Archive for September, 2014

12BMSI have got into the habit of putting aside any long heavyweight book with an exotic foreign setting when we go on our mini-breaks in England. I take a shorter very English book for instance  a Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter and Agatha Christie on our trips taken over the last year. So last week I read Agatha Christie’s One , Two, Buckle My Shoe  published in 1940 in which Hercule Poirot’s dentist Mr Henry Morley is found shot dead in his surgery only hours after treating the famed Belgian detective. 

Chief Inspector Japp believes it is a suicide, a theory that seems to gain justification when one of his patients that morning, Mr Amberiotis, a mysterious character involved in espionage, later that day dies of an overdose of novocaine and adrenaline. Did Mr Morley kill himself in remorse over a professional error? Poirot doubts that and suspects murder. 

Miss Christie introduces the reader to a large cast of suspects. The female grenadier Georgina Morley, the dentist’s sister, Gladys Nevill, his young attractive P1050222secretary, Frank Carter, her unsuitable unemployed young man, Reilly, Morley’s business partner, a dentist with a drink problem, Alfred Biggs, the page boy; and Morley’s patients, the dowdy Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, Mr Barnes, a secretive civil servant, Alistair Blunt, a distinguished banker, and Howard Raikes, a young man with revolutionary ideas. We later learn that Raikes hopes to marry Jane Olivera, the daughter of Julia, Blunt’s niece by marriage. We are taken on a journey littered with red herrings, and when a character disappears we suspect a body will turn up soon.

P1050199Along the way the Queen of Crime scatters some snippets of social commentary that could have been written yesterday suggesting that her books contain a little bit more than just clever puzzles.

He glanced at the paper and remarked that the Government seemed to be passing from a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility!

Of course England was a very different country when this book was written, but some things never change.

‘Blunt is the kind of man who in private life would always pay his bills and live within his income-whether he’d got twopence a year or several million makes no difference. He is that type of felllow. And he thinks that there is no reason why a country shouldn’t be the same! No costly experiments.

No frenzied expenditure on possible Utopias.’

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is not in the top drawer of Miss Christie’s books but it is a pleasant enough read, with a very minimum of the attitudes of the time, and with a typical Christie surprise at the end. 

[photos taken at Westonbirt, the National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, where you can imagine you are back in the England of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.] 

 

dettaglio_282The almanacks say that Summer ends on 31 August so it was with impeccable timing that Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions London office, recently sent me Phillipe Georget’s new Inspector Sebag mystery, Autumn All The Cats Return [French title- Les violents de l’automne].

This is the sequel to Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored which was one of my five favourite  reads of 2013.

When an elderly Pied-Noir is found murdered and the letters OAS left scrawled in black paint on the door, Gilles  Sebag and Jacques Molina must investigate whether the motive for the crime dates back to the Algerian War.

Pied-Noir, literal translation Black-Foot. A French person born in Algeria before it gained independence.

OAS [Organisation armee secrete] A dissident paramilitary organization that sought to prevent Algeria from gaining independence from French rule during the Algerian War [1954-1962]

Sebag has also promised his 13 year old daughter Severine that he would look into the scooter accident that caused the death of Mathieu one of her friends from school. A small van driven by Pascal Lucas a man who had been drinking, and who claimed he was forced to swerve by a white Renault Clio that ran a stop sign. Sebag does not have much confidence in the head of the Accidents group Lieutenant Esteve Cardona, who dislikes Gilles because he is a Parisian, and a considerably better detective, and they argue about Sebag’s interference.

“Cardona’s as stupid as he is nasty. But what can I say? He’s not even a real Catalan. His father came from Andalusia!”

The tale of a criminal investigation with an intriguing political and historical background, blended in with the  story of Gilles marriage to the beautiful Claire, and his love for his children Severine and Leo promise to make this a great read.

The reader is given glimpses of the past in narrative flashbacks to Algiers 1961, with accounts of the murders perpetrated by the OAS. Of course the OAS would claim they were responding to FLN attacks. [FLN- Front de Liberation Nationale founded in 1954 to end French rule of Algeria].

“As a Catalan, how would you feel if you’d had to leave your native country?”

“You can’t make that comparison, it’s completely different!”

“Is it? Why?” 

“Algeria wasn’t their country!”

“They were born there, and their parents and grandparents, too, sometimes.” “Maybe, but that doesn’t change anything: it wasn’t their country. It couldn’t last. The crusades didn’t last either. They should have known that.” 

Quite a bit to think about in that passage. 

