Archive for the ‘crime / spy / thriller’ Category

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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Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Right through the middle of the picture ran the long, gleaming scar of the sector border, dividing everything according to compass points, beating its way through everywhere, ripping the thin spider-web into halves, jagged, ruthless, lit up like a long, thin playing field, the length of a city, for whatever triumphs and defeats might come along.

Berlin, October 2011. The Wall is still standing and East Germany is on the edge of bankruptcy, its continued existence dependent on the successful conclusion of economic talks with the Federal Republic of Germany.  Then an old man is found hanging from the pipe-line leading from Russia to the GDR and all clues point to the Stasi – just the thing to jeopardise those crucial talks.  It’s not a case you’d volunteer for but someone has to draw the short straw.  Enter Detective Martin Wegener, 56.

Was there ever a more unfortunate entrance and introduction to a character than that first paragraph?  I am not going to quote it but let me just say I have an aversion to toilet scenes.  I was also afeared that it indicated an obsession with genitalia. I wasn’t wrong.  There’s some highly sexual and graphic content scattered throughout the book.  Some of it surreal, distasteful and quite baffling in that it adds nothing the plot.  If it’s symbolic, it was lost on me.

That said, let me tell you about the good things and there are many.  This is a terrific thriller, with twists and turns aplenty.   Naturally Wegener is caught between a rock and a hard place.  Forced to work on the case with a colleague from the West, he is damned if he solves the case and damned if he doesn’t.  He is a victim of the state among many victims – some of whom are broken and smashed, others (like Wegener himself) believe they still have some say in their life, even as it spirals out of control. Like all good detectives, his personal life is a shambles.  He has recently broken up with Karolina and is struggling to come to terms with that (hence the sexual preoccupations and fantasies(?) mentioned above).  More disturbingly his trusted colleague, Früchtl, has recently disappeared yet his voice inhabits Wegener’s mind, every hour of every day. Früchtl continues to mentor Wegener, to bully and cajole him.  He acts as Wegener’s conscience.   This dialogue between Wegener and his presumed-dead colleague was the real highlight for me.  Full of dry deadpan humour, it adds a touch of lightness to the proceedings.  But like all things in this repressive state, everything sours in the end, even this relationship.

The political satire is biting.  The failing dictatorship is shown for what it is but the West comes under fire too.

Martin, the only difference between East and West Germany is that the citizens of the Federal Republic don’t talk about the crap their state gets up to because they’ve got their mouths full of organic fillet steak.

The premise in Urban’s thriller is firmly rooted in political probabilities and an understanding of the history of the DDR, while not necessary, does add depth to the story.  Mrs Peabody Investigates has helpfully compiled a glossary of the salient terms and key persons.

At 512 pages, this is a long book and apart from the bits I mentioned at the start of my review they flew by.  I didn’t even mind when the final paragraph returned me to the scene and action of the opening.  It’s a very effective mirror image and I’ve got to give credit for that.


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Start talking about tartan noir and chances are you won’t get past the first sentence without the mention of William McIlvanney. Tartan noir began with his novel, Laidlaw and his trilogy is spoken of with reverence by those in the know. Ian Rankin credits McIlvanney as the inspiration behind his own decision to become a crime writer. Yet, two years ago, when I first heard him talk at EIBF, his novels were all out of print. I trawled Edinburgh’s second hand bookshops for a copy of Laidlaw but still had to resort to buying online. Good old abebooks, I say. However, the editorial director of Canongate books was sitting in that same audience, obviously as horrified as the rest at this state of affairs. Two years later and Canongate have republished the whole trilogy in splendid new livery.

Do these crime novels stand the test of time? Without a doubt, despite the lack of technology in the detecting methods employed. I suppose if McIlvanney had written them more recently, they would be replete with profanity. Personally I am very happy that they are not.

I first read Laidlaw (1977) last year and then Canongate announced republication. At which point I decided to save my review until the whole trilogy became available. I gave Laidlaw 5-stars last year and enjoyed it so much that I decided to reread it again for this post. And you know the 5-star rating remains intact.

The body of a young woman is discovered in a Glaswegian park.  She is a gangster’s daughter and her murderer also has contacts with the criminal underworld – some of whom wish to get him safely out of the city, others to render rough justice.  The third hunt is by the police, by the eponymous Laidlaw. The question is who will get there first?

