Archive for January, 2012

One of the great pleasures of blogging about crime fiction is the opportunity of getting in at the start of a new series and recommending the books to others. The folks at Hersilia Press were kind enough to contact me, and ask if I wanted to read and review I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio De Giovanni, the first in a series featuring an enigmatic Naples detective Commissario Ricciardi  and set during the Fascist 1930s. The book concerned the violent death of a great tenor, and the combination of an unusual detective, historical setting and Italian opera was impossible to resist.

Many many years ago when I lived in London I was able to go regularly  to  performances at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Even after all these years I can’t forget a wonderful performance of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera conducted by Claudio Abbado with Placido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli, or a young Jose Carreras in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. I won’t forget the Donizetti as about two rows in front of us a woman was constantly chatting to her neighbour, and had been asked several times to be quiet, and when at the very beginning of the main tenor aria Una furtiva lacrima, she started to say something to her companion a lady in front of her turned round and hit her in the face! Opera inspires strong emotions. 

Maurizio De Giovanni, who was born in Naples in 1958, won a writing competition for unpublished authors in 2005 with a short story set in Fascist Italy about Commissario Ricciardi. This was expanded into a novel Il seso del dolore [The sense of pain] subtitled L’inverno del commissario Ricciardi [The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi] in 2007. The title chosen for the English version of the book to be published by Hersilia Press in paperback and ebook formats on the 16 February is ‘I Will Have Vengeance’ is taken from Cavalleria Rusticana, Act One, Scene IX.

Four more Commissario Ricciardi books have followed, and the fourth I giorno del morti, L’autumno del commissario del Ricciardi was a  finalist for  the Premio Camaiore, and won the Corpi Freddi in 2010.

I Will Have Vengeance  is about the murder of Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi in March 1931 during a performance of  Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana [1890], while he waited to play Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci [1892]. Since 1893 both operas have usually been performed together in a double bill.

The police detective Ricciardi who investigates the crime is a wealthy aristocrat who is enigmatic and uncommunicative mainly because of the terrible burden he bears, which is that he sees the victims of violent death at the very moment of death. 

Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, the man withouta hat, was Commissario of Police with the Mobile Unit of the Regia Questura di Napoli. He was thirty-one years old, the same number of years that marked the century, nine of them under the fascist regime.

Ricciardi’s physical appearance is described to the readers in great detail and so is his bleak life.

He had no friends, he didn’t associate with anyone, he didn’t go out at night, he didn’t have a woman. His family ended with his old tata Rosa, now seventy years old, who served him with absolute devotion and loved him dearly, though she never tried to understand what it was he saw or what he was thinking.

Ricciardi is assisted by his subordinate Brigadier Maione, an older family man who despite their difference in social class, worries about Ricciardi like a son, and even gives him personal advice. There have been protagonists with sycophantic fawning superiors in Italian crime fiction, such as Guido Brunetti’s Patta, but this is Fascist Italy and therefore Ricciardi’s Vice-Questore Angelo Garzo is a particularly nasty specimen. 

He felt he had al the requirements: good looks, excellent people skills………………………………..But in reality he was inept. The climb to his present position had been marked by betrayal, cunning, and servility towards his superiors. And above all by the skillful exploitation of his subordinates capacities.

As Ricciardi and Maione interview the staff at the San Carlo Theatre, Vezzi’s secretary, his agent Mario Marelli and his beautiful widow Livia they discover that Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi was a pig of a man, a womaniser and a swaggering brute, who was hated by everyone around him. 

I never met a single person who liked him, in the ten years that I rendered my services on his behalf. Aside from the powers that be in Rome of course. When it came to licking the feet of those in power, he was bravissimo.

And so the scene is set and as the wind blows coldly through the streets of Naples, Ricciardi, while pining for one woman, avoiding the attentions of another and enjoying his favourite lunch of sfogliattella [toppings sealed between two layers of pizza dough and deep-fried until crispy] manages to solve a case that has just a little twist in the tale. 

This is top quality crime fiction beautifully written by Maurizio De Giovanni, who incidentally does not claim pretensions to literature, and admires both Ed McBain and his compatriot Gianrico Carofiglio. It is unobtrusively translated by the experienced Anne Milano Appel and is a easy read. The story is packed with incidents and larger than life characters. It has a simple but gripping plot  that cleverly blends in with the operas. It is also full  of information for those who are not opera buffs, and is a commentary on the vast social divides that existed in the 1930s. As an amateur reviewer I am at liberty to say I really enjoyed this novel, especially the intriguing character of Ricciardi and the promise of romance for him in the future with the shy woman Enrica, who he watches through his window.

