A dead woman was spewing blood over the car

Now you see me book coverNow You See Me
by Sharon Bolton

I like Sharon Bolton’s thrillers as a general rule. This is the first in her series about rookie detective Lacey Flint (the other books of Bolton’s I have read were one-off stories). I hungrily consumed this and immediately bought its sequels. And yet, I do have some reservations.

Lacey is young, capable and eager. She frequently ignores orders, thinking she knows better, and puts herself in danger. She’s also not the most reliable of narrators, which plays perfectly into the mystery that Bolton weaves around her.

When we meet Lacey, a woman is dying in her arms, bloodily and messily. She’s stumbled into the middle of a murder scene and is both sole witness and, briefly, primary suspect. She’s not meant to be working murder cases at all (her intention is to work as a rape specialist), but she can’t seem to shake herself loose from this one. Particularly not when the police receive a letter addressed to Lacey claiming to be from the killer – who is planning to strike again.

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Now he had a decanted version of his thoughts, organised by gravity

The chalk circle man book coverThe Chalk Circle Man
by Fred Vargas
translated from French by Siân Reynolds

This is my France selection for the EU Reading Challenge. It’s a detective novel set in Paris that was recommended years ago on The Readers podcast (RIP). I do tend to prefer crime novels written by women (Fred is short for Frédérique in Vargas’ case) and I think that crime/detective fiction is often especially strong on setting/sense of place. I’m grateful for the recommendation, even if it has taken me a long time to follow up on it.

This is the first in a series of novels following Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He is already an established, successful public figure thanks to solving some big, media-friendly cases in the Pyrenees. New to Paris and the 5th arrondissement, he is not trying particularly hard to fit into his new team. He’s quiet, contemplative, often seeming to ignore his colleagues. He doesn’t seem to be the right temperament at all for detective work.

Adamsberg trusts his intuition more than seems advisable for someone in charge of major crime investigations, and he talks a lot about trusting these gut feelings and not logic. But I think this is to some extent a mask, as he is in fact extremely observant and has an excellent memory. He also has a high tolerance for other people’s quirks, for example quickly adapting to the discovery that his second-in-command, Danglard, is an alcoholic who is only just managing to hold it together as a single father to five children. He sees through the alcoholism to Danglard’s intelligence and abilities, and judges when to stay Danglard’s hand and when to let him drink.

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A monk’s thoughts must be like a town defended by a sturdy wall

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church book coverApothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church
by Indrek Hargla
translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

This is my fourth book completed for the EU Reading Challenge, and the first one that came from a recommendation I received after my initial blog post. So thank you to Kätlin (who is Estonian but lives in the UK) for suggesting this book. I’ve learned a little about the history of Tallinn and enjoyed a satisfying murder mystery to boot.

The setting is 1409 Tallinn, which at the time was not strictly part of Estonia, but a recent addition to the Holy Roman Empire. A preface sets the scene: Tallinn is a small coastal town finally enjoying growth and prosperity after a terrible band of pirates have been caught and punished. Christianity is central to everything. As well as having multiple churches of its own, a new castle on the hill overlooking Tallinn houses monks and holy knights.

It is in this castle, Toompea, that the story opens, with a drunken knight stumbling towards his gruesome murder (I should add that only the barest of details are given – this is not a grossout/medically-detailed crime novel). When the body is discovered, Tallinn’s town magistrate, Dorn, is called upon to catch the murderer quickly. He in turn asks his friend, the town apothecary, to help him investigate.

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Witches had to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire powers

Last Rituals book coverLast Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

I remember learning about Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from the much-missed The Readers podcast, back when it was hosted by Gavin Pugh and Simon Savidge. They discussed her crime novels in such glowing terms that I immediately added this title, the first in her ongoing series, to my wishlist. But then I stumbled across a later book in the series in a charity shop, read that first and wasn’t blown away, so I settled for following Sigurðardóttir on Twitter (she gives good Twitter).

