Salt Lane – William Shaw

Title – Salt Lane

Author – William Shaw

Published – May 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

My favourite ‘sub-genre’ of crime fiction is the traditional UK police procedural and over the past few months I’ve read a few of these – Salt Lane is the first review up but to follow is the 7th McAvoy novel by David Mark and the second DC Childs by Sarah Ward. I know not everyone is a fan of this type of series but I like the conventional framework that the procedural uses, the feeling of seeing behind the scenes and the framework usually provides a resolution towards the end- something important to me in crime fiction.

Within the sub-genre there are obviously different approaches to the story, the involvement of external characters (both within the police and outside) and the treatment of the main detective / policeman – are they painted as a maverick and/or with a drink problem, rocky personal life etc. etc?  Modern crime fiction shows this isn’t always a given and the characters can be more nuanced. Although William Shaw’s lead detective in Salt Lane is actually anything but.

Introduced in The Birdwatcher, DS Alexandra Cupidi is new to the Kent area having transferred from London, the reason being the subject of gossip in the police station. She’s quite a character – forceful, not backwards at coming forwards, dogged, determined, somewhat lacking in grace and finesse and perhaps a little lonely.

There are a number of threads to the story but the opening one with a case of mistaken identity was intriguing. There are two main investigations, one following the discovery of an unidentified woman in a watery grave close to the Salt Lane of the title. The other is the death of a young man in a farm’s slurry pit, beaten before his death, his age and appearance leading the investigation towards illegal immigrants and then on to the possibilities of people-smuggling, drugs and groups of migrant workers. As the two main plots unfold the potential connections between events becomes apparent and not in a way I could have guessed at. The investigations are a team effort and special mention must go to her colleague Constable Ferriter who provides quite a contrast to Cupidi’s character.

This is a perfect example of crime fiction helping to illuminate an issue that most readers might not be aware of (I’m not going to say which issue it is). It’s achieved by ‘showing’ during the course of the story rather than a lot of ‘telling’ in explanation and I think this helps to bring the issues to life for the reader. As with The Birdwatcher the sense of place is captured really effectively and as well as being atmospheric the landscape also plays an important part in the story.

Despite the quite domestic setting there are plenty of action sequences and tension in the plot and some quite thrilling chase sequences across the Kent landscape. Someone’s poor judgement in one of the earlier action sequences adds to the mix by prompting an internal investigation so there really is plenty going on.

Cupidi’s personal life is fleshed out and her relationships with her daughter and her mother play an important part in the book, providing some of the drama as well as filling out some of Cupidi’s backstory.

I did enjoy the contrast of Cupidi and the irascible William South in The Birdwatcher and that’s perhaps what, if anything,  I was missing in this book. While Cupidi is a great main character and there were other colleagues and family members who populated the book they didn’t provide the same sharp contrast that South did.

A really enjoyable read.

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Fools and Mortals – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Fools and Mortals

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical Fiction

If you follow my blog you’ll know that I’m a fan of Bernard Cornwell (with the exception of the Sharpe series) and a standalone novel is a huge treat when I don’t have to remember detail from a lot of preceding books in a series.

With this book the period is Elizabethan England and the location is London; it’s set around the rivalry between an established theatre company and a new company that needs good scripts to appeal to a large audience so they can recoup their costs. The main character is a young man who is part of the long-running theatre company, an impoverished actor, making ends meet through a combination of a pretty face and a side-line in petty theft. Used to playing female roles he wants to move on to take on male roles and disillusionment with his current company makes him a target for an offer that he may not be able to refuse. This isn’t the only thread and the backdrop to the story are the preparations for the performance of a new play for a courtier and the company’s rehearsals. This introduces an interesting take on the development of a very famous play.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book even though it had a lot less action than is usual in one of Cornwell’s books and it has a very ‘contained’ plot, which could even have been just a short story. However, despite these differences from  – I was really drawn in. The writing is evocative and I got a real sense of what Elizabethan London was like, from the smell of the streets to the political rivalries which affected people’s everyday lives.

I really liked the main character, the multiple threads kept my interest despite the more narrow plot and there were a few action sequences squeezed. It might feel as if it has a slow start as there’s lots of scene setting but I actually found all of the background – both the details and the broader setting – really interesting.

As with much of his historical fiction a number of the characters are based on real people and some of the events did take place. I enjoyed the fact this book didn’t have the memoir style of storytelling to it however it did have some aspects that the reader probably already knows about, so there is still an element of foreknowledge but it gives you a take on how these real life events may have panned out.

A different read from the other historical novels by Cornwell but nonetheless enjoyable.

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Time’s Convert – Deborah Harkness

Title – Time’s Convert

Author – Deborah Harkness

Published – September 2018

Genre – Fantasy fiction

The publication of this book came hot on the heels of the debut of Harkness’ TV series on Sky One. When I was lucky enough to receive a copy for the publisher I knew it would be a while before I could both read it and review it so it was fortunate to discover that my husband works with a fan of the series and she would be willing to happy to provide a guest review.