I will definitely watch out for the next book in the series and many thanks to Hersilia Press for my copy.

“Tell them it’s probably a crime of passion. Isn’t there always passion behind a crime? Tell them that. Whatever the solution turns out to be, you’ll have been correct.”

You might also like to listen to the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana

The Potter’s Field is the thirteenth book in Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano Mystery series that has been translated into English by the American poet Stephen Sartarelli.

I have read all of them and have the sort of easy relationship with the books that resembles a long faithful marriage.  I know I will be charmed by Camilleri’s cleverness and with his characters even if his plots might be a little thin.

In The Potter’s Field we get some of the ingredients of a typical Montalbano story; an introspective detective, Dolores Alfano, a beautiful Colombian woman causing conflict among the local men, a slew of biblical references with a body chopped into thirty pieces, as well as Mafia involvement. Italy, and especially Sicily, has had four great influences on its development, Catholicism, Communism, Fascism and Mafia; and you can’t help feeling sorry for a people that have suffered both Mussolini and Berlusconi over the past ninety years. 

Montalbano gets assistance from the solid reliable Fazio, Catarella is once again a Sicilian Mrs Malaprop, and even Ingrid does a stakeout for Salvo; but Mimi Augello is constantly in a foul mood. Montalbano faced by Mimi’s hostility writes himself letters as he muses about the reasons for this, and puzzles over the identity of the dismembered corpse and the location of Giovanni Alfano, the husband of Dolores who apparently boarded his ship but has since disappeared. As I said the plot and the solution might be fairly transparent but the novel is full of cleverness, moulded around the theme of betrayal. Montalbano might be able to solve the case, but he has to manipulate that solution to reaffirm a friendship. 

Salvo Montalbano is frequently the master of  insubordination, but surpasses himself in this passage.

” Ah, so you, Mr Commissioner actually believed such a groundless accusation? Ah, I feel so insulted and humiliated! You’re accusing me of an act-no, indeed, a crime that, if true, would warrant severe punishment! As if I were a common idiot or gambler! That journalist must be possessed to think such a thing!”

End of climax. The inspector inwardly congratulated himself. He had managed to utter a statement using only the titles of novels by Dostoevsky. Had the commissioner noticed? Of course not! The man was as ignorant as a goat.

The biblical references abound with Montalbano reading a book by Andrea Camilleri- a popular version of the Passion of Christ. And even the references to the important subject of food have a biblical slant.

“Hello, Inspector. For antipasto today we’ve got fritters of nunnatu.”

“I want ’em.”

He committed a massacre of nunnati-newborns, that is. Herod had nothing on him. [nunnatu- a tiny newborn fish-whitebait]

Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Camilleri are growing comfortably old together and although there are never going to be many great surprises in these books they remain an enjoyable, educational, amusing and entertaining read. Roll on number fourteen. 

Sadly Reginald Hill died last week, and as a tribute I have reposted my review of Midnight Fugue, the last book in the wonderful Dalziel and Pascoe series.[original post 17 February 2010] I can’t remember how many of the Dalziel and Pascoe books I read, but I began to imagine Andy Dalziel in my mind’s eye as someone very similar in appearance and manner to a certain brusque Professor of Dental Medicine. I was very pleased when the character finally reached the TV screen  and was played  by Warren Clarke, who could have been the double of that esteemed professor. 

Reginald Hill succeeded in keeping his long running series fresh with an inventive approach and a wonderful sense of humour. On top of that his memory will always be cherished by crime fiction fans for his comments at Harrogate in discussion with John Banville [link here]. A clever defence of crime fiction against so called literary fiction.  Reginald Hill will be sorely missed. 

My review of Midnight Fugue:

I am a little late this week with posting my entry to the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise simply because I have been distracted by other events. It is strange that you can go quietly along for months without very much happening, and then suddenly you are facing a few very significant weeks in your life. 

R is for Reginald Hill, who is one of the best of British crime writers of the past forty years. The winner of a CWA Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement in 1995, he won a Gold Dagger in 1990 for Bones and Silence. Although he has written the Joe Sixsmith, and other novels, his main claim to fame are the brilliant Dalziel and Pascoe books which have been adapted for a popular TV series starring Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan.

There are twenty four books [one a selection of short stories] featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and DCI Peter Pascoe, and I have just finished reading Midnight Fugue, the most recent in the series.

