Archive for the ‘Book Awards’ Category

UntitledWhen analysing crime fiction I usually consider ten very simple factors. 

1] Is the plot exciting, believable and gripping?

2] Do I like and care about any of the characters?

3] Is it written in an easy to read style which is decipherable to an ordinary reader?

4] Does it have the correct atmosphere  for a crime novel?

5] Is it set in an interesting location?

6] Does it overdo or concentrate on violence against women and children?

7] Does it contain a social commentary or message in the narrative?

8] Is it original?

9] Do the detectives exhibit some humour or give a glimpse of human frailty?

10] Has the book been ballyhooed  and overhyped?

The Caveman comes out very positively when considered with these parameters. From the back cover:

For four months Viggo Hansen’s body has been sitting, undiscovered in front of his television, close to the home of Chief Inspector William Wisting. Has Norwegian society become so coarsened that no one cares? Line, Wisting’s journalist daughter wants to know.

Another body is discovered in the forest that also has been left for four months, and as Wisting and his team meticulously work on that case, Line conducts her own investigation into the sad lonely life of Viggo Hansen, and very gradually the reader begins to suspect a connection between the bodies. 

This is Nordic Noir of the highest quality, a real treat for lovers of accurate police procedural novels, with two great protagonists. The novel has a lot of systematic police and journalistic work with just enough personal details about the characters to keep it really interesting. The author Jorn Lier Horst was a policeman for eighteen years and this shows in the accuracy of his narrative. This is definitely a contender for the prestigious Petrona Award. 

‘How is it possible to be so lonely and forgotten that it takes four months before anyone makes the chance discovery that you are dead. I think it would be a good story to print over Christmas. W’ve just been hailed by the UN as the best country in the world to live in but, in research into citizens experience of happiness, Norway is in 112th place……..’  

Advertisements

Ann CleevesI moved on to read The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves. I am ashamed to admit that this is first novel I have read by this author, having watched and enjoyed the adaptations of her Vera and Shetland book series on television.

The Moth Catcher is the seventh book in the series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, and it is the sort of novel that if you have become jaded with too much crime fiction will reinvigorate your interest in the genre. This story has everything with a setting in beautiful Northumberland, an interesting plot, superb characters, a biting social commentary and a great trio of detectives lead by the idiosyncratic Vera.

Silver earrings. Make up. Vera wondered if she was on her way out to a special lunch or if she always made the effort. It was clear her husband doted on her.

Vera thought for a moment that she might have found a man if she’d scrubbed up a bit better, then decided no man was worth the time it took to plaster stuff on your face in the morning, when you could have an extra cup of tea instead. 

Vera, Holly Clarke and Joe Ashworth are interesting characters, who investigate a double murder in an isolated valley in Northumberland. The plot is becomes complex when it is discovered that the two victims  are both moth collectors. Vera’s investigations centre on the claustrophobic group of people, who live in the upmarket barn conversions and call themselves the “retired hedonists”. The lives of these comfortably off retirees are contrasted with that of the locals, and the detectives delve deeply into the past histories of the victims and suspects.  

Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read. This is definitely one of the best English detective novels I have read for some time, and shows you don’t necessarily have to go Nordic to get a great crime story. Time permitting I hope to go back and read the earlier books in this series.     

cobenI picked up Harlan Coben’s The Stranger in our local supermarket simply because the main character was called Adam Price.

The book was a typical quick read airport novel with Adam’s American Dream life coming to an abrupt end as a stranger tells him something about Corinne, his wife, he does not want to hear. In typical Coben style Corinne mysteriously goes missing. This is the third Harlan Coben novel I have read and in Tell No One, Six Years and The Stranger the main protagonist is searching for his woman. It seems to be a winning formula? 

The setting is in one of those idyllic American small towns where everyone seems to have a plenty of money, but there is an undercurrent of trouble. The reader realises the suburban town is very wealthy, because Adam’s sons play lacrosse at high school. The plot features embezzlement, corporate greed, murder, blackmail and computer hacking. 

One of the book’s failings is that many of the characters lack any depth. They seem to have been selected from a box of standard stereotypes, but Coben sells millions of books simply because his novels are such easy reads.  

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn’t see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy “country club” section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and hers Mercedes. People respected them.

I have noticed reading Le Carre, and some Nordic authors, that “happy endings” are not in vogue, and Harlan Coben follows this trend. Does ending a novel with a tragedy make it great literature?   

