historical

Stasi Wolf – David Young

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Title – Stasi Wolf

Author – David Young

Published – Feb 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

I reviewed David Young’s debut, Stasi Child, in October 2015 and in 2016 it was the winner of the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger – a great feat for a debut. So what’s the sequel like I hear you ask – any ‘second novel’ issues? I have to say that I think Stasi Wolf is the better of the two books.

Following the end of Stasi Child Karin Müller has been sidelined from her activities in the Berlin murder squad and separated from her old partner. Which means that when she is offered another job which will involved the interference of the Stasi she still accepts it. The assignment sees her sent to Halle-Neustadt, a new ‘city’ created in 1967 and known as City of the Chemistry Workers it was one of the largest construction projects on post-war Germany.

ADN-ZB Lehmann 30.4.82 Halle: Fast 100.000 Einwohner zählt heute die Chemiearbeiterstadt Halle-Neustadt. Überwiegend Werktätige aus den Chemiekombinaten Leuna und Buna sowie aus anderen Großbetrieben sind hier zu Hause. Neben modernen und komfortablen Wohnhäusern prägen Sozial-, Kultur-, Sport- und Dienstleistungseinrichtungen das Bild von Halle-Neustadt.

Halle-Neustadt

The case she is sent to investigate, set in 1975, is the disappearance of twin babies. Of course in a city that is the pride of the communist state the Stasi are keen to control how far the team is allowed to publicise the case and who they are able to question about it. As ever, Karin is determined to find justice and her empathy with the parents of the missing babies helps to drive her to find a resolution. She has to work with and despite the Stasi and the team of local police who initiated the investigation.

As a possible clue to the case there are some passages, set in the past, which are narrated by a character who the reader can’t necessarily identify but they are obviously key to the mystery.

This book felt as if it dwelt less on the comparisons of the free West versus the East and more on the new world that the Eastern German citizens were being offered. It’s clear from the descriptions that this isn’t perhaps all that it’s cracked up to be and this isn’t what the leaders would want the populace to think but from Karin’s perspective you get a feeling for both points of view.

One aspect I was curious about was Karin’s husband. In Stasi Child it felt as if there was more to his relocation than perhaps Karin knew but that was only lightly hinted at here. What we did find out was more about Karin’s own backstory and specifically an incident as a small child and the loss of her best friend.

As with the preceding novel the author brings the atmosphere of the post-war setting without filling the narrative with too much detail. It certainly conveys the claustrophobic feeling of living in an environment where the wrong word or emotion can lead to no end of trouble.

The resolution perhaps relies a little more on coincidence than I would like but it is satisfying regardless of that. Although it can be hard to judge when you have read the preceding book, I don’t think you would feel you were missing out if you read this book without reading Stasi Child first.

A great follow-up to an award-winning debut, this is shaping up to be a series well worth reading. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point to view on Kate’s blog – For Winter Nights.

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Black Night Falling – Rod Reynolds

Title – Black Night Falling

Author – Rod Reynolds

Published – August 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

This is a long outstanding review that I feel particularly guilty about not posting in a more timely manner but it’s also a post that I would swear I had written and was ready to press ‘publish’ on, but then was just a blank page…

Set a few months after the end of The Dark Inside, Charlie Yates is living in Venice Beach with Lizzie and they’re putting the past behind them. But a call from a friend suggesting that there was something unfinished about the events that took place in Texarkana draws him back to the South. He leaves Lizzie at home and arrives in Hot Springs only to find that the man whose call he was answering is dead.

Galvanised into action by this unexpected death he embarks on an investigation of his own, but unlike in the previous book he has no standing to do that so this is another obstacle he must overcome. As he starts to find out more about the events that prompted the original phone call there are threads that link back to Texarkana and he finds that his actions may have put Lizzie in peril.

Charlie is still wrestling with his demons and although he has mellowed a little after the events of the previous book, he is still quick to avoid being seen as a coward (which suggests that that’s really how he sees himself). He’s motivated by justice and revenge and is driven onwards by his conscience – he feels like the quintessential ‘good guy’ although he doesn’t always get it right.

This is incredibly atmospheric and if you didn’t know better you would imagine that the author had walked the Texarkana streets in the 1940s so what makes the writing even more astonishing is the fact that Rod Reynolds is a thirtysomething Londoner. There’s lots of historical detail and the voices of the characters really feel true to the period. There is a real feel of the ‘Wild West’ too with the dogged newspaper man facing up to the corruption he finds around him. The first book had its origin in historical events but this book proves that the author can devise his own plots without any help.

Another great read in the Charlie Yates series and if you’re after crime fiction / thriller with an unusual historical setting then this might be just what you’re looking for.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Title – His Bloody Project

Author – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I bought this book because it’s not often that something shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize appeals to me, but billed as a historical thriller / crime novel it fitted in with my regular reading choices.

