Mystery

The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

1star1star1star

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Rupture – Simon Lelic

Title – Rupture

Author – Simon Lelic

Published – 2010

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

After reviewing “The Child Who” it was suggested by Jackie of Farm Lane Books that Lelic’s first book – Rupture – was worth a read and  I was lucky to pick this copy up in a charity shop.

The premise of the book is that a teacher has walked into his school assembly and opened fire, he kills three pupils and another teacher before turning the gun on himself.  I actually read this a while ago but was reminded of it when reading Black Chalk. Rupture feels like the more realistic portrayal of the aftermath such an event.

The story is told from Lucia’s point of view – she’s a young DI who is being pressured by her boss to close her current investigation into the shooting, something that seems like an open and shut case to everyone else. The backstory is provided by transcripts or one-sided dialogue which are interspersed throughout. They’re a clever way of introducing the background but a little distracting as they’re one-sided and it can take a while to work out who is talking and what they’re talking about.

What gradually unfolds is a brutal story about the treatment of someone who others see as an outsider and the willingness of those in authority to turn a blind eye. Some of the scenes were truly horrible and made for uncomfortable reading, but in Lelic’s hands seemed completely plausible. The story of the teacher is also mirrored by two other plotlines in the book – one dealing with another pupil and the other with Lucia herself.  As the reader it’s easy to see those at fault who have allowed the bullying to spiral out of control, and interesting to see how blind the characters are to their own responsibility.

The characters are well-written and you’re really drawn in by them, especially with Lucia, who is so frustrated by the inaction of others but who really needs to act for herself.

This is not conventional crime fiction but it is a thought-provoking read. You can see other reviews at Reading Matters and It’s A Crime.

Score – 4/5

The Quarry – Johan Theorin

Title – The Quarry

Author – Johan Theorin (translated by Marlaine Delargy)

Published – 2011

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller

When I mentioned on Twitter that I had a copy of this book (courtesy of @LynseyDalladay of Transworld) a number of people told me what a great book it was. I’m afraid this is another example of my opinion jarring with other people’s.

The story is set on the island of Öland, and a small community surrounding a disused quarry. Per Morner has inherited a small cabin on the edge of the quarry and hopes to spend time there with his teenage son and daughter, although his daughter is unwell and is currently in hospital on the mainland.

Eighty-three year old Gerlof Davidsson has moved out of the old people’s home he was living in to return to his family home near the quarry, convinced that he is going home to die. He discovers his late wife’s diaries, dating from the 1950’s,  and despite the feeling that he shouldn’t be reading them, he can’t help himself.

Vendela and Max Larsson have had a brand new summer house built on the edge of the quarry. Max is a self-help guru and is about to write a cookbook. Vendela grew up on the island and is returning for the first time in over 30 years.

Morner has been trying to keep his distance from his father, Jerry, but he receives a call from him which he can’t ignore. When he drives to the mainland to collect his father he discovers him injured in a house which has been set on fire. Morner takes his father back to the island and it becomes clear that part of the problem in their relationship is his father’s involvement in the porn industry.

The fire is just the first disaster to befall Jerry and eventually a death raises serious concerns for the safety of Per and his family. Slow progress by the police means that Per begins to investigate Jerry’s seedy past himself.

There is a second strand to the story following Vendela and her sometimes strained relationship with her husband. Vendela believes in, and relies on, the elves of the island and her conviction in their existence is helped by her odd eating habits. Her story is that of her past, growing up on the island and how she came to leave it.

I found the book really slow to get  going, and it was a struggle to persevere with it. I liked the characters of Per Morner and Gerlof Davidsson, but I found Vendela just plain weird. I guess that she was written as a character who had a troubled past, which left her disturbed, but I just wanted to give her a shake! This isn’t helped by her odd relationship with her husband, who seems to be a pretty unpleasant man.

