Archive for February, 2012

It really is February!

Posted: February 28, 2012 in England, Off Topic, photo essay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday it was hard to believe it was still February as we had the most incredible blue sky and the first early signs of Spring.

Killerton House, a National Trust property, a few miles north of Exeter was packed as Devonians, who are not used to sunshine in this rainy corner of England, set out to enjoy the weather. It was a pleasant change from worrying about the shrinking economy, reading the good but rather depressing Ashes by Sergios Gakas, and watching the very violent Danish TV series, Those Who Kill. More on those later……

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There is at least one well known crime fiction columnist who refers to those of us who read Scandinavian crime fiction as the “chattering classes”.  What does he make of the new fashion for watching foreign crime TV series, and eating herrings on rye bread. Are we exhibiting some kind of middle class snobbery, or do we just like a good story well told?

I have recently watched one episode of the promising American series Homeland, and two episodes of Montalbano, which had all the charm and comedy of the books. The start of the Danish series Those Who Kill awaits me on the recorder. To provide some balance I decided to watch the new series of Kidnap and Ransom starring Trevor Eve, who I remember from his days as private investigator Eddie Shoestring in 1979-1980. I had not seen the first series and had no idea what to expect.

I had hoped for something of the standard of Foyle’s War, or Scott and Bailey,  and was even prepared to put up with the incessant adverts on ITV. Unfortunately despite a large travel budget and a star cast, Kidnap and Ransom will send this viewer rushing back to Borgen, The Killing, Spiral, and Braquo begging for subtitles.

Writer Michael Crompton stated in The Guardian that “he wanted to make sure the drama wasn’t like those Hollywood films where there are standoff and guns. I wanted to look at the psychology and give it a sense of veracity.”

I don’t like being critical, but almost all the viewer got in episode one was “standoff and guns”.

The setting is Srinigar in Kashmir where the handover of the money for the release of a wealthy British Asian family goes disastrously wrong, and negotiator Dominic King [Trevor Eve] is faced with a situation in which one of his hostages is held hostage again on a bus with a tour group, which just happens to include the daughter of an important foreign office official.

We assume that Dominic King [Eve] is a clever expert because he calmly plays a strange game of chess with an elderly local before the first handover. That was apparently the veracity. We know King is high tech because he rambles around with several mobile phones all apparently taking advantage of the excellent mobile reception you get in Kashmir. Luckily he does not have to operate in the Exe Valley or on Dartmoor.

We know he is a smooth operator because his assistant, the attractive Amara Karan, does all the work; and back in London he has the gorgeous women Helen Baxendale and Natasha Little fighting over him. Not content with this array of female beauty the daughter of one of the hostages on the bus is played by Sharon Small.  I admit it was the presence of the fragrant Sharon Small on the cast list that made me watch this program rather than any determined search for balance in my television viewing.

The action in episode one strained one’s credulity to the limit. One of the hostages is shot attempting to escape, and with incredible speed, an autopsy, and ballistic analysis prove it was the black clad trigger happy Indian security police that shot him. Then Dominic King is allowed by the Indian police to saunter round the tour bus containing the frightened hostages and terrified kidnappers, writing messages on the side of it, while telephoning all and sundry. 

I lost interest at that point, but will probably be back for episode two to see Sharon Small travel out to Kashmir; and to find out whose body Trevor Eve dumped in a lake in the start of the episode before we flashed back to action two weeks previously.

I have my theories, the script writer…the director….his agent……..

This is the second Charles McCarry book I have read recently as part of my personal 2012 Spy Story Reading Challenge. [see The Tears of Autumn and The Third Monday in February]

The Better Angels was first published in 1979, and the main action is set in an election year towards the end of the century in a deeply polarized America. Well he got that one right for sure. On the cover it is billed as a Paul Christopher novel, but he never appears, and the plot involves Christopher’s powerful cousins, Horace and Julian Hubbard, the TV journalist Patrick Graham and their beautiful talented women, Charlotte, Caroline and Emily. It is a book that doesn’t quite know whether it is a spy story, an alternative history, a political thriller or a diatribe against political and media elites from both ends of the spectrum. Or all those things. I found it a fascinating read, although I was not able to bring myself to like any of the self absorbed wealthy bed hopping characters; people who once had ideals and now had  a lifestyle.

