Month: April 2015

Snowblind – Ragnar Jónasson

9781910633038-275x423Title – Snowblind

Author – Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)

Published – 2011 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

Score – 4/5

It’s an odd situation that Ragnar Jónasson has been a familiar face on the crime fiction circuit for some years, but this is the first opportunity for those of us who only read English to judge his ‘Iceland Noir’ credentials and he is not found wanting.

Ari Thór Arason is a recently qualified policeman living in Reykjavik with his medical student girlfriend. When an opportunity for his first posting comes up it’s in Siglufjörður, a small, isolated fishing town right the way up in the north of Iceland. Although his girlfriend is unenthusiastic about the situation he accepts the position and quickly moves, alone, to this close knit community. The setting for the book is incredibly important; the location is particularly isolated, not only is it physically remote but during the winter it is in perpetual darkness and the inclement weather only adds to the difficulties of going to, or escaping from, the town. It’s a small community where people don’t lock their doors and nothing ever happens – but of course if that were the case we wouldn’t need our intrepid detective!

Although Ari Thor is the main character, the story is told from multiple points of view and I found it a little difficult to get a handle on who each character was and what their relevance was to the story – but it all became clear in the end. The story is a ‘small-town’ one, initially involving the seemingly accidental death of a prominent member of the community who is involved in the local dramatic society, something which Ari Thor’s boss believes only requires a perfunctory investigation. Jónasson uses the choice of setting to his advantage, making the most of the conditions as a way of limiting the pool of suspects and adding an extra layer of tension. It’s actually quite surprising how many of the community are outsiders – people hiding from something, whilst those born there are perhaps more prone to seek an escape to the south. It’s perhaps Ari Thor’s position as an outsider that lets him question his boss and pursue the case.

The small town nature of the setting means that the investigation focuses on long hidden secrets, illicit affairs and long held grudges. Jónasson’s writing hones in on the minutiae of the characters’ lives and memories, but pay attention because hidden in all of this detail are clues crucial to the resolution of a number of different threads within the story.

It’s impossible to review this book and not make a reference to Agatha Christie. The reason is that Jónasson is renowned for being a huge fan, having translated fourteen titles into Icelandic. I wouldn’t say that this has obviously influenced his writing style, but the setting is perhaps an Icelandic St Mary Mead where people know, or think they know, each other’s business. The clever plotting, attention to detail and red herrings are certainly in the Christie style.

Snowblind is the first in Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series and there are currently 4 more books to be translated. It’s interesting that the translation is by Quentin Bates, a successful author in his own right who sets his own books in Iceland, although writing them in English. A book can be spoilt by a poor translation, something you only notice when a phrase jars and you’re reminded that the work was originally written in another language. Fortunately, as you would expect, there is no such issue here.

Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on My Little Pile of Rocks.

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Sorrow Bound – David Mark

91rr2NEAkcL._SL1500_Title – Sorrow Bound

Author – David Mark

Published – 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve been enjoying Mark’s Aector McAvoy series, and I received this review copy on the recent publication of Sorrow Bound, the third in the series, in paperback. There’s a lot that is familiar from the preceding books – multiple points of view, a couple of plotlines and a present tense narrative. There’s also Mark’s ability to weave together a number of different threads to the story and keep you guessing all the way.

It’s a scorching summer in Hull (I was reminded of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater) and whilst everyone is suffering in the heat, the giant that is McAvoy is suffering more than most; his mood isn’t helped by enforced sessions with a psychologist following the events of the previous book. He’s therefore keen to escape and put his efforts into identifying the seemingly random murder of a 53-year-old grandmother on one of Hull’s less salubrious estates.

What follows is a police procedural that is more driven by the characters than the procedures, and here Mark excels. That’s not to say that the plot isn’t imaginative and complex. Circumstances conspire to take McAvoy’s boss out of the picture for a while, which leaves him with decisions to make – not something that comes easily to him. What sets McAvoy apart in a fictional world populated by cliched ‘damaged’ detectives who turn to drink (or worse) is that he is straight-laced and not one for bending, let alone, breaking the rules. Were privy to his agonising over which way to turn and Mark really makes you feel for the character.

McAvoy’s wife, Roisin, gets an even larger part in this book, although there was perhaps less of them as a couple. There are also some intriguing insights into their original meeting and some loose ends to pick up in the next book (I hope). If you have read the title preceding this (Original Skin) there is a plotline that carries on from that book – a reward for those of us who are committed to the series!

I’ve seen this described as being the darkest book yet, but I’m tempted to say that I don’t necessarily agree, although the crimes of the main villain are particularly twisted. There’s a large psychological element to the crimes and the criminal, and  these are supported by sound reasoning and explanations woven into the story, not something every writer seems to think the reader needs. Mark also manages to inject some humour into his writing and has a style that I find particularly engaging.

I was (still am) on the verge of saying that this was a ‘five star’ read, but in hindsight I’m a little disappointed in the final ‘whodunit’. I can see the need for perhaps a 4.5 rating! To be fair to this it is probably my favourite read of the year so far.