The announcement of the Petrona Award Shortlist is always  a bit of a sad time as I remember my friend the late Maxine Clarke.  

Maxine’s blog Petrona was an inspiration to so many, and she was one of a very small group of bloggers who spread the word concerning  Scandinavian crime fiction at a time when very few had even heard of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or Stieg Larsson. 

This year’s shortlist looks very impressive with books from Norway, Finland and Sweden. I have read two of these books Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Satellite People and I enjoyed both immensely. I hope to read at least two of the others before the announcement of the winner at Crime Fest in Bristol. 

Last year for the first time I totally disagreed with the judges on their choice of a winner. I think that one important criteria for the award should be that the book that wins should be one that Maxine would have enjoyed reading. 

A few thoughts about the contenders. I noticed the Lagercrantz on a half price offer in our local Waterstones. I haven’t read anything about this book but my natural reaction, possibly misguided, is that the series should have ended with the death of Stieg Larsson, and that the original fans of the series may regard this novel as an exploitation. 

On a more serious subject when I met Karin Fossum at Crime Fest several years ago we very briefly discussed her social work with children with Down’s Syndrome. She is a charming lady and does know what she is talking about on this subject.

The judges comments about her book The Drowned Boy are very interesting:

After the drowning of a young child with Down’s syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. 

This is a subject about which I know a great deal, but reading this novel in the circumstances might be too traumatic. In our case for the wonderful twenty seven years our son Jacob was part of our family we thought we were looking after him, but in reality he was looking after us.  

I have linked to my reviews of two of these books. 

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)     

In the past few weeks I have read three thought provoking John le Carre novels; The Night Manager [1993] Our Game [1995] and Absolute Friends [2003] all of which I enjoyed immensely despite reservations about their politics. 

635878802254689284-The-Night-Manager-AMCThe TV series based on John le Carre’s book The Night Manager reached it’s climax last week. As with many television adaptions of a novel you realise how good the author is when the TV version plot starts to deviate from the original. The classic case of this phenomenon was the Dalziel and Pascoe series based on the novels of Reginald Hill which when the original plots were exhausted, and some of the great characters abandoned, was a shadow of the earlier programs. 

In The Night Manager’s tv adaptation the alterations in the plot and the changes in chronology, geographical locations, and the sex of Burr had worked quite well up to the last episode. In the final episode the novel’s plot was totally abandoned with the result that much of the political message was lost. Of course  the female audience was was catered for with scenes featuring Tom Hiddlestone, and if you have an elegant beauty such as Elizabeth Debicki constantly wandering around in floaty dresses and expensive lingerie you are likely to have a television success on your hands. But I did not approve of the scenes where her character Jed was water-boarded, this was totally unnecessary. There is enough violence towards women in real life without having to watch this sort of thing on TV.

A lot of le Carre’s emphasis in the novel was lost, and although I disagree with most of his politics, I felt the novel’s ending should have been retained. If a book is good enough to put on television surely the key message should be retained. But overall this was a gripping series, but I would respectively request there is no Night Manager Two, or we may face another Broadchurch Two debacle. 

gameOur Game was the next book le Carre wrote and apparently it was not as successful as some of his previous books, only reaching number 3 on the NY Times bestseller lists.

I have to admit finding most of this novel hysterically funny, although I am not sure le Carre intended it to be a black comedy. Perhaps I was amused by the fact that most of the book is set in North Somerset rather than the North Caucasus.

Bath University, Bristol, the Mendips, and Priddy, where retired civil servant Tim Cranmer tries to batter his old friend Larry Pettifer into submission are fairly familiar to me.

The story begins with the disappearance of Larry, a double agent whose dedication to left wing causes includes the seduction of Tim’s mistress the beautiful young Emma. Tim has inherited a run down estate with a failing vineyard from his uncle, and more luckily a large amount of money from an aunt. He and Larry were at school together at Winchester. In the past our security services were overrun by the alumni of Westminster, Greshams, Marlborough and Eton, which did not work out too well. 

The only possible benefit in having these people as spies was that if they were thrown into the Lubyanka, however badly they were treated the food was bound to be superior to that served up in an English Public school in the 1950s and 1960s.

