Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Gun for Sale’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 192 pages; 2010.

First published in 1936, A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene is an oppressively dark crime novel about a British assassin who becomes a wanted man in England after he commits his deed on European soil.

In much the same way as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated the Great War, the murder has been designed to provoke a new world war which will make many men in England rich.

Murderous opening

When A Gun for Sale opens we are thrust right into the action. Raven, the English assassin with the harelip (which marks him as easily identifiable), is in an unnamed European country getting ready to kill the Minister of War. Things don’t go exactly to plan but he manages to escape detection after the murder of the politician and his secretary — though he doesn’t get rid of the weapon as he had been instructed to do so.

When he returns to London, he meets Cholmondeley, a fat man with a penchant for sweets, who double-crosses him by paying his £250 fee in stolen banknotes, which are traceable by authorities.

Raven now has to go on the run in his own country, but not without planning his vengeance on Cholmondeley, whom he follows on the train out of London to (the fictional) Nottwich. (Remember, he has a gun.)

Also on the train is a young woman called Anne, who is heading to Nottwich to begin working as a chorus girl in a pantomime. In a strange twist of fate (or should we say authorly coincidence?), Anne’s fiancé is the police detective in charge of finding Raven, and so all these characters are unwittingly drawn together in a complex plot involving corruption, betrayal, sex and murder.

The claustrophobic manhunt that ensues not only puts Anne’s life in danger, it makes Raven increasingly prone to commit more horrendous acts out of fear and paranoia.

Fast-paced tale

The fast-paced narrative is written from multiple perspectives in Greene’s distinctively clear and clean prose in which not a word is wasted.

The world conveyed here — dark, grim and often immoral — presents women as the mere playthings of men and sees war as a way for corrupt men to make vast amounts of money.

I read A Gun for Sale with a mix of fear and fascination. It’s not dissimilar to Greene’s more famous Brighton Rock, which it predates by a couple of years, in that it charts the disturbing outfall of one man’s violent behaviour on the people and community around him.

I normally love inter-war novels, but this one is pretty bleak and chilling. Perhaps its most interesting achievement (and one that I particularly admired) is the way in which it makes the female protagonist the star of the show and paints such a wonderful portrait of the killer it’s easy for the reader to both loathe and empathise with him…

I read this book for The 1936 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 12-18 April, 2021.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Locked room mystery

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:

He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’

What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

An obvious motive

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.

Aoife Clifford, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster Australia

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster, 272 pages; 2020.

Second Sight, by Australian author Aoife Clifford, is a well-plotted crime thriller set in a small coastal town.

It focuses on two separate, possibly linked, crimes: the disappearance of a teenage girl more than 20 years earlier and the death of an Irish tourist punched by a local man who was once friends with the missing teen. It is structured around two intertwined narratives — one set in the present day told in the first person, the other set in the past (New Year’s Eve, 1996, to be precise) told in the third person.

In the first storyline, lawyer Eliza Carmody reluctantly returns to her home town of Kinsale, because she’s been hired to defend the electricity company blamed for a devastating bush fire that killed eight people two years earlier.

An image of a burnt-out car comes into my mind. The smoke had been so thick she’d driven it off the road and lurched into a ditch, unable to move, like a boat stuck on a reef. The fire had done the rest. The first day I started working on the case, I looked at the list of the dead, eight of them. I read their names and traced my one degree of separation from each of them — school, family friends, vaguely remembered faces from the beach or shops — and then put the paper in my filing cabinet. Sometimes the only way to cope is to separate out bits of your life and keep them in solitary confinement.

On the day Eliza returns “home” to meet an expert as part of her research for the court case, she witnesses a violent altercation in the street which results in the death of an Irish tourist working in the local pub. Because she knows the man who landed the fatal king punch, Eliza is inextricably drawn back into a past — and a community — she’s long tried to forget.

The second storyline focuses on the mystery of what happened to Eliza’s friend Grace, who disappeared, never to be seen again, on New Year’s Eve, 1996. When bones are discovered at a historic homestead near town, Eliza becomes convinced they must belong to her friend…

Typical psychological thriller

Second Sight is typical psychological thriller territory, fast-paced and well-plotted, but with a literary bent.

Clifford paints an authentic portrait of a small town still reeling from a fatal bushfire and her depiction of local characters — the publican turned prospective politician, the quiet loner thought to be the arsonist, the compassionate nurses caring for people they have known all their lives — feel believable. She really captures what it is like to grow up in these kinds of places — the drinking culture, for instance, and the school ties you can never escape.