The mystery is well written and intriguing, and the setting is dark and atmospheric, but the strange characters, trolls and elves outweighed the positives for me.

The blurb on the book (from the Observer) says “If you like Stieg Larsson, try a much better Swedish writer”, but for me this doesn’t deliver.  

Score – 3/5

A Room Full of Bones – Elly Griffiths

Title – A Room Full of Bones

Author – Elly Griffiths

Published – Jan 2012

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

Given the type of crime fiction I enjoy it’s surprising that I haven’t come across Elly Griffiths’ books before, but a chance tweet that she was holding a signing in my local bookshop prompted me to find out more (and buy a signed book). 

A Room Full of Bones is the fourth title in the “Ruth Galloway” series. Galloway is a Forensic Archaeologist and a single mum. She works at the local Uni (in Norfolk) and seems to have a history of involvement with the local police force. When A Room Full of Bones opens she has been asked to oversee the opening of a medieval bishop’ s coffin at the local museum. When she arrives early for the ceremony she finds the body of the museum’s curator dead beside the coffin. The circumstances appear to be mysterious, with a possible connection to some threatening letters, but nothing the police can be sure of.

The investigation is led by DCI Harry Nelson, someone with whom Galloway seems to have “history”. As the police attempt to resolve the circumstances of the death the investigation focuses on Lord Danforth Smith. He runs a racing stable and is the owner of the museum and a descendant of the long-dead bishop. This was great for me, as a huge fan of  Dick Francis it really felt like being in familiar territory.

Much of the story focuses on Galloway, and there’s lots of detail concerning her somewhat disorganised personal life, her efforts to look after her daughter and maintain her career. The setting is also important to the story, her cottage being out on a remote stretch of the Norfolk coast and Griffiths makes much of the desolate and isolated location.  

I found this book a real page turner (if you’ll excuse the cliché) and a very easy read. This isn’t in any way a criticism, Griffiths has a very enjoyable writing style and her characters are engaging.  It’s unpretentious writing.

It did strike me towards the end of the book that Galloway hadn’t actually done very much work, unlike characters in books by  authors such as Kathy Reichs or Patricia Cornwell, where there are pages and pages of technical information. Too much detail can spoil the pace of a story, but I would have liked to have found out a bit more about the work of a forensic archaeologist.

There isn’t a lot of time given over to scene setting from the previous books in the series, but there are quite a few references through the story to past events and I do wonder how I will feel when I read some of the earlier titles – there’s a chance that too much has been given away. I’m sure it won’t be long before I find out, as I have a signed copy of  The Crossing Places to read!

Score – 4/5

The Child Who – Simon Lelic

Title – The Child Who

Author – Simon Lelic

Published – Jan 2012

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

During the last year I heard a lot of praise for Simon Lelic. Not an author that I had noticed on the bookshop shelves but there seemed to many fans on Twitter singing his praises. Lelic’s second book, “The Facility”, was published in back in January 2011 and in paperback in September. With rave reviews from many whose views I respect it’s surprising that it never got on to my wishlist.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of The Child Who, Lelic’s third title, from the lovely people at Mantle – so now I had the opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about.

The first thing to say is that the writing style is exceptional. I wish I had the vocabulary to do it justice! This is someone who has taken care over what he has written and the reader reaps the rewards.

The story itself is dark. Solicitor Leo Curtice has the luck, or perhaps misfortune, to take a call from the police looking for a duty solicitor. Agreeing to take on the case Curtice discovers it’s one that’s not only the talk of the town, but the country, a young boy arrested for the brutal murder of an 11 year-old girl. Initially he’s elated, after the everyday drudgery of drunk and disorderlies, there’s a certain kudos to taking the case and regardless of that he’s a man who wants to make a difference. He does expect that there will be a certain amount of press attention but is taken aback by the reality of the situation he eventually finds himself in.