What makes this such an outstanding read?  Simply put McIlvanney’s pacing and use of language.  Character studies nailing their subjects in just a few sentences, the streets of Glasgow appearing full of menace and threat (and definitely no advertisement for next year’s Commonwealth games) and surprising, unforgettable metaphor.  If ever anyone tells me that crime novels cannot be literary, this is the example I will thrust into their hands to convert them.

The opening sentence of The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) is a prime example of a metaphor that punches above its weight.

It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.

You don’t pay homage to Glasgow, says McIlvanney.  You meet it on even terms.

An alcoholic vagrant dies a slow and painful death but before dying he asks to speak to Laidlaw. In that conversation he suggests that someone had spiked his drink.  Then a gangster is murdered and Laidlaw uncovers an unexpected link between the two corpses – Tony Veitch.  Tony, a rich dropout student with a propensity for writing deep introspective letters to his friends and family, has disappeared.  Once again Laidlaw must find his man before the Glaswegian heavies. At last year’s Bloody Scotland McIlvanney read out the scene when Laidlaw finally catches up with Tony.  It sent shivers down my spine.  Then he explained that this was something taken from real life.  I have yet to defrost.

What of Laidlaw himself?  In his private life he is a loving father but a difficult and unfaithful husband.  The same contradictions are present in his professional life.  A fine detective, though not a team player, gruff and abrasive yet with a streak of compassion for those less fortunate members of society.  If it wasn’t for Laidlaw insisting on foul play in the death of the vagrant, where others saw none, there would have been no novel!  But let his less experienced partner decribe the man.

Laidlaw came on hard, could be a bastard, sometimes gave the impression that if God turned up he’d want him to take a lie-detector test.  But he obviously cared about people, was so unmistakably hurt by what happened to them, sometimes through his own doing, that he would have put a stone under pressure to feel things.

McIlvanney puts this teeming mass of contradictions centre stage in Strange Loyalties (1991) which is narrated in 1st person by Laidlaw himself as he tries to come to terms with his brother’s sudden death.  It may have been suicide and Laidlaw wants to retrace his brother’s last days to establish the facts. We are taken out of Glasgow into the countryside of Ayrshire and The Borders.  While the scenery may be uplifting, being inside Laidlaw’s head is anything but. There are no monsters, said McIllvanney.  Laidlaw is just screwed up.

Suspicions are aroused as Laidlaw meets a conspiracy of silence from his brother’s wife and friends. Unhinged by his grief,  Laidlaw appears to lose whatever mechanism enables detectives to differentiate between personal and professional with the result that his unofficial investigation comes with a heavy personal price tag. When he unearths the dark secret at the centre of his brother’s death, he wishes that he’d never looked.

Can he recover?  Someone must persuade McIlvanney to write the 4th novel to answer that.

Laidlaw  / The Papers of Tony Veitch  / Strange Loyalties 

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Translated by Baida Dar

With pseudonyms in the news, I offer you a pseudonymous German thriller. The authors’ identities were never secret as the German publishing house originally planned to publish using their real names. For the record Stefan and Andreas Lebert, journalists and brothers.

I know nothing more about them other than their first novel is intelligent and pacy and just a little bit grisly in parts.  I certainly turned the pages quickly (and not just because I wanted to finish the book before my plane landed!)

Max Tretjak is a fixer.  This means that other people pay him to sort out their problems.  A wife wishes to divorce her husband but hasn’t got the courage  to tell him herself.  Send in Max who will not only deliver the message but will ensure the settlement and deliver the package that is her future life as well.  His powers of persuasion are second to none, especially when, with homework completed, he knows something that proves to have irresistible bargaining power.  This job means that he has collected many secrets, many contacts and, inevitably, a few enemies.  He needs to watch his back and pay heed to the skeletons in his own closet, particularly when many of his former colleagues turn up dead in a series of murders that put his name centre frame.

Curiously though Max is somewhat detached from his own life..  A firm believer in the ability to walk away from the past and start over, he gives it not a moment’s thought beyond philosophising with a variety of psychologists and psychiatrists.  But can the past, in particular his own not always glorious one, be expunged? Can the future be fixed so simply? The events in these pages certainly challenge his core beliefs.

They challenge the reader too, particularly as there isn’t a sympathetic character to be found.  I certainly don’t like Tretjak as a man, as a son, as a lover.  He can be careless of others.  Then again, neither do I like his father or his girlfriend.  But I did enjoy the plot and though I guessed the outcome (a question of pin-pointing the moment when Tretjak, the detail-obsessed fixer, misses a trick),  I do recommend you pack this in your suitcase for an entertaining holiday read.