A few weeks back, I decided that I wanted to give crime another try (after the failure of one of my March reads) and this was on offer on the Kindle Store. Cue my second venture into the world of lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir.

The crime that opens the book is the murder of German postgrad history student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland. Some gruesome things have been done to the body that appear to be linked to his research into witchcraft. His family in Germany are not happy with the police investigation, so they ask their family lawyer Matthew to team up with an Icelandic lawyer – Thóra – to dig deeper.

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Stirring, like a sleeping monster about to wake up

blood-harvestBlood Harvest
by SJ Bolton

Last year one of my books of the year was Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton, a crime drama set in the Falklands that I found beautiful and gripping. So I had been on the lookout for other books by her and was excited to spot this one on sale. You can tell it’s an older title from the fact she was still using the pen name “SJ Bolton”, presumably to disguise her gender, but also from the fact it’s a slightly less ambitious undertaking.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s just less impressive than one of my favourite books of last year. Now that’s out of the way I’ll explain what it’s all about.

Heptonclough is a fictional Lancashire village surrounded by the Pennine Moor. It’s a classic atmospheric setting, both wide open space and spookily claustrophobic thanks to the residents effectively being trapped at night or in bad weather by the danger of the surrounding countryside. New vicar Harry is not a local and neither are the Fletcher family, residents of the village’s only new build in decades thanks to the Church of England selling off some land next to the church. Both the church and the Fletchers’ home are loomed over by the ruins of an ancient abbey, giving the village a gothic centrepiece.

The book opens with Harry being shown a crime scene by local policeman DCS Rushton – a mudslide has caused a 10-year-old grave to collapse, revealing not one but three bodies, two of which should not be there. The story then skips back two months to the arrival of Harry shortly after that of the Fletchers. He’s a groovy young vicar who wears shorts and sometimes swears, and he’s nervous about the task ahead of him – Heptonclough’s church has been shut up and unused for 10 years.

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The Veronica Mars Movie

Veronica Mars movie poster

I know: it’s not a book, or an author event, or even a play, but I’ve noticed over the last year that I’m far from the only V Mars fan, so I thought those who haven’t caught the film yet might be interested to hear what I thought of it. And those who have seen it, please weigh in in the comments!

Disclaimer: I am not only a fan of the series, I am also a Kickstarter backer of the film. But then, who isn’t?! You probably already know the storyline from the countless news articles but here’s my summary.

The film is set several years after series three ended. Veronica “I got a PI licence for my 18th birthday” Mars has left her home town of Neptune, California to study law in New York and is about to sit the bar exam. She’s interviewing for a job at a top law firm, she has a steady boyfriend in Piz (her college boyfriend from series three, but interestingly they have only been back together for a year, they’ve not been together the whole time) and she’s still in touch with best friend from high school Wallace. The world is her oyster. So of course this is the precise moment for Logan “trouble follows me everywhere I go” Echolls (her high school ex-boyfriend) to call Veronica and ask her for help as he’s the number one suspect for the murder of his pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to Neptune, coincidentally arriving in time for her 10-year high school reunion.

The film is packed with nods and winks to fans and all (or very nearly all) the beloved old characters from the TV show not only make an appearance, but for the most part are intrinsic to the plot. It’s a typical Veronica Mars plot with three or four storylines overlapping, including the stark divide between rich and poor that preoccupied much of the TV show. There’s also the familiar sense of humour, the snappy dialogue, the indie music track and my favourite fictional father–daughter relationship (because Keith Mars is the best).

Does it look and feel like a film rather than a feature-length episode of the TV show? Honestly, I’m not sure. Personally I think the TV show was quite visually stylish anyway, and it certainly didn’t look out of place on the big screen on Friday night. I also don’t agree with Mark Kermode’s complaint that the plot is labyrinthine – yes there’s a few different things going on but it’s not hugely complicated. Then again, am I saying that because I have years’ worth of background information going in?

All told, I loved it. And I was relieved when at the Friday night showing of this in Bristol the (busy but not full) audience applauded when the credits rolled. (Incidentally, do make sure you watch to the end of the credits; the second easter egg is a particular gift to fans.)