Curtice’s involvement with the case puts a strain on his family and you know from a short introduction (from his wife’s perspective) that there is a dreadful consequence. Despite everything he tries to “do the right thing” for his client – but this is not without a personal cost.

Although there is a legal context to the story it feels light on the details of the legal process, but they’re not intrinsic to the story Lelic is telling. The character of Daniel, the 12 year-old murderer, also feels sketchy, but he’s an unwilling participant in the events and seen from Curtice’s perspective he’s uncommunicative.  

This isn’t really a story about the investigation of the crime or the legal shenanigans in trying to mount a defense, but more about the impact on those drawn into the events. The mystery of the story is what was the terrible price that Curtice paid through his involvement.

I’m sure we can all think of cases, certianly in the UK press, which bear some similarities to this fictional one and it’s hard to view the culprits with anything other than revulsion. However Lelic’s careful storytelling challenges the reader to consider that everyone involved becomes a victim.

Almost a 5 star read for me. I did enjoy it, although the subject matter is dark, but in the end its middle ground between literary fiction & crime fiction made it not quite enough of one or the other for me.

If you want to find out more about Simon Lelic you should read the interview with him on Reader Dad Book reviews.

Score – 4/5

Sacrifice – S J Bolton

81Pu7GNDf2L._SL1500_Title – Sacrifice

Author – S J Bolton

Published – 2009 (paperback)

Genre – Mystery

I picked this book as my first choice in “The Great Transworld Crime Caper” – an opportunity to choose three books from a list of first crime novels with the only committment being to provide reviews. As well as Sacrifice I chose Past Caring by Robert Goddard and The Business of Dying by Simon Kernick.

Moving to remote Shetland has been unsettling enough for consultant surgeon Tora Hamilton; even before the gruesome discovery she makes one rain-drenched afternoon …Deep in the peat soil of her field she is shocked to find the perfectly preserved body of a young woman, a gaping hole where her heart has been brutally removed and three rune marks etched into her skin. The marks bear an eerie resemblance to carvings Tora has seen all over the islands, and she quickly uncovers disturbing links to an ancient legend. But as Tora investigates she is warned by the local police, her boss, and even her husband, to leave well alone. And even though it chills her to the bone to admit it … something tells her their concern isn’t genuine.

Tora and her husband have been living in Shetland for around 6 months, her husband having grown up on one of the isles, when she finds a body buried in her garden. The victim seems to have been mutilated and when it appears that she may have given birth just before she died, Tora, who is a consultant obstetrician at the local hospital, becomes involved in trying to find out more about her. Tora is drawn further into the investigation when one of the detectives investigating the case asks for her help. It becomes obvious during the story that there is a conspiracy amongst the people on the island, but the twists and turns mean that as soon as you think one person is trustworthy, something else happens to make you wonder if  Tora really should trust them. During all of this Tora has some issues in her personal life, frustrated as she is by her failure to start a family with her husband.

The story starts on page one – no long drawn out scene setting, or getting to know characters – all that is dealt with as we follow Tora’s story. For me Tora is a great lead character – very believable and you really get drawn into the situations in which she finds herself. There are lots of cliff-hangers along the way which meant that I read the book pretty quickly – despite it being quite long. And a cliché here – a real page turner.

Reading the blurb about this book with gruesome and mysterious happenings on Shetland I couldn’t help thinking of The Wickerman. I think that probably just helps to add an air of menace as you read the story – I thought I could see some similarities, but it would be hard to avoid any given the locations etc.

The remote and unforgiving landscape add to the menace of the story – so I was surprised to find that the author only visited the Shetland Isles after the book was finished. So now I wonder if they really are as I pictured them.

I have one suggestion – I think the book would have really benefited from a map so that I had a better idea of where the different locations were.  And a criticism – the one part I found a little odd was the speed with which Tora is taken into the confidence of the detective – something which felt to me as if it came a bit out of the blue.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, an excellent debut thriller, and I’ll be looking for others by the author.

Score – 4/5