And Eliza, with her discoloured eyes, strained relationship with her older sister, and a beloved policeman father now living out his days in a nursing home, is well drawn. She’s flawed and feisty, prone to making unwise decisions and behaving in a not particularly professional manner. (Admittedly, I didn’t like her very much.)

But I had some issues with the novel. There are a couple of ludicrous plot twists, some of the heart-hammering moments are a bit overdone, and there’s too much sex in it. (There’s a rape scene, however, which is graphic and shocking, but sensitively handled.)

Second Sight is good, escapist fiction. It brims with small-town claustrophobia, treachery and scandal, and has a genuinely surprising denouement that makes all that furious page-turning worth it in the end.

This novel, first published in Australia in 2018 and republished with a new cover this month, will be published in the UK on 27 January. It was published by Pegasus in the US last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2020

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

Abdelilah Hamdouchi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hoopoe, Morocco, Publisher, Setting

‘Whitefly’ by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Fiction – paperback; Hoopoe; 136 pages; 2016. Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Smolin.

First published n 2000 as al-Dhubaba al-bayda by al-Muttaqi Brintira, Whitefly is the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English.

I bought it in Kinokuniya, in Dubai, earlier in the week, because I was looking for something “local” to read — or at least originally published in Arabic — and this seemingly fit the bill. (I love that the Dubai store has a whole section devoted to Arabic fiction, and another for Asian fiction, which makes the browsing experience so much more fulfilling if you’re looking for something in those areas of interest.)

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have an “about the author” section, so I had to Google “Abdelilah Hamdouchi” to find our more about him. According to this article on Words Without Borders, he was born in  Morocco in 1958 and has written several police detective novels with a human rights bent. Whitefly is his third.

Detective story set in Morocco

Set in modern-day Morocco, the book introduces us to Detective Laafrit, a 40-year-old policeman, married with a young child, who is well respected by those he works with, including the Commissioner, who is of a higher rank but treats him as if their positions are reversed.

The story follows his investigation into the death of three young men, washed up dead on a local beach over the course of a couple of days. It’s believed the men are harraga (illegal immigrants) who have fallen overboard while trying to reach Spain.

When a fourth corpse washes up the case takes on a new dimension, for the man has been shot four times and it’s clear that the leather jacket he’s wearing has been put on him after he’s been killed.

Laafrit pins his hopes on finding the gun, because that will ultimately lead to the killer. (Guns are illegal in Morocco and very difficult to obtain.) He uses his underworld contacts to help him find the weapon and to find out more about the identities of the men. Did they all know each other? And, if they did, what is their connection? Why was one brutally murdered?

Atmospheric setting

The best bit about this novella is the setting. I’ve not really read anything set in Morocco before (apart from Nina Bawden’s A Woman of My Age, but that was simply about an English character on holiday there) and I found it fascinating to be thrust into unfamiliar territory. I had to do a lot of Googling to find out more about the tense relationships between Spain and Morocco over people smuggling, and to work out why the cities of Ceuta and Melilla were so controversial. Turns out they’re both Spanish territories on the African continent, sharing a border with Morocco, which makes it easier for Africans to enter Europe illegally.

I found out other things I didn’t know about Morocco, too, such as the fact that three million Moroccans live on tomatoes as their main food source.

The crime itself, which appears to be part of the dark shadowy world of people smuggling and illegal immigration, morphs into something else entirely (involving agriculture, food production and industrial espionage) — and I’m not sure it worked as well as it could have. It was certainly an intriguing concept, but I felt it could have been fleshed out a lot more than the 136 pages that this slim volume allowed.

And while I finished Whitefly with a sense of disappointment, I’m going to hunt out more books by Abdelilah Hamdouchi in due course because this novella, for all its faults, was an effortless read and one that evoked a strong Moroccan vibe I’m keen to experience again.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Frédéric Dard, Publisher, Pushkin Vertigo, Setting

‘Bird in a Cage’ by Frédéric Dard

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Vertigo; 128 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by David Bellos.

Crime novellas don’t get more slick and out-and-out gripping than Frédéric Dard’s Bird in a Cage. 

First published in 1961, this cleverly plotted tale has recently been reissued in English translation by Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint, which has two more of Dard’s novellas — The Wicked Go to Hell and Crush — on its list and a third one, The Executioner Weeps, on the way.

Apparently he was quite the prolific writer, having penned hundreds of thrillers, suspense stories, plays and screenplays during his career, before his death in 2000.

Dark and twisty turns

Bird in a Cage is one of those brilliant crime books that is full of so many dark and twisty turns and unexpected revelations that you begin to question your own sanity. The further I got drawn into this thrilling tale, the more my questioning mind went into overdrive. Did I miss a clue? Where *is* this story going? What’s going to happen next? Who do I trust here? This isn’t going to end well, is it? Someone’s going to slip up here, aren’t they? And so on, and so forth.