She was wearing scent and a linen suit, with pearls at her throat. A red fox fur jacket lay beside her on the banquette. Despite her years of political rage, her face was still the untouched face of a young girl. When last Julian had seen her, she had talked in Movement argot: now she had her own dear accent back. She introduced the man with her. He wore a cashmere blazer and a shirt with an open collar, and a gold chain around his neck. His hair had been styled and it lay on his skull like a peruke. It was Patrick Graham.

McCarry  looking ahead over almost two decades, prophesies many things right and many things wrong. The Republican Party has ceased to exist in the book having been replaced by something even further to the right! In the book the Soviet Union still exists but plays no part in the narrative. In McCarry’s alternative future Britain exports Old Etonians to act as servants to the American wealthy, while in our reality Old Etonians like Damien Lewis [homeland and Band of Brothers] and Dominic West [The Wire] star in US TV shows. 

McCarry’s election will be fought by former President Franklin Douglass Mallory, and the liberal current President Bedford Forrest Lockwood.  McCarry was obviously being playful when he named a caring ultra liberal President from Kentucky, after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest. Lockwood is surrounded by admirers, who believe, and are prepared to do anything to ensure his re-election. Not surprising when we learn about his opponent Mallory.

“Of course. I wouldn’t say Mallory was like Hitler.”

“Wouldn’t you? Both created a mythical monster-Hitler the Jews. Mallory the humanitarians-‘humantitarians’ means Lockwood and you, Emily and me, but it also means the blacks and the poor. Hitler gassed defectives; Mallory passed a law to have anyone whose IQ falls below a certain norm sterilized on the birth of their first child. Hitler made a frontal attack on religion; Mallory tells us we must be ‘rational’….”

Mallory lost the previous election only because he was involved in a plot that would cause Canada’s Western provinces to secede and join the USA, and while predictions such as Mallory sending an expedition to Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, in the last year of his administration, that arrives there during his nominating convention, seem ridiculous others are frightening prophetic. Lockwood, the liberal humanitarian, approving of the assassination of a charismatic but insane Arab sheikh, because he was going to give nuclear suitcase bombs to a terrorist group, and then the FIS [Foreign Intelligence Service successor to the CIA] not being able to locate these weapons of mass destruction in the desert. The use of suicide bombers to blow up passenger filled jet planes,  a bombing campaign to influence an election, an international bank used as a front for espionage, and the stealing of an election using computers all are predicted in this narrative.  And one frightening prophecy concerns unemployment.

“Who are Mallory’s people? First of all, the colossal rich, men like O.N.Laster of Universal Energy, but he keeps them well hidden. They only come out in the night when he tries to steal Canada.

Second, the educated disgruntled. We have two million men and women under thirty five in this country who have advanced academic degrees and can’t get jobs.” 

There is something interesting, and quotable, on virtually everyone of the 350 pages, and I shall probably dip back into it from time to time over the real US election campaign. 

Bedford Forrest Lockwood, the President of the United States-his administration had drawn a great troop of young idealists to Washington. Patrick had called them the largest influx of intelligent reformers to come into the capital since the New Deal. 

This Danish crime thriller was shortlisted for the Nordic Glass Key, and has among the very positive blurbs on the back cover one from Maj Sjowall, co-author of the Martin Beck series. I worry that such highly praised books sometimes don’t live up to my expectations, but in this case the book was a real thriller, and also had some cutting social comment very relevant to the situation in Europe. 

In the days before global warming when we were all worried about an imminent Ice Age. I remember reading that if the Ice Age did come the only two species that would thrive were mankind and the wolf, because both were particularly good at seeking out the weakest and the most vulnerable from a group and destroying them. 

The Boy in the Suitcase follows four main characters whose different story lines come together in a thrilling climax. 

With four subplots to follow the story is a little confusing at the beginning, but very soon the reader realises what is happening, and from then on the tension mounts.

Jan a wealthy Danish business man has agreed to pay for something; Jucas, a Lithuanian body builder wants to settle down with Barbara near Krakow, but first he must control his steroid induced rages and complete one more job. Nina Borg, is a Red Cross nurse, who is an adrenaline junkie and seemingly would rather help refugees in dangerous parts of Africa than look after her own children in comfortable Copenhagen. She is part of a secret network that helps undocumented refugees, and when her old friend Karin asks her to pick up a suitcasel from a left luggage locker in Copenhagen’s Central Station she adds pertinently “You’re always so keen on saving people aren’t you?”.

When Nina drags a suitcase back to her car and looks inside she finds a 3 year-old naked drugged boy. Has he been kidnapped, trafficked and sold ? When she goes to report finding the boy to the police, there is a commotion and she sees a very large very angry crew cut man kicking at a locker. The very same locker from which she had recently removed the suitcase.

