20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Mark Brandi, Publisher, Setting

‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi

Wimmera

Fiction – paperback; Hatchette Australia; 260 pages; 2017.

Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera had the unusual honour of winning the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger in 2016 before the author even had a publishing deal.

Not long later Hatchette Australia picked it up and it was released in Australia last year. It has since been acquired by Legend Press, here in the UK, where it will be published next March.

Billed as a crime novel, I think it’s more accurate to describe Wimmera as literary fiction that just so happens to have a crime in it. The focus is really on two boys coming of age in rural Australia in the 1990s and what happens to them in one seminal year that changes their lives forever.

Body in the river

The book’s prologue sets the scene: two youngsters out looking for yabbies find a green wheelie bin stuck near a tree in the river of a small country town. The lid has been bolted down securely, suggesting that whomever closed it up “didn’t want what was in there to ever come out”.

The opening chapter spools back 20 years, to the same country town, where we meet Ben and Fab, two young boys, on the cusp of adolescence, who are best friends. Their lives are dominated by school and football and playing by the river.

Their carefree existence is hampered only by the violence of Fab’s Italian father, who lashes out with his fists, and troubled memories of Daisy, a local 14-year-old who hanged herself on the family’s clothesline. Later when Daisy’s family move away and a new neighbour, the mysterious Ronnie, moves in, Ben takes a summer job mowing Ronnie’s lawn hoping this will help him figure out who this strange man is: Fab has a theory he’s a secret agent.

In part two, the narrative returns to where it started and we find out that Fab is still living in the same town, working a dead-end job in the local supermarket, desperately unhappy and wanting to do something new with his life.

A knock on his door adds a frisson of excitement he doesn’t need. It’s a police detective:

“Mr Morressi, we think you might be able to help us with something. Something we found in the river.”

Southern Cross crime

Written in the third person, but largely told through the eyes of Ben, Wimmera is part of a new wave of internationally successful Australian crime novels dubbed “Southern Cross Crime”. (Think Jane Harper’s novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, and Emily McGuire’s An Isolated Incident — and they are just the ones I have been lucky enough to read.)

But it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. It’s not a police procedural, though there are snippets of police interviews in the final part of the novel, and it’s not so much a who did it (though you do have to read the entire book to discover the culprit), but a why did it.

As a crime novel, I don’t think it is particularly strong. There are too many holes in the plot and it doesn’t feel truly believable to me. And the impetus for the crime is too vague. Perhaps the author didn’t want to go into detail and didn’t want to sensationalise it, but sometimes subtlety doesn’t always work.

I think the narrative is better when the author focuses on small town life, particularly what it is like growing up in a rural town in Australia in the 1990s, which he conveys with affection and through clever cultural references tied to that period in history, including schoolboy obsessions with Nike Air Maxes, Australian cricket heroes — Dean Jones, Merv Hughes et al — and TV shows such as Knight Rider, Wide World of Sports and Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday.

The first part of the novel reminded me a little of Jasper Jones (a book I actually hated), but with a more robust prose style.

On the whole, Wimmera is an interesting tale about boyhood friendship that reverberates through the decades. It’s a strong debut novel, flawed in places, but one that marks Brandi as a talent to watch.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer. (Yes, it’s taking me forever to write these all up!) I purchased it when I was in Australia on holiday earlier in the year. I’d not heard anything about it at the time; I was just attracted by the cover image and liked the sound of the blurb on the back.

20 books of summer (2017), Abacus, Author, Charlotte Grimshaw, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Provocation by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages; 2000.

Charlotte Grimshaw is an award-winning writer from New Zealand with eight novels to her name. After reading her 2013 novel, Soon, which made My Favourite Books of 2014 list, I’ve been keen to explore more of her work.

Provocation, first published in 1999, was her debut novel. It garnered much praise and was shortlisted for the Creasey First Crime Fiction Award.

A dark tale set in Auckland

Provocation is set in Auckland in the late 1990s and tells the story of Stella, a young law student living with Stuart, a much older man, who is a criminal barrister. He has a shady past and connections with all kinds of miscreants. He’s also rolling in money.

That money — much of it literally stuffed down the back of the sofa, presumably to keep it from the tax man — gives Stella freedom to do as she likes: to drive about town in a flash car, go clubbing in glitzy venues, buy clothes and other items she would not necessarily be able to afford if she was supporting herself.

