Dead Cold

Review: Death in a Cold Climate by Barry Forshaw

I picked up Barry Forshaw’s guide to the seemingly endless slew of crime writing emerging from Sweden, Norway, Finland Denmark and Iceland in anticipation of a long and tedious train journey and I’m glad I did. Forshaw writes about his topic engagingly and with clear enthusiasm.

Forshaw takes a broadly geographical approach, exploring each country in turn. This pays dividend as this is a massively complex region with a dramatic mix of cultures; the crime writing echoes this. This more nuanced approach forces the reader to appreciate the diversity of the genre rather than regarding it as homogenous.

As a long-time fan of Scandinavian crime fiction there was nothing startlingly new here for me; this guide is written for those relatively fresh to the genre. I’m told that when I read or listen to something I’m familiar with or agree with, I unconsciously and vigorously nod my head so presumably I spent the journey shaking like a cat with ear mites. Never mind; at least no one sat beside me. Or anywhere near me.

A slight niggle was that the editing could have been a bit sharper – some redundancies and repetitions appear that really shouldn’t. You get the sense that there was a rush to get this book out before interest in this genre wanes.

I’m a complete list pervert so for me the best part of the book was the extensive bibliography detailing the output of the best and brightest crime writers to emerge from this region – I’m having to be physically restrained from buying all the books even as I type. I was familiar with the majority of them but it’s nice to be reminded of authors that I might have overlooked or forgotten. A few new to me authors piqued my interest, too, which is always exciting.

So overall, this is definitely worth investing in: a good overview of the subject with some interesting perspectives from publishers, academics and the authors themselves. The author writes with passion and knowledge.   Best of all, you are bound to find at least a few (dozen) suggestions for what to read next – the problem is deciding which book to choose.

 

 

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Beginnings (2)

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

I stumbled across Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved whilst searching for information on the lives of Jewish people in Victorian London – quite random I know but it turns out researching possible future novel projects is a lot more appealing than getting on with redrafting the current one. Anyway, allowing myself to be distracted from my distraction, I picked up this novel and emerged blinking some two hours later, having devoured the whole thing.

Some Danger Involved is the first novel in Thomas’ mystery series featuring the Scottish detective Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn.  We meet Llewelyn, our first person narrator, on the day he is hired by Barker. No sooner is he starting to get a handle on his mysterious employer than the pair are drawn into an investigation of a particularly gruesome murder in London’s Jewish community.

This is a steam-punk vision of Victorian London, full of exotics and absinthe, monocles and corsets, and overlaid with just a Patina of grime. It’s rather light on the real bone grinding filth and poverty that made up much of life in Victorian London but that’s fine and in keeping with the tone of the piece.  Oddly, despite the horrifying nature of the crime at the centre on this novel, it’s a relatively jovial read and we feel instinctively that good will prevails. If you want darker meat, can I suggest Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night or the even more salty The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray

Llewelyn is a satisfyingly stolid everyman, full of awe and indignation. He is an excellent contrast to the peculiar and mysterious Barker about whom we only discover fragments as the narrative unfolds. There is enough edge to both characters, however, to promise conflict and crises in future instalments.

The plot, too, works well with religious prejudice and sexual jealousy underpinning a satisfyingly traditional whodunit.

In his afterword, the author makes mild complaint about the ‘cosiness’ of historical mysteries especially those by women. Well, I’m not sure if Thomas fancies himself as some sort of Victorian Brett Easton Ellis or perhaps I’m just jaded but this seemed a fairly lightweight confection and I intend no insult by this. It’s a fun read that sets the narrative up nicely for further instalments. I look forward to them.


Les Yeux Carrés

Spending the last few weeks battling with an exciting respiratory tract infection has given me an unusual amount of time to become closely acquainted with both my sofa and various television offerings. You will be no doubt startled to hear that my preference is for crime drama programming and luckily for me, now is a wonderful time to be a TV crime fan.