How long does a conquest have to last before the conqueror claims the land as their own? What happens when the original people of the land want it back? I am only on page 109 so I may have more to say when I have finished reading this very promising book.   

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The next book I read  was Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger, author of the Cork O’Connor series, which is a stand alone novel that not only won the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Crime Novel, and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, but has been nominated for several others.

 

51UQkttWO5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_The opening prologue sets the scene as the narrator Frank Drum  looks back from the perspective of forty years on the summer of 1961, and the seemingly idyllic setting of a small town in middle America when he was 13 years old. 

All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.

Ordinary Grace is beautifully written lyrical, emotional, multilayered, schmaltzy and very American novel. I admit to crying at one point as the plot unfolded and I realised that all the characters are flawed in some way. Their visible flaws, Frank’s younger brother Jake has a bad stutter, his older sister Ariel has a hare lip, her boyfriend Karl’s family includes Lise who is deaf and her uncle Emil, a concert pianist who is blind, are as nothing to the secrets they keep hidden inside.

It is as if Frank is feeling nostalgia for a lost time and a utopian childhood world that never was. The tone of Ordinary Grace has been compared, by The Detroit News, to Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird with its combination of dread and nostalgia. The nostalgia is heavily laid on so that the terrible events are that much more shocking.

Ordinary Grace is a very good read but be prepared to have your heartstings pulled as the crisply drawn characters exhibit feet of clay, and the reader is made to understand that although at times life is very hard we have to go on even though we are distraught with grief.

IMG4The Hunting Dogs by Jorn lier Horst translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce has won both The Golden Revolver [Top Norwegian Crime Novel 2013] and The Nordic Glass Key 2013. The Hunting Dogs is written in a clinical factual police procedural style which is compelling. I thought this a superior book to the author’s Closed For Winter. 

Seventeen years earlier William Wisting lead the investigation into the murder of Cecilia Linde, now it seems the evidence may have been fabricated and DNA may have beenn planted by the police. The convicted man Rudolf Haglund is free and Wisting is suspended as an investigation begins. 

Meanwhile Wisting’s crime reporter daughter Line is looking into the murder of one Jonas Ravneberg , and is also very concerned that the media have already made a negative judgement about her father. Then another young woman goes missing…….

‘We killed Cecilia Linde,’ Wisting repeated.

‘When you approached the media and told them about the cassette you gave the murderer no alternative.’

The Hunting Dogs explores the relationship between father and daughter, the media’s responsibility in dealing with abduction cases, and the stress placed on the detectives in such cases. It also raises issues about the question of how a system of law that is balanced heavily in favour of  perpetrators and their human rights as opposed to those of their victims can function in a very violent world. As a retired policeman once said to me “we can’t interrogate people anymore we have to bore them into a confession”. 

The Hunting Dogs has to be a strong contender for the International Dagger and Petrona Awards next year.

‘What’s he doing?’ Morten P asked.

‘He’s just sitting watching people,’ Line said but, at that moment, it dawned on her he was not simply looking. He was selecting individuals and studying them in detail. All of them young women.

51oNv3l+zUL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_Cobra by Deon Meyer translated from the Afrikaans by K.L.Seegers is a fast moving thriller set in Cape Town. Benny Griessel  is called to a bloodbath when trained bodyguards have been executed at a luxury guesthouse by a professional killer, or killers, leaving behind distinctive shell casings marked with a cobra. A mysterious Briton Paul Morris, a man seemingly with no past, is missing presumed kidnapped.

Meanwhile charming young pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi is plying his trade in order to help pay for his sister Nadia’s university fees. But when he is picked up by security guards for stealing a beautiful foreigner’s purse, a figure intervenes killing the guards but allowing Tyrone to escape leaving behind his mobile phone. 

Tyrone still has the disk wanted by the killers, and when Paul Morris is identified a race develops to save him and Nadia who has been seized by the Cobra killers. Yes it is all very complicated, and exciting. Although Cobra is marketed as a Benny Griessel novel, my favourite police person in the novel is:

Captain Mbali Kaleni was the only woman in the DPCI’s Violent Crimes Team. For six long months now. She was short and very fat. She was never to be seen without her SAPS identity card on a ribbon around her neck, and her service pistol on her plump hip. When she left her office, there was a huge  handbag of shiny black leather over her shoulder. 

She is my favourite character because doesn’t fit the stereotype of women cops in crime fiction, and above all she is honest.

‘State security eavesdropping on us, taking over a criminal case. Just like in apartheid times. We are destroying our democracy, and I will not stand by and let it happen. And it will, if we let it. I owe it to my parents’ struggle, and I owe it to my country.’