The police investigate Larry’s disappearance……

Yet who did they think he was? -Larry, my Larry, our Larry?-What had he done? This talk of money, Russians, deals, Checheyev, me, socialism, me again- how could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejector, a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted semi-creative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one? 

Strangely this passage from a 1995 novel instantly made me think of one of today’s leading British politicians. 

Tim is questioned by both the police and his old employers in the security service, as they suspect he is involved in a financial scam.

In a minute you’re going to tell me it’s all in Checheyev’s weaselly imagination, he forged Larry’s signature. You’ll be wrong. Larry’s in it up to his nasty neck, and for all we know, so are you. Are you?

Tim naturally begins a convoluted search for a missing 37 million quid and the beautiful young Emma, both of which have been expropriated by Larry and Tim’s former agent Konstantin Abramovich Checheyev.

The money is intended to help the oppressed Chechen and Ingush people in the Caucasus. Tim’s search takes him from to Bristol, Paris, and Moscow and eventually to the conflict in the Caucasus. John le Carre views the situation there as very black and white but in these far away conflicts things are usually shades of grey. I wonder what the author felt when nearly decade after this novel the events took place at a place in North Ossetia called Beslan. 

Absolute Friends, le Carre’s first post 9/11 political novel also had me laughing out loud on many occasions, and perhaps again I wasabsolute not supposed to find this novel so amusing. The narrative tells of the long running friendship between Ted Mundy, son of a British army officer, conceived in India and born in Pakistan on partition day; and Sasha, a son of Nazi Germany brought up in the GDR. The friendship begins among the revolutionary students of West Berlin in the turbulent 1960s, and ends in ………..I won’t spoil the ending.

Endings are not John Le Carre’s strong point, and however nuanced the narrative he seems to want to leave the reader feeling somewhat bruised, and hopefully convinced that the Americans and British are responsible for every evil in the world. 

Mundy becomes a secret service agent by chance after his experiences in Berlin.

“What is the purpose of our revolution, comrade?”

Mundy had not expected a viva voce, but six months of Ilse and her friends have not left him unprepared. ” To oppose the Vietnam War by all means…To arrest the spread of  military imperialism….To reject the consumer state….To challenge the nostrums of the bourgeoisie…To awaken it, and educate it. To create a new and fairer society ….and to oppose all irrational authority.”

” Irrational? What is rational authority? All authority is irrational, arsehole.”

The Soviets classified these fellow travellers as useful idiots, and unfortunately they are still around today even in the UK waving Mao’s Little Red Book and forgetting the millions who died under Communism, and it’s close relative National Socialism.

Sasha’s father was a Pastor who became a Christian Nazi, and later decamped to the obnoxious West from the GDR socialist paradise, installing a deep personal and political hatred in his son. The story explores both men’s relationship with their fathers, and the secrets they uncover. 

This is a long, but highly readable book, that has many complexities as the friends frequently lose touch and then meet up again after several years and catch up with events. Mundy is never sure which side Sasha is on, or even at times which side he is on. 

As a prized Stasi agent, Mundy receives a fat retainer, bonuses and incentive payments. The conventions of the trade, however require him to turn those sums over to his true masters, whose remunerations are more modest, since London unlike the Stasi, takes his loyalty for granted. 

These books are well written, and are fascinating reading perhaps enhanced by our knoweledge of recent events. 

CoptownMagic DeborahI read two outstanding books from the USA in 2015. The heartrending The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson, which deservedly won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and Cop Town by Karin Slaughter, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Thrillers.

Both were set in the South and dealt with racism, in all  its ugly incarnations. And interestingly both had female leading protagonists, always a good start in societies, the Deep South 1946, and Atlanta police force 1974, where women were regarded with a degree of circumspection. An excellent reminder for devotees of Nordic translated crime fiction that there are still great books coming out of the USA.  

 

CoptownI read Cop Town because it won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger as the best crime thriller of  2015. Cop Town is a worthy recipient of the award that last year was won by the superb An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

Set in Atlanta in late 1974 the story begins as a search for a serial cop killer known as The Shooter. Jimmy Lawson’s partner Don Wesley has been shot and Atlanta’s police force is on the warpath to find the killer. Jimmy’s violent uncle Terry leads a group of cops who are determined to dispense their own brand of justice. Two policewomen begin their own investigation as something is not quite right about Jimmy’s account of the details of the shooting. The female cops are Maggie Lawson, Jimmy’s sister, and rookie Kate Murphy, a young women widowed by the Vietnam war.

