Archive for the ‘crime / spy / thriller’ Category

And so the day dawns on which Edinburgh Book Festival starts for me.  Unusually I missed the first week, but then I was rather distracted! i will, however, be making up for lost time during week two. Whatever I’m expecting I can assure you it will be nothing like the festival of Mark McCrum’s invention (or I do hope not).

The small fictional literary festival at Mold-on-Wold comes complete with its own programme, and sparks fly from the outset. Bryce Peabody, a savage literary critic, has just decimated Dan Dickson’s latest novel.  Not content with that he decides to attend Dickson’s event and call him to task during the Q&A.  Such a nice man. Later it becomes apparent that this is the warm-up for his own event the following day, when he’s going to dish some dirt that will set off real fireworks …..

Is it such a surprise that he is found dead in his bed, before he can do so?

Enter Francis Meadowes, author of the crime series featuring George Brathwaite, an amateur sleuth.  Meadowes, in the right place at the right time, finds himself investigating Peabody’s death, using his fictional alter-ego’s methods. It all gets rather meta,  in the most delicious way.

This isn’t some cozy little murder mystery, the sort I might write for my clever-clogs detective, George Brathwaite, for the amusement of a bunch of readers, who might freak out if they saw a road accident, let alone a murder. Actual people are dying here.

Of course, everyone has a motive for wanting Peabody dead: authors he has savaged, ex-partners he has betrayed,  the ex-partner of his current amour.  There are so many grudges against him, it’s hard to keep count.  

While Peabody may be a vitriolic man, is there any real poison in McCrum’s pen?  I’m not sure.  McCrum is an established journalist, ghost writer and non-fiction author who has chosen to self-publish his first novel.  Economics seems the motivating force behind that decision. As for the literary luvvies with which the novel is populated, they are pretty ghastly (and probably very recognisable) literary types.  The audience doesn’t escape the satire either.  However, there does appear to be a particular bite in the portrayal of the festival director ….

In the end though, despite Meadowes’s protestations against coziness, there is a very Agatha feel to the mystery: it’s set in the countryside, everyone has a motive, and some of it is a bit implausible,  Neither is the real perpetrator that difficult to spot.  Like all good Agatha’s the climax is a set piece.

This was not the way Francis had planned it – or wanted it.  Brathwaite would have hated a set-up like this – as near as dammit to the traditional ‘group denouement’ of the Golden Age.

Well, if the fictional detective wasn’t happy, I was.  I enjoyed the setup, the satire and the meta …  And now I’m really in the mood to enjoy the world’s greatest literary festival, where none of these backroom petty rivalries exist … do they?


© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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Winner of the 2014 CWA International Dagger

Translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne

So there I am at the beginning of July, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to participate in Spanish Literature Month because I’m in the middle of a busy, busy, busy summer, when the CWA announce that this book, which I really, really want to read, has won the 2014 International Dagger.  I have a voucher which means I can get me mitts on it, without breaking the book buying ban (according to Mrs Peabody). I nearly fainted when it dropped through the letter box.  At 561 densely-packed pages, it’s not a quick read but it’s all kinds of everything I like.

I’m really enjoying historical fiction this year and this one pitches me right into the Peninsular War, specifically into Siege of Cadiz of 1811 about which I knew nothing. 561 pages later I know lots: Cadiz’s strategic position, the ineffectiveness of the French bombardment, mainly due to French command insisting on using howitzers and refusing to use mortars, and the intense economic battle, waged primarily at sea.  These were the days of the commercial corsair; mercenary pirates, we’d call them now, I suppose, but, having sailed the seas and braved the dangers of navigating the Bay of Cadiz, I can but be in awe.

Meticulous as the historical detail is (and let it be said, the translation –  I bet Frank Wynne learned English vocabularies he never knew existed), I’m not going to pretend that the research is always invisible. However, it is only the odd paragraph here and there that reads as a history lesson.  And there is repetition – perhaps a tad too much about the technicalities of French ballistics ….

That said, I’d rather read this than a history book, for it is alive.  It pulsates with characters and viewpoints from all social strata, many of them quite unique: a taxidermist French spy, a young French professor turned artillery expert, a corsair dying of tuberculosis, the corsair captain,  Pepe Lobo (I give you his name because he’s – well, you know – a hard man with chinks in his armour), Lolita Palma, a spinster in her 30’s and a shrewd business woman, fighting for the continued viability of the family firm.  (In the end using those in her employ as cruelly as Napoleon his troops.)