The story is set in a remote hamlet in the Scottish Highlands where the inhabitants work their crofts under the control of the local Laird in a hand-to-mouth state of poverty. The book itself purports to be the first publication of the memoir of seventeen-year-old Roddy Macrae, written while he was awaiting trial, as well as supporting documents including extracts of newspaper coverage of the trial itself.

There seems to be no doubt that Roddy has carried out the attacks of which he has been accused; his writing attempts to trace the course of events that led him to the crimes which he declared himself guilty of. What transpires is an account of an impoverished life where there is little hope for escape. His family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse after his mother dies and when a local bully takes on the role of Constable within the community his father seems to be singled out for ill-treatment.

The book seems to pose lots of question and doesn’t necessarily provide answers. I’m never keen on ambiguity – I am always convinced  that the author knows the ‘answer’ and is leaving me to figure it out, and I worry that I’ve not reached the right conclusion. From the beginning we only know who one victim of the attack is and it’s quite late in the story that we find who the others are. The narrators can be unreliable, some obviously so, others less explicit. There are a few incidents that are hinted at and never made clear and I was unsure about their relevance. And then there’s the ending.

I found the book quite enjoyable although I would say the telling of it was nothing new. There was something about the period in which it is set and the slow unfolding of the events in advance of a trial that reminded me of Burial Rites. But it lacked the beautiful writing of Hannah Kent. The use of ‘documents’ and reports to provide different perspectives isn’t new either, although statements during trials perhaps appear less often. Neither did it feel to me that it was shining a light on some of the issues it touched on – poverty of those working on the land, inequality, mental health, justice – than you might read in any similar novel set in the period.  Perhaps it is the combination of these that has made this book stand out to the judges. It certainly lacked some of the tension and thrills I might have expected.

I did go in search of ‘what is the Man Booker Prize awarded for?’. The official description is “a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK.” as well as “in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK.” And there we have it ‘in the opinion the judges’ – more a subjective criteria and dependant on who is judging.

Perhaps elevating this book to the Booker shortlist has made me overly critical. Have you read this or any others on the list? What did you think?

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The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid – Craig Russell

51OeFxi-oWLTitle – The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid

Author – Craig Russell

Published – 4 August 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve heard a lot about Craig Russell’s books – largely through his connection with Bloody Scotland and The Ghosts of Altona which won the Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year in 2015. He has two crime fiction series – one set in Hamburg (The Ghosts of Altona is from this series) and the other set in Glasgow of the 1950s. The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid is from the latter – his ‘Lennox’ series.

Lennox is a private detective who operates on the fringes of what is legal – although employing an ex-policeman to help in his business he’s not above getting involved in something lucrative that isn’t strictly above board. In this case he has been approached to get access to something which is a little out of the ordinary and to complete the job he needs the skills of Quiet Tommy Quaid. Quaid is Lennox’s friend and a thief, a man everyone liked but, as it turned out, a man with a secret. When Quaid dies unexpectedly (I think as it’s in the title I don’t need to worry about that being too much of a spoiler) Lennox has some reservations about the official explanation so is more than willing to investigate in a more official capacity for Quaid’s (attractive) sister.

With a light touch on the historical detail and a snappy dressing, womanising PI this is was a very enjoyable read. Lennox makes an interesting protagonist and he has a dry sense of humour that helps to lighten the mood on what could be a very dark story. The post-war setting provides some interesting situations and it makes a pleasant change to leave behind modern technology without having to provide some sort of artifice for its absence.  The first person narration serves the plot well keeping the reader and Lennox in the dark.

I enjoyed this story which was a dark, violent and twisty story of a seedy conspiracy. There were some themes about justice, the abuse of power and what men will do when they believe one of the direst crimes has been committed. There were some thrilling scenes as well as some puzzles which added a mystery element. Although this is the fifth in the series it really did seem to me to be a book that could be read on its own – I don’t feel that I missed out by not knowing any of Lennox’s backstory.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy of this book.

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The Constant Soldier – William Ryan

416hB6-rgfLTitle – The Constant Soldier

Author – William Ryan

Published – 25 August 2016

Genre – Historical

This a departure from William Ryan’s Stalinist Russia set police procedural series but it shares Ryan’s polished prose and evocative depiction of historical fiction.

The story is set in the last months of the Second World War and German soldier Paul Brandt has been sent back home from the Eastern Front after being seriously injured in a Soviet attack. On returning to his village he finds that the SS have built a rest hut on the outskirts of his village, a luxurious a retreat for those who manage the nearby concentration camp or need to convalesce before returning to the front.

Drawn by a glimpse of someone he thinks is familiar, Brandt takes on the role of Steward at the hut, offering him a brief insight into the lives of the men who make use of the hut or are stationed there. This is a great opportunity to see a whole range of perspectives – from the Commandant who is haunted by the past, the vindictive Scharführer guarding the women prisoners, to the visitors from the camp and of course, the women prisoners themselves.