Not only will you be packing a great summer read, you’ll be helping me out. I might not like the man but I do want to know what happens to him next.  And for that to happen, this must sell in sufficient quantities to merit the commissioning of the sequel’s translation …


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Philip Kerr has just released his 9th Bernie Gunther mystery, A Man without Breath. Meanwhile, despite my best intentions (or more likely because of all the literary distractions that come my way thanks to this blog), I was trailing behind at #5. Checking the library catalogue I found that unabridged audios were available for titles 5-8. A couple of months ago I decided to start working my way through them.

For those who don’t know Bernie Gunther, he is a one time Berlin cop, forced into the SS during the Hitler years. When I last left him, he had somehow managed to get himself branded a war criminal and was on a boat fleeing to Argentina along with more infamous members of the Nazi hoi polloi. The thing about Bernie is that he is a basically good guy, resolutely and vehemently anti-Nazi, but with shades of moral ambiguity. I’m never quite sure whether I believe all his protestations of innocence, because in the present he shows a ruthless streak which can be disproportionate to current circumstance.

All he wants to do is outrun his past but, in A Quiet Flame, seeking sanctuary and an Argentinian passport in the age of Peron, it’s unlikely that people will let his sleeping dogs lie. So when a young German girl goes missing and another is found sadistically murdered, he is enlisted as a gumshoe by the Argentinian secret police. Simultaneously he is approached by the beautiful Anna and asked to find out what happened to her missing Jewish relatives. His motivation for taking on this case – one that will bring him into mortal danger because the Argentinian government just relish foreigners hunting for their disappeared: “It’s not that I love Jews,” he says, “it’s that I love anti-Semites just that little bit less.” (And he can’t say no to a pretty girl!)

The murder echoes an unsolved Berlin case from 1932 – something horrible and seedy which is matched by something just as bad in post-war Argentina. The past mingling with the present is a staple in the series. Its purpose as Bernie jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, from Argentina (A Quiet Flame) to Cuba (If the Dead Rise Not) before being extradited back to Germany to face a potential war crime trial (Field Grey) is to show the amorality of political dictatorships, be they left or right wing. Forgive me for the misquote here but this is from memory of an audiobook “A rat, be it black, brown or white, is still a rat” muses Bernie at one point in Field Grey.

He might be talking about political dictatorships and even the Amis themselves (it’s their pretence of civilised behaviour that sticks in his throat) but during Field Grey serious questions begin to arise about Bernie’s moral rectitude. Given that most of the novel is the account of Bernie’s war, his not always innocent time on the Eastern front and his incarceration in a Russian PoW camp, it can’t really be called a thriller. But it is intriguing to discover how Bernie survived when so many others did not. Kerr takes some huge risks here: a) trying his readers’ patience, particularly if they had come to this expecting a thriller and b) risking Bernie’s reputation. There’s no way he can always be cast as a victim here. As for the final twist, it left me speechless and for the first time willing to cast an adverse judgment.

I need some time to digest this before moving onto #8 – not only to answer the question whether all is fair in love and cold war but because I was finding the cumulative effect of all this political corruption overwhelming. I also need a break to steel myself because if Bernie has been jumping from frying pan to fire up to now, something tells me that he’s just landed in an inferno.

A Quiet Flame 3hstars / If The Dead Rise Not 3hstars / Field Grey stars3

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With only one week to go to the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I am pleased to say that I’m on track to complete 20 books that were sitting in my TBR mountain range as of 31.12.2012. I have diverted from the trail only once, and that was because I attended a literary event. It would have been rude not to have read the book first. However, I deem this year’s effort a success and once I have finished my current read, I am going to unpack those bright new shiny books and indulge myself.

Strategies that helped me succeed in 2013. Firstly, the mindmap – it has changed somewhat since first shown. I’ve now transferred it to digital format – using a newly discovered and affordable software package, MindHD. Once I’ve worked out how to export it to a blog displayable format, I shall share.

I also took inspiration from CB’s 5-star event badge.

Double dog dare

Inspecting the TBR, I discovered a veritable kennel full of shaggy dog stories. Given that this was a double dog dare, I decided to read two of them.