It’s all thanks to BBC4 and their shock success with the Danish series The Killing. I’m not going to say too much about that as, really, you’d have to have lived in a box not to have come across it. Even the Duchess of Cornwell is a fan and for good reason. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s beautifully written and acted and has excellent knitwear.

My crime TV of choice used to be UK and US based. I grew up with Suchet’s Poirot and Hickson’s Marple, and it’s to Miss Marple I return if ever I’m feeling defeated by the world. Again, it has the bonus of good knitwear. CSI was a favourite for a while but accidentally watching a ton of CSI Miami cured me of that.  Bones was good until it jumped the shark and I still have a soft spot for NCIS and The Mentalist. But after a while all these shows felt tired, the same tropes being recycled between them over and over again. If there’s a guest star of moderate fame, he’s going to be the killer. So I stopped watching. For a while, I thought I could get into sci-fi because I liked Battlestar and Firefly but then I gave my husband the Farscape boxset for Christmas. Cripes.

My salvation was discovering that transcribing even the most overused idea into a foreign setting and language makes it feel fresh and new again. Take, for example, Ne le dit á personne, the film version of Harlan Coben’s Tell No One.  The perfectly serviceable source material is transformed into something altogether edgier and interesting by its Gallic makeover.

Perhaps it’s a kind of shift that enacts this change, from one cultural and aesthetic context to another. Perhaps, too, it’s the distance created by the form of transmission; in the majority of these programmes you have to follow the subtitles – does this create a greater engagement, a more active participation in the viewing process?

Regardless, this sudden increase of interest has resulted in a raft of programmes becoming available. So, Killing aside, which ones have I found most worth watching?

Before The Killing came Spiral, a fast paced and gritty French drama following the investigations of Laure Berthaud and her squad. Little seems to separate the flics and the delinquents here; violence and corruption are everywhere and everyone is tainted. Berthaud’s drive to root out evil doers seems driven by obsession rather than morality, and she seems destined to destroy both herself and those around her in the process.  Of the three series available, the first  and third are most worthwhile but it’s all compelling viewing. I just couldn’t get over Laure’s hair in series two.

The Swedish version of Wallander is excellent if unsurprisingly bleak. The levels of violence, both physical and psychic, make it difficult viewing anyway, even if one can get the tragedy of Johanna Sällström out of one’s mind.  The acting and writing are perfectly in harmony with the source novels, as it the flat, monochromatic style of shooting. There are great pleasures to be had here but they are bitter ones.

Those Who Kill, another Danish offering and Inspector Montalbano, from Italy, while entertaining enough are not quite up to this standard. Those Who Kill was a bit too ‘murder of the week’ to engage as well as it might and it felt oddly lacking in ideas for a first series. Having your protagonist kidnapped twice by serial killers makes her seem a bit crap at her job, frankly.  And whilst I loved the glorious locations and the energy of Monalbano, it just didn’t have the warmth and wit of Camilleri’s novels.

So it’s over to you. What series should I watch next? Are there any UK or US shows that might capture my interest? Please comment below.

 


Heere be…

Review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In the past, I’ve felt a slight reluctance to admitting to liking Terry Pratchett.  Something about the combination of fantasy and comedy always seemed so naff and so likely to attract the oddest of aficionados. I read once on the Guardian CiF section (such a warm and open hearted place!) that Pratchett novels are often found at the homes of serial killers.  But there comes a point in a reader’s life where you have to stop having the mindset of an angry and bitter 16 year old who only really likes 19th century Russian literature and open up to books that might be, y’know, fun. Either that, or become a literary critic.

Guards! Guards! is the first in the Pratchett’s rich and extraordinary Discworld series to feature centrally the City Watch Characters, Ank-Morpork’s beleaguered police force.  The other books are (in order): Men at Arms; Feet of Clay; Jingo; The Fifth Elephant; Night Watch; Thud!; and Snuff. It’s important to note that you certainly don’t need to read the other novels in the Discworld series to enjoy the City Watch books but it’s a more satisfying experience to read these ones in published order.