But there hadn’t been any money. Every time he thought of the empty locker, fury sent accurate little stabs through him like a nail gun. God, he could have have smashed the bitch’s skull in.

Nina based on her experiences at work in Danish Red Cross Center Fureso aka Coal House Camp  does not trust the authorities to protect the boy. When she finds her friend Karin brutally murdered she knows she must stay on the run away from the very large man.

Meanwhile in Lithuania Sigita Ramoskiene is recovering from a fall down the stairs, that has resulted in a broken arm. Apparently Sigita was drunk even though she does not drink. When she realises that no one knows the location of  her little boy Mikas, and he has not been taken by his father Darius, she feels all the terror that a parent feels in such a situation. Sigita is determined to leave no stone unturned in her search for her child, and begins a journey that will take her back over her past life and forward to Denmark.

Lene Kaaberbol, usually writes fantasy books; Agnete Friis is a journalist, and writes books for children and young adults. They have co-operated brilliantly, with Kaaberol translating The Boy in the Suitcase into English, to produce an excellent and slightly different twist on the standard crime thriller.

The most important factor in a thriller is that it should thrill this most certainly does, and the characters especially the women are well drawn and sympathetic. The authors take us right into the mind of Sigita and we can feel her panic, and her sorrow. Nina is a harder character to like and the contrast in her attitudes to her children with that of Sigita  is perhaps mirrored in the contrast between rich Denmark and poor Lithuania. 

Amidst the excitement of Nina on the run in Denmark, and Sigita’s search for evidence and the suspects in Lithuania, the authors give us a lesson in the realities of open borders between the rich and poor. In the context of the narrative it is not too preachy, just a sharp dose of common sense. 

Nor was it especially difficult to lure Eastern European girls into the country and sell them by the hour in places like Skelbaekgade. A few beatings, a gang rape or two, and a note bearing the address of her family in some Estonian village-that was usually enough to break the most obstinate spirit. 

And the real beauty of it all for the cynical exploiters was that ordinary people didn’t care. Not really. No one had asked the refugees, the prostitutes, the fortune hunters, and the orphans to come knocking on Denmark’s door. No one had invited them, and no one knew how many there were. Crimes committed against them had nothing to do with ordinary people and the usual working of law and order. It was only  dimwit fools like Nina who were unable to achieve the proper sense of detachment.

Powerful stuff, and this could equally apply to England. But I think that when ordinary people raise difficult questions about the level of crime caused by the exploitation of immigrants, they are shouted down by the ruling elites and sections of the media. 

The Boy in the Suitcase is just sort of superb book that has brought Nordic crime fiction to the fore over the past few years. It is a well written thrilling story, blending several sub plots carefully together, featuring complex characters while making us think deeply about the vulnerability of the poor, women and children in our so-called civilized societies. 

The Third Monday in February

Posted: February 20, 2012 in Historical, Off Topic, USA

I still haven’t finished writing a review of The Boy in the Suitcase, because it was one of those brilliant books that left me  struggling with my emotions. More on that later.

But it is the third Monday in February a Federal holiday in the USA known officially as Washington’s Birthday, or unofficially as Presidents Day; and I am reading Charles McCarry’s prophetic book, The Better Angels published in 1979.

The title comes from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, “when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature“. The story concerns the USA in an election year at the end of the last century, and features an inspirational liberal President, who has ordered the assassination of a charismatic Arab sheikh, and there are other prophetic references throughout the first hundred pages.

I realised what a complete American history nerd I am, when I read this passage, which is relevant on Presidents Day. 

“-he [Mallory] may damn well be the first President since Grover Cleveland to serve two nonconsecutive terms,” said Patrick. 

‘That’s his new witticism. He goes around the country asking people if they can name the President who served between Cleveland’s two terms. Can you?”

“Harrison,” said Emily.

“Smart girl. Which Harrison?”

“I’m not that smart,” Emily said.

I had promised myself that I would be a kinder more gentle blogger this year, but that New Year resolution hasn’t lasted long. So here is the first in a new series of opinionated posts entitled Nuts and Bolts that might be a bit off topic at times, but hopefully will show that crime fiction is still making the sort of relevant social comments that made Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series such as success back in the 1960s and 1970s.

In “Nuts and Bolts” I will be giving my opinions on things that I have read in crime fiction books, or something I have read in a review. 