Gina Wolfe’s husband Alex, a cop, went missing seven years ago, after an investigation for corruption, but now a magazine photo has been sent to her with a message on notepaper from the Keldale, one of Mid- Yorkshire’s poshest hotels. Her new boyfriend Commander Mick Purdy puts her in touch with the Fat Man, Andy Dalziel, who he thinks can be of assistance.
Andy is always ready to help an attractive blonde, but when he takes her to lunch at the Keldale, where coincidentally Pascoe and his wife Ellie are attending a christening party, he realizes that there are others on her trail.
The author tells a complex story from several different perspectives set over a period of 24 hours.
The plot involves a ruthless black entrepreneur, his handsome golden boy mixed-race Tory MP son, the MP’s personal assistant, a Welsh tabloid journalist, and a couple of psychopathic fixers sent out to make sure the past remains in the past.

This is a brilliant read, but the plot is also very transparent, and the author drops a pair of massive clues as to how everything will turn out early on in the narrative. They are about as subtle as Andy Dalziel reaching for a pint, but this does not spoil the story proving again that larger than life characters can make up for any plot deficiencies. I really enjoyed spotting the clues and working out the inevitable ending early on, and I think Reginald Hill intended the clues to be spotted, knowing it would give the reader a self satisfied glow of pleasure, as they enjoyed the wit and humour in the book.

……Loudwater Villas was a wasteland of derelict mills that successive Bunteresque city councils promised to transform into a twenty-first-century wonderland of flats and shops and sporting arenas as soon as this postal order they were expecting daily turned up.

Midnight Fugue is dominated by the wonderfully politically incorrect Andy Dalziel, who along with his team Peter Pascoe, Shirley “Ivor” Novello and Wieldy make this one of the best police series around.

‘But it tastes fine. Really.’
‘Well, I’ll try owt except for incest and the Lib Dems.’

One of the things I like about the current alphabet meme is that it is taking me either to new authors or back in Reginald Hill’s case to a favourite from the past, who I haven’t read for a long while. I will be back for more from this superb series.

‘I’ll have beef as well, luv, said Dalziel. ‘But I’ll have mine roast with Yorkshire pud and lots of spuds.’

Liar Moon at Euro Crime

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Historical, Italy, review

I have been having a few days away from blogging because I have been tangling with some VAT accounts. But you can read my review of Ben Pastor’s Liar Moon at Euro Crime.

Bitter Lemon Press do a very good job in bringing us excellent books from lesser known authors, and in this case also choosing another book cover that I thought was a perfect match for the story. 

Ben is the pen name of Maria Verbena therefore as a contrast to the dark book cover, and dark story I have posted a photo of the author enjoying some sunshine.


Posted: January 11, 2012 in England, Historical, review

Icelight is the third book in Aly Monroe’s  Peter Cotton series. It is 1947 and Cotton has returned from Washington DC to a bleak post war Britain where seemingly everything is rationed. The country is about to face the coldest winter freeze up for decades while struggling to recover from the war. Interestingly despite Britain receiving the largest share of Marshall Aid there were still bomb sites all  over the country when the next freezing winter occurred in 1963.

Cotton working in the Colonial Department of the Intelligence Services is co-opted by MI5 and MI6 to work on Operation Sea-snake. The Americans are applying pressure for Britain to tighten up security, and this has been an encouragement to what we would now call a homophobic campaign group, and what is referred to by Cotton’s boss Ayrtoun as ‘ a pansy-crushing department’. Cotton’s job will be to curb the excesses of those searching for traitors and quite prepared to ruin the lives of any homosexuals they find along the way. The law at the time made homosexuality a crime and this made people very vulnerable to blackmail.

When an atomic scientist commits suicide Cotton must interview all those associated with him including a collection of seedy characters ranging from rent boys, and adulterous wives, to MPs and lawyers. Along the way Cotton meets up with journalists, Soviet attaches with a liking for rare roast beef, Special Branch detectives, Glasgow razor gang boys, and German and Czech émigrés who hope for a better future.

Much of the action in this novel takes place in Croydon, Purley and New Addington areas that I know well from my teenage years and also later in the 1970s. The New Addington estate is brilliantly referred to in the book as ‘New Siberia’; in my day  the main road Lodge Lane was known as Dodge City. Not only did the references bring back personal memories, but also the fact that in Sapper’s first book in the Bulldog Drummond series Carl Petersen takes over a house in Godalming as his HQ. Our horizons were much more limited back in those days. 

Icelight is all about creating atmosphere, accurate detail and the build up of tension. The author educates the reader with  little biographies about real life characters and also paints sharp portraits of fictional and semi-fictional characters. The manners, attitudes and opinions of people of that time are accurately reproduced giving the reader a glimpse into both a murky world of post war intrigue, and of  a class conscious population exhausted by war struggling to cope with disastrous weather conditions. 

