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.

A Yi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘A Perfect Crime’ by A Yi

A-Perfect-Crime

Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld Publications; 224 pages; 2015. Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood.

I do love a dark crime novel — and A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is probably one of the darkest I’ve read in a long time.

Set in China, it follows the exploits of a disaffected 19-year-old student who decides he’s so bored he needs to do something to make his life more exciting. Where others might go on a holiday or take up a new hobby, this nameless young man decides to murder a fellow student by luring her into the apartment he shares with his aunt. Here, he brutally stabs her to death and then shoves her body into a washing machine. He then goes on the run, criss-crossing the country, in what turns out to be a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

Will he get caught?

A Perfect Crime isn’t your traditional who dunnit, because we know up front who committed the crime. We also know how he did it, and, because it’s told entirely from his point of view, we also know why he did it, even if we may not understand his reasoning or logic. What we don’t know is whether he will get caught, and if he does get caught, will he get away with it or begin to show remorse?

This makes the book quite an original take on a genre that can often be predictable or trot out the same old tropes. And despite the fact the reader knows the who, why and how of the narrator’s horrid and brutal crime, the author manages to achieve a high level of tension throughout. I raced through this in just a handful of sittings and felt slightly wrung out by the end of it.

It’s an incredibly bleak story, one that often brought to mind Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and MJ Hyland’s This is How, two books that are fascinating portraits of murderers who commit extraordinary violent murders almost on a whim. I was also reminded of the very best Japanese crime fiction — for instance, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief and Shuichi Yoshida’ Villain — which explore the dark recesses of Japanese society.

A dark glimpse at Chinese culture

Interestingly, I heard the author speak about this book (via a translator) at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival earlier in the week. He said the book was based on a true crime and that he wanted to explore the dark underbelly of Chinese culture, but he did not want to glorify the crime, hence he did not give the narrator a name.

Having now read the book, I can see that his experience in law enforcement (he was a policeman for five years) and as a journalist/editor, has come to the fore. Not only does the content of the book feel authentic, in particular, the crime and the judicial process that follows, it reads like a dream — the prose is action-driven, clean, bare-boned and there’s not a word out of place.

But while A Perfect Crime is set in China and gives us a glimpse of a society undergoing super-quick change, this is essentially a universal story of what can happen to young men, who are disaffected, bored and uninspired by the life they see before them — no matter where they live.

For another take on this book, please see Stu’s review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

Confessions

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Japanese do a nice line in dark fiction, whether crime or otherwise — think Keigo HigashinoShuichi YoshidaFuminori NakamuraNatsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa, to name just a handful.

Kanae Minato’s debut novel, Confessions, is no exception. This revenge tale, set in a middle school in a small town, explores issues relating to morality, justice and child crime. It’s a cracking story about adolescence gone wrong, with lots of unexpected plot twists and horrifying outcomes, but it’s probably one of the darkest books I’ve read in quite awhile.

And having read it back-to-back with another dark story of vengeance — Harriet Lane’s Her — I think that’s my quota of malicious tales done for the year.

Teacher seeks vengeance

The book opens with a grief-stricken schoolteacher, Yuko Moriguchi, addressing the pupils in her class on the last day of her teaching career — she’s decided to retire following the untimely death of her beloved four-year-old daughter, who was found drowned in the school’s swimming pool.

What begins as a relatively pleasant farewell speech descends into a bitter diatribe in which she accuses two of her students of murdering her daughter. She doesn’t name them, but they can be clearly identified by the things she says.

Because the age of criminal responsibility in Japan is 14 and the accused are just 13, Moriguchi decides to take the law into her own hands and dishes out her own form of justice. It turns out to be a rather cruel and unusual punishment — in fact, it’s downright jaw-droppingly horrific.

From this one act of vengeance, things slowly spiral out of control and by the book’s end there is at least one other person dead and another locked away in an asylum — which begs the question: would the outcomes have been any better under the normal channels of justice?

Five different perspectives

The book is structured around six longish chapters, the first and last of which are told from the teacher’s perspective. The intervening chapters are told from other character’s points of view, so that we get to hear from each of the accused, student A and student B; the mother of student B; and the class president.

While this means some scenes are retold over and over again — how the body was discovered, for instance —  the new perspectives help deliver new insights into how others are affected by events. Their reactions and their motivations aren’t always predictable — sometimes they’re simply terrifying.

It’s written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style typical of modern Japanese fiction, which only adds to the chilling nature of the storyline.