So many thanks to Emma for her words!

“Time’s Convert” is set in the same universe as Harkness’ hugely successful “All Souls” trilogy, which has recently been adapted as a television series, “A Discovery of Witches”. The book focuses on two of the minor characters from the trilogy – Marcus the vampire and his human partner Phoebe. Harkness tells the story of Marcus’ history and transformation into a vampire, reliving key moments of his human life during the American Revolutionary War and his early days as a vampire during the French Revolution. The book also tells the story of Phoebe’s transformation into a vampire in modern day France as she waits to be reunited with Marcus, and continues the story of Matthew de Clermont and Diana Bishop – the main characters from the “All Souls” trilogy.

Harkness’ story telling is enchanting and captivating and this is a delightful addition to her previous books, adding more richness and detail to loved characters and developing more depth in previously minor characters.

Cheltenham Literature Festival – In Cold Blood: Scandi And Nordic Noir

I’m attending a few events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this year and “In Cold Blood: Scandi And Nordic Noir” was the first. The billed panel was Barry Forshaw, Quentin Bates and Søren Sveistrup but there was a last minute change of programme and Søren was replaced by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. Who knows how the discussions would have played out with a different panel but Jakob offered a very informed and engaging insight into Scandinavian crime fiction.

The discussion took the audience on a whirlwind journey charting the rise in popularity of scandi / nordic crime fiction, both in print and on television.

The general consensus was that the publication of Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which, although a mix of literary and crime fiction, set the stage for other translated fiction to reach a wider audience in the UK. For crime fiction the real breakthrough was the Millennium series from Stieg Larsson when it became easy to spot people reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when out and about. These weren’t the first translated fiction books to be available but series like that by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall with the 10 novel sequence of Martin Beck / The Story of a Crime didn’t receive the same broad audience. Following the success of the Stieg Larsson series there has been the rise of the publishing ‘superstar’ in the success of Joe Nesbo and his books and subsequent films.

On the small screen the Wallander series led the way, especially when those averse to subtitles could watch the Brannagh version in English. The breakthrough for series broadcast in their original language but with subtitles was The Killing which opened up the opportunities for the success of series like The Bridge. As well as acceptance of the subtitles is also the audience exposure to series where the characters are taken on a longer journey than we might be used to.

There was much discussion about the content of the crime fiction – how the stories and themes can be used to demonstrate the mistreatment of women, the failures of the welfare state and how, in countries that faced occupation in the Second World War, incidents can often have their roots in behaviour or attitudes from that period.

It was an interesting and informative panel and we all stayed awake which was quite a feat considering how hot the room was! And the final consensus – that while there might have been a perceivable rise in the prevalence of ‘scandi noir’ it’s now an established part of the crime fiction landscape.

Barry Forshaw – reviews crime fiction for a number of national newspapers and is the author of a number of guides to crime fiction including Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

 

 

 

Quentin Bates – author of the Gunnhildur “Gunna” Gísladóttir series, set in Iceland and translator of Icelandic books into English including books by Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir. The lasted book in the series, Cold Breath, was published 11th October. 

 

 

 

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen – a  Senior Lecturer in Scandinavian Literature in the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) and acting Director of Comparative Literature at University College London and author of ‘Scandinavian Crime Fiction’ which is aimed at an audience with an interest in the rise of the this translated fiction.

 

 

Thin Ice – Quentin Bates

Title – Thin Ice

Author – Quentin Bates

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s good to see that while Quentin Bates is forging a new career as a translator of Icelandic fiction he has also managed to find time to continue writing his ‘Officer Gunnhildur’ series. Thin Ice is the fifth book in the series, and although it was a while since I’d read a story from the series I didn’t feel as if I’d forgotten anything important and I’m sure this would read well as a standalone.

When two petty criminals (Magni and Ossi) fail to find their getaway driver after robbing one of Reykjavik’s main drug dealers they need an alternative escape route and the solution is to hijack a car forcing the woman driver and her daughter (Erna and Tinna Lund) to assist them.

As the story unfolds it’s something of a comedy of errors as, without a plan, the car runs out of petrol and they are forced to keep improvising. The relationship between the two men is strained and as one steps up to the challenges it’s not perhaps the one you expect. Taking the hostages isn’t their finest move and the characters of the two women start to impact on their plans – especially the budding relationship between Magni and Tinna Lind.

The story switches between the criminals and their efforts to escape to the sun  and Gunna and her colleagues who are investigating the death of a thief in a house fire and the disappearance of a mother and her daughter on a shopping trip (who could that be??). It’s interesting reading the story from both perspectives.

