Crime

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.

 

 

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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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The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

Title – The Murder of Harriet Monckton

Author – Elizabeth Haynes

Published – 28 September 2018

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This book is a departure for Elizabeth Haynes who is well known for her standalone psychological thrillers and her DCI Louisa Smith series. This book is in the same vein as books like Burial Rites and The Unseeing, a fictionalised account of events based on a factual event.

On 7th November 1843, Harriet Monckton, 23 years old and a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, is found murdered in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. The story was a scandal in its time with the suggestions of impropriety in a small town. Drawing on the coroner’s reports and witness testimonies the book follows the events after Harriet’s death and as the witnesses recount the events from their perspective the narrative leading up to Harriet’s death is pieced together.

There are four main characters:- the young teacher and close friend, the young man who walked out with Harriet, the man who offered her spiritual guidance and finally a mysterious man from her past who lives in London. Using the accounts of these four characters and the proceedings at the Coroner’s Court the story develops into a gripping ‘whodunnit. The reader has reason to be suspicious of all four characters but the truth of Harriet’s demise may lay with her missing diary. The discovery of the diary gives Harriet her own voice and perspective.

Colonial Times, Tasmania, September 1846

In fact the story takes place over a much longer period than might be expected as
several inquests over a period of years fail to reach a definitive conclusion.

You can see a reference to the events in the National Archives and if you live within striking distance you can go an view them for yourself. News even made it as far as Tasmania with an article appearing in the Colonial Times in 1846.

 

 

Medical Times

There is an account in the Medical Times of 1846 from the surgeon asked to attend the body where it was discovered.

 

 

 

As I’ve come to expect from Haynes the book is beautifully written and she captures the feel of the period through her writing, giving it the feel contemporary to the period but not over doing it. The story is a compelling mystery, especially given that there are some factual constraints within which the story had to be framed. The different perspectives that are used to describe the events leading up to Harriet’s death are interesting in themselves – told from each person’s own point of view they aren’t necessarily ‘unreliable narrators’ but they do have their own take on the way events played out. The fact that there were multiple inquests also allows for points of view to change as memories change over time.

The story Haynes tells of Harriet is a sad one but for a young woman who died in unpleasant circumstances, with few people to mourn her, this has given her an interesting legacy.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of the book.

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The Exiled – Kati Hiekkapelto

Title – The Exiled

Author – Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the third book in translation from Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto in her crime fiction series featuring Senior Constable Anna Fekete and the next book in the series after The Defenceless.

In The Exiled Anna has returned home from Finland for her holiday but on the evening of her arrival her handbag is stolen. The next day a man, presumed to be the thief, is found dead on the banks of the river. Anna’s training demands a thorough investigation by the local police but they are quick to wash their hands of the whole incident and close it as quickly as possible. Undeterred Anna pursues her own investigation, making the most of the resources she has and a burgeoning relationship with a local policeman.

Initially her focus is on the refugees who are living in camps in the area but a coincidence leads her to discover a much more personal connection to events and to distressing secrets at the heart of those she grew up amongst.

This is very much a book about home and family. While The Defenceless painted a picture of immigration in Finland, here it is her own home town that is under pressure from the refugee crisis, it’s also a place with a divided population  – Serbs and Hungarians and a small population of Romani. For Anna her return to Kanisza makes her consider if this is actually her home or if rather Finland is her home, and what ‘home’ means to her. At the same time she is spending more time with her family and the repetitive questions from all and sundry about ‘settling down and having children’ give her cause to reflect on the future. These aspects of Anna’s own story in the book and her relationships with her family which means this has a slower pace than other ‘police procedurals’ might.

Again this has a seamless translation without a moment when the writing reminded me that I was reading something which wasn’t originally written in English.

Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on Jackie’s blog ‘Never Imitate’.

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The Wrath of Angels – John Connolly

Title – The Wrath of Angels

Author – John Connolly

Published – 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

When I recently read and reviewed no. 10 in the Charlie Parker series I remarked on how I’d not particularly enjoyed the previous book in the series which had deterred me from reading more. Sadly The Wrath of Angels reminded me what had put me off.

Charlie Parker is told a story about the discovery of the wreckage of a small plane hidden deep in the woods in Maine, not just hidden but appearing as if it’s being absorbed by the forest around it. Two men stumbled across the sinister wreckage – no sign of bodies but some money and a list of names. Despite the sinister nature of their discovery they made off with both the money and the list but as in good story telling traditions ‘no good came of it’. Parker begins to investigate the names on the list and discovers a series of premature deaths which sets him off on a course that will ultimately lead to him trying to find the plane.

Parker isn’t the only one in search of the plane and the list and this brings in characters who have appeared in previous books, including the hideous Brightwell. The story is a mix of chase and quest as Parker tracks down a number of people, rivals, who have appeared earlier in the series to…  Do you know what, I can’t think why he wanted to track them down – there was lots of to and fro between different factions that just felt like filler.

The book has a much more supernatural component than its predecessor and it felt more gruesome. It did offer a lot of tension, atmosphere and great writing, but it didn’t grip me. Perhaps there were too many characters, too much dashing about and switching of points of view to hold my interest. It was also a test of memory, it would have been be drawing on books I’d read seven or eight years ago – that’s a lot of other reading I’ve done since.

Not my favourite in the Charlie Parker series.

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