Tag Archives: crime fiction

The Sea Withdrew

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

In common with every reviewer who writes about Kate Atkinson’s novels, I have a legal obligation to start this post by noting that she wrote literary fiction before she started writing crime fiction, and that her crime fiction isn’t really crime fiction because it uses the crime fiction genre  conventions in such clever, literary ways. What isn’t noted quite as often is the fact that her ostensibly literary fiction was riddled with mystery and acts of obfuscation and detection. What is Behind the Scenes of a Museum if it is not a whodunit?

Like all novels in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took my Dog hangs on a central, surprising event. Like cracks spreading out across a pane of glass, the implications and effects of this incident fracture and distort the lives of the characters we meet. At first, the effect is almost impressionistic, the pace sedate. We have fragments of different points of view: an actress trying to hold on as dementia frays her mind; a security chief despairing behind her impassive façade; a middle-aged man lost in the turns of his life; flashbacks to other lives, other, seemingly random, events.  It is 60 pages in before we are even introduced our nominal sleuth, Brodie.

Jackson Brodie is an interesting protagonist who differs from so many other series protagonists in his ability to shift and change. We have the pleasure here of watching a man progress though the storms and calms of his life. I think middle age is one of the most difficult passages in a character’s life to evoke but with these novels, Atkinson manages it with sensitivity and startling verisimilitude.  Yet Brodie is more a man to whom things happen, and as such, he is often at the periphery of events in these novels, with other characters taking centre stage.  These stories are told through the eyes of many characters and always with compassion and a devastating understanding of what makes humans do the things they do, no matter how terrible.

In this extraordinary, terrible empathy, the novelist Atkinson is most like is Charles Dickens. And she is like him in other ways, too. She shares Dickens’ understanding that it is connections and intersections, coincidences really, that make up the narrative of our lives. It takes a brave writer, especially in this genre, to reflect this in her work. Humour, too, is another similarity. Atkinson’s work is unexpectedly very funny, from the broadest of slapstick to the bleakest of ironies.

One of her cleverest ironies in Started Early is the way plot is used in the novel – it manages to be both so tightly wrought that at the moment it all come together the reader suffers a delightful kind of literary whiplash and yet, this  seems almost incidental to what the novel is about. The comeuppance faced by the villains of this piece is almost an afterthought, a dénouement that oddly manages to both baffle and satisfy the narrative desires of the reader. But there is so much more here. This is a meditation on aging, of how time changes one, and like all Atkinson’s work, the inescapability of one’s past.

Reading Kate Atkinson’s work is always a bittersweet pleasure, quite apart from the ache at the heart of her novels.  Reading her work always leaves me midway between inspiration and despair. This is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.

 

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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.

 

 


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.


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.