Recently  I have started reading the Danish best seller The Boy in The Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol [who is also the translator] and Agnete Friis.  

“Tivoli!” she said. “Could we go there?………………”

They paid a day’s wage to get in, and ate a pizza that only set him back about seven or eight times as much as it would have cost him in Vilnius.

It seems to have taken our homegrown politicians, and Brussels bureaucrats totally by surprise that people from Greece [surely about to default] or Lithuania can’t live at the same standard of living as the Danes, the Dutch or people living in South East England. In the 1970s I spent several holidays touring the Greek Islands, and apart from Hydra, it was clear that Greece was a poor peasant society, whose people were very friendly towards the Scandinavians, Americans and Brits, and not quite so friendly towards the Germans. 

When the countries of the former Soviet Bloc became members of the European Union we were told that only about 15,000 Eastern European workers would come to England to look for work! Wages and standards of living would equalize throughout the EU, that would make it unnecessary  for large numbers of people to migrate. How this equalization was to be achieved we were never told. But obviously the plan was to move factories and jobs  from high wage countries to the low wage economies of Eastern Europe. We have vast differences in household income between London, the South East England, and the rest of the UK, so how anyone believed citizens of Lithuania, or Greece could live at the same standard of living as people in Denmark, or the Netherlands is quite beyond me.

I feel incredibly sorry for the ordinary people in Greece, as I do for those in Iceland and Ireland, who are paying the price for the folly that is the Euro and the program of European political integration. What kind of life will it be for ordinary people under the Greek government’s new austerity program? And which country will be next in line.

I always take any statistics with a pinch of salt, but by being a selective they can be useful to emphasize or exaggerate a point.

GDP per capita [IMF 2011]

Netherlands $42,330, Denmark $37,741, UK $35,974, Greece $27,624, Lithuania $18,338 

What is Cambridge University’s major claim to fame? 

Some might say it was taking part in an annual  boat race on the River Thames against Oxford University, or being among the most highly rated universities in the world, but it also might be providing an education to the most notorious gang of traitors in British history. 

While studying at Trinity Hall and Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and John Cairncross  were recruited by Moscow Centre as agents of the Soviet NKVD.

These traitors worked for the Stalinist regime while it was murdering hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, while it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis in 1939, while it invaded Poland and the Baltic States, and while it imprisoned millions behind an Iron Curtain that ran from “Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”.  Moscow’s “Magnificent Five” penetrated the British establishment to the very highest levels, but what if  there was a sixth man? That is the premise of Charles Cumming’s novel The Trinity Six.

I had an hour to spare, while waiting for my wife in Newton Abbot, after having lunch with friends, so I popped in to Waterstones and spotted Charles Cumming ‘s The Trinity Six on special offer, displayed alongside John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I thought this would be a good fit for my 2012 Spy Story Reading Challenge, which has  so far featured excellent books by Aly Monroe and Charles McCarry, and purchased it on a whim.

Sam Gaddis is an academic, a senior lecturer in Russian History at University College, London, who has written a comparative biography entitled Tsars about Peter the Great, and the current fictional ruler of Russia, Sergei Platov. Platov is an ex KGB thug, who uses violent methods to silence opposition both at home and abroad, and bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to any real person. 

Sam Gaddis is broke requiring money for his daughter Min’s school fees, and an HMRC income tax bill. Five year old Min lives in Barcelona with Natasha, Sam’s ex-wife and her boy friend, who spends more time on the ski slopes than running his restaurant.

Sam Gaddis wasn’t the sort of man who panicked, but equally he wasn’t the sort of man who had twenty-five thousand quid lying around for random tax bills and school fees. 

I love the expression random tax bills, and the scene where he meets his literary agent Robert Paterson, and they discuss his money worries. 

‘Always is , this time of year.’ Paterson nodded knowingly as he rounded off a veal cutlet. ‘Most of my clients have less idea how to manage their finances than Champion the Wonder Horse.’  

Sam is approached by the beautiful Holly Levette, whose mother Katya had a lot of papers and files some sent to her by an old boyfriend, who worked in MI6 during the Cold War. Perhaps he can make use of them for a book.

Later at dinner with Sam’s friend journalist Charlotte Berg and her husband Paul, Charlotte suggests they work together on a lead she has about a sixth man in the Cambridge spy ring. When Charlotte is found dead, apparently from a heart attack brought on by smoking and heavy drinking, Sam goes on the trail of the Cold War’s deadliest secret, the sixth man. But he needs to  avoid the Russian FSB agents who are bumping off everyone and anyone involved.