The main plot is driven by Brandt’s efforts to make amends for a wrong he believes he did and all that he does is to that end. Brandt is wary of sharing his own trepidation and doubts but occasionally he is drawn out to say more than he should, adding an extra layer of tension to the plot. The story has quite a slow pace but this is balanced with action scenes which come from a young Russian woman who is driving a tank which is heading towards Germany. Brandt’s return home also shows the impact that the war has had on his village and the family he left behind, and how his father and sister have fared while has been away. Divisions have opened up and whilst some people have had to go into hiding others are still pursuing victory and are keen to uphold the defence of the Reich to the last.

Ryan effortlessly creates the mood and atmosphere of the last days of the war and makes the book completely absorbing. I’m not sure that I’ve read a book that’s taken this perspective on the war, disillusioned characters who have an inkling of what their future may hold.  It made me pause to consider the people in this situation, forced along with the atrocities they knew were taking place with little chance of making any difference. How did people react when the conclusion of the war (not just this war but any war) became inevitable and they were going to be on the losing side, complicit in what had taken place? It speaks volumes for a novel when it makes you consider the reality of the situation it depicts.

As a departure from the Korolev series this may find Ryan a whole new swathe of fans – if you enjoy books like Atonement and Birdsong this will be right up your street. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Many  thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Strangler Vine – M. J. Carter

A1xP8btOSZLTitle – The Strangler Vine

Author – M. J. Carter

Published – 2014

Genre – Historical crime fiction

The Strangler Vine is M. J. Carter’s debut novel and was:

  • Shortlisted for the John Creasey New Blood Dagger for Best Debut Crime Novel of the Year
  • Shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown 2015
  • Longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2015
  • Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014

so it comes with some pretty strong credentials.

The book is set in Calcutta, 1837, at a time when the East India Company effectively ruled India and beyond with its own private army. Ensign William Avery has been kicking his heels in Calcutta for nine months and is still hoping that he will get his wished for posting to a cavalry regiment. In the meantime he is frustrated by the forced idleness, ill-tempered, homesick, and prone to gambling to while away the time.

Avery is assigned a task to accompany Jeremiah Blake, a former Company man, to track down estranged agent, writer and poet Xavier Mountstuart who has disappeared. Part of the story is their trek across India – Mountstuart was last seen in the Thuggee territory and they undertake quite a perilous journey in their search for him.

The other part of the story is the relationship between Avery and Blake. Avery is reluctant to undertake the mission and there is no doubt that Blake doesn’t want Avery on the journey. Blake could be described as enigmatic, but initially he is far more reticent and distant, having very little to do with Avery. Gradually, as more difficult situations are thrown at them, there is a thawing in their relationship.

Told in the first person this gives both an immediacy to the events as well as restricting what the reader knows – keeping them as much in the dark as poor Avery. Blake is the star of the show – the genius who has gone native and has no great respect for the Company. And the country plays its own part as Carter brings to life the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the time and the different places. The plot itself is as twisty as the Strangler Vine that lines their route and as thrilling as a cheetah hunt (quite literally).

An unusual read, and an interesting duo.

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The Unseeing – Anna Mazzola

 

isbn9781472234766Title – The Unseeing

Author – Anna Mazzola

Published – 14 July 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

This is one of those books that just magically popped though my letterbox and the intriguing cover on the proof (plain but for the image of the eye that’s on the hardback cover) attracted my attention while it was sitting at the top of my TBR pile.

This is historical crime fiction and based on a true story. I do find these can be a bit hit and miss for me – it needs a light touch on the facts or my interest wanes (The Devil’s Acre by Matthew Plampin springs to mind) but The Unseeing was a hit for me. The book opens in 1837 as Sarah Gale is taken to Newgate Prison for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown, the woman who was going to marry Sarah’s common-law husband.

The story is told from two points of view – Sarah’s during her incarceration and that of Edmund Fleetwood, who is appointed by the Home Secretary to review the case. As Edmund tries to draw out of Sarah the truth of the events that led to her imprisonment we learn more about the background to both their lives. Edmund undertakes his task diligently with a mix of interview and investigation. Both are intriguing characters although it’s obvious to both the reader and Edmund that Sarah is hiding something which would be pertinent to her defence. And every time I thought I knew what it was I was wrong! The case also has more of an impact on Edmund than he could have anticipated too.

I really enjoyed the atmospheric setting and the historical details – I have no idea how you research the lives of ordinary people to bring the feeling of accuracy that this had, but it brought the period to life for me.

Anna Mazzola is a criminal justice solicitor, based in London. Whilst this is her debut, it has won awards including the Brixton Bookjam Debut Novel competition and she came runner up in the 2014 Grazia First Chapter competition judged by Sarah Waters.

This is an accomplished debut and a compelling story – think a mix of Burial Rights and The Silversmith’s Wife. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of the book. You will have an opportunity to meet Anna and hear more about her book at Crimefest in May.

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