I don’t think it was flawless. Mac was criminally under-used. There were some plot holes, or at least things that I didn’t think entirely made sense. But for the most part it was exactly what I, as a fan, wanted and I look forward to watching it again just as soon as we have figured out this digital download business.

Have you watched the film yet? What do you think of it?

The power of a great title

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
by Amara Lakhous
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This book is clever, funny, insightful, serious and lighthearted all at once. I bought it on the back of a glowing review I read somewhere (possibly Eva of A Striped Armchair? Sorry I’m not sure on that) and am so glad that I discovered both an excellent book and a very interesting new publisher to me.

This book blends together a tried and tested format with a very modern story and characters. It’s a murder mystery, with alternate chapters made up of diary entries by the now missing – and therefore prime suspect – Amedeo, and the chapters in-between each narrated by a different character involved in the story.

They all live in an apartment building on Piazza Vittorio in Rome managed by the redoubtable Benedetta, or “the Neapolitan”. In fact, the residents come from all over – elsewhere in Italy, in Europe and the whole world. Immigration, racism and racial stereotypes are the central theme here. This one building is home to people from different parts of society, including a university professor, a travel agent, a cafe owner, a film student and an unemployed former chef. Each has their own view of the world and their own limits on what they observe or question.

The humour is evident right from the start, with Iranian immigrant Parviz despairing at his inability to hold down a job, convinced that he keeps getting fired because he doesn’t like pizza; despairing at the concierge Benedetta’s persistent use of a word he thinks (wrongly) is a swear word; despairing at the police repeatedly arresting him for feeding the pigeons, which he cannot comprehend being a crime. It is clear that this is a series of misunderstandings, largely based on his almost non-existent Italian. But he is not being mocked. Rather, Lakhous is pointing out how easy it is for people to choose anger and resentment rather than try to understand and be understood.

And the misunderstandings continue, get worse even, among people who do (or can) speak the same language but fail to listen to each other. Or prefer to believe their own prejudices and stereotypes rather the evidence before them. This can lead to some horrifying assumptions, but the humour – often revolving around the apartment’s elevator, which is central to many a row between residents – keeps the tone from getting too serious.

This is a short, fun read that has a lot to say and does it supremely elegantly. I will be on the lookout for more from this author and this publisher.

First published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio in 2006 by Edizioni.
This translation published 2008 by Europa Editions.

Codes and spies and stuff

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Reading this book appealed because I love the Hitchcock film and I was looking for a couple of short books to read before embarking on 1Q84.

Richard Hannay is an intriguing lead character. He has made himself a small pile of money mining in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was then) and come to London to enjoy his earnings, but quickly finds himself bored and lonely. So it’s almost a stroke of luck when he discovers a Mr Scudder has been murdered in his flat, just days after the victim confided in him that he has uncovered an assassination plot that could lead to war.

As prime suspect in the murder, Hannay flees London for remote Scotland with both the British police and a German spy ring close at his heels. His resourcefulness and acting skills ensure there is never a dull moment. And he has Scudder’s coded notebook, with a mysterious message about 39 steps.

I really liked this. It’s an enjoyable romp and yet any reader knows that the war Hannay is working so hard to avoid is inevitable (the dates are clearly given as May and June 1914), which gives it a sad air. The descriptions of Scotland are beautiful but brief because there is no space here for asides. It’s 107 pages of action and, as such, was perfect for translation to film, but there was still, as always, something lost in transition. The book explains why Hannay is how he is and briefly summarises the political state of Europe, neither of which is in the film, as I recall.

First published 1915.

A thriller without thrills

Southwesterly Wind
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
translated by Benjamin Moser

This highly acclaimed novel is the third in the Inspector Espinosa series, set in Rio de Janeiro. Quotes on the book jacket compare Garcia-Rosa to Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler. I really really don’t agree.

It may be a style thing, it may be poor translation, but I did not get on with this book. I would have abandoned it if it wasn’t so easy to read. Easy but not good. There was a lot of clumsy phrasing, sentences that seemed like they could have been clever or funny if written differently. The plot was odd but predictable, the policeman’s actions unlikely and the ending not nearly as ambiguous as Garcia-Rosa would have us believe.

The story centres around Gabriel who was told by a strange fortune teller at his 29th birthday party that he would kill someone before his next birthday. As the big three-oh approaches, his paranoia gets increasingly bad and he goes to the police. Inspector Espinosa is intrigued but doesn’t know what he’s expected to investigate – no crime has been committed. Yet.

Of course, eventually crimes do happen that may or may not be related, there are shadowy characters and beautiful women, and there are many detailed descriptions of the city of Rio, which was one part of the book that I did like. That and Espinosa’s friendly neighbour, a young girl called Alice who wants him to get a dog so that he doesn’t get lonely. That was a sweet subplot.

There seemed to be an attempt to add something spiritual to the usual thriller fare. There was a lot of talk about psychoanalysis and religion and the effect of the southwesterly wind. But it wasn’t fully explored and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the novel.

The main problem, though, is that it takes a while for stuff to start happening and yet I felt no suspense. I thought that it was obvious there would eventually be a dead body that could possibly be linked to Gabriel and before that had even happened I had figured out the ending. None of the characters beside Espinosa had any real fleshing out. I am frankly baffled by the awards and praise Garcia-Rosa has received. Maybe his previous two books were far better?

Originally published in Brazil in 1999 by Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, under the title Vento sudoeste.
This translation first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Company.

The cruelty of children

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book took a while to grow on me. I was a little disappointed from the start to realise that it wasn’t part of the Jack Parlabane series, and its structure was at first an irritation, before I realised how vital it was to the storyline, and how clever.

Martin is a successful lawyer to the rich and famous. He gets a phonecall one night from an old schoolfriend asking him to go back to Braeside where another old schoolfriend has been arrested for the murder of…you got it, yet another former classmate. And another classmate’s dad. And another classmate is in a coma, while yet another is the policewoman leading the investigation. The scene is set for a lot of memory dredging, facing up to childhood prejudices and crime-solving.

The narrative skips between current day – beginning with two crooks trying to dispose of the bodies – and school days, tackled year by year. Hidden behind the Glasgow dialogue and ever-changing nicknames is all the complexity of childhood – the complicated tangle of loyalties that are constantly switching, the importance placed on certain games and certain moments, the favours given and the mistreatments that were never forgotten.

There’s a lot of very believable childishness here: the changing slangwords; the fear of recrimination from saying, doing or reacting in a non-uniform way; the moments of innocent naivety followed by awful realisation. It’s not exactly how I remember primary school. We weren’t all swearing in every sentence from the start as Brookmyre’s class seems to be. And the rough talk and violent threats started later to my knowledge, but then I wasn’t a boy and all that was the boys’ domain, after all. With girls it’s all about the bitching and the name-calling and the cliques and I most certainly remember that.

In fact, though I struggled with it a little at first, mostly due to the dialogue, the school stuff was far more clever and subtle and well-written than the adult part of the book. As adults, the same characters seem to be either remarkably well adjusted or in a complete mess and in need of a life lesson. Which they duly receive. Okay, it’s not quite that simplistic but there is a certain tendency for old friends to declare “I told you so”. But the adult part does have the murder mystery, which slowly unravels into a much more complicated picture than it initially appears.

Though it has its moments, this book isn’t as funny as previous Brookmyre novels that I’ve read. It’s not bleak and heavy either, and at a push I might call it black comedy, but the genuine comic moments are few and far between. There also isn’t a single main character with the charm and presence of Brookmyre regular Jack Parlabane, but by the end of the book he has fleshed out almost a whole classful of rounded, believable individuals, which is no small achievement.

I would say this isn’t quite as fun and light a read as other Brookmyre books, but it still served me well on my beach holiday.

First published 2006 by Little, Brown.