The Shape Of Water – Andrea Camilleri (2003) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Although I’ve watched every episode of both “Inspector Montalbano” and “Young Montalbano” shown over here on BBC4 I’ve never read any of the books on which they are based.  This is the first in the sequence published in the UK in 2003.  Those of you who want to be strictly chronological may wish to start with Camilleri’s 2013 collection “Montalbano’s First Case & Other Stories” but I’m going with the order by publication date.

So far Camilleri has produced twenty of these Italian bestsellers up to 2016’s “A Voice In The Night”with the next two scheduled (“A Nest Of Vipers” is due to be published in August 2017) so I have a fair bit of catching up to do.  I did find myself remembering the TV adaptation quite well as I was reading this (I’m usually a bit of a stickler for reading the book first) and I couldn’t get Luca Zingaretti’s portrayal of the Inspector out of my head.

Plotwise, a local notable is found dead in his car at a known cruising ground, partially clad and having recently had a good time.  It’s believed to be a fairly scandalous natural causes heart attack but Montalbano thinks differently.  On the same site a valuable necklace is found by two waste disposal men and there is obviously some link between the jewellery and the dead man.  Despite some rather tortuous long sentences at the beginning of the novel this settles into a quick and relatively easy read.  The glory of Sicily does not come across, obviously, as well as it does on the television but here, in this translation by, Stephen Saratelli you don’t need to read the subtitles.  Once you’re drawn into the Italian way of complex local political manoeuvrings and a different kind of logic and Camilleri writing more than you’d expect with tongue firmly in cheek this provides a very satisfactory introduction to these quirky crime capers.  At times I could feel the influence of prolific French author Georges Simenon (Camilleri worked on a TV production of “Maigret” before embarking on his writing career) and that’s certainly no bad thing.

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The Shape Of Water was published by Picador in 2003

Nutshell – Ian McEwan (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I feel that Ian McEwan has been part of my reading life for a long time.  I was 18 and supposedly revising for my A Levels when I discovered his first two collections of short stories, the Somerset Maugham award-winning “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these tales ever before.  I also devoured  his dark debut novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) whilst I should have been listing the reasons for the French Revolution.

His next couple of novels seemed slighter affairs but I was back with him for “The Innocent” (1990) and particularly for his tale of  hot air balloons and obsession “Enduring Love” (1998), a book I am determined to re-read this year to see if it is as good as I remembered.  His 1998 Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam” is less memorable and came before the book which should have picked up every accolade going, his masterwork as far as I am concerned “Atonement” (2001), one of the best novels of this century so far.  I still have the last three before this latest, “Solar” (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012) and “The Children Act” (2014) sitting on my shelves waiting to be read but I couldn’t hold out when I saw “Nutshell” in my local library and had to borrow it and read it, especially as he is the current holder of my  Reviewsrevues Book Of The Year Re-Read Award.

My verdict- it is very good but not classic McEwan.  It lacks the richness and depth of his very best but it is a very involving and memorable read.  Narrated by a foetus in a womb this is certainly a crime novel with a difference.  This very well-informed youngster has picked up significant life experiences from listening to podcasts and the radio as well as a gourmand’s tastes from the rich food and copious amounts of wine his mother imbibes.  He has a vivid sense of the world he has never seen, two factors which make him a fascinating if not totally reliable narrator.  When he hears his mother and her lover, Claude, his father’s brother, plotting to kill his father (obvious shades of “Hamlet” here) he faces the dilemma of being a small part of a “perfect crime” coupled with a need for his biological father backed by an awareness of what repercussions there will be for his young life if things go wrong.

This is very much a character study of the three sides of the love triangle as seen through the (unopened) eyes of the embryo.  There are digressions aplenty as he attempts to make sense of his world before he makes an appearance and an attuned awareness of the developments of the murder plot.  The three adults are brought to life vividly but it is the unborn who the reader will be rooting for.  It’s original and like the best crime novels I did find myself holding my breath towards the end as McEwan’s plot comes to resolution.

fourstars

 

Nutshell was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in September 2016.  The paperback edition is due in June 2017.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

fourstars

Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A lot of people read this novel on publication assuming Galbraith was a debut novelist and word of mouth about this exciting new talent grew, ensuring it sold well.  Then, it was revealed that Galbraith was none other than JK Rowling dipping a toe into the murky waters of adult crime fiction and sales exploded.  With hindsight, there is in its focus on the relationship between characters and its awareness of popular culture and celebrity enough to suggest a female author at work, but then the main character is so well drawn with an awareness of the foibles and shortcomings of the male species that it feels like he must have been created by another man, so the subterfuge was convincing.