The story revolves around a 30-year-old man returning to his childhood home in Paris after a long absence. It’s Christmas Eve, a time when everyone is supposed to be enjoying themselves with family and friends, but Albert’s mother has died and he feels her loss keenly.

To distract himself, he heads out to a local brasserie for a quiet meal, and while there he catches the eye of a beautiful young woman eating out with her daughter. An unspoken connection is made and he follows her home — more by accident than design.

The woman is aware she’s being followed and issues an unexpected invitation: would he like to come up to her apartment for a Christmas drink?

Albert’s decision, of course, is a fatalistic one — but not in the way you might expect.

Who to trust?

The curious mystery that unfolds has Albert wondering if he might, in fact, be delusional, which is exactly the same kind of “trick” the author plays on his readers. For with each turn of the page you find yourself wondering what *exactly* is going on. Can you trust the narrator? Can you trust the beautiful woman? Why does she have two drops of blood on her sleeve? And why is she so keen to befriend a man when she’s a married woman?

Of course, I’m not going to spoil the plot here, but let’s just say I was kept guessing throughout and I would never in a million Sundays have solved the crime in question. The ending, when it comes, is genius.

There’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, which makes it thrilling to read. And the prose, eloquent and stripped back to the bare minimum, ensures minimal effort is required…yet it is not without important detail and it is those little details — two lonely people adrift in a Parisian Christmas — that give this book its special appeal.

But above all, A Bird in a Cage is a masterpiece of plotting and of narrative pacing and is so packed with suspense it’s a wonder the pages don’t explode out of their binding as soon as you open the book. This is definitely a must-read for those who like their crime on the tense and intelligent side. This was my first Frédéric Dard; it won’t be my last.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Granta, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia

Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 122 pages; 2014. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver.

Short. Sharp. Powerful. That’s the best way to describe Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

First published in 1961 and set in the early 1940s, this novella looks at the difficulty one policeman faces when he tries to investigate a crime. The setting is Sicily, where the mafia has infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Even the average citizen on the street closes ranks when the Carabinieri start asking questions.

Dramatic opening

The book opens in rather dramatic fashion. A man in a dark suit is running for a bus when he is gunned down in broad daylight. He is only metres away from a fritter-seller and there are dozens of passengers on the bus, yet no one sees a thing.

What follows is a complicated narrative tracing the investigation into the man’s murder led by Captain Bellodi, an outsider and “mainlander” who heads up the Carabinieri. His quiet pursuit of the truth is intertwined with the voices of those who want to obfuscate his work, and yet he never gives up or takes short cuts to reach his desired outcome.

Captain Bellodi […] was by family tradition and personal conviction a republican, a soldier who followed what used to be called ‘the career of arms’ in a police force, with the dedication of a man who has played his part in a revolution and seen law created by it. This law, the law of the Republic, which safeguarded liberty and justice, he served and enforced.

But while this book might have the look and feel of a crime novel, it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. There’s no neat ending, no redemption. What it offers is an honest and authentic look at a society that has been subjugated by a small band of powerful and immoral men, who have rewritten the rules of engagement and live by their own code of honour. It is particularly good at showing what happens  when bystanders turn a blind eye to crime, violence and corruption.

Tautly written

This tautly written story, which has been pared back to its most basic elements, is an incredibly nuanced piece of work (the dialogue is exceptionally good) and is a wonderful portrait of Sicilian society at a particular moment in time. But it’s also difficult to follow. We are introduced to an endless cast of characters — informers, criminals, politicians, shopkeepers et al — and there’s a disturbing lack of place names (everything is referred to by initial), which makes for a sometimes confusing and frustrating read.

Furthermore, for anyone new to Italian history, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on politically without doing some research first. (It was thanks to this Wikipedia entry on the Sicilian Mafia that I discovered that the mafia was suppressed under Fascism, which helps put the whole of The Day of the Owl into context.)

Yet for all the difficulties I had with this book, I’d like to return to it at a later date. It’s short, yes, but it’s so dense with ideas and ethical issues that it would take multiple readings to come to grips with them all.

Finally, the author’s afterword — or “tailpiece” as it is called here — adds a fascinating insight into his fear of being charged with libel and slander for skating too close to the truth. He shortened the story — he calls it “pruning” — to protect himself from the reactions of “any who might consider themselves more or less directly attacked in it”, adding: “I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled.”

I can only imagine how explosive the book might have been had it included everything he really wanted to write!

