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.

 

Tokyo- Mo Hayder (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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After reading Hayder’s 2006 standalone novel, the grim tale of “Pig Island”  which I described as “relentlessly seedy”  I said that I would have to have another go at “Tokyo” to see why that worked so well and stood out from the crowd.  It was my favourite read of 2009 . At the time I wrote in my Book Journal that it was “tense and pretty harrowing”, which it is, but will it survive the re-read challenge?

The answer to that is not fully but it is still significantly the best of the novels I have read so far by Hayder and I’m still sure that there are  more first class novels from this author when she gets, for me, the balance right between light and shade.  My main criticism of her is that the unrelenting tension and horror in her themes can be a little too much for this reader.

I think “Tokyo” is helped by adding a little glamour with the excitement and mystique of the Japanese setting.  This lets a little more light into the proceedings- although in case you think Hayder may be getting soft with us this book links Japanese war atrocities with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia).  Main character Grey arrives in Tokyo with little money but a heap of emotional baggage.  A disturbed, obsessed young woman she is looking for information on a Japanese massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937.  She believes a professor holds the final key to this obsession but finds him reluctant to talk.  Without money options seem fairly limited until she meets Jason who is living in a large, abandoned property with two Russian girls- all of whom work in a club run by a Japanese Marilyn Monroe wannabe named Strawberry.

Grey’s quest to find the truth leads her very quickly into some difficult areas.  Alongside this plot thread is the journal of Shi Changming, a survivor of the massacres.  The tension is cranked up in both narratives as the atrocities of war and a search for the elixir of life in modern-day Tokyo overlap and the climax of both is undeniably horrific.  Although I first read this 7 years ago I had managed to put much of this out of my mind.  On re-read it is back again.

I liked the characterisation in this novel.  We piece together Grey’s back story throughout the plot, Jason and Strawberry are complex individuals and Shi Changming, the professor haunted by the events of 1937 is handled well.  There’s a couple of cartoonish baddies but they are none the less horrific for that.  I re-read this book with the thought of recommending it as one of my 100 Essential reads but on reflection it doesn’t quite make the grade.  Perhaps it didn’t impress me as much as it did the first time round but this is still a powerfully told, harrowing tale which I will no doubt be keeping on my bookshelves.

fourstars

Tokyo was published in 2004 by Bantam

Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts – A K Benedict (Orion 2016)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is the second novel from AK Benedict following 2013’s “The Beauty Of Murder”.  I haven’t read that but will certainly be seeking it out after reading this.  As suggested by the alternative titles this is a book with its foot in two camps.  Part crime novel involving a murder and a stalking and part ghost story, it manages to be very effective on both counts.

Central to the plot is the fascinating Maria, blind since birth, but whose sight has been restored.  Maria cannot cope with being plunged into the sighted world and shuts it out with a blindfold.  She is a mudlarker, collecting treasures on the foreshores of the Thames and uncovers a grisly marriage proposal which leads the police to make connections with an earlier murder and assume that Maria is in danger.  If you can buy into this and not read the book yelling at her to take the blindfold off so she can see the danger then there is so much to enjoy.

Investigating officer Jonathan Dark, homeless because of a crumbling marriage, has his own secrets, some of which he has repressed since childhood.  His involvement in this case reawakens these secrets.  As Maria’s vision is limited through the blindfold so is the vision of most other Londoners who cannot see the ghosts of the departed moving around the city streets.  The few that can see become vital to the solution of the case.  There’s also a group of influentials who are using murder as an entree into an elite group, “The Ring” who infiltrate Dark’s investigation.  I found the whole thing quite fascinating.  It works well on a number of layers and I think would appeal very much to those adults who grew up with Harry Potter and are still searching for adult reading with the perfect blend of fantasy and reality and there are a good few million of those out there.  Swap the school story and the magic for the adult world of crime and a ghost story and you have a book that has the potential to be a real crowd-pleaser.

I loved the ideas of ghosts being ferried around in the back of taxi cabs, some drifting shapelessly within “The Gloaming” and some taking stronger identities to sort out unfinished business and I loved how Benedict blends this into a modern day police investigation.  I loved the connection between the secret keeping police officer and the girl who has needlessly closed her world around her and who has no secrets because her stalker observes everything.  It was tense and chilling both as a crime novel and ghost story.  The presence of London, even when through a blindfold, was palpable and I was kept totally involved as I couldn’t work out the ending.