Big themes

And while it could be described as a quiet and understated novel, it deals with some surprisingly big themes — How do you teach children right from wrong? How should society deal with child criminals?  What barriers should there be between teachers and their students?

It depicts a society falling apart at the seams, where children either seek fame and glory by committing the most horrendous crimes or they drop out of society altogether by locking themselves away to become hikikomori (“shut-ins”). It paints a rather bleak picture of modern Japan. It’s not cheerful reading by any stretch of the imagination — the morality of many of the characters is dubious at best.

However, as a page turner that treads spine-chilling territory based on the twisted behaviour of a handful of deliciously dark characters, it’s rather superb. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: according to the “About the Author” page in my edition, Confessions has sold more than three million copies in Japan and has won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers and the National Booksellers’ Award. In 2009 it was adapted into a film directed by Tetsuya Nakashima.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lemur’ by Benjamin Black

The Lemur

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 2009; 185 pages.

Ghostwriters or journalists who get themselves into trouble while researching the books that they are writing is not a new idea in fiction — think Robert Harris’ The Ghost and Alan Glynn’s Bloodland for a start. Into this “genre” comes The Lemur, a stand-alone novella by John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

But this is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Fast-paced and full of classy prose (and classy characters), it has all the hallmarks of a book that could have been written any time in the past 60 years: it feels like a good old-fashioned classic, with a nod to the likes of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, but is set in modern day Manhattan, with its glass canyons and chaotic streets ringing with the constant sound of police sirens.

The story is a slight one — a biographer hires a researcher who uncovers a dangerous secret but is murdered before the secret can be told — but in Black/Banville’s hands it feels like a much grander narrative.

A man with a secret

Essentially, The Lemur goes something like this: John Glass, a renowned Irish journalist, has married into a rich American family headed by billionaire William “Big Bill” Mulholland, a former CIA operative who has made his money in spyware electronics. When Mulholland discovers that another journalist, Wilson Cleaver, is planning a hostile biography of him, he hires his son-in-law, Glass, to pen the official version for the grand sum of $1million.

But Glass, feeling slightly out of his depth, decides to hire a researcher to help him on the project. And this is where he meets the “Lemur” of the title — a young researcher by the name of Dylan Riley, who already seems to know a lot about Mulholland. Glass is immediately suspicious of him, not the least because “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, he bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents”.

Things take a turn for a worse when a day after their first meeting Riley tries to blackmail Glass for $500,000:

“No, you look,” the Lemur said, in a new, harsh and suddenly unadolescent-sounding voice. “You used to be the real thing, Glass. A lot of us believed in you, followed your example. Now look at you.” He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, sell out to your father-in-law the spook if you like. Tell the world what a sterling guy he is, the unacknowledged Cold War conscience of the West, the man who urged negotiations with Castro and a safe passage for Allende to Russia — as if he’d have wanted to go, the poor schmuck. Go ahead, write his testament, and peddle your soul for a mess of dollars. But I know something that will tear you people apart, and I think you should pay me, I think you WILL pay me, to keep it all in the family.”

But the next day, the Lemur is found dead, shot through the eye with a Beretta. What is the secret he knew? And has he told anyone else? And why are the police suddenly asking Glass a lot of questions?

Edgy and filmic

The Lemur might be a relatively simply tale — there’s nary a red herring to be seen and the narrative is far too short to twist and turn in the way of a conventional thriller — but it definitely holds the attention, probably because the author makes every scene, no matter how small, feel edgy and combative: you’re never quite sure which character in a given situation is going to come off the worse for wear.

As one would expect from a Booker prize-winning author, the prose is rich and alive but Banville reigns things in beautifully: there are no literary flourishes, just good writing with a distinct filmic quality to it.

Likewise, the characters are exemplarily drawn — the bullish but aloof father-in-law; the impeccably dressed and successful wife; the intriguing and artistic mistress; the arrogant “young pretender” step son; the once-famed journalist wrestling with his conscience and afraid to lose all — while the razor-sharp dialogue moves things along at a clipping pace.

The ending, while plucked from the usual “family secret” book of cliches, is satisfying in its own little way. But this is not the kind of book you read for the denouement; it’s the pleasurable journey you experience along the way that makes The Lemur such a beguiling read.

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

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum

I-can-see-in-the-dark

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Soon’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Soon

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 320 pages; 2013.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a lawyer-turned-writer from New Zealand with quite an extensive back catalogue to her name, but until Soon was published in the UK last year I had never heard of her.