Sam’s travels take him from London, to Winchester, Moscow, Berlin, Barcelona and Vienna, while another beautiful young female enters his life. This book was obviously written with the possibility of a film in mind, and while one has to frequently suspend credulity at the plot developments it is a fun read. I do find it difficult to criticize anything written by someone who is President of the Jose Raul Capablanca Memorial Chess Society [Capablanca was one of my childhood chess playing heroes] but the plot deteriorates into a big disappointment. The big surprise is as predictable as Manchester Utd or Manchester City winning the Barclays Premiership. 

Don’t get me wrong I definitely enjoyed reading The Trinity Six, it is great fun, but only if you accept that much of the plot  is a little bit ridiculous, and that it assumes a competence for MI6 that events over the years might seem to prove to be misplaced. In a real life spy’s life if a beautiful 28 year old girl casually arranges a meeting, dinner and an invitation back to her flat the male protagonist is much more than likely to wake up with a terrible headache in either a cell in the Lubyanka,  somewhere in the Negev, or in the naval brig on Parris Island, South Carolina, than have a pleasant breakfast the next morning in Chelsea. 

The Trinity Six is a nice light read but I kept getting a feeling of deja vue while reading it. Others have compared Charles Cumming and his books to John le Carre, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth and even Eric Ambler, but I was reminded of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. When I read that book I patiently waited for the secret to be something more than the thesis put forward in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail published many years before Brown’s book. There was no surprise then with The Da Vinci Code, and unfortunately once again all the supposed twists in The Trinity Six are predictable.  At one point Sam leaves his contact at a vital point in their discussions to go to the bathroom and you know the result. But later back in London;

At half-past two, he found a Tesco spaghetti bolognese and some salad in the fridge.

The recession is obviously biting hard as I would have expected MI6 operatives to be able to afford at least Marks and Spencer or Waitrose ready meals. 

The Trinity Six is not as one reviewer claimed a wonderful piece of fiction, and on the evidence of this book Charles Cumming is not yet John le Carre, or Eric Ambler, but if you want a nice easy fun read about spies that does not make too many demands on the reader this may be for you.

Was there a sixth man? Probably, and a seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth………………….

Runolfur, a young IT engineer, is found dead in his Reykjavik flat, his throat has been slashed with a razor. He is wearing a woman’s T- shirt and has in his pocket a quantity of Rohypnol, known as a date rape drug. The police find  a woman’s shawl in the flat that has a faint smell of Indian tandoori spices.

In a different approach to the rest of the series, Erlendur gets only the briefest of mentions, and his colleague from the previous books Elinborg, a married woman with children, is the lead investigator. Elinborg carries out a painstaking systematic investigation following up every lead even when the eyewitness seems to have major psychological problems. Along the way we learn a lot about Elinborg’s past life her problems with her  teenage children, her previous relationship, and her early life. Elinborg is a good person as she and her husband Teddi, a motor mechanic, have tried to provide a home for Birkir, Teddi’s sister’s son after she died of cancer. This has caused friction and Birkir has gone off to live with his natural father in Sweden. Now their own children, Valthor, Aron and Theodora are proving difficult.

Elinborg was worn out after a long day. She knew Valthor was a good boy at heart. Over the years they had been close, but as a teenager he had entered a rebellious phase of ferocious independence whose hostility seemed to be directed mainly against her.

The challenge of balancing a career and a family is one theme in the novel, and with the main narrative concerning the search for the possible rape victim brought home by Runolfur it seems appropriate that Elinborg, a woman, is tackling this investigation. In the manner of a classic police procedural she relentlessly follows up leads, some to dead ends, some more relevant to the solution. She flies to a remote village where the locals are wary of and tight lipped with strangers. It is inevitable that some of the male characters in this story are fairly unpleasant, especially Runolfur’s creepy friend Edvard, and this adds greatly to the atmosphere of suspicion. The solution may be fairly straightforward, but the question of whether justice has been done will remain with the reader.

‘Do you think she’s the one that attacked him?’

“That’s a possibilty.’

‘Good for her,’said Unnur through clenched teeth. ‘Good for her killing him! Good for her, killing that pig!’

Elinborg glanced at Solrun. She thought the young woman seemed to be on the road to recovery already.