In the seam that gave the novel eligibility for the dagger, there’s a murderer who is flaying young girls to death together with the detective who pursues him, Rogelio Tizon.  Now he’s as complex a character as I’m ever likely to encounter, and not one I’d like to meet.  A brutal, violent man, who does not welcome reform (i.e. the abolition of torture as a legitimate tool of police interrogation).  After seeing him interrogate those he suspects, a process he almost enjoys, it’s hard to swallow his outrage at the serial killer.  Yet there is more than an intimation of “a curious intimacy” with the murderer. How else would he detect the pattern of the killings and their relation to the falling French bombs? Only Tirzon would have the mendacity to enlist the enemy into catching the killer, and to ensure that when justice is finally served, it is chilling ….

It may not be the fastest paced thriller in the world – in fact, given that the climax doesn’t relate to the crime at all, it could be argued that the criminal thread is secondary to the historical. The Siege is nonetheless an absorbing, magnificent adventure from start to finish.  


At this juncture I should rush off to read Pérez-Reverte’s backlist but consensus is that this is his finest novel to date.  Apparently though, if I enjoyed this, I’ll enjoy Dumas and Stevenson. Well, I love Stevenson but have never read Dumas.  Where should I start?

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in France lately in the company of Inspector Maigret.  I’m all up-to-date with the Penguin reissues (and my piece will be appearing in the next issue of Shiny New Books).  It seems though that France is a very popular destination with 3 other recently read crime novels set there.  Let’s start at the beginning and if I get my Normandy mixed up with my Brittany, forgive me.  I’m beginning to lose my bearings.

Death In Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

Bretonische Verhältnisse translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh

The first in a new series establishes its literary credentials on page one.  Firstly in the name of its detective – Dupin – it is following in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe’s creation, and secondly with a nod to Maigret.  Bannalec’s Dupin is drinking his coffee in the Amiral in Concarneau, the Breton village which appeared in Simenon’s The Yellow Dog.  Where Maigret’s visit to Brittany was fleeting, Dupin’s stay will be longer.  He has been relocated to this remote backwater due to certain disputes. (We never find out why in this volume – perhaps it will become clear, later in the series?) Still there are certain other similarities with Maigret – his bulky physique, his love of coffee, and his modus operandi – he prefers to be alone to work things out.  Dupin’s misfortune is that he is a modern detective and that comes with all the pre-requisite apparatus – a team, forensics, press intrusion.  He is not allowed to operate alone, but he skirts that issue when he can, much to the irritation of his team.

Things are quiet until the day Dupin is called from his coffee and croissants in the Amiral to the scene of the brutal stabbing of the amiable 91-year old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec.  Investigations into the last days of the victim’s life reveal that he knew he was living on borrowed time, and he had arranged to change his will.  Motive, motive, motive, except that all suspects and potential heirs are reconciled to the change which involves a precious painting.

Cue link to the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven and the undiscovered Gauguin that lies at the heart of this mystery.  A thoroughly enjoyable seam involving art experts and the mechanisms they use to establish a painting’s authenticity. So too, the details regarding the Breton landscape.  The author is half-Breton, so landscape and cultural detail are lovingly drawn and the nod in the original German title. Just one word of warning – those cliffs can be dangerous as the second victim discovers ….


Dog Will Have His Day – Fred Vargas 

Un peu plus loin sur la droite translated from French by Sîan Reynolds

Bannaluc’s second victim shares the same fate as the first in the latest translation from Vargas’s back catalogue.  The second installment in her Three Evangelists series has taken its time getting to the English audience.  It was originally published in 1996! Circuitous too the path to the murderer.  No-one even realises there’s been a murder until a dog does his business in a Parisian park and, Kehlweiler, an eccentric intellectual with a pet toad, spots a bone in it.  Time to bring in a former housemate, one of Vargas’s Three Evangelists, a specialist in prehistoric bones.  He declares it to be a human toe.

