Crime

Breakdown – Jonathan Kellerman

Title – Breakdown

Author – Jonathan Kellerman

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

In the past I used to receive some specific hardback books at Christmas which I would then devour over the next few days. Initially this was a Dick Francis and then it became a Jonathan Kellerman; habits change, as do publishing dates, so over the last few years this hasn’t happened. It also doesn’t seem as if I have the chance to read much during the day at Christmas any longer, but a spare pair of hands with puppy-sitting and a long-neglected Kellerman on my TBR and I seized the opportunity!

This is number 31 in the Alex Delaware series, a series that’s had its ups and downs, and I’d say that this was a ‘middling’ book. The main thread of the story is that five years previously consulting psychologist Alex Delaware evaluated the young son of a disturbed actress, Zelda Chase, as a favour for a colleague. The colleague has since died and when the actress is sectioned after some bizarre behaviour Delaware is called in because of his tenuous connection. He tries to help the young woman but Delaware is unable to find out from the woman, who has been living on the streets, what has happened to her son. This leads to a bit of an obsession as he tries to find the boy and even enlists Milo’s (LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis) help in trying to track him down.

The woman is released and Delaware and Sturgis sort out some accommodation for her but she still doesn’t offer any insight into what happened to her son. Then her body is discovered in the grounds of a grand estate in a prestigious area of LA. It  takes a while but eventually they have to give credence to Zelda’s belief in a dreadful event in her past.

The scene-setting at the beginning with the events when Delaware first encounters Zelda and her son are quite tedious but worth persevering with. After the death of Zelda the book takes on more of an investigatory feel with the focus on Zelda and her story – how she died, how she came to be homeless. Then more women go missing.

Less in the way of red herrings and twists than some books in the series, more Hollywood and acting than some. The relevant information which is important solving the case comes quite indirectly to the pair and that felt a bit frustrating. If the story was about Delaware’s search for Zelda’s son he seemed to forget that was his purpose sometimes and then that thread would get back on track. Oooh – and one inconsistency late on in the book that irritated me.

The pairing of Delaware and Sturgis works well, but then Kellerman has had a lot of time to develop the partnership. In fact thinking back to when the series was first published having a gay cop in Sturgis could well have been cutting edge. The pair bounce ideas off each other and discuss their theories, which helps to take the reader along with their train of thought.

Kellerman’s writing has a very specific feel and it’s like putting on a comfy pair of slippers for me but I know it’s not a style that appeals to everyone it’s an aspect that I really like, and for me it helps to bring the characters and situations to life. This was a book more about investigation that psychology, but no less enjoyable for that.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. Probably a 3.5 star rather than just a 3.

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The Savage Shore – David Hewson

Title – The Savage Shore

Author – David Hewson

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, a continuation of the Nic Costa series which saw the last book (Fallen Angel) published in 2011. I had been enjoying the series and worried that we’d heard the last of Costa and his colleagues, so I was thrilled to hear that another book was coming.

The team that you would be familiar with if you’ve read the earlier books are in Calabria, in the south of Italy and far away from their comfort zone. They are there to try to arrange the extraction of the elusive head of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia, who is also offering up the overlord of the Costa Nostra – the most wanted man in Italy. The assignment is cloaked in secrecy, including the reason behind the man’s approach to the police and his intention to turn state’s witness. The high-stakes and sparse information don’t make this a comfortable assignment.

Costa is required to go undercover with the man’s family and must prove himself in a number of ways before he will be accepted by those in the ’Ndrangheta. This offers a few thrills and is a test of Costa’s metal. Once he has been accepted the story twists and turns as the opportunity comes for the authorities to make their move.

While Costa has the main part of the story there is an interesting aside for Peroni, who strikes up a friendship with a young widow running a small waterfront cafe. It seems that organised crime affects every one in the community and true to character Peroni risks the group’s cover to step in.

Background to the history of the location and the ’Ndrangheta is provided by extracts from the fictional ‘Calabrian Tales’ which weaves its own set of myths and legends alongside the rise of the Bergamotti family, their traditions and their values.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series of books and Costa has been an interesting character to follow as he has developed. He takes his role-play a little too seriously and there are some thought-provoking incidents while he is undercover and towards the end of the story.

I really enjoyed the mix of thriller/mystery, the unusual location and the historical aspects to the story, and I thought these worked well using the extracts of text rather than having a character ‘telling’ lots of information. The place and people offer a glimpse of a way of life that’s long gone for most people and the vivid writing easily conjures up this new location. There are even a few meals thrown in for good measure (not quite to the level of Camilleri, but mouth-watering nevertheless).  And it’s always good when a book you’ve been looking forward to delivers.

Many thanks to the publisher for the Net Galley.

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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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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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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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The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

Title – The Dark Angel

Author – Elly Griffiths

Published – Feb 2018

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

I’m someone who is committed to reading series in order but the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths are one of a few exceptions to this rule. I’ve read the first book and read and reviewed the fourth and oddly still have book 5 on my TBR, but I couldn’t resist starting on book 10 when it arrived. Although I felt I’d missed out a little in not having read the intervening books, there is enough background that you could pick this up without having read any others in the series.

Italian archaeologist and TV presenter Professor Angelo Morelli asks Ruth to help him after a television recording of a dig suffers an unexpected problem. In need of a holiday, Ruth agrees to take the opportunity to exchange Norfolk for a hilltop village outside Rome, if only briefly, so she and her friend Shona and their children travel out to stay with Morelli.

There are multiple threads to the story. As well as the initial dig, Morelli believes that his life is in danger, supported by some mysterious happenings, then Ruth discovers the body of a local man in the village church. There are some dark secrets within the village that date back to the Nazis and WWII which are bubbling under the surface. To complicate matters Ruth and Morelli had a one night stand when she was in Rome for a conference some twelve years before, which Ruth remembers fondly although she’s unsure of his intentions towards her or what she wants.

There was more of the story given over to Nelson and his point of view than I remember in previous books. Both he and Ruth and Nelson’s wife have got their lives into quite a mess. There is a potential threat to Nelson as a man he put away for killing his wife and children in a fire has recently been released from prison. However an earthquake in Italy prompts Nelson (and Cathbad) to join the ladies in Italy where he’s a fish out of water, although it does allow him to spend some ‘family’ time with Ruth and Kate.

I did enjoy the book but this was definitely more of a summer read than a gritty crime drama, and I’m not sure that the all of the questions raised were answered. The change of location offers sunny days, lots of wine consumption and Italian hospitality. Ruth is a lovely character whose life is becoming more and more complicated as the series progresses although she’s not changed much in the last ten books – still feeling like a middle-aged klutz, despite the men who seem to be perpetually in tow.

An enjoyable read if you enjoy a mix of Italian atmosphere and romance with your forensic archaeology. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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