lists have already appeared at Publishers Weekly, and also at Kirkus Reviews. The dangers in rushing out lists so early in the year was shown by  Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts who spotted a massive blunder on the Kirkus Review list, where they had picked Assassin of Secrets by Q.R.Markham as one of their best mysteries of the year. Unfortunately it seems that large chunks of Assassin of Secrets were copied from a non-fiction book written by John Bamforth, and spy thrillers written by John Gardner, and Charles McCarry………

That list was hurriedly modified on the Kirkus website. But kudos to Jen for proving how little thought goes into these lists, and how ridiculously early in the year the lists are composed. 

Perhaps it is the embarrassment caused by Assassins of Secrets slipping through the process of editing [do they  employ editors or proof readers anymore?], subsequent publication, reviews etc that has produced an alternative view of the book in an article by Ben East. East’s theory is that Q.R. Markham’s book was a ‘great novel built from other great novels’, and he mentioned that someone once said ‘talent imitates, genius steals’. The actual quote was I believe ‘talent borrows, genius steals’ and is by Oscar Wilde.

Did Markham just get carried away by the writing process? Or did he set out to embarrass some of the top names in crime thriller writing, those who reviewed his book so positively? Did he want to be found out?

There are only a limited amount of plots in crime fiction, and the more books you read the more you understand the author is merely producing another variation on a theme. The crime fiction aficionado will always wonder if the next book will contain some new twist on an old proven theme. But Markham seems to have merely copied out vast chunks of other peoples work almost word for word, and he explains it by saying he wanted to impress the people at Little Brown. Genius or blatant theft?

Perhaps if Kirkus had patiently waited till the end of the year to produce their lists they would have avoided the embarrassment of the inclusion of this cuckoo in the nest. Surely the time for 2011’s best of lists is in January 2012, not in mid November with many hours of reading time left in the year.  

But copies of the Assassin of Secrets are apparently changing hands for large amounts of money so perhaps Mr Markham will have the last laugh, and another quotation from Oscar Wilde might turn out to be more appropriate:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. From the preface of Picture of Dorian Gray 

From Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran. 

The Golden Age of British detective fiction is generally regarded as roughly the period between the end of the First World War and that of the Second, i.e. 1920 to 1945. This was the era of the country house weekend enlivened by the presence of a murderer………

There are still some country houses [with huge heating bills] that allow simple folk a chance to sample the atmosphere of the  ‘country house weekend’, while helping pay for their upkeep, and perhaps wondering if Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, Albert Campion, or Roderick Alleyn will appear at any moment. The photos give a glimpse of an eccentric England that may give us some idea of what the Golden Age was like.