Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maryrose Cuskelly, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cane’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A few years ago Maryrose Cuskelly wrote a powerful true crime book — Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust about a shocking murder in rural Australia that left three people dead. This deeply contemplative book, free from sensation and sentiment, looked behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small-town rivalries can collide with fatal consequences.

Many of those themes play out in her debut novel, The Cane, which is set in rural Far North Queensland during the 1970s.

The story focuses on the disappearance of a teenage girl from the fictional sugar cane town of Quala, but this isn’t a whodunnit or a whydunnit or a crime novel in any conventional sense. Instead, this carefully nuanced story explores the impact of the disappearance on the community and shows how suspicion breeds fear and can turn people against one another.

It’s one of the best books I have read all year.

Missing teenager

When The Cane opens, 16-year-old Janet McClymont has been missing for weeks. Her bag has been found lying on the edge of a cane field, but there’s no sign of a body.

The crushing season, in which the canefields are set on fire, has been delayed for fear of burning evidence (Janet’s body could have been dumped in a field somewhere) and this lends a sense of urgency to the investigation — the burn can’t be put off forever.

The story is told through multiple narrators from different generations, all written in the third person (with the exception of Arthur, an older man, whose intimate vernacular voice is told in the first person). This device allows the reader to gain an insider’s perspective as we find out how various residents feel about the crime and an outsider’s perspective as we follow the senior constable, Carmel Maitland — a female police officer in a man’s world — who has been seconded from Brisbane to help with the investigation.

But it is mainly through the eyes of schoolgirl Essie Tranter that we see events unfold for Essie is on the cusp of becoming a teenager in a rural community that is misogynistic and racist. Her mother, Connie, has been deeply affected by Janet’s disappearance because Janet was her babysitter and was walking to her place the evening she disappeared. Connie feels the police aren’t doing enough to find her.

“You lot should be out there.” She jerks her head in a gesture that takes in the land beyond the town. “The McClymonts can’t tell you anything more than they’ve already told the other officers. There has to be dozens of creeks and dams that no one’s dragged yet.”

Small-town intrigue

The story highlights how rumour and suspicion thrive in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where being different marks you as a potential suspect.

Local school teacher Eamonn Sullivan, with his “long red hair and cheesecloth tunics”, who is secretly handing out The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial banned book, is in the frame. So, too, is Joe Cassar, Janet’s former boyfriend, a quietly spoken brown-skinned Grade 12 student whose mum is a Torres Strait Islander.

There is casual racism everywhere and the men in the pub all have theories and opinions about what happened to Janet and most of it is ugly. The children’s activities are curtailed and they must stay close and in sight at all times for fear they will go missing too.

Adding to this sense of fear is the knowledge that another teenage girl, Cathy Creadie, went missing 10 years ago. She disappeared while swimming off the rocks at a local beach, her body washing up several days later, and no one is quite sure whether her terrible bruising was caused before or after her death.

Malevolent fields of cane

In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the humid weather with “its close, damp heat” acts as an extra form of irritation and frustration, while the landscape — those tall and brooding canefields — is like a character in its own right.

Since Janet’s disappearance, Connie avoids lingering by the fields that surround the house. But in fact, from the time she married Cam thirteen years ago and came to live with him on the farm, the cane has made her feel uneasy, hemmed in, claustrophobic. Leery of its burgeoning growth, its thick stalks and impenetrability, the way the fields carpet the landscape in a thick green sameness, she has always had the sense of something lurking within it, hidden and malevolent

The pacing of The Cane is slow and measured, building to a powerful climax.

It’s a hugely evocative and thought-provoking read and one that the author says is based on several unsolved abductions and murders of children and young women that occurred in Queensland in the 1970s. It’s a gut-wrenching and powerful indictment of a society that views females as second-class citizens.

So much of the misogyny that tumbles off these pages feels familiar from my own childhood and teenage years growing up in a small town. I’d like to think things have changed.