Rebecca Hunt’s Mr Chartwell looks like a friendly and companionable chap on the 1st edition cover. He’d like you to think that and to inveigle his way into your affections in order to suck the lust for life out of you with the dark clouds of depression that he triggers. For Mr Chartwell is the black dog of depression that – er – dogged Churchill throughout his life. Churchill though was aware of his inherited weakness and with the help of his formidable wife, Clementine, managed to deny his adversary the victory. Lesser mortals, such as Churchill’s daughter, and Michael, husband of the fictitious Esther, succumb to his seductions and take their own lives.

I use the word seduction deliberately because that is what Mr Chartwell sets out to do when he pays his first visit to Esther, close to the 2nd anniversary of her husband’s death. When he knocks on her door in search of lodgings he is, if you accept the conceit, ignore his threatening size and earthly smell, a traditional lodger.

Mr Chartwell’s black lips carved a cordial smile …. he extended a paw the size of a turnip. “Hello, I’ve come about the room.”

At first, he is a well-behaved dog but he in just 5 short days he invades and wrecks Esther’s physical space and seeks to do the same to her mind. He moves seamlessly from polite, witty and intelligent lodger (his literary frame of reference is tremendous), through personal space invader to all out psychological attack. It is a war although Black Pat, as Mr Chartwell prefers to be called, insists he and Esther are fighting on the same side.

Churchill’s story shows the conscious and determined efforts that must be undertaken to deny Black Pat. The two narratives eventually converge in a scene where Esther, a secretary at Westminster, is taking dictation from Churchill on the eve of his retirement. Black Pat is in the room and Churchill counsels Esther in the vein of we will fight them on the beaches without once referring to him. Simply masterful.

The dog in Kate Atkinson’s fourth and final Jackson Brodie novel is the abused not the abuser. Fortunately he is rescued by Brodie and serves as his companion throughout a case which begins fairly innocuously (Brodie is trying to find the origins of an adopted girl, now living in New Zealand) but soon becomes life-threatening. The dog has to return the life-saving favour to Brodie at one point. This Brodie/canine drama is reenacted in the human sphere when Tracy Waterhouse, ex-cop, spontaneously takes a young child, being dragged through a shopping centre, from her prostitute and foul-mouthed mother. Money exchanges hands, making Tracy’s adoption of the girl illegal and scuppering any plans Tracy had for a quiet retirement.

Brodie’s investigation leads to the 70′s and the police force to which Tracy belonged. Events then eerily echo the present: murdered prostitutes, illegal adoptions and the key to it all perhaps locked in the fading memory of a soap actress named Tilly. This thread, which for me was an utter irrelevance at the start, actually became the most satisfying. An inversion of expectations that is probably what the author wanted to achieve. Because Brodie in these pages is a grey soul, recuperating still from previous traumas and certainly not the centre or the cohesive force of this narrative. Atkinson said on completing this novel that she was done with him. At times it felt as though she had put him to one side while in the act of writing. Still, at least, she let him walk off into the sunset with a new four-legged friend. There’s plenty of comfort for the man that.

Mr Chartwell  4stars  / Started Early, Took My Dog  stars3

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I promise this is the last time I will mutter about the hard work associated with reading Les Miserables but by the time I got to the end of book three I was feeling murderous. So perusing the TBR the mood of Snow White Must Die hit the nail on the head.

What a wonderful surprise to find that the book is set in the Taunus region of Hesse, the state I called home for 8 years. Thankfully though I didn’t encounter the small town mentality that prevails in these pages.

Tobias Sartorius has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for the murder of his beautiful girlfriend, nicknamed Snow White and a childhood friend, Laura. While in jail, his parents split up but his father chooses to remain at his once buzzing, now ramshackle and unfrequented village pub and restaurant. Tobias courageously returns home and begins to a restoration project. He is not welcome, his presence stirring up unsavoury memories of the past. The Sartorius family are subjected to a number of vicious attacks which bring the police back to the village. Then another young girl, a outsider who has befriended Tobias, goes missing and it seems as if history is repeating itself ….

I enjoyed this read for many reasons: location, location, location. I booked a summer tour of Hesse as soon as I finished the book, obviously my memories are nowhere near as traumatic as those involved in the narrative. The puzzles involved in uncovering the identity of the real criminals were quite complex and I admired the control Neuhaus displayed keeping the knowledge of reader and police in synch. I did get an inkling just a few pages before the revelations but not sufficiently in advance to spoil the suspense.

I treated myself to the