While some of our attitudes have changed for the better other factors haven’t changed that much from 1947:

.…the British Government had embarked on a disastrous over-commitment;it was spending heavily to maintain the country as a world military power and had also insisted on an expensive policy of nationalizations and the establishment of a welfare state, all while ignoring the creation of wealth that made such policies practicable.

I sometimes get irritated by silly blurbs but those on Icelight mention Graham Greene and John Le Carre and in this case I think they are justified.  The Peter Cotton series is getting better and better, and in Icelight the internecine squabbling of the security services is a prequel to the real life problems during the Cold War.

I am really looking forward to the next book in which Cotton returns to the USA for the formation of the UN.

‘Mayhew,’ said Cherkesov. ‘Christopher Mayhew. Pro-Arab.’ He frowned. ‘You do have a lot of T.E.Lawrence romantics in the Foreign Office.’

‘I know, said Cotton.  

A really evocative book cover

Posted: January 10, 2012 in England, Historical

The first impression made by a book is the cover, and I still can’t understand why more effort does not go into the selection of some of them.

The plethora of recent publicity stickers with various allusions to Stieg Larsson, or The Killing, or Kurt Wallander, or Kenneth Branagh, or Sarah Lund’s jumper, show how little thought goes into the marketing of these books. Let’s just jump on the Nordic bandwagon seems to be the motto!

It is a real pleasure to receive a book in the post with a cover that is both evocative and relevant to the contents. This is the case with Aly Monroe’s new Peter Cotton espionage story Icelight [a positive review to follow in a few days] set during the very cold winter of 1947. [a freeze up that was repeated in 1963]

For those of us who experienced the bleak freezing fogs that affected London during the 1950s and 1960s the cover is spot on for bringing back less than fond memories of outside facilities, paraffin heaters, and horrible fish paste sandwiches served in freezing cold houses. But the clever photo is also enhanced by the subtitle below Icelight;

                              So who really won the war?

This was the question my parents’ generation, who had suffered so much through two world wars, must have asked themselves every day during those bleak years.   

I was inspired, perhaps encouraged is a better word to go back and read The Tears of Autumn because it was recently plagiarized by Q.R.Markham in Assassin of Secrets. Even though I had read it thirty years ago because of my failing memory I came to it eagerly as a new book. There advantages to getting older. 

The Tears of Autumn is an intelligently written intriguing spy story featuring secret agent  and poet Paul Christopher set during the weeks following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Christopher works out who, and more importantly why the President was killed, and this puts him in danger from both people in the White House and those that organized the killing. I won’t say more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil the dangerous journey of discovery through which Christopher and the reader are taken across Europe, Asia and Africa. It is an easy read and a masterpiece of concise story telling weighing in at only 276 pages. 

The contrast between clever drawing room chatter dialogue, and the violent action scenes is stunning and it is sometimes hard to believe the book was written as long ago as 1975.

“Oh, we’re all going to be very respectful, Tom. I do think this administration has raised the whole tone of American life. Why, Peggy McKinley has been reading Proust in the original French and learning the names of all the new African countries. She says the people of Zimbabwe want rice and respect. I always thought they wanted money.”

” Sybille, how about making this your last martini?” Webster said.

Author Charles McCarry was during the Cold War an intelligence officer operating under deep cover in Europe , Africa and Asia, and he has put much of his knowledge and experience into this book. No wonder it was plagiarized, brilliant stuff.

I shall be reading more spy stories over the next few months as part of a personal challenge.     

A young woman’s body surfaces in the River Torne near Kiruna in the far north of Sweden, and Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson begin an investigation suspecting that local bully boys Tore and Hjalmar Krekula are somehow involved. This is one of those stories where the reader is given more information than the investigators. Some of this comes from the supernatural, and some from a series of back stories about the characters. These are beautifully integrated into the narrative, and show how back stories that are well done can be a vital weapon in an author’s armory.

If the supernatural element is inclined to put you off reading the book, don’t be, it is not intrusive and adds to the brooding atmosphere of the story. 

The tales of the past lives of people in this remote area of Sweden and their difficult relationships are woven into what is really a simple plot. The two main characters of this series may be Anna-Maria Mella, with her four young children and her fiery relationship with her subordinate Sven-Erik, and Rebecka Martinsson, with her on-off relationship with lover Mans Wenngren, but in this tale we learn a lot about the lives of some old-timers in the villages as well as Sweden’s contentious wartime relationship with the Nazis. It is the stories of life in the villages and the problems people face in the harsh environment that make this book so interesting.