Kudos to Maryrose Cuskelly for articulating it all so well and for crafting an exceptional novel that deserves a wide audience.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Publisher, Setting, Vertical

‘The Name of the Game is Kidnapping’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – hardcover; Vertical; 238 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash.

Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino has once again broken the conventions of the genre with his standalone novel The Name of the Game is Kidnapping, which was first published in 2002 but only translated into English by American publisher Vertical in 2017.

In this story, a disgruntled employee takes an opportunity to scam a client who has complained about him — but with unforeseen consequences.

The book is not a typical whodunnit or even a whydunnit — it’s really a howdunnit and showcases Higashino as a true master at plotting, something that is apparent in all of his novels (or at least the ones I have read, which you can view here).

Playing a game of revenge

The Name of the Game is Kidnapping is narrated by Sakuma, a project leader for a PR and advertising firm who is booted off a campaign for a car manufacturer, Nissei Automobile, when a newly appointed executive vice president (EVP) decides he wants someone else in charge.

Sakuma decides to play it cool, although he’s raging inside — “It was as though rage and humiliation were filling my entire body; I felt as though if I said anything, I’d yell, and if I moved, I’d throw my glass” — so when an opportunity comes along to wreak a form of revenge he grabs it.

Except he doesn’t see it as revenge; he sees it as playing a game, a business game that “requires scrupulous planning and bold action”.

That game — as the title of the book suggests — involves kidnapping the EVP’s daughter, Juri, who is in on the game because she has a troubled relationship with her father and wants to get her inheritance early.

The narrative charts how the kidnapping unfolds and shows how cool-headed Sakuma plans the whole thing while holding down his job and sheltering his “victim” from any unwanted public attention or police investigation.

Everything goes perfectly to plan — perhaps too perfectly — and just when Sakuma thinks he’s got away with the entire scheme something happens that turns the game on its head. It’s a heart-hammering twist that makes the novel’s last 40 or 50 pages especially exciting.

Meticulous plotting but slow-paced

That said, the pacing is a little slow. It’s not until around page 200 that things take off, so to speak, which is a lot of pages to wade through beforehand if you are expecting a crime thriller.

The prose is pedestrian and full of exposition — which is fine because I have read enough Higashino novels to know you don’t read them for their literary merit — but I found the narrator’s voice, which is arrogant and misogynistic, a little grating.

Despite these faults, the novel’s meticulous plotting and its brilliant twist of a conclusion make it worth reading, especially if you are already familiar with Higashino’s style.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Håkan Nesser, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, World Editions

‘The Summer of Kim Novak’ by Håkan Nesser (translated by Saskia Vogel)

Fiction – paperback; World Editions; 217 pages; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.

I’m going to tell you about a tragic and terrible event that marked my life — let’s call it “The Incident”. That fateful event is the reason I remember the summer of 1962 more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It has cast a dark shadow over so much.

So begins Håkan Nesser’s The Summer of Kim Novak, which follows the exploits of 14-year-old Erik who is drawn into an adult world of sex and drama that is beyond his ken. When the book jumps ahead 25 years, we meet an older, more reflective Erik looking back on that formative summer, analysing what happened and tidying away the loose ends that have plagued him for so long.

Most people will know that Håkan Nesser is regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost crime writers, but The Summer of Kim Novak is more akin to a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to have a murder in it. It’s not a police procedural nor is it a typical whodunnit or whydunnit. But it does have a surprise ending in which the offender is revealed, albeit too late to bring to justice because the (Swedish) statute of limitations has expired.

A dreamy boy obsessed with girls

When the book opens we meet Erik, the first-person narrator, who is a dreamy boy, obsessed with girls. He speaks in stock phrases he’s picked up from films and the adults around him, and secretly works on a comic book starring a hero called “Colonel Darkin”.

He has a crush on his relief teacher, Ewa Kaludis, who bears a striking resemblance to the Hollywood film actress Kim Novak.