Another fine book that should be a contender for the International Dagger.   

photo 3_2During an eventful summer I read six crime fiction books that I haven’t reviewed as yet. I will say a few words about each of them, and possibly expand on that if the more recent books are shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, or the Petrona Award next year. 

Agatha Christie isn’t the most widely published author of all time for nothing. Reading her books is relaxing and takes you into a different world away from the many worries of 21st Century life. I read two of Agatha’s novels; The Secret of Chimneys from 1925, and Crooked House from 1949.

The Secret of Chimneys [1925] is truly evocative of its age with some politically incorrect xenophobia, and a plot involving jewel thieves, Balkan spies, glamourous seductive flappers, maids, butlers, and amiable young men at the Foreign Office. 

Bill Eversleigh was an extremely nice lad. He was a good cricketer and a scratch golfer, he had pleasant manners, and an amiable disposition, but his position at the Foreign Office had been gained, not by brains, but by good connexions.

If you read between the lines Agatha Christie was a great observer of people, and even as early in her writing career as 1925 some of her commentary on the ruling class is very much to the point.

On the sideboard were half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements.

‘Omelet,’ said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn.’ Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant. I don’t like any of these things, Tredwell. Ask the cook to poach me an egg, will you?

‘Very good , my lord.’

The plot is ridiculous, the thriller element unbelievable, the characters are stereotypes, but above all  it is frivolous fun and escapism so one can almost excuse the references to a dago, and this sort of tosh:

‘Herman Isaacstein. The representative of the syndicate I spoke to you about.’

‘The all-British syndicate?’

‘Yes. Why?’ ‘

Nothing-nothing-I only wondered, that’s all. Curious names these people have.’

That is how it was in 1925 and for many years after. Trying to sanitise historical attitudes by for example removing the n- word from Mark Twain, or taking out the anti-Semitism from many of the Golden Age writers will blind us to far more serious present day problems. photo

Crooked House [1949] is a far superior novel, a classic country house mystery with a dysfunctional family, an elderly victim of a poisoning, Aristide Leonides, [how Christie loved her poisons] and some well drawn characters. Aristide, a Greek, originally came from Smyrna and his elderly sister-in-law does on one occasion refer to him as a dago, but otherwise the book won’t offend as much as the earlier work. 

The Crooked House is lived in by Aristide, and his much younger second wife Brenda.

Aristide’s grown up children by his first wife, Philip and his wife Magda, an actress, who have three children, Sophia engaged to our hero Charles Hayward, and the younger Eustace and Josephine. Roger and his wife Clemency, who don’t have any children. Roger runs Aristide’s business now. Aristide had settled large amounts of money on his children, and everyone in the house appears to be financially very comfortable.

The younger children have a tutor Laurence Brown, who may or may not be having an affair with Brenda. There is also Edith de Haviland, sister of the first Mrs Leonides, and Nannie an elderly retainer who looks after Josephine. 

As Chief Inspector Taverner exclaims-

“Everybody in the damned house had a means and opportunity. What I want is a motive.”

The plot is taut with an ending in which Agatha Christie once again does something completely unconventional. A very good read.

The third English crime fiction book I read this summer was by coincidence The Riddle of The Third Mile [1983] by Colin Dexter.

I have to admit that I found this novel a little hard going. I think the author’s plot twists are a bit too clever for me, and I have come to the conclusion that his reputation does owe a lot to the brilliant acting in the TV series by John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis. The complexity of this plot blending Oxford Dons, an unidentifiable body with no head or hands, exam results, the college vacation, tooth abscesses, strip clubs, prostitutes and removal firms had me slightly confused for a little while, but then so was Morse.

Back in Morse’s office, Lewis launched into his questions: ‘It’s pretty certainly Brown-Smith’s body, don’t you think, sir?’  

‘Don’t know.’

‘But surely-‘

‘I said I don’t bloody know!’ 

The Riddle of The Third Mile was a good read, although the theme of feuding dons seemed a little repetitive, possibly because I have watched too many episodes of the TV series. 

[Summer reading roundup to be continued]     

G FileI found deciding on one book to recommend to dear Maxine a difficult task, but after several weeks prevarication I have selected The G File by Hakan Nesser translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. The G File is a very long book weighing in at 601 pages in my hardback version, but that wouldn’t have put off Maxine, she was a lady who read Trollope for relaxation; Anthony [1815-1882] not Joanna [1943-].