Captained by drunken and disillusioned Samuel Vimes, the Night Watch has been reduced to a token presence by the machinations of the Patrician and the City Guilds.  Vimes’ quiet despair is shattered by the arrival of two newcomers to the city: Carrot, a 6”4 dwarf, determined to become a successful and productive Watchman and, well, a dragon.

Like many of Pratchett’s books, reducing the plot to mere synopsis would do very little to encourage you to read the novel itself. Suffice it to say that the dragon is summoned to act as a WMD for a Freemason-esque sect intent on returning the city to a monarchy and that their plan succeeds beyond their wildest nightmares. The joy here is not so much in the story, though that most certainly satisfies as a ‘whodunnit’, but in the exuberant characterisation and the gleeful wit. A self-avowed mystery fan, Pratchett takes great delight in playing with the clichés and conventions of the crime genre, amongst many other things. Parody and allusion zing past at a startling rate and there is a definite need for a second, slower reading to pick up on all Pratchett is doing here. He is an astonishingly clever writer, yet rare perhaps for that breed, an incredibly human one at the same time.  Never do his insights into the human condition take the easy turn into misanthropy and there is always laughter here, even if it is laughter in the dark.

I prefer to listen to the Discworld novels and I can’t recommend highly enough Nigel Planer’s reading. A good narrator can do a lot with even mediocre material (the reverse is unfortunately also true) but here we have a perfect symbiosis. The cognoscenti will also be aware that Stephen Briggs is the usual narrator for Pratchett’s City Watch novels and whilst he does perhaps have the edge overall, Planer is wonderful here.

To those of you familiar with these novels, well, you already know but to those of you yet to sample Pratchett’s work, I envy you a little for the pleasures that lie ahead. Don’t be afraid. Yes, they’re funny, and yes, they’re fantasy but that doesn’t mean you have to start watching Babylon 5. Time to have a little fun.


Beginnings (1)

Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King

I started Laurie R King’s novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice with more than a little apprehension. You see, Sherlock Holmes was my first detective love. My dad read me the stories and I would walk around my village with a tablespoon as a meerschaum searching for baddies. So I can be a bit protective of the canon. Much as I adore Martin Freeman and Stephan Moffat, Sherlock was a slightly uncomfortable experience. In its own right, it was enjoyable but as Holmes… it just hadn’t got the nuances quite right.

Plus The Beekeeper’s Apprentice seemed a bit high-concept for me. After too many American crime shows where, say,  the hero’s a FBI agent with a counting dog , I had decided that the fewer words needed to sum up a premise, the less I wanted to have anything to do with it. So ‘Sherlock Holmes is brought out of retirement by a feisty young American (and she’s a girl!)’ was not especially appealing.

But despite my resistance and the ever-so slightly clunky framing device at the start, I found myself drawn in.  It’s an immensely enjoyable novel, with all the simple satisfactions of a well-wrought, traditional mystery.

Mary, as a narrator, grates on some but I found her exuberance and arrogance entirely fitting for someone of her age, blessed with her gifts of intellect and aptitude. Passivity or self –effacement would have called Holmes’ previous companion too quickly into mind and it is clear from the start that Mary Russell is to be a foil for Sherlock, not a mere sidekick. Anything less abrasive would’ve made the whole confection rather too sickly for my tastes.

The characterisation of Holmes himself is well done too. He’s more richly characterised that in the Conan Doyle Stories, in the sense that he is more emotionally accessible to us as readers. This, however, is not a betrayal of the canon but the logical extension of having a narrator who can more clearly see the workings of his mind.

As is to be expected of an origins-type story, the first third of the novel is taken up with the burgeoning friendship between Holmes and Russell, and her induction into the ways of detection. Soon enough, however, (and it will be soon as the pacing is impeccable!) we are thrown into a full-throttle mystery plot that see our protagonists dodging bombs and tearing round Europe in their quest to hunt down a satisfyingly nefarious nemesis.  For all King’s novels are categorised as ‘cosy’ mysteries, there is a real sense of peril here, something that is too often missing from the work of authors who pride themselves on their edginess.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is conventional and perhaps even a little old-fashioned. But it is a well-crafted novel by a writer who knows and loves her source material. Unlike so many other Holmesian homages, it fits well with the original works, never seeking to undermine or mock. In its own right, it’s a cracking read and a lot of fun. On finishing it, I immediately looked up Laurie King’s website to see which book was next; what more do you want from a series opener?