She didn’t have to teach us. There was no need. We were plugging away. Whenever she entered the classroom, we sat in rapt silence. She would smile and her eyes sparkled. It gave us all the chills. Then she would sit down on the teacher’s desk, cross one leg over the other, and tell us to keep working on one page or another. Her voice reminded me of a purring cat.

When school finishes for the year, his father, a prison guard who works long shifts, warns him it’s going to be a rough summer. His mother is in hospital with cancer and it’s unlikely she will ever come home.

It’s arranged that Erik’s much older brother, Henry, a freelance reporter, will look after him during the long summer holiday before school resumes. Henry is taking the summer off to write a book and is staying in a summer house, which belongs to a relative, by Lake Möckeln, about 25km away.

Erik is allowed to bring his friend Edmund with him for company, and the pair are pretty much left to their own devices, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, cycling through the forest or hanging out in the nearest town. It’s a happy, carefree existence.

One evening they attend a summer fair and spot their teacher, Ewa, in the crowd. It turns out she’s engaged to be married, and her financé is a big-shot handball player, Bertil “Super-Berra” Albertsson. But when they witness Super-Berra beating up another man, leaving him for dead, they’re suddenly afraid for Ewa.

Later, when Henry begins bringing Ewa home with him, both Erik and Edmund are astonished, not least because Ewa now appears to be Henry’s girlfriend. No mention is made of her financé until she turns up one day with a black eye and a split lip…

Early novel

The Summer of Kim Novak was written in 1998, making it one of Nesser’s early novels — he has more than 30 to his name — but it took 20 years before it was translated into English.

I haven’t read anything else by him, so I don’t know how indicative this story is of his style, but it did feel rather basic and not particularly compelling. Perhaps because it’s essentially a coming-of-age story, there were some aspects of it that reminded me of Per Petterson’s work, but it has a very male mindset that I found a little troublesome.

I never really warmed to Erik’s tone of voice, particularly his attitude to girls (or “foxy skirts” as he once refers to them) — “If you missed your chance with one, there’d be a thousand more to take her place” — but knowing that it was written from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy I was prepared to cut some slack. Plus, I never subscribe to the theory that you have to like a character to like a story.

But even when we are reacquainted with Erik as an adult (towards the end of the novel the narrative jumps ahead by 25 years), he’s still obsessed with Ewa and prepared to risk his marriage to be with her. It all makes sense in the end though; I just can’t explain how at the risk of giving away crucial plot spoilers.

The Summer of Kim Novak showcases the agonies and ecstasies of young adolescence against the backdrop of a single languid life-changing summer. It’s a quick read with a surprise ending and was adapted for the screen in 2005 under the title Kim Novak Never Swam in Genesaret’s Lake.

 

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Way It Is Now’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 416 pages; 2021.

Garry Disher is fast becoming my favourite crime writer. And this new novel, published in Australia in November and due to be published in the UK later this year, only cements my firm opinion.

The Way It Is Now is a complete standalone — in other words, not part of a crime series, of which Disher has penned several — so it’s a good way into his work if you have not read him before.

It’s not strictly a police procedural but does feature a police officer, albeit on suspension from his role in Melbourne’s sex-crimes unit, who is carrying out his own personal investigation into the disappearance of his mother 20 years ago.

Dealing with the past

Now holed up in a holiday shack on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne, Charlie Deravin, on disciplinary leave from his job (he thumped his chief inspector), has time on his hands to think about his past.

He grew up around cops — his father was a detective — and still sees many of them, now retired, around the traps. This brings up memories of his childhood and the macho culture that surrounded him and his older brother, Liam, with whom he now has a strained relationship. That’s because Liam blames their father, Rhys, for their mother’s disappearance.

Rhys was accused of murdering his wife but had never been charged with the crime because a body was never found. The only suggestion that she had come to harm was the discovery of her car abandoned “out near Tooradin with a crumpled bumper, the driver’s door open and her possessions scattered up and down the road”.

Charlie suspects his mother’s lodger, Shane Lambert, of the crime. Shane was a timber mill worker who Charlie had warned off not long before his mother went missing because she was feeling intimidated by him in her own home. Charlie decides to track him down, using his own police skills and contacts.