This freedom comes at a price. For Stella is anxious when Stuart goes away on business. He has a few dodgy friends and when she discovers an intruder in their swish house overlooking the harbour her anxiety levels are stretched to bursting point.

But then things head in to even more dangerous territory, for she’s agreed to help Stuart with one of his cases; that of a 35-year-old married man, Carlos Henry Lehman, who has been charged with the brutal murder of his neighbour. The defence is provocation (hence the title of the book), but in the backwaters of New Zealand there appears to be different, more violent, codes by which to live your life.

A literary novel with a crime in it

Provocation is billed as a crime novel. On the cover of my edition it says it’s a thriller (“of prejudice, passion and betrayal”), but I think this is misleading. It’s by no means a traditional crime novel, nor a thriller. I actually think it’s a literary novel; it simply has a crime at its heart.

I had mixed feelings reading it. I loved Grimshaw’s often hard-as-nails prose, her authentic characterisation (especially steely Stella and her kick-ass attitude) and her ability to capture the excitement, rivalries and petty jealousies between lovers. And her ear for dialogue was spot on.

But I often found the storyline turgid. The pacing seemed wrong and it didn’t make my heart race at any point. The blurb told me to expect a thriller, but what I really got was a gently nuanced story about a young woman realising that life is not all peaches and cream, that the solution to your problems are never found at the bottom of a beer bottle, and that some men, no matter how rich or accomplished they might be, are simply arseholes.

Yet I can’t dismiss this book on the mere basis that it didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s raw and powerful and brims with menace, but is punctuated by witty moments, too. It’s full of atmosphere (Auckland is presented as a rather glitzy city underpinned by a current of danger) and it pulses with intelligence.

It shows two sides of life in New Zealand — that of the educated urban elite contrasted with those from the rural welfare state — and asks as many questions about social justice as it does criminal justice. Essentially, this is a book about power (personal, financial, political): who has it, who can use it and how you acquire it.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online second-hand in 2014, based on the strength of the author’s novel Soon, which I loved. 

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Terry Hayes, Transworld Digital, Turkey, USA

‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 625 pages; 2013.

Proof that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging and eclectic doesn’t come more obvious than this. Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim is one of those hefty tomes you pack in your holiday luggage, not only because it will keep you occupied for the entire length of time you’re away, but also because the story is so thrilling you won’t grow bored. Except… well…

To be honest, I had no intention of ever reading this book. Then two people recommended it to me, just days apart. And then I found out the author was once a broadsheet journalist in Australia and a close associate of film maker George Miller — the pair wrote the screenplay for Mad Max 2 together. So when I went on holiday to the UAE earlier this month (to visit my sister and her family) I took a copy with me, thinking it would keep me entertained if it was too hot to do much outdoors. As it turns out, it was too hot, and yes, I am Pilgrim kept me entertained. However… well…

Let me back track first and tell you a bit about the storyline. It’s essentially a modern-day spy thriller cum crime novel and most of the story is narrated in the first person by Scott Murdoch, codename “Pilgrim”, a secret agent with a covert organisation that has links to US intelligence. He is brought out of semi-retirement to save the world from an impending outbreak of smallpox that is going to be unleashed on the USA by an Arab Muslim (cast in a similar vein to Osama Bin Laden).

Just to make the story more exciting — or more complicated, depending on your point of view — there’s a crime to unravel as well. When the book begins, a woman’s body is found in a hotel room. She’s lying in a bath of acid, which has eaten away all her identifying features, including her face and fingerprints. The odd thing about this murder is that there’s nary a clue to be found — and it follows, almost to the letter, advice that Scott Murdoch wrote in a definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. This begs the question, how much responsibility should he take for the crime?

Octane-fuelled narrative

Intrigued? Well, admittedly I was, right from the start. This is an octane-fuelled narrative that swings across the globe — Manhattan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany — at a dizzying rate of knots, following all kinds of plots and sub-plots, some of which are told in the third-person.

There’s violence, death and mayhem at almost every turn, but the story — or twin stories, as it turns out — is told in such an engaging and, indeed, filmic way, it quickly becomes a rather addictive read. The plots are complicated and some might argue far-fetched, but that’s not a complaint I would make — after what happened on 9/11 I don’t think anything terrorism related is out of the question these days.

It’s also an intelligent read and a fascinating insight into international politics, espionage, terrorism and forensics. It might be a fast-paced thriller but it’s not dumbed down. It’s got the kind of detail in it that suggests it has been very well researched and it feels authentic, almost as if it’s been taken from the front page of a newspaper or the lead news bulletin on TV.