One of the joys of Bates’ writing is Gunna and her family. Her home life never seems to be on an even keel but she deals with whatever life throws at her with equanimity. She certainly doesn’t fit in with any of the cliches of the traditional detective in crime fiction, other than her dogged determination to get to the bottom of a mystery. Having said that you could read the book as a standalone, if you haven’t read the previous books you will have missed some of the key developments in Gunna’s life, and the development of the relationships that are important to her, which would be a shame.

An enjoyable and atmospheric read with a thrilling climax this is much less depressing than more conventional  ‘Icelandic Noir’.

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Spectacles – Sue Perkins

Title – Spectacles

Author – Sue Perkins

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

This is one of a few books I’ve read recently which falls outside my normal crime fiction reading. This was a book I had particularly fancied reading as I have a fondness for Sue (and Mel) and although I watch the ‘new’ Bakeoff I still miss their ability to lighten the tense and tearful moments for the contestants. She always appears to be one of those genuinely nice and positive people and having read Spectacles I can’t see anything to cast doubt on this.

Although it’s ‘A Memoir’ Sue manages the reader’s expectations from the start by offering a disclaimer that she has taken some liberties with the narrative to increase the comedy and “I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.”. Which probably makes for a more entertaining read – and in places it really is laugh out loud funny.

The book charts the time from her upbringing in Croydon to 2012 and her participation in World’s Most Dangerous Roads, with Liza Tarbuck, driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – something I must have missed at the time and now feel the need to find and watch.

As well as being funny, and gently humorous the book also has some very touching parts including her father’s diagnosis with cancer. And if you are in a public place you should skip over ‘A letter to Pickle’ until you are somewhere away from other people and have a box of tissues to hand…

Of course, as the book charts Sue’s childhood, time at Cambridge and career progression and there are less traumatic highs and lows – not all her decisions are good ones but that’s the benefit of hindsight. What I found slightly odd was the things that weren’t mentioned. I’m not sure if there was something self-effacing about this (others would have made more of being Footlights President) and more serious issues that are glossed over (an accident to an eye as a child) but it did feel a little odd.

Nevertheless, for all the liberties that the author took I do feel as if I was reading about the person I though I knew from her TV appearances, even though she is someone who tends to keep out of the spotlight rather than seek it.

18th October sees the publication of the next ‘instalment’ East of Croydon – I’ll definitely be adding a copy to my Christmas wishlist.

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Dark Pines – Will Dean

Title – Dark Pines

Author – Will Dean

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This may be an unpopular point of view so I should say now that if you are one of the huge number of fans of Dark Pines and its hero Tuva then you probably won’t want read my review.

I bought this book for two main reasons, the first being that so many people on social media have raved about how good it is (I should know to manage my expectations better when this happens) and secondly I saw Will Dean on a panel at Crimefest and he was an engaging speaker and made his book sound like one I would enjoy.

Set in Sweden the premise is that a murdered body has been found deep in the snowy forest with its eyes removed – something that harks back to a series of unsolved murders some twenty years ago. Tuva is the (deaf) reporter for the Gavrik Posten, she’s recently moved to the small town from London in order to be closer to her seriously ill mother. For Tuva successful investigative reporting on the murder could be a step up the ladder for her and she drops the more mundane stories that are the usual content for the paper to spend her time investigating the murder.

The occupants of the small group of houses closest to the discovery of the body seem to be the natural suspects for the murder – and what a mixed bunch they are! Tuva concentrates her efforts on these few characters despite the fact that this means travelling into the forest – a struggle for her as she is terrified of nature.

As a character driven crime thriller I wasn’t too keen on Tuva. She is definitely different from other lead characters although she’s playing the recognisable role of an outsider coming into a close-knit community. One of the important distinctions about Tuva over protagonists in other books is that she’s deaf, which didn’t perhaps have as much impact on the story as I would have expected – I thought the author would have made more use of it in, for example, being able to lip read. The downside to the deafness was a seeming fixation in making sure that the reader didn’t forget and one of the few occasions where the deafness gave her an extra insight (the possible impact on a young boy of a noise others can’t hear) she did nothing.

The repetitive nature of the care of her hearing aids, the repetitive descriptions of driving up and down the same piece of road and some of the extraneous parts of the story that didn’t really seem to go anywhere, things that could have been red herrings but were never explained, all made me think this was more an attempt to write ‘literary’ crime fiction rather than ‘thrilling’ crime fiction. While I like my crime fiction to be well written I do want it to thrill!

Told in the first person the story was atmospheric and tense but there was also a lot of Tuva’s angst which I didn’t feel much sympathy for. She makes some poor choices that put her at greater risk than she needs to be and there a number of moments where, as a reader, I found her actions very frustrating. She’s been driven to live where she does, somewhere she doesn’t like, because of her intention to be on hand for her mother but when push comes to shove she puts her job first which felt like an inconsistency.

While this is an atmospheric thriller with the feel and pace of ‘nordic noir’ there were too many things I didn’t like about it and without spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it I think there is at least one plot hole that detracted from the story.

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