It’s only when he begins digging around in the past that it comes rushing up to meet him: the skeletal remains of a young boy are found on a building site not far from his mother’s house. That boy went missing at around the same time as his mother did, and Charlie, a young police constable at the time, had been part of the search team.

When a second skeleton of an adult is discovered, underneath the first, it begins to look like a twin homicide has been committed. But who did it, and why?

Testing loyalties

The Way It Is Now feels incredibly timely — Rhys, on a cruise ship with his second wife, Fay, catches covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic —  and has a strong sense of place. I loved reading about towns that are familiar to me such as Philip Island, Tooradin and Hastings — even Leongatha, where I went to secondary school, cracks a mention.

The fictional town in which the story is set feels like any real town on the Peninsula or the Bass Coast, where Charlie spent his childhood surrounded by men with “big natures and a black intensity if you caught them unguarded”.

Menlo Beach was a Peninsula beach town of unassuming shacks dating from the 1930s, side by side on a crosshatch of narrow, potholed dirt streets. Half the houses down here on the flat were fibro. Cheap housing, back when Dad and his mates started buying holiday houses and weekend getaways in the late 1970s, places that became family homes. Six cops on ten little streets. Rowdy, rampaging men who thrilled the kids and made them laugh; one or two wives, cut desperately from the same hardwood, who didn’t. Booze-soaked barbecues and beach cricket, wrestling on the lawn. Sailing, catching waves, cycling up and down Arthur’s Seat.

The novel, richly layered between past and present, highlights how loyalties — between colleagues and family members — can be tested in trying conditions and how attitudes can change over time. It asks questions about toxic masculinity, homophobia, police culture and the misuse of power.

And while the story hinges on the dead woman trope, a pet hate of mine, it’s not used as a convenient plot point but as a way to explore a wider narrative — at what point do men own up to their role in allowing such crimes to occur?

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jock Serong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

It seems ironic that the day I finished reading Jack Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, the Australian men’s Test captain, Tim Paine, resigned from his position, bidding a tearful farewell in what could have been a scene lifted directly from this novel.

In Serong’s brilliant book, all the cricket clichés we know and love are here, and the sport, which is regarded as a “gentleman’s game”, is shown as anything but with its sledging and corruption and bad-boy behaviour.

Its heroes, which are lauded in Australia and turned into holier-than-thou celebrities (even if it’s just to sell vitamins on TV!), are skewered beautifully in this wildly compelling and entertaining story about two talented brothers from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs who grow up to represent their country in international cricket.

One brother is bad, another is good — and it’s this tension between the two that powers the story along faster than anything Dennis Lillee could ever deliver!

Childhood memoir

When the book opens we meet the narrator, Darren Keefe, who is locked in the boot of a car, bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to his legs. The car is belting down a road somewhere, but we don’t know who is behind the wheel or what Darren has done to get into this precarious position.

I’m suspended in space here, between wakefulness and sleep, maybe even consciousness and death, and I fear the gag will suffocate me if I doze off. A world apart from the world in here.

The story then spools back to Darren’s childhood in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, and from his position in the boot of the car, he tells his warts-and-all story, from talented child cricketer to white-ball superstar before falling from grace and reinventing himself as a TV commentator and after-dinner events speaker.

His older brother, Wally, is more successful than him, rising to become captain of the Australian men’s Test team. He’s the more responsible sibling; he’s more level-headed, logical and steady, whereas Darren is a trouble-maker, a likable larrikin who enjoys women and drink and gambling and drugs too much to take anything too seriously.

One columnist says he’d pay to watch Darren Keefe because something amazing might happen, but he’d bet the house on Wally Keefe, because the necessary will happen. Journalists love the potential clichés we suggest: Cain and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, Noel and Liam.

The one guiding force in their life is their determined and gutsy single mother, who recognises their talent when they are young boys, creating a perfect pitch for them in the backyard and working long shifts in the pub to pay for the best kit she can buy them.