You can see another review of this title at Crimepieces.

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No Name Lane – Howard Linskey

Title – No Name Lane

Author – Howard Linskey

Published – 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

I met Howard in 2011 at the first ‘Crime in the Court’ when he had just finished his debut ‘The Drop’. That was the start of a three book series, before moving to Penguin Random House with No Name Lane – the first in a new series.

No Name Lane is set in a small village in County Durham and revolves around three main characters – there’s struggling DC Ian Bradshaw, newcomer and local reporter Helen Norton, and Tom Carney who Helen replaced when he got a job on a tabloid paper in London but who has now returned home as he’s been suspended.

As well as a mix of characters there are also several threads to the story. The main one is the mystery of a missing teenage girl who is the latest in a string of young girls to be abducted. The bodies of the attacker’s previous victims have all turned up quickly and the race is on to find the latest victim while she’s still alive. When a body is dug up at the site of building work at the local school the assumption is that it’s linked to the serial killer – but it opens up a whole new story for the two reporters and a mystery that dates back more than seventy years.

This started off as a standard police procedural and with the involvement of the reporters it reminded me of Good Girls Don’t Die. One of the first differences that quickly became clear is that as a policemen DC Bradshaw is pretty ineffectual. He is shunned by his colleagues following an incident which injured his partner; sidelined by his bosses he does little to prove that this is a mistake.

Helen and Tom quickly pair up, pooling their resources to investigate the older mystery, although both are keen to get a scoop on the serial killer. There’s a ‘will they, won’t they’ aspect to their storylines and it’s interesting to see Tom give Helen the inside track some of the ins and outs of his old job. He is also pretty cagey about explaining why he’s back in the village, keeping his suspension under wraps.

This is quite a long book, at almost 500 pages, although the complexity of the plots and the number of different threads do mean that there is always something going on. When I started I found it a real page turner and was loathe to put the book down, but in the end I found it quite a struggle to finish. I can’t criticise the plot and I was surprised by some of the turns it took and Linskey’s got a very engaging style but for me there was just too going on for crime fiction. There was some switching between timelines as well as between the characters and the balance of this didn’t work for me. I’m also not a fan of books where I can’t empathise / sympathise with the main characters and that was the case for me here – I found them all to be fairly ineffectual and I’m not sure that in the end any of them actually discovered anything under their own steam, lots of things just happened around them.

I do seem to be in the minority in not enjoying No Name Lane and I know it has received some rave reviews. You can see another review of this title at Random Things Through My Letterbox. Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Writing on the Wall – Gunnar Staalesen

71NZ2toEd0LTitle – The Writing on the Wall

Author – Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Hal Sutcliffe)

Published – 1995 (2004 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian author of over 20 crime fiction novels, around 15 of which feature his private detective Varg Veum. Staalesen has twice won the Riverton Prize / Rivertonprisen (Golden Revolver) and numerous books have been adapted into a series of successful Norwegian films.

Only a handful of his books have been translated into English so far, and of course those in the Veum series haven’t been translated in order. The Writing on The Wall is eleventh in the series with two earlier titles also in translation.

The book has a sombre opening – the death of Judge (rumoured to have been found in women’s underwear) and the funeral of the husband of Veum’s ex-wife. On returning to his office after the funeral Veum discover’s a potential client waiting for him – the mother of a missing teenage girl. Worryingly Torild has already been missing for some days and although her father (her parents are separated) has mentioned her disappearance to the police, no-one seems to be looking for her. Veum doesn’t have high hopes and his pessimistic view is proved correct when her body is discovered some distance from the town. Although no longer employed by the parents his interest is piqued when he takes Torild’s mother to view the spot and he realises that something doesn’t add up.

His investigation, both before and after the discovery of Torild’s body, introduces him to a world that she and her friends have been careful to keep secret from their unsuspecting parents. There is a flourishing prostitution industry in Bergen and the young, and under-age, girls are being recruited by unscrupulous criminals.

There are other threads to the story – the death of the judge, a macabre death threat to Veum – and a few red herrings on the way to the resolution. In the traditions of hard-boiled detectives like Marlowe or Spade the writing certainly evokes the atmosphere of the traditional American PIs. Although set in Norway this isn’t the sort of book where the author waxes lyrical about the location, the prose isn’t particularly descriptive – certainly not a book where the setting is important, the heart of the story is the issue and the plight of the girls. It feels quite similar, though, to the slightly less dark Season of the Witch by Árni Þórarinsson.

I came to this book with expectations that as it had been written 20 years ago it might feel dated but despite the fact that time and more importantly technology, have moved on this wasn’t the case.

I really liked the writing and for the most part it didn’t feel like a translation (always a plus for me). One quite quirky aspect is the dialogue. While it is the case the in real life people talk in half-finished sentences the dialogue is rammed full of ellipses as people break off mid sentence or pause when speaking. Just odd…

I hear that Orenda books will be publishing more English translations – I’m looking forward to them.

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