5 books, Book lists

5 unmissable police procedurals

5-books-200pixThere’s nothing better than curling up with a good crime novel, especially one that’s intelligent and believable. I’m quite partial to police procedurals, but they have to be free of cliche, well plotted and far from predictable — I  don’t want to be able to guess the ending. It helps if they have a strong sense of place, which might explain my preference for crime in translation (Iceland and Japan, in particular), and focus as much on the why as they do on the how.

Here are five of my favourite police procedurals. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Prime cut by Alan Carter

‘Prime Cut’ by Alan Carter (2010)
The first in the Cato Kwong series, this story follows the Detective Senior Sergeant’s investigation into a torso found washed up on the West Australian coast during the height of the mining boom. Meanwhile, more than 1,400 miles away, police in Adelaide are investigating a murder in which the victim was electrocuted and bludgeoned to death, a crime that bears striking similarities to one that occurred in the UK in 1973. These two storylines eventually come together in an unexpected — and ultimately — shocking way.

In the woods by Tana Frence

‘In the Woods’ by Tana French (2008)
Tana French’s first novel (she has written five more since), this one introduces us to Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad, whose traumatic childhood past comes flooding back when he investigates the murder of a 12-year-old girl whose body was found in the local woods. Is this crime linked to a similar one Rob survived when a youngster?  Is it the same perpetrator? This is a clever story that marries the police procedural with elements of the psychological thriller as well as giving great insight into the emotional life of police doing harrowing jobs in difficult circumstances.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
A gripping crime novel set in a remote rural town during the height of the great Australian drought, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It focuses on what appears to be the murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse, but which may in fact have been carried out by an outsider. The ensuing investigation, carried out under-the-radar by a federal police officer who knew the dead man, and the local police sergeant, is full of twists and turns, but it’s the claustrophobic atmosphere of small town life painted here that makes this an extraordinarily compelling read.

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino (2011)
This cult crime thriller doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the genre. We know from the outset who committed the murder, but we don’t know the detailed steps taken to cover it up. The resultant cat-and-mouse game between the investigating detective and the mathematician who covers it up is one of the most intriguing and well-plotted books I’ve ever read. Unravelling this giant riddle is almost impossible — perfect for anyone who tends to guess the ending of crime books.

Tainted Blood

‘Tainted Blood’ by Arnaldur Indriðason (2005)
The first in Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series, Tainted Blood (also published under the title Jar City) introduces us to one of contemporary literature’s most morose (and intriguing) detectives, Detective Erlendur, whose troubled family life forms a fascinating backdrop to the bleak cases he investigates. In this story he investigates the murder of an elderly man found dead in his flat. The man had a rather nasty reputation and had been accused, but never convicted, of horrendous crimes in the past, so is this someone wreaking revenge for past wrongs? The atmospheric location, complicated characters, a little bit of science, a lot of detective work and some unexpected twists and turns, makes this book a winning one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another unmissable crime novel or police procedural?

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Little, Brown, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper

The Dry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 352 pages; 2016.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a crime novel and been completely transfixed from the first page. But that’s what happened when I opened Jane Harper’s The Dry, a book I had not heard anything about and had only stumbled upon by accident when I was looking for Australian reads to download onto my Kindle before heading to Greece for a week.

The book, which is set in the fictional country town of Kiewarra in rural Australia — about 500km north-west of Melbourne — is the first by Harper, a British-born journalist now based in Melbourne (she writes for the tabloid newspaper Herald-Sun), and the story itself could have been lifted from the headlines: a murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse. The only survivor — and witness — is a baby.

But the case isn’t clear-cut.  Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the farm, like all others in the area, had been struggling financially. Luke Hadler’s mother doesn’t believe her son was capable of killing himself, nor his loved ones, and suspects that he may have been murdered by a debt collector. The police in Clyde, the nearest big town with a fully staffed cop shop, think otherwise and have closed the case.

Enter Aaron Falk, a federal police officer specialising in white-collar crime, who grew up in the town but left under a cloud when he was 16. Luke was his best friend at high school and the pair kept in touch. When he returns for the funeral, Mrs Hadler asks him to look into the case for her — even if he isn’t “that sort of police officer”.

Working under the radar with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, the pair’s unofficial investigation reveals some disturbing facts that suggest Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child after all. His own death also looks suspicious. But how to prove it?

Running in tandem with this storyline is a darker one involving Falk’s own past, which fleshes out why he fled town for the city, dragging his father in tow, two decades earlier. Through the clever use of flashbacks Harper does a good job of revealing small nuggets of information that force the reader to constantly reassess their opinion, not just of Falk but of Hadler as well. Are either of them reliable? And just because Falk’s a cop, should we regard him as trustworthy?