This is a cracking example of a crime writer attempting to do something different and a fantasy writer using the crime genre to attract a more general readership.  It is solid on both counts. Highly enjoyable and if it just misses out on being one of my rare five star reads it’s because of the niggling “Why doesn’t Marie just……?” questions which would remove some of the peril she is plunged into.  This for me is nitpicking but I feel it might overly frustrate some readers.  It’s quirky and different and yet given the right push still has the potential to snowball into a big seller.

fourstars

Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts is published by Orion on February 25th.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance copy.

 

Death In Profile – Guy Fraser Sampson (Urbane 2016)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Best known for his revival of EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia characters in such novels as “Au Reservoir” and “Lucia On Holiday” (probably enough in itself to win me over) Guy Fraser Sampson has now embarked upon a crime series subtitled “The Hampstead Murders.”  This police procedural novel is the first.  Publishers are always keen to find some different aspect for their crime lists and this certainly does have an original slant, but for me that slant doesn’t work.

As a police procedural all is good, the case is involving, there are plenty of twists and a good balance of investigation, trial and office politics.  However, the author has sought to combine this, a modern day serial killer on the loose in North London with more than a nod to the writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  He introduces a conceit whereby it appears as if characters from Dorothy L Sayers are playing a part in the investigation.  For me, this just didn’t work.

I’m very aware of plot spoiling so I’ll say little but when the team of a two year old investigation into the series of murders is refreshed a profiler is brought in.  Now I know all about profilers (I do watch “Criminal Minds after all) but it does seem like the good team at Hampstead nick know very little.  The eccentric individual helping out the Police has been a staple of detective fiction since Conan Doyle but I just couldn’t get to grips with this character and the whimsy of the whole Lord Peter Wimsey idea grows from this.

When the characters involved in the investigation are on task they are great, believable and generally convincing.  Away from the case it’s all rather stilted and I found the relationships between them came across as inauthentic.  This is something I would be looking out for in the next of the series.  Hopefully, as the characters become more established they will come alive away from the detective work.

I’m not sure how this author’s device of incorporating elements of the Golden Age will work in the next of the series.  I would rather hope that it wasn’t there as it seems an uneasy marriage.

I do think there’s lots for crime-loving reading groups to discuss as I think there will be lots of divided opinion.  I do love Dorothy L Sayers and maybe she does have a place in a modern day Hampstead crime spree but not like this.

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Death In Profile is published by Urbane Books on March 28th 2016.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for this advance copy.

Keeping Secrets – Andrew Rosenheim (Hutchinson 2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I must be going through some kind of secretive phase at the moment.  After my last post the SShh!-Fest that is the YA novel “Only We Know”, here is Chicago born Andrew Rosenheim encouraging us to keep mum in his 2006 publication.  Rosenheim came over to Oxford to study and following his time there had various jobs in publishing at Oxford University Press and then as Managing Director at Penguin Press.  He has been a full-time writer for the past fourteen years and this was his second of his 10 published works.

I first came across this book when it appeared on the excellent list that was produced by the World Book Day- Spread The Word  2008 A  Reading List of 100 Books To Talk About.  I loved this list and have read a good number of books upon it and keep it to this day.  I don’t think there has been anything like this since.  I’ve just dug out my copy and had a little count up.  I have read 31% of these and they were all new authors to me and have led me on to reading many other books by these authors.  I suppose in 2008 we didn’t have so many lovely book bloggers reviewing and recommending.

Anyway, onto Rosenheim’s secrets…..The novel has two narrative threads in quite lengthy chunks.  In the first an American boy witnesses his uncle’s murder in his orchard and keeps it a secret and in the second the now grown-up boy begins a relationship with an English woman who is also keeping secrets from him.  The book begins powerfully and is gripping and thoroughly involving but the “modern day strand” is, by comparison, not terribly interesting and it came as a relief to me when the book switched back to the boy Jack Revoir to explain how he came to be at his uncle’s farm at the time of the murder.  The modern strand also resumes, but it never seems to get going.  Jack’s love interest isn’t particularly likeable and the section with her English society family feels really quite lifeless after what has come before.  I am certainly interested in reading more from Rosenheim but feel he may be most effective when his writing has that tinge of nostalgia about it.  His 2012 novel “Fear Itself” is set in America during World War II, so maybe this should be where I go next.  Rosenheim was a survivor of the horrific Paddington Train Crash in 1999, which led, in least in part, with his decision to quit the 9-5 working world.  His account of this time in his life can be found in his Kindle Single publication “The Secrets Of Carriage H” – a 75 page work which has found great favour amongst Amazon reviewers.

I’ll tell you a secret …………..I do not think that this book will be the last Andrew Rosenheim I will read.

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“Keeping Secrets” was published in hardback in 2006 by Hutchinson and as a 2007 Arrow paperback.