Outrage, the seventh book to be published in English, is an easy read and that is a tribute to translator Anna Yeates, who has taken over from the late Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb. The next book in the series Black Skies has Victoria Cribb back as translator, and I believe the third member of the team Sigurdur Oli as the main character.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of those authors whose next novel  I will always want to read, because even though they are thought provoking in a rather dark manner the characters are so well drawn that one wants to  follow their progress through life. I wish to thank Maxine of Petrona and Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of Outrage.  



I have just finished reading Outrage by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason [review to follow in the next few days] and just started a non-Nordic book as part of my plan to balance my reading in 2012 when Harri Nykanen’s Nights of Awe dropped through my letterbox. This is another book from Bitter Lemon Press, a thriller  set in Helsinki with an eccentric hero Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crimes Unit, and involves possible international terrorism, Finnish Security Police and Mossad. Very tempting but I am going to stick to my plan and put this one on my to-be -read shelf for the time being. But it does give me an excuse to post some photos of Finland. They were taken some twenty years ago as my son in the red cagoule is now married! 

Finland Station is of course not in Finland, but in St Petersburg, Russia. But the photos are taken on the waterfront in Helsinki, at the railway station, and somewhere north of Helsinki that was very very cold. At the time of our visit the far right charismatic Russian politician Vladimir Zhironovsky was making long speeches, and waving his arms around in a threatening manner. Everyday streams of large black limousines would pull up outside Finnish department stores, the food halls of which were full of caviar and sides of salmon making Harrods look like something out of the Third World, and deposited on the snowy pavements their cargo of short old balding KGB men, accompanied by tall young blonde women. 

It was in our hotel’s sauna that some younger Russians mentioned that the only place they had visited in England was “your beautiful English city of Portsmouth.” Our reaction was that they were probably Russian Naval Intelligence if Portsmouth was the only place in England they had bothered to visit. [I haven’t forgotten that those great ships HMS Victory and HMS Warrior are well worth a visit to Portsmouth.] 

The book I have started is The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, a spy thriller, which made me think about Russia and her tortuous journey from Soviet superstate to Putin’s version of a democratic country. Gulp… I have to thank my great grandmother for her refusal to allow her son- in- law to accept the Tsar’s invitation to spend twenty five years in the Imperial Russian Army for my soft life.

Why on earth do British people from privileged backgrounds embrace these ideologies that produce nothing but misery for ordinary people?

Retrospective-January 2012

Posted: February 3, 2012 in Italy, memes, notes, spy story

I enjoyed all the books I read in January and really don’t want to  make a distinction between them based on their quality in order to choose a pick of the month. But as I want to join the meme at Kerrie’s excellent Mysteries in Paradise  blog I will choose not necessarily the best, but certainly my most intriguing read as my pick of the month.

That was I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni featuring a detective with an unusual ability to see the dead, and an interesting historical setting in Italy during the 1930s. 

During January I managed to review six books without [apart from Ingrid in Andrea Camilleri’s The Potter’s Field] a Scandinavian in sight, which must be some achievement in the current climate. I can thank Bitter Lemon Press and Hersilia Press for looking further afield than Scandinavia for some crime fiction gems. Hersilia Press, named after the wife of Romulus, have recently brought us books by the previously mentioned Maurizio de Giovanni, Alessandro Perissinotto, and Luigi Guicciardi; while Bitter Lemon Press have in their stable Gianrico Carofiglio, Cuban Leonardo Padura, and Argentinean Ernesto Mallo. What these authors don’t yet have is the marketing  machine behind the Scandinavians.

I have nothing against good Scandinavian crime fiction, after all I read six of the brilliant Martin Beck series over thirty years ago and until they were reissued in Harper Perennials spent hours looking for the missing four books in second hand bookshops, but it is the stupid reaction by the main stream media I find annoying. Do the hysterical stickers and blurbs on books such as “for fans of The Killing”, “Move over Wallander”, “Step aside Stieg Larsson”, “Iceland’s answer to Stieg Larsson”, “If you like Stieg Larsson, you’ll love Asa Larsson”, “The Next Stieg Larsson”, really help the reader to decide if this is a book they will enjoy?

Is it now easier for a weak book with exploitative violence, but set in the Nordic countries to be published than a fine example of Italian, French, South African, Australian or Greek crime fiction? Probably. And obviously the quality of the plot and the ability of the characters to inspire interest should be the major factors deciding whether a story gets published, not whether it is set in Copenhagen or Malmo.

My reading plan, despite the fact I have about about twelve Nordic books on my TBR shelf, is to try and alternate my reading between Nordic and the others, although when the CWA International Dagger shortlist is announced I could well be forced back into full Scandinavian reading mode.