Vargas is nothing if not quirky and how this discovery leads to a body at the bottom of the Breton cliffs is both bizarre and surreal, and one you won’t find in any other writer. Nor the characters – one eccentric after the next: the network of old people and tramps that Kehlweiler uses to track down the offending dog, the typewriter restorer plus Kehlweiler and toad.  For all the eccentricity, there is a nasty crime at the centre involving long-hidden secrets … and something even nastier from the days of Vichy France. All of which is uncovered because the dog had his day ….

Cold Winter In Bordeaux – Allan Massie

Talking of Vichy France, the third in Allan Massie’s quartet takes us to the winter of 1942-3.  At the front the war is turning against the Germans though there’s no relaxation of the iron fist in Bordeaux.  Superintendent Lannes is under pressure to collaborate with the deportation of the Jews and the new German supervisor won’t countenance the passive-aggressive delaying tactics hitherto employed.  Lannes is on the edge in other ways also:   One son happily serves the Vichy government,  the other has left home to join De Gaulle’s Free French, his daughter’s romance with a Fully-fledged collaborator  leaves him uncomfortable and his wife’s depression is creating an unbridgable gap in the marriage.  Outside home, the safety of his Jewish friends is under threat and the “rather sweet tart” (as the author described her at Aye Write in March) consorts openly with the Germans.  In the midst of this world gone mad, Lannes tries to remain ethical, particularly during his murder investigations.

This brings us right back to Maigret, who too was concerned with higher justice, not necessarily the law.  Maigret, however, wasn’t operating in Vichy France, and so was not subjected to the external, political and, frankly impossible pressures that Lannes faces on a daily basis – Pressures that create unpalatable realities namely a) it’s not always possible to see justice served (politics gets in the way) and b) Lannes cannot always keep himself on the side of right.

For those who have read the first two in this series (reviewed here), one of the big questions is whether Lannes will actually be allowed to prosecute the murderer of Gabrielle Peniel, who is found dead with a silk stocking round her neck.  His subordinate, Inspector Moncerre, calls it a “pre-war crime”, so there’s every likelihood …..

… provided the events of the war don’t interfere.   As the novel draws to the end, it is becoming increasingly clear that the war has turned, but can it turn quickly enough to ensure the survival of Lannes friends?  And what about those who haven’t exactly struggled against the German yoke?  We know what is to come but Massie’s characters do not.  They really are pinned on the horns of the present and Massie paints them realistically, without judgment, purposely so.  

“I hope so,” he says, “because once you become judgmental, you’re feeling superior to your characters. In novels such as this you are placing your characters in positions that you have never been in yourself, and what you are really asking is, how would you behave in these conditions? And I don’t think you have any right to say I would have behaved much better than they would.” (Interview with The Herald 15.02.14).

Over the course of three novels Massie’s characters have become real and, while they have a growing awareness (hope?) of a German defeat in the offing, we are certain of it and know of the dreadful reprisals that will follow in the Épuration. What I am not sure of is the definition of culpable collaboration, nor how Lannes will fare.  Massie admitted that he was rather worried for his “sweet, little tart”.  Well, I’m terrified on her behalf, and yet, the concluding part of this quartet can’t be published quickly enough.

A Death In Pont-Aven 3stars.GIF / Dog Will Have His Day 3stars.GIF / Cold Winter In Bordeaux 35_stars.GIF


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Translated from German by John Cullen

A new release from Juli Zeh is a cause for celebration in these parts.  I loved the combination of philosophy and page-turning suspense that I encountered in Dark Matter.  So too the utopic dystopia of The Method. I’m saving her debut Eagles and Angels for a rainy day (and as there are plenty of those in Scotland,  I must be waiting for a deluge.)  Decompression, however, had to be read in the week that Rossetti went gallivanting to Lanzarote with a pal.  (I don’t do beach holidays.)

Set – you guessed it – on Lanzarote, Decompression must be Juli Zeh’s most accessible novel to date.  I believe it reflects her new-found-but-real-life passion for deep sea diving and there’s a lot to be learned about it in these pages.  Nothing, it must be said to entice me below water but nevertheless, interesting – no, terrifying.  I don’t like being out of my depth.

The protagonist, Sven,  a trained lawyer, has escaped Germany – not because he is a fugitive but because he finds it too constricting.  Together with Antje, his live-in girlfriend, he has established a diving school. Antje is the reason for his success.  She does all the grafting and the paper work so that Sven can concentrate on his passion, the diving, the underwater world.  She has loved him since forever.  Sven, however, isn’t even comfortable calling her his girlfriend.  She’s nothing but a convenience and he’s not even grateful.  Unsympathetic?  I’d say so.