Maggie comes from a real blue collar police family, and Kate doesn’t. I won’t say any more because a large part of the interest in the story for this reader was the discovery of Kate’s background, and the gradual change in the storyline from a straightforward police procedural into a combative plea against homophobia, misogyny, and racism. 

Maybe there was a reason Atlanta was statistically one of the most violent, criminal cities in America. As far as Maggie could tell, the only thing black and white male officers could agree on was that none of them thought women should be allowed in uniform.

This is a brilliant book with great characters, plenty of social comment, and a plot that is just complex and convoluted enough to keep the reader’s interest.    


meyer icarusReading very good crime fiction can take the reader into a different environment, and allow you to forget even for a few seconds the terrible events taking place in a real world that frequently is more terrifying than anything thought up by a fiction writer. 

Icarus by Deon Meyer is yet another superb book set in modern South Africa featuring the troubled alcoholic detective Benny Griessel, and his colleague Vaughan Cupido. The story has two strands that come together very satisfactorily at the conclusion of the book.

The major plot has the Hawks-the elite Directorate of the Priority Crimes Investigations, the DCPI- investigating the murder of high flying internet entrepreneur Ernst Richter. Richter’s company Alibi is notorious for arranging cover stories for people having affairs, which means the number of suspects who might want to kill him is quite high. Benny has fallen off the wagon after 602 days sober, because of a traumatic family murder suicide. His partner Vaughan Cupido, a Cape Coloured detective, has to take the lead in the investigation while covering up for his friend Benna. 

The subplot is set a few days in the future where wine farmer Francois du Toit narrates a family saga to Advocate Susan Peires in her chambers. Some readers might feel that this lengthy story of farmers, wine and rugby stars slows up the progress of the main narrative but I found it fascinating, and it helped build up the tension. 

Advocate Susan Peires SP: Please, Mr du Toit…..

F. du Toit FdT: Call me Francois…..

SP: No, I shall call you Mr du Toit. We are not friends; we are advocate and client. It is an official, professional relationship,  for which you will pay me a lot of money.

Immersing the reader into the atmosphere of Deon Meyer’s books is helped by the liberal, but not excessive, use of Afrikaans and some of the Rainbow Nation’s 10 other official languages, as well as township slang. Luckily there is a comprehensive glossary in the back of the book to assist the English speaking reader. Cupido’s efforts to find Richter’s killer are complicated by his attempts to get Benny to get his life back on track, and his strong feelings for the very desirable Desiree Coetzee, the beautiful Cape Coloured woman who in effect ran Alibi for Ernst Richter.

The investigation becomes more complex as Alibi’s clients become concerned that their names would be revealed by someone who had obtained the database of unfaithful spouses. 

She told him about the pressure from above. She said the dude doing the database reveal had already exposed one ANC politician, one TV newsreader and a whitey former soap star. 

All the complexities of the case come together at the end. Benny continues to fight his alcoholism as his colleagues try to protect him, Cupido wonders if he can form a relationship with Desiree.

Cupido was on the point of saying Let’s go. Because he struggled  with impulse control, he wanted to ask Benna, What do you do with a dolly who is out of your league, but you think about her day and night:

With the interesting location in South Africa, the social commentary and with so many other characteristics that I want in a good crime fiction novel I can highly recommend Icarus.  This is a series well worth following.   

BoschRecently I did not finish a book sent to me for review, something that I have never done in the past. The book set in an unnamed Northern Italian city was violent and involved corrupt police and conflicts within the ‘Ndrangheta. After about 100 pages I decided that life was too short at my age to waste it on a book containing not one sympathetic character. A little sad and depressed with winter closing in, I turned to one of those authors who I know will provide me with a great crime fiction story, Michael Connelly. 

I have read the MickeyHaller stories but I prefer the police procedural investigations featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

The Burning Room is a great example of how to make the hard graft of real police work interesting for the reader. Harry now working cold cases is drawn into two investigations, because his new partner the young inexperienced Lucia Soto is trying to solve the deaths by arson of nine children in a day centre fire in which she was one of those children who were lucky to be saved.