Bad boy antics

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Darren has a wild streak in him that can’t be tamed. Here’s what he says about his school days:

I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.

But his talent with the bat means he rises through the ranks quickly — as a 12-year-old he’s playing in the seniors, by 20 he’s in the state squad and the leading run-scorer in Victorian district cricket — and before he knows it he’s playing white-ball cricket for Australia. He gets married but doesn’t really settle down — he likes partying too much.

It doesn’t help that his best friend has gangster connections (and may or may not be working for them), so there’s always plenty of drugs, mainly cocaine around, and with that comes violence and reputational crises to sort out. And then, when he’s offered a bribe to help “throw” a game, well…

Rip-roaring tale

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is one of those rip-roaring tales that take you in unexpected directions. I loved following the antics of these two brothers and their wonderful mother (who later succumbs to Alzheimer’s) and seeing how their careers unfold over two decades or so.

It’s a literary coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a crime story because how Darren ends up in the boot of a car is the consequence of illicit activities. Every new chapter begins with a reminder that Darren is in the boot against his will, and it’s these glimpses of his confusion and anger and pain during these moments that helps build the suspense, making the novel a page-turner because you want to find out why he’s there and whether he will ever escape.

But the story is also a kind of loose satire about cricket because there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek swipes at how Australia treats its sports stars and how sports stars use the media and their celebrity to build their profiles and career. It’s set in the latter half of the 20th century, before social media and the internet took over everything, just at the point when cricket became properly professionalised, but much of what is written here still resonates today.

There’s a lot here to unpick about morality and ethics in sport, about sibling rivalry and the lengths parents will go to to help their children succeed, but most of all The Rules of Backyard Cricket is just a great big enjoyable romp.

I suspect Jock Serong had a lot of fun writing this; I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. This one will be in my Top 10 reads of the year for sure.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott: an entertaining story about a 12-year-old boy, a talented spin bowler, who plays Test cricket at international level for Australia in between the wars.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Karen Herbert, Publisher, Setting

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 256 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth is an impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

An old case is re-opened

It has been 10 years since local teenager Darren Davies was murdered. He was shot dead and found floating face down in the Weymouth River. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

But now his mother, Sandra, receives some unexpected and disturbing news: her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead in the Pilbara, in the north of the state, and forensics have discovered a match — her DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. Did Barbara kill her best friend’s son, and, if so, why did she do it?

The story alternates between the present day  — following Sandra as she tries to make sense of the situation and the newly reopened police investigation (she refuses to believe her friend had anything to do with the murder of her son) — and the past when Darren and his friends hung out together in the 25 days leading up to his death. The case is clouded by a series of rapes (or attempted rapes) of teenage girls around the time that Darren was killed.

As these twin narratives unfold, the author provides a steady drip-feed of new information and clues to help shape the reader’s perception of what might have happened and who might be involved. There’s a list of potential culprits, including Darren’s trio of teenage friends and his adopted father, which is only matched by a series of well-kept secrets involving everything from teenage romance to money made in illicit ways. The small-town intrigue resonates off the page.

Great cast of characters

The story is populated by a strong cast of characters — the teenage boys are particularly well-drawn and Sandra, who is a nurse at the local hospital, is a strong, resilient lead, the kind of woman who just gets on with things and sees the best in everyone.

The sense of time and place, swinging backwards and forwards by a decade, is expertly done. There’s plenty of cultural references — to movies, music and TV shows, and even the ubiquitous visit to a video store — to provide the right level of historical “flavour”.

The River Mouth also brilliantly captures the minutiae of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

It’s incredibly well-plotted, so much so I failed to guess the culprit. But this is not a twist-driven novel (thankfully); its pacing is gentle as the twin storylines take their time to unfold. And the resolution, which caught me by surprise, feels believable, unlike so many other crime novels which tend to tie things up in preposterous ways.

I really look forward to seeing what Karen Herbert comes up with next!

This is my 23rd book for #AWW2021. I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Western Australia and now lives in Perth. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.