But he’s not a patch on the pair that are paying 14,000 Euro for exclusive access to his tuition for a fortnight.  The beautiful, German soap opera starlet, Jola, and her partner Theo, a middle-aged author with writer’s block, are, on the face of it, a dream team for Sven, but they are locked in a toxic relationship, the whirlpools and maelstroms of which Sven simply isn’t equipped to negotiate or avoid.    As the three of them dive deeper and deeper, Sven is sucked with centrifugal force into a trap.  The question to be answered is why Jola and her partner, Theo, would even bother.  The answer to that is the key to the novel and it’s not pleasant.  In fact, it’s downright shabby.

Discerning the truth of the matter isn’t that easy because the story has two narratives – a third-person written from Sven’s point-of-view and a first-person diary written by Jola.  The two stories harmonise at the start but as the fortnight passes by, discrepancies appear and soon they are worlds apart.  There’s a master manipulator at work here  … 

…. and the climax identifies the person clearly.  My only gripe is that it is too clearly sign-posted and I would have preferred a more ambiguous outcome but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Recommended for book groups (psychological analysis of the main characters is fodder for hours of discussion), fans of Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.


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When a book revealing the secrets of crime fiction , written by multiple Australian authors, dropped through the letter box earlier this year, I determined that 2014 would be the year for essay reading.  Having scoured the table of contents and discovered that I’d heard of only one of the 22 authors featured – Michael Robotham – and, even then hadn’t read him, I felt a bit non-plussed.  Where was I to start?

Given that the black humour of the book’s title – If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you – makes my toes curl with pleasure, I decided I’d start with the essay with the most pleasing title.  The crime-fiction-loving rock chick in me adjudged that to be essay #5 – I know it’s only noir (but I like it) written by Lenny Bartulin.  I suspected I was about to meet a kindred spirit ….

Noir is timeless, like jazz, like rock ‘n’ roll.  The thrill of reading, say, The Big Sleep or The Blonde on the Street Corner or Double Indemnity for the first time has never left me.  And apart from the stories themselves, it was the writing that blew me away: all that style, the sharp dialogue, the cynical humour, the flawless craft.

It was writing with intent and purpose, writing that delivered and gave the reader real pleasure.  It had bottom-end.  Weight. It could take you into tight-bends, at speed and you were never going to flip.

Yes, all that and more and Bartulin details many of those other reasons in his essay and shows how Chandler, Cain et al inspired him to continue in their vein: this despite the challenges of creating character-driven but honest and authentic plots, the necessity of giving characters heart, blood and muscle before they can show the author where the story is going, and the panic of being about two-thirds of the way through my first novel when one day, just like that, the earth split open beneath my feet and I found myself plummeting into molten lava.  … I thought my novel was a waste of space, absolutely terrible, and I had no idea how to finish it.

He was given a piece of advice: The solution is in your book.

At which point I was curious to find said debut and sample it with the intention to critique according to the conventions of noir that Bartulin outlines in his essay and to see if the problems he had hinted at were visible in the finished product.

All such rational thought left me when I discovered the US title of Bartulin’s debut novel: Death by the Book. Who? Where? Why? Funnily enough, the 3 questions Bartulin asks himself as he writes.  And no, it has nothing to do with the near brush with death permanent injury I had last night when one of my towering stacks toppled over with such force that it missed me by inches, even though I was a good six feet away ….

… although there must be plenty of towering stacks in Jack Susko’s second-hand bookshop. Now I know I’ve met a kindred spirit – who knew this reading trail was going to lead me straight to a bookshop and offer a salutary lesson on the dangers of obsessive book collecting.

Jack Susko is approached one day and made an offer he can’t refuse. A wealthy collector offers him 50 dollars per copy for as many copies as he can find of the work of a certain obscure poet. Easy money. Deal! Except that events start spiralling out of control when Jack finds himself in the middle of a bitter family feud, seduced by a blacker than noir femme fatale in the middle of a bitter divorce, life and limb endangered and that’s before his less than innocent past raises its ugly head. …

It’s all action, all authentically character-driven and if Bartulin got stuck 2/3rds of the way through, I can’t see the joins.  My only critique relates to the finale which is a little too – shall we say – exuberant? I can’t actually figure out how the good cop knows where to be …..