Cormoran Strike is certainly a larger than life character whose vitality is central to the success of this novel.  He is the result of a rock star’s fling with a supergroupie.  Following army service in Afghanistan, where he lost a leg he has given up his military career and become a fairly unsuccessful private detective.  He’s physically large, known to his acquaintances by a range of nicknames, is failing in a relationship with a woman better looking than he thinks appropriate and is struggling to cope with the ramifications of that relationship’s demise.  Into this comes a temporary secretary, Robin, and a case concerning the death of a model which just might enable Strike to make his mark.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a rich, highly entertaining novel which given its crime tag has more than its fair share of humour and warmth.  The relationship between Cormoran and Robin, the employer whose life is in tatters and the employee who steadfastly attempts to ignore her boss’ shortcomings whilst finding herself drawn into his investigation is very strong and demands further adventures.  The case is well-thought out and keeps the reader guessing.  Rowling has spent many years now in the privileged realm of the multi-millionaire world renowned author yet her down at heel detective and the world he inhabits feels plausible and very real.  True, there is a lot of wealth in the case with paparazzi, fashion designers and the super-rich all playing their part but throughout I was rooting for the so likeable but so often unappealing Cormoran Strike.

fourstars

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Sphere in 2013

Ritual – Mo Hayder (2008) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I thought I’d explore my complex relationship with Mo Hayder, an author who perplexes me just a little.  This is the 5th of her books I have read and it’s not always plain sailing.  I loved “Tokyo” her stand-alone novel (wasn’t so wild about the too dark “Pig Island”) and I have had reservations about the two DI Jack Caffery novels I’ve read (“Birdman” and “The Treatment”) but there’s something about Mo (“Tokyo” being the case in point) that keeps driving me back to her.

My gripe about her work is that it can all be a little too full-on, all darkness and no light and this is perpetuated by the character of Caffery- a Detective Inspector obsessed with the disappearance of his brother during their childhood.  It’s left him brooding, unpleasant and with tendencies towards inappropriate violence, who basically offers no light relief to the reader.  I was fascinated to read in an Afterword to this novel that the author herself shared some of my views and was determined to leave him to stew in his own misery after two novels.  She was aiming to do something different with this but found him worming his way back in.  This has resulted in the best of her Caffery novels to this point.

This has been achieved by a change of location to Bristol, taking him away from the scenes of his turbulent past and by getting him to share the limelight with another character, Sergeant Phoebe “Flea” Marley – a police diver.  Now Flea is not exactly a bundle of laughs either.  Her devotion to her duties is fueled by guilt following the death of both of her parents in a diving accident but somehow putting these two troubled souls together lightens the intensity to make for a more entertaining read.

The case begins when a human hand is discovered in Bristol harbour.  There are implications of muti, a regional tribal South African form of witchcraft which can involve human blood and body parts.  If this sounds grim, believe me, it’s nothing compared to the cases in Hayder’s previous Caffery novels.

The whole thing is well-paced with good twists and turns and tightly plotted, creating real tension.  A sub-plot sees Caffery connecting with “The Walking Man”, another damaged soul whose guilt saw him taking matters into his own hands and who now lives rough.  It was this connection, Hayder says, which caused her to relent and see a place for the DI in this novel and thus brought him back.  For me, this is actually the least successful aspect of “Ritual” but in bringing him back she has upped the readability of this series and I’m looking forward to reading the next one, despite its spine-chilling title “Skin”.  Hayder does still have the ability to scare me witless but in this has made that ability a little more entertaining and palatable.  Some of her previous books have left me with an unpleasant grubby feeling but I didn’t experience that with this.  The series is here redeemed.

fourstars

Ritual was published by Bantam in 2008

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall – Vaughn Entwistle (2014)– A Murder They Wrote Review

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Vaughn Entwistle very kindly sent me this book following our Author Strikes Back interview  which was based on his subsequent novel, the highly enjoyable “The Angel of Highgate”.  This 2014 publication is the first in his “Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” and features two prominent Victorian literary figures in Doyle and Oscar Wilde.  Neither of these are strangers to fictional characterisations.  TV presenter Giles Brandreth has written a whole series of sleuthing novels featuring Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle has  perhaps been most famously fictionalised in Julian Barnes’ “Arthur And George”.

The pair, who were friends in real life, lend themselves very well to Entwistle’s crime romp.  It is not so much a whodunit as a who will do it.  It is set at the time when Conan Doyle’s wife is in the latter stages of consumption and he has tired of his great creation, Sherlock Holmes, and killed him off amid much public outcry.  An invitation to do some detective work at Thraxton Hall seems a perfect short-term getaway from his troubles and Wilde comes along for the ride.  These are  individuals who most readers would have some impression as to what they were like and Entwistle very nicely fleshes out our impressions of the larger than life Wilde and the conflicted Conan Doyle.  This unlikely friendship is a real highspot of the novel.