A claustrophobic portrait

Harper’s portrayal of small town life played out against a backdrop of ongoing severe drought is an authentic and claustrophobic one. The community, which revolves around the school and the pub, is riven by poverty and personal tensions, and rumour and gossip abound. Anyone who’s lived in a small community will recognise the types of people and behaviours presented here.

The characterisation is richly drawn: the simmering tensions of people at their wit’s end is deftly depicted, and the town’s local “ratbags” — who have grudges to bear and like to solve problems with their fists — never strays into caricature. The people and the unpleasant atmosphere in which they live feels believable.

And for a story that is so fast-paced and tightly plotted, Harper hasn’t skipped on detail: her prose moves along at a clip but she has a keen eye for landscape, atmosphere and little things that matter:

The porch door that used to be yellow was now an insipid shade of blue, he noted with something like indignation. It had pockmarks where the paint was peeling. He could see flashes of yellow underneath, gaping like fatty scars. The wooden steps where he’d sat fiddling with toys and footy cards now sagged with age. Underneath, a beer can nestled in the flaxen grass.

Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. That I failed to guess the “solution” (I’ve read so many crime books over the years I usually spot them long before the ending) is testament to her skill. Even the denouement, usually the weakest link in a crime novel because, well, the author has to wrap the story up somehow, is deftly handed and quite a surprise. Colour me impressed.

Last year The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. I can see why.

This is my 41st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 27th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, David Whish-Wilson, Fiction, Penguin Viking, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Line of Sight’ by David Whish-Wilson

Line of Sight

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Viking; 253 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Proving that it can take me years to get around to reading books sent to me for review, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight has been in my TBR for six years. I know this because tucked inside the front cover I found a note from the author (who sent the book to me in the days when I accepted books from authors) dated 19 October 2010. Oh dear.

Dark noir

Set in Perth, Western Australia in 1975, Line of Sight is a dark, noirish crime novel that doesn’t fit the conventions of the genre. There’s a crime at its heart — the murder of a brothel madam — but there’s no dramatic denouement, no neat conclusion. The story is not wholly focused on finding the culprit. Instead, it shines a wider light on corruption in political, business and legal circles in Perth at that time. It fleshes out the grey areas and the moral ambiguities and looks at what happens to whistleblowers who stand up for what they believe in.

The central character, Superintendent Frank Swann, who is on sick leave, believes that the people responsible for the murder of Ruby Devine are the same people leading the investigation. He’s spoken out against his fellow police colleagues before and the ways in which they profit from organised crime, and he knows he’s a marked man. Indeed, when he attends the Royal Commission into Matters Surrounding the Administration of the Law Relating to Prostitution as a witness he looks around the court room and thinks:

An assassin might already be in the room, waiting for his chance.

Swann’s not entirely squeaky clean himself. He’s not shy about dishing out his own form of justice in the shape of his fists, and he has links with a string of seedy underworld characters.

He’s also had an affair with a younger colleague that ended in dramatic circumstances — his teenage daughter ran away from home when she found out and is still missing when the Royal Commission gets under way. He is plagued by fears she may be in danger because of his outspokenness and spends much of this novel trying to track her down.

The story also focuses on the man heading the Commission, the Right Honourable Justice Partridge, who has come out of retirement in Victoria, on the other side of the country, to take on the task. But before long he begins to realise the process is a bit of a charade and has limited terms of reference. When he, himself, speaks out about this, he can’t quite believe the response, but it does confirm his suspicions about the shady goings on at the highest levels.

Everyone is on the take

Line of Sight isn’t a pleasant read. It’s hard hitting and relentlessly bleak, presenting a world where everyone’s on the take regardless of which side of the law they are on. There are all manner of crimes here — dodgy tax schemes, business scams, drug smuggling, bribery and corruption — and joining the dots between them isn’t an easy task. Indeed, the author is careful not to tell you everything — you’re treated with intelligence and left to figure it out yourself. This makes for a particularly powerful, if occasionally confusing, read.

There are lots of strong, fascinating characters — I longed for a dramatis personæ so that I could keep track of who was who — but what I most liked about the book was its historical setting. There’s never any doubt the story is firmly rooted in the 1970s through the references to cars, clothes, music, food and sport, but it’s done in a subtle, stylish way.

But perhaps the book’s real strength is the claustrophobic atmosphere it evokes. The paranoia, fear and violence practically resonate off the page with only a light dusting of humour to lighten the load. Apparently based on real events, Line of Sight is a heavy, fatalistic look at how Perth has been shaped by events of the past.  I don’t know why I waited so long to read it.

The book is only available in Kindle format in the UK and Canada.

This is my 22nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016