The novel, which has reputedly been on the “bestseller list in New Zealand every week since publication there”, turned out to be a real “find”. It was such a delicious and powerful read that I’ve promptly ordered several more of Grimshaw’s novels and will look forward to reading them in due course.

Not your average summer holiday

Soon takes a time-worn, almost clichéd setting — that of a summer holiday where two lots of people happily coexist until a new person enters the scene to disturb the equilibrium — but gives it several refreshing (and dark) twists.

The first is that this is no usual set of holidaymakers — it’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, no less, and he’s spending his summer in a three-storey house by the coast with the people he holds dearest: his trophy wife, Roza, and their five-year-old son, Johnnie; his best friend Simon Lampton, who is a doctor, Simon’s wife Karen and their teenage children, Claire, Elke and Marcus; the Minister of Police, Ed Miles, and his wife Juliet; and his deputy, known as “The Cock”, and his vacuous wife Sharon.

The second is that there is a bit of a power play going on — and not in the way you might suspect. Although David and Simon are friends (“What I like about you is that you’re not political. Your mind’s on other things. That’s so refreshing to me”), they are connected in another, quite unusual, way:

When he married her, David’s second wife Roza had been keeping a secret. It was not a sensational one, as secrets go: aged sixteen, she had given birth to a baby and adopted her out. Eight years later, after the adoption and a number of foster placings had failed, the girl, Elke, had been adopted by Dr Simon Lampton and his wife Karen. In the following years, the Lamptons had come to love Elke as their own. But just before David Hallwright had been elected Prime Minister, Roza had located the child, and had introduced herself to the Lamptons (and revealed herself to David) as the birth mother.

The two mothers are now best friends — or so everyone thinks — and the two families have become close because of their shared love for Elke, who has grown into a rather beautiful, self-confident young woman. But Elke is now preparing to leave home for the first time to go to university and Karen is anxious that she will be lost to them forever. It doesn’t help that the Hallwrights are pushing Elke to come and live with them.

So before the events of the novel really get underway, Grimshaw has introduced a simmering tension between these two supposedly close families. But that’s just the half of it.

Extra twists

Additionally, there are two pivotal moments in this book that raise the tension — and the stakes — even higher.

Simon receives an unexpected phone call from a journalist researching the disappearance of a Greek-Maori woman called Mereana Kostas, the same woman that Simon once had a secret affair with. And then Simon’s older brother Ford turns up to disturb the relative peace and quiet of the holidaymakers: he’s vehemently opposed to the right-wing Government and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the less than fair policies it has adopted.

Things really come to a head when a crime is committed, but to say any more would give the game away…

A tense read

Soon, if you haven’t guessed already, is a novel brimming with all kinds of anxieties and strains. This is mirrored in the relations between the characters, which are all very complicated and messy. There’s an interesting sub-plot between Simon and Roza, which revolves around whether they will act on their sexual attraction to one another, and another between Simon and the journalist as to whether his affair will be exposed to the world.

It’s testament to Grimshaw’s skill as a writer that she makes the reader want to keep turning the pages despite most of these characters, perhaps with the exception of Simon, being hugely unlikable. (Think The Slap but set in New Zealand.) The way in which she juggles multiple storylines between this mish-mash of characters is superb, too, so that as a reader I was constantly surprised by the unfolding of events.

Unfortunately, there was one element that I think didn’t work. This involves Roza narrating a rather menacing story to Johnnie about a badly behaved character called Soon. This has uncanny parallels to events happening in the real world, but I felt this merely got in the way of the rest of the narrative. That’s a minor quibble, however.

Politics in action

Perhaps the thing I liked most about this exhilarating novel (and exhilarating is exactly the right word to describe it because it often left me feeling breathless and on edge) is the glimpse it provides, not only of modern New Zealand society, in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the people in power who have helped create it.

And while I’m not a fan of political novels, per se, I found much to enjoy in this one. Despite there being an unwritten rule that house guests cannot talk politics (they’re on holiday after all), there are several eye-opening conversations between the PM and his minsters about how his party should go about winning the next election that make you realise just how cynical, manipulative and immoral modern politicians have become.

Soon is a rather seductive novel, in all senses of the word. It draws you in to a closed, protected world and shows people acting at their most primal. It’s a literary page-turner of the finest order, one that is deliciously dark, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. I won’t forget it in a hurry.