Serial Killers

It may seem, in coming months, that I have an obsession with the first books in mystery series. And indeed, that may well be true. What’s not to love? There’s little more satisfying than a well-rounded origins story, with characters’ lives and histories trickling in like a morphine drip. There’s no commitment either: if things aren’t working out after a chapter or two, you can quietly close the covers without any weird misplaced guilt towards a well-loved character. The sense of hope, too, is enchanting, especially for an established series, where 5 or 6 or more novels beckon: a continent of fictional possibility.

I see no problem with the fact that I view crime novel series in two completely contradictory ways. I feel that decline and staleness are inevitable. In early books in a series, creative risk-taking is precluded until character and context are safely established. In later books, the author can grow so desperate for something fresh that insanity can set in and both reality and continuity are often discarded.   However, the crime narrative, in its modern form, has always tended towards the series or serial form, so this is nothing new; it’s no pernicious publishing scam to suck you in. And the most interesting writers can take characters and allow them to evolve (or more likely with crime protagonists, devolve) over the span of their series, a narrative scale outwith the purview of many novelists. The possibilities this can offer are very exciting.

As is so often the case it depends entirely on the writer. For every Patricia Cornwell, there’s a Lindsay Davis or a Henning Mankell. I know the kind of writer I’d rather be. Yes, I too am trying to write a crime novel and my hope is that my protagonist and I will share several adventures before we jump the shark. So I’m studying the field. Any recommendations of quality series or even just quality series openers are heartily welcomed – please comment below.


Bloody Valentine

It’s not everyone’s idea of the perfect Valentine’s Day activity, starting a blog about crime and mystery fiction, is it? But I suppose it kind of works. After all, not many holidays can claim their very own massacre.  And what do most people do today? They present loved ones with stylised representations of internal organs, inscribed with sinister messages: you are mine; I carry your heart with me; we will always be together. That, or they give bouquets the colour of gore. Now, that’s weird, if you ask me.

My life of crime began with Holmes, of course, and more of that later, but stories about crime always been a thread of my life, an intrinsic part of how I shape the narrative of my life. When my primary school peers were obsessed with the machinations of the Saddle Club or the Babysitters’ Club or any of the other fictional clubs that seemed to spawn a host of novels during that era, I was pouring over the exploits of Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.   It’s to my parents’ credit that they didn’t freak out when, aged about 9, I started working my way through the true crime section of my local library.

I read other things, too, devouring the recommendations of my teachers like the voracious, precocious  little monster I was.  That was, I suppose, when I learned that not all books were equal. Why was my teacher impressed by me reading Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations , both novels that take as their centre point crime and guilt, when mention of Murder on the Orient Express or The Long Goodbye made him wrinkle his nose in disapprobation?

There is an anxiety about crime fiction, that it is cheap and too easy to read and write or that it is somehow distasteful and vicious. When I first started an MLitt in Creative Writing, I was nervous and, I’m afraid to say, ashamed of working on a crime novel. I felt I should be doing something more worthy, more literary. But like a poorly weighted body decomposing in a lake, crime and mystery keep popping up in my own work. You can’t help but tell the story that wants to be told.

The more I read, too, the more I feel that categorising novels into genres is less to do with writing and writers and more to do with marketing and sales. It’s not what’s most important. Writers like Elmore Leonard, Fred Vargas, Susan Hill, Henning Mankell take the conventions of the crime genre and twist them to their own splendid ends: creating strange and wonderful stories.

 This blog is a way for me, as both a reader and a writer, to think deeply about startlingly good and unusual fiction and film which happen to contain an element of crime or mystery.  I hope too, dear reader, you might find some suggestions for reading  or viewing  in these pages and I would love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.