… but I’m glad he’s there, because he secures the continuation of what has become a trilogy. Expect my discovery of Bartulin to continue.

Death by the Book (US) / A Deadly Business (UK) 35_stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Reading Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

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Like many I experienced a feeling of desolation when I turned the final page of The Lewis Trilogy last year.  So I was delighted when I realised that Peter May’s new standalone novel was once more to take me to an island setting.  Even more so, when I realised not one, but two.

The eponymous Entry Island is located inside the St Lawrence Gulf and was the place where Scottish immigrants, forcibly evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances, were quarantined.  In May’s novel it is also the setting of a contemporary murder investigation during which the sometimes erratic behaviour of the lead interrogator, Sime, is coloured by a) his failed marriage, b) his insomnia, and c) his conviction of knowing the prime suspect, Kirsty, despite never having met her before,

It is this third strand that leads us back to the Hebridean past via two pieces of jewellry and the journals of Sime’s ancestor; a past that is both evocative, informative and engrossing, detailing the harsh lives in the blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis, the even harsher realities of the Atlantic crossing and the difficulties once the Canadian shore has been gained.  Not forgetting the doomed love story that continues to haunt the contemporary narrative …

which I confess, convinced me less. Complex human relationships are authentically drawn and the landscapes, as ever, finely and lovingly painted.  BUT (yes, a big one) was there ever such an incompetent set of detectives?  (Sime is part of a team.). My disbelief turned to incredulousness when they completely disregarded a major incident ….  May also reuses plot elements from The Blackhouse – similarities to Finn’s background and for a moment I thought we were going to see a repeat of the denouement on Sula Gheir. On second thoughts, perhaps these are playful nods to the fan base. If so, I, like that.  Also echoes and foreshadowings of the past leaking into the present.  Yet, like Sime, there was something that wouldn’t let me go, that preoccupied me. The Gaelic pronunciaton of Sime is Sheem but, in my English head, he was Sime, short for Simon. Combine that with the surname of the prime suspect, Cowell, and somehow it wasn’t as atmospheric imagining you-know-who running around ….  



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The end of the year approaches and with it thoughts re the best of 2013 and objectives for 2014; one of which is usually a book-buying ban.  Not this year, in fact not for the next 6!  The plans of Penguin Classics to publish Simenon’s Inspector Maigret chronologically over the course of 75 months (73 months remaining) have seen to that.  Particularly as multiple translators are involved in the project.  I’m not sure whether 75 translators are involved.  Only time will tell.  Certainly the first 6 in the series have different translators and there’s got to be some scope for a few translation duels somewhere down the line.  For now though, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first two in the series.

1) Pietr The Latvian (1931) – translated by David Bellos 

2) The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931) – translated by Anthea Bell

The simplified and modernised English titles are the first items of note. Originally translated as The Strange Case of Peter The Lett and The Death of Monsieur Gallet.   Like the directness of Pietr The Latvian – it’s more engaging in this age of economic  migration, even though that isn’t an actual theme.  And besides, who,would have known that Lett meant Latvian?  The Late Monsieur Gallet is quite simply more elegant and focuses attention on the person of Monsieur Gallet, whose enigma Maigret must first solve before he gets a real handle on what turned him into a corpse.

I’m not going to go into details here because the plots aren’t very complicated and certainly don’t compare to the sophistication of some contemporary crime fiction or even Simenon’s romans durs (psychological thrillers).  However, they do  demonstrate the same fascination with human psychology, which lies at the heart of Maigret’s investigative technique.  Maigret cracks the case of Pietr The Latvian which involves foreign crime gangs and doppelgangers through the analysis of the faces in an old photograph.  Monsieur Gallet’s secret is discovered when Maigret identifies the motivation of the dead man who lived in poverty while prioritising the payments for a seemingly extravagant life insurance.

So the crimes at the heart of these novels remain current, and good, old fashioned logical deduction (minus spurious Sherlockian flashiness) together with psychological insight solves the cases. Neither are there any hints of the artificiality of a typical Agatha Christie setting.  (See footnote.) Very enjoyable. 2 down, 73 to go …..

Footnote: Nothing against Agatha, everything against Sherlock!

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