What Entwistle does with these two is to place them in a classic country house set-up reminiscent of the golden days of crime fiction.  A meeting of the Society for Psychical Research allows for a supernatural element.  Otherwise there’s a group of likely suspects from above and below stairs, a locked-room death and enough tunnels and secret passageways to delight the classic crime fan.  There wasn’t as much out and out fun as the more gloriously unpredictable “Angel of Highgate” and the darker side of the author’s writing was not as evident but it did provide me with considerable enjoyment and is worth seeking out as a successful modern slant on classic crime fiction.  In 2015 the second of this series entitled “The Dead Assassin” was published.

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Vaughn Entwistle

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“The Revenant Of Thraxton Hall” was published in 2014 by Titan.

 

By Gaslight – Steven Price(Oneworld 2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Day 41 without internet access.  It seems that BT Open Reach have at last got round to doing what was needed to give me Broadband (in a property where there was broadband already) but for the last few days we have been “backed up in the system” whatever that means.  This means that the line still has not been showing as “order complete” and that needs to happen before our EE router gets triggered and actually sent to us.  It apparently can take 5-8 working days before the problem in the system is sorted and there seems to be no way that EE (because I am being told that they are systems based) can actually send off the router before then so we can check that the broadband work which has apparently been done has actually been done).  So no Broadband for Xmas or the New Year then on an order that was placed in the beginning of November!  The whole thing is beyond belief- hard to believe its soon going to be 2017.  A complaint has been registered to Ofcom on our behalf but that does not seem to make any difference to BT Wholesale whose job it is now to sort out the mess they have created (in their own time).  I have spent over 5 hours on the phone on this just this week alone. All I want to do is get back into the swing of posting and reviewing…………………………….  Here’s a book to consider….

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I think most reviewers experience a slight sagging of the shoulders when faced with a long novel.  Anything over 600 pages and I know that the To Be Read pile is going to be mounting up.  Long novels have to be really good to get over the anxiety of not meeting deadlines.  Canadian authors Steven Price’s doorstep of a Victorian-set novel comes in at 730 pages of a large format paperback.

I’m not writing off those authors who wish to write at length, especially with a nineteenth century London setting.  One of my all time favourites is Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” (Bloomsbury 2002) and one of the things I love so much about it is how Faber, right from the start, takes the reader in hand and leads us through the daunting opening chapters really drawing us into the reading marathon he has set up for us and ensuring that we last the distance.  My main  criticism of Price’s second novel is that it is initially rather difficult to get into which, given the length and heaviness of the book, might lose him some readers.

Main protagonist William Pinkerton is the son of Allan, who set up the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1850.  Using this real-life basis Price spins his fictional tale of treachery, crime and families from these two real-life characters.  Pinkerton the elder became obsessed with a thief known as Edward Shade, an appropriately shadowy figure who managed to evade all attempts to track him.  Following the old man’s death, the son, William takes on this obsession and, following a lead, comes to the foggy streets of London in the 1880’s.  When a mutilated female corpse is extracted from the river Pinkerton becomes involved in a police investigation with the hope that it will lead him to Shade.

At the same time fellow American, Adam Fool, thief and confidence trickster, arrives in London with his entourage of heavy man Fludde and young “dipper” Molly also on a quest to find the woman Pinkerton believes will lead him to Shade.

The narrative switches from London to the events of the American Civil War some 20 years early where Price gradually unfolds the motives behind the events in London.  As a writer he sometimes leaves us too much in the dark and sometimes, because of the novel’s length, puts in a fair amount of repetition to keep us in the loop.  This does make me question whether some of the length could have been pared somewhat.

Around 500 pages in things began to click into place and I found myself more gripped than I had been.  Price is a poet and is able to easily to summon evocative passages and descriptions but I did feel sometimes, through the atmospherics, that I would have welcomed more variety in terms of pace.  He may be a little guilty of over-reliance of attaining authenticity in his portrayal of the London streets.  The pace does ramp up for the last quarter but I am concerned that readers may have flagged by then.  The plot revelations and outcomes were not shattering as Price sets them up quite a bit in advance but the ending is involving and made me realise that my investment of time with this novel was well spent.

 

By Gaslight was published by Oneworld in  September 2016

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Blackwater – James Henry (Riverrun 2016)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Reading this first in a projected series of police procedural thrillers featuring DI Nick Lowry I kept thinking about what makes a distinctive British crime series.  A lot is to do with location (Dexter’s Oxford, James’ Brighton, Rankin’s Edinburgh immediately springing to mind).  I was interested by Henry’s Colchester, its garrison town status gives it an added dimension which will pitch army against police and the location itself (with which I am not familiar) with its nearby coastal flats and Mersea Island has much dramatic potential.