“There are hardly any young people left in the village. Just us old-timers. The children live in Kiruna or somewhere in the south. They argue among themselves about who’s going to look after the houses they’ve inherited from their parents.” 

Until Thy Wrath is Past is an unusual book, which I found refreshingly different and very thought provoking, it is well worth reading. 

You can read Maxine’s review of Until Thy Wrath Be Past at Euro Crime.  

Winter Festival Quirky Quiz: The answers

Posted: January 4, 2012 in Quiz

Thanks to everyone who sent their entries in for the quiz, and to those people who tried but did not feel confident enough to send their answers please have a go next time. 

Four clever entrants managed to correctly answer between them nine of the ten questions, but no one got the exact link I wanted in question 7 probably because I was not specific about the sex and nationality of the award winning crime fiction author. 

Hearty congratulations to the winner from Brading in the Isle of Wight, who triumphed in an extremely close contest.

The answers:

1] The two people in the photograph both have presidential connections; one also has a connection with Christmas Day and a fictional detective? Explain. 

The people are of course Vice President Harry Trueman, who was to succeed FDR as President of the USA, and actress Lauren Bacall who was born Betty Joan Perske and is first cousin to Shimon Peres, President of Israel. Lauren Bacall was married to Humphrey Bogart, who played Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep [along with Bacall] and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Bogart was born on Christmas Day 1899.

2] Which crime fiction book is linked with a sacrifice in chess, a low upholstered box seat, and a town in northern Bulgaria?

A sacrifice in chess is known as a gambit a low upholstered is an ottoman, so we need to connect an Ottoman Turk with a  gambit. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 the most important engagement is the Siege of Plevna a town in Bulgaria. This battle features in Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novel a Turkish Gambit.

3] Which Nordic crime fiction writers are, or used to be:

(a) A Minister for Justice. (b) A civil engineer (c) A dentist (d) An economist (e) A policeman (f) A junior expert on Middle East policy (g) a criminal.

Anne Holt, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Helene Tursten, Camilla Lackberg, Jorn Lier Horst, Kristina Ohlssson, Borge Hellstrom

4] What did John Gardner and Charles McCarry have in common? And who was “embarrassed, puzzled and more than a little angry”? 

Both were plagiarized by Q.R.Markham in his “debut “spy novel Assassin of Secrets. Jeremy Duns exposed the author and Duane Swierczynski was “more than a little angry” because he had favourably blurbed the work. The only good point about this travesty is that it encouraged me to read Charles McCarry’s superb Tears of Autumn again after a break of thirty years. [more about this soon]

5] In the Danish TV series The Killing II Sarah Lund’s partner is called Ulrik Strange. Name two crime writers who also use the name Strange for policemen.

The answers I thought I would get were Colin Dexter’s Chief Superintendent Strange in the Morse books, and  Derek Strange ex-cop in the Washington DC series authored by George Pelecanos. But there were several other alternatives.

6] A slang name for a capital city, and a large Asian cat. What brought them together? 

London is known as the smoke, especially to those of us who suffered the smogs of the 1950s and 1960s. The large Asian cat is a tiger, and they were brought together by Margery Allingham in the title of her novel The Tiger in  the Smoke.

7] What is the link between one of the eight wives of  a jazz clarinetist, and a prize winning crime fiction author? 

This was the question that had people stumped.

The jazz clarinetist with eight wives was Artie Shaw, and the “simple” connection I wanted was that wife number five actress Ava Gardner played the part of Maria Vargas in the 1954 movie The Barefoot Contessa [ starring alongside Humphrey Bogart]. The multi International Dagger award winning author Frederique Audouin-Rouzeau derives her pen name Fred Vargas from that Maria Vargas character.

8] Who worked together on the Abercrombie forgery case, and the Baron Altara case?

Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot. 

9] Beginnings and endings:

(a)Which crime novel begins with:

They found the corpse on the 8th July just after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It was fairly well intact and couldn’t have been lying in the water long. 

Roseanna: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the start of a very great crime fiction series. 

 (b) Which crime novel ends with:

‘Is he going to be alright?’ he heard himself ask. ‘Tell me he’s going to be all right…’ 

Exit Music: Ian Rankin, the end of a very good crime fiction series.

10] Who reads Lady Frances Verney’s memoirs?

Gutman, the Fat Man in Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. 

Winter Festival Quirky Quiz: Last chance

Posted: January 3, 2012 in Quiz

Happy New Year welcome to 2012.

There are only a few more hours to get your entries in for the Winter Festival Quirky Quiz as the deadline expires at midnight GMT.