The main case involves the shooting by a sniper of a Maraichi musician, Orlando Merced. Merced has lived paralysed with the bullet inside him for ten years. Now he has died and the bullet is recovered at an autopsy that states that Merced died as a result of the shooting, even ten years on from the actual shooting it is a murder case. Both investigations are complex with a lot of forensics, ballistics and travelling to interview characters about events in the almost forgotten past.

Latino gangs, white supremacists, police politics and political corruption as well as the private life of a great detective, Harry Bosch, in the twilight of his long career make this an excellent read. 

Bosch got out his notebook to write the name down. “You won’t be able to talk to him,” Walling said.

“He died twelve years ago. Killed himself after being indicted for tax evasion. He knew he was going to go away. That’s how we got most of these guys-they stopped paying taxes.”    

 

defencelessLooking out for crime fiction books that would have interested the much missed Maxine Clarke is always a bittersweet experience.

Sweet because she was such an excellent judge of a good crime fiction novel, and her own choices would almost always exhibit superb characters, complex plots, and an easy to read style, important themes and evocative atmosphere.

Bitter because when I read through the hundreds of emails we exchanged [we only met in person twice] I realize what a good friend I have lost. Maxine encouraged and inspired so many bloggers that I am certain I am not alone in missing her influence.  

I have to admit a certain bias in choosing The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, because I thought her first book The Hummingbird should have won last year’s Petrona Award. Kati is a punk singer and author; she lives in a 150 year old house on the island of Hailuoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in Northern Finland. She has a Masters degree in Special Education and studied racism and bullying among young immigrants in Finland.  

The Defenceless is the second in the series featuring a mismatched pair of detectives. Anna Fekete is a young attractive woman, an immigrant as a child from the former Yugoslavia. She is Hungarian by ethnicity and her family, apart from Akos, her alcoholic brother who lives near her, still lives in the Hungarian speaking area of Serbia. Esko is a middle aged Finnish “redneck” with health problems, who hates all immigrants. The only thing they have in common is their desire to catch criminals, and their problem with alcohol and smoking. Anna is no virginal Miss Marple, and her drinking sometimes lead to sexual activity with some pathetic men that she regrets the next day.  

The stark contrast between Esko living a pathetic lonely physically inactive life in a tiny apartment and worried at the dangerous age of 56 about his heart and lungs, and Anna a keen runner and skier makes for an interesting story.  

Not everybody could be sporty health-freaks in top physical condition. Society needed the drunk, the obese, the depressed, as examples to the rest of us and to provide statistics with which to frighten people.  

In both books we see that Esko who starts off as a horrid racist misogynist, may have a softer centre to this hard outer shell. Perhaps he is merely terrified at getting older, and the enormous changes that have occurred in his country. The arrival of 300,000 immigrants into the UK may create difficulties in providing schools, housing, and health services, but in a country like Finland with a much smaller population it alters the whole ethnic and social make up of the country.   

The Finnish authorities and all the tree-hugging humanists should visit Copenhagen and Malmo and take a look at what an open-door immigration policy really means, thought Esko.   

The story opens with Viho, an elderly Finn having an argument with his noisy drug-dealing neighbour, Macke, while Sammy, a drug addicted Pakistani Christian is trying to get a supply of subutex from the dealer.  

But first he had to find some subs. Bupe. Orange guys. A dear child has many names.   

When Gabriella, a Hungarian au pair is arrested for dangerous driving as she has apparently knocked down and killed an old man on a snowy road, and Anna is called to deal with the case because she speaks Hungarian, although she finds her ability to converse in her native language has faded over the years.

The book investigates the themes of, immigration, drug gangs, the status of minorities, racism and human rights, along with the loneliness of old age. Anna’s kindness towards Sammy, and her friendship with gay immigrant pizza restaurant owners show her internal struggle with her identity, and her hopes for the future.   

The idea of a Hungarian man, and especially one from Kanisza, seemed quite tempting, at least in theory., but in practice, in reality, it was something quite different. It was a culture that reared boys into a world in which women could never become their equals.   

With the story being told from the perspective of Anna, Esko and Sammy I am sure it would have been the sort of book Maxine would have enjoyed, and we could have discussed it at length.   

Could there be a more topical book in Europe 2015 than one about the problems of immigration, and the scourge of drug gangs?   

The police procedural with a team of detectives working with Anna and Esko, and the social commentary reminded me of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

There can be no better recommendation for this brilliant book.   For more great book recommendations for Maxine go to Petrona Remembered