Secondly, we need an involving set of regular characters.  Sometimes this can take a book or two to get established so I’m not that worried that I feel I don’t have the measure yet of DI Lowry nor his team nor superiors.  The “crime” itself is obviously an essential.  Does it involve the reader throughout?  On this occasion, I’m not totally sure it does.  In the first week of 1983 a soldier falls to his death after being chased, a headless corpse turns up on a causeway and a drugs run goes wrong.  How far these are connected to one another are up to Lowry and his team to work out.

Finally, a little something special is needed, that unique twist to make the series stand out.  By setting it in the 80’s Henry recreates a world of phone boxes rather than text messages and of police officers more interested in arranging boxing and football tournaments than anything else.  And oh yes, the sexism, this is reminiscent of “Ashes To Ashes’” Gene Hunt (a name that may very well be mentioned regularly in reviews of this book).  Consider the Chief Superintendant’s words;

“ The police force is a man’s arena, and as such any woman prepared to play in this world has to be prepared to take a few punches, much like inside the ring….Figuratively of course- we can’t go knocking them around, that would be wrong….But ordinarily, the odd grope, an arse squeeze on a night out, is acceptable.”

Henry’s world of crime solvers is a macho  and often disinterested one but there’s an awareness that times need to change and this is conveyed well.  A woman is in charge of these boors (albeit a fur coat clad one) and her WPC niece is keen to make an impression and you get the feeling that this is where the mileage is for this series.

The author has previously written three well-received prequels to RD Wingfield’s “Frost” novels  but this has more grit and the lingering air of Old Spice about it.  He has created a series which has the potential to do well.

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Blackwater was published in July 2016 by Riverrun (a Quercus imprint)

Dead Like You – Peter James (Macmillan 2010)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Okay, so I know I’m six years behind with the Roy Grace series but I enjoy James’ Brighton-set police procedurals so much that I ration them.  I realised that I did not read one at all last year (I had read two the previous year) so had to put that right.

This is book number six in the series where it is imperative to keep a list because of the similarity of the titles and look of the books.  I think things started off so strongly with “Dead Simple” and there was a slight fall in standard for the next couple but “Dead Man’s Footsteps” and especially “Dead Tomorrow” saw James upping his game once again to produce modern crime classics.  This one makes it three very good books in a row, suggesting that this is one of the most consistent of crime series.

For those of you who have already read it and are trying to recall which one it is from the never-that-helpful titles it’s the one about the shoes.  Now I know you remember.

We have two time frames- an abduction on Christmas Eve 1997 of Rachel Ryan, tipsily tottering home on high heels.  Her disappearance has remained amongst Brighton’s unsolved cold cases until a woman is assaulted after a New Year’s Eve party at the Metropole Hotel twelve years later.  It becomes clear that “The Shoe Man” has returned to terrorise Brighton.  A shoe fetishist who preys on women wearing new designer shoes leads DS Grace to dredge up the old case in search of clues.  I’m not sure whether I get so involved because I used to live in Grace’s stomping ground.  My visual impression is always strong reading these but I think this also has a fair bit to do with James’ talent for setting the scene.

Short chapters, tense writing and quite a few set pieces which are absolutely gripping.  It does at times make for very uncomfortable reading but the pace forces you on.  I think this is where the series is getting stronger as a couple of the earlier novels had noticeable fluctuations in pace but this kept me involved the whole way through.  I want to move straight on to “Dead Man’s Grip” but the pile of review books awaiting my attention means I will have to wait.

fourstars

Dead Like You was published by Macmillan in 2010.

A Murder On The Appian Way – Steven Saylor (1997) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the seventh book in the Roma Sub Rosa series (for my reviews of the previous two see here).   Unfortunately, this is the weakest in the series.  It took me until I got to the Author’s Historical Note at the back of the book to appreciate just how much of this story was based upon fact.  Saylor takes as his inspiration a real-life murder, defended by Cicero and seen as one of the factors which led to the Civil War which breaks down the Roman Empire.

The novel is set in 52BC.  Main character Gordanius The Finder is now in his late fifties.  The whole thing kicks off with a riot after Clodius (who we met in “The Venus Throw”) is murdered apparently by his arch-enemy Titus Milo.  Gordanius is asked to find out what happened and alongside son Eco and new slave Davus they go to the scene of the crime, the Appian Way, to question potential witnesses.  There’s a lot of political intrigue amongst Clodius’ followers, Milo, Pompey and Cicero and as a result this novel feels a little stodgy compared to its predecessors and the investigations upon the Appian Way become somewhat dull.

All is not lost, however, as the novel does pick up considerably in the last third with the trial and its after-effects and the characters I have enjoyed reading about so much in the past regain their vivacity.  Perhaps there is just a little too much fact in this novel when a bit more fiction might have spiced things up a little.  There are some new characters who look like they might have significant parts to play in later novels and all this suggests that the slight dip in quality for this instalment might just be a little blip.

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A Murder On The Appian Way was published in the UK by Robinson in 2005.  There have been a number of re-issue editions with different covers.