Attention waned 

However, I have to say my attention waned once I’d reached the half-way point and I considered abandoning it. Perhaps it’s because my holiday had ended and I had to go back to my usual routine, but once I was back in London I’d kind of lost interest in the story. I began to pick faults:  the links between the terrorism plot and the murder plot seemed, well, weird; I grew sick of being told on every second page that Murdoch was the best secret agent in the business; and I kept seeing endless references to Australians (I know we travel a lot, but couldn’t the author have included other nationalities every now and then?). Minor annoyances, I know, but little things can grate.

Eventually, I made a decision that I had to finish the book (I’d read 300 pages after all) so I devoted several evenings and an entire afternoon to completing it. It concluded exactly as I expected: with a bang and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

It’s not the kind of book that’s going to win high-brow literary awards, though it did deservedly win the Thriller and Crime Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards in the UK. But that won’t matter when the film comes out: MGM has bought the rights to produce a Bond-like franchise. It has ker-ching! written all over it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Drowned Boy’ by Karin Fossum

The-drowned-boy

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Karin Fossum novel is always a wonderful, almost meditative, experience. Even though she writes about horrible crimes, her compassion and intelligence shine through, and by the time you reach the final page you’re left feeling irrevocably changed — for the better.

Her latest, The Drowned Boy, is right up there among her best. It’s a police procedural, the 11th in her Inspector Sejer series, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary to read any of the others to “get” it — indeed, it’s strong enough to simply stand on its own.

Death of a toddler

The Drowned Boy follows Inspector Sejer’s investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond at the bottom of his parent’s property.

On the face of it, Tommy’s death appears to be a tragic accident — one minute he was playing quietly inside, the next he was found floating in the water — but something doesn’t quite add up. Or at least that’s what the police feel, including Sejer’s colleague Jacob Skarre.

‘We’ve got a drowning,’ Jacob Skarre told him. ‘In Damtjern, the pond up by Granfoss, you remember? About twenty minutes from Moller Church. A little boy, sixteen months old. His mother found him by the small jetty, but it was too late. The ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for about three-quarters of an hour, to no avail. Some uncertainty as to how he ended up in the water. Also, he was naked, but we’re not quite sure what that means. […]
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way. There in half an hour.’
And then, after a short pause: ‘Is there something that doesn’t feel right? Is that why you called?’
‘Yes,’ Skarre replied, ‘it’s the mother. I can’t explain it, but I think we should look a bit closer. Let’s just leave it at that, you know what I mean.’

As the police dig into the circumstances surrounding Tommy’s death, the relationship between the young parents, Carmen and Nicolai, begins to crumble under the focus of so much attention from the authorities and the weight of their grief.

Each deals with their pain in a different way: Carmen behaves as though everything is okay and is keen to have another child almost immediately, while Nicolai clams up and becomes insolent and withdrawn. This has wider repercussions on their relationships with friends and work colleagues, but it is when Carmen’s own family begin to turn against her that the alarm bells start ringing.

Did she or didn’t she kill her own son isn’t the real question here, because it’s pretty obvious from the start that the 19-year-old mother is guilty. The intrigue — and the narrative tension — is created by trying to figure out how she did it, why she did it, and will Sejer ever figure it out?

Fossum ratchets up the tension even further by having Sejer grapple with his own mortality: he’s been experiencing spells of dizziness and is frightened he might have cancer but refuses to seek medical advice.  As his investigation into the drowning unfolds, his own health worsens — will he be able to hold out long enough to see it to its rightful conclusion?

Typical Fossum fare

The Drowned Boy is typical Fossum fare. In writing about the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing, she is always careful never to sensationalise the crimes or cast judgement on her characters. Everything is carefully, quietly held in check — the police are compassionate, kind and patient; the people under investigation are all-too human — and this new novel is no exception. And yet I read it with a creeping feeling of unease. It’s a deeply unsettling story, one that feels so true it could have been lifted direct from the pages of a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a riveting read.

The Drowned Boy will be published in the UK on 4 June.

Please note that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer’s series has been translated out of order, so I haven’t been able to follow the series chronologically. The ones reviewed here are:  In the Darkness (first published in 1995, but only translated in 2013), Don’t Look Back (1996, trans 2003), Bad Intentions (2008, trans 2011) and The Caller (2009, trans 2012). All of them are excellent.