Hakan Nesser is an author who creates memorable characters and manages to include in his dark plots about violent acts a smattering of wit and humour. I feel that if one likes an author it improves your enjoyment of his or her books. Maxine and I were lucky enough to meet and chat with the charming Hakan at CrimeFest 2009 in Bristol, so I am fairly certain that she would have devoured The G File with the same enthusiasm as I did. P1010568_2

The G File is the tenth and last book in the Van Veeteren  series, one of the few detective series I have read in the correct order. The story begins back in 1987 when private detective Maarten Verlangen, a drunken ex-policeman struggling to survive financially is hired by a beautiful American woman, Barbara Hennan, to follow her husband and report on his activities. She gives him no idea of her reasons, but Verlangen knows her husband Jaan G. Hennan from his time in the police.

Trustor had wanted a sort of detective who could investigate irregularities using somewhat unorthodox methods- and what could possibly be more appropriate in the circumstances than a police officer who had been sacked-or rather, ‘had chosen to leave the force rather than be hanged in a public place. A gentlemen’s agreement.

 The pathetic failure Verlangen is contrasted from the start with the successful Jaan G Hennan, who seems to have it all. 

And ten times more desirable. No, not ten times. Ten thousand times. Why on earth would anybody want to be unfaithful if they had a woman like Barbara? Incomprehensible.

A dozen years previously when Verlangen had been a functioning policeman he had been one of the team who had put Jaan G Hennan in prison for two years  six months for drug dealing. 

Verlangen spends his time drinking and watching Jaan G. Hennan and when instructed by Barbara not to let him out of his sight one evening he follows him to the Columbine restaurant, and they both have a meal. Jaan G. Hennan joins a shocked Verlangen at his table, introduces himself and they drink together, Verlangen getting very drunk. And as Henman drops him off at his hotel he thinks….

On the whole Hennan had behaved reasonably , and the reason his wife wanted him to be kept under observation was more enveloped in mystery than ever.

When Jaan G. Hennan returns home he discovers that his wife Barbara has fallen from the high diving board into their swimming pool which happens to be empty. Murder, manslaughter, accident? Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who also knows Jaan G Hennan from their schooldays is convinced that G was behind his wife’s death, but G has Verlangen and others as a cast iron alibi.

G is a man with a very dark past, he was the school bully and his casual brutality lead to the suicide of another pupil. A few years later G had treated a girl friend of Van Veeteren very badly. Van Veeteren had persistent feelings of guilt for not standing up to G at school.

When further investigations of the Hennan’s finances reveal a large life insurance policy taken out on Barbara Hennan, Van Veeteren is distraught at the inevitable outcome the result of a Northern European liberal justice system.

: the accursed G had been able to sit back and relax, and wait for the inevitable outcome- a not guilty verdict and one point two million guilders.

The narrative jumps forward 15 years to 2002 [the book dates from 2003 English readers have had a long wait for this series to reach us] when Van Veeteren is retired from the police, running Krantze’s Antiquarian bookshop and settled into a less stressful new life.

A young woman comes to see Van Veeteren, sent by his former colleague Munster, she is Maarten Verlangen’s daughter. She tells Van Veeteren that her father continued to drink excessively brooding  about G and the death of Barbara Hennan. Now the private detective has disappeared leaving an A4 sheet of lined paper from a spiral bound pad on his kitchen table.

Written on it were  “14.42” and “G. Bloody Hell”.

The former Chief Inspector Van Veeteren begins a search for Verlangen.

They had eaten turbot, if he remembered rightly, and drunk a bottle of Sauternes…..That was before the antiquarian bookshop. Before Ulrike. Before Erich’s death.

It wasn’t even a decade ago, he thought. But nevertheless my life has changed fundamentally. I’d never have believed it at that time.

Bausen cleared his throat, and Van Veeteren came back down to earth.

The G File is a well constructed detailed police procedural. There are few plot pyrotechnics, it does not need them, and while veteran crime aficionados might be able to guess the solution to the killing of Barbara Hennan the writing [and translation by Laurie Thompson] are of such a high quality that 600 pages soon whiz past. The G File is all about compelling characters, thinking about life’s mysteries, the creation of a dark brooding atmosphere, and the question how does a liberal justice system deal with really bad people.

The G File is a worthy finale of this series, and I am sure Maxine would have agreed with me that Van Veeteren deserves a place alongside Morse, Maigret, and Rebus in the panoply of great police detectives.

There was no point in speculating on that as well, of course, and he soon grew tired of trying to find alternative ways through the swamp that was life. His own path and turned out the way it did, and if he thought about it at all nowadays, it was with gratitude. Despite everything.