20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

Alan Carter, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Michael O'Mara, Publisher, Setting

‘Prime Cut’ by Alan Carter

Prime-cut

Fiction – paperback; Michael O’Mara Books; 346 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The unpublished manuscript of Alan Carter’s Prime Cut was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award. The following year it was published in Australia by Fremantle Press, and earlier this year it was published in the UK by Michael O’Mara Books.

In a nutshell, it is a first-rate crime thriller. It’s fast-paced without skipping over detail and it feels incredibly evocative of time and place — a mining community on the Western Australian coast in October 2008, just as the rest of the Western world is heading into economic meltdown.

Two storylines

The book is structured around two narrative threads that eventually come together in an unexpected — and ultimately — shocking way.

The first revolves around Stuart Miller, an English police detective who quit the force after a particularly harrowing murder case in Sunderland, England, in 1973. He decamped to Australia, where he has been living ever since with his Scottish wife. But he’s been mentally scarred by what he saw the day the “Cup Final killer”, Davey Arthurs, electrocuted and then blugeoned to death his wife and child. Now, 35 years later, someone with the same modus operandi has struck in the Adelaide hills, and Stuart can’t help wondering if it’s the same man.

The second narrative focuses on Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong, a Chinese-Australian, who’s been banished to the Stock Squad, which investigates crime in the outback relating to sheep, cattle and roadkill, following a fall from grace. But he’s called back in from the cold to head up a murder investigation when a torso is washed up on the coast. His return to “proper” police work brings him back into contact with an old colleague, Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire, which adds additional complications he doesn’t really doesn’t need.

Police at work

Prime Cut is a proper police procedural — and an excellent one at that. Carter expertly captures the working relationships, dynamics and internal politics of a group of cops working in an isolated area, mainly through the use of pitch-perfect, often witty (and sometimes cutting) dialogue and superb characterisation. And he also shows us their home lives, and gives us some insights into their inner-most thoughts, which provides the story with a welcome literary twist.

The only cliche, aside from the fact that none of the police in this novel are happily married, is the romantic element that creeps into the storyline, but I’ll forgive Carter that one foible, because this is such a compelling, complex and deftly written novel.

Its real strength, however, lies in its sense of time and place; Carter conveys the spirit of Hopetoun, on the Western Australian coast, which is renowned for its beauty and it’s nickel mining operations, not only by describing it so evocatively but by also giving us a kind of snapshot of a community on the edge, one that is being quickly changed by a mining boom bringing in new people, new money and new problems.

Carter’s background in directing television documentaries may explain why this book feels so sharp, “alive” and real. There’s a certain cinematic quality to the writing, too, because it’s so visual. And it’s brimming with narrative tension, which makes me wonder why some clever production company hasn’t snapped up the rights to turn this into a film or telemovie.

Overall, this is one of the finest police procedurals I’ve read in a long while — and I’m delighted to see a follow-up, Getting Warmer, has also been published. That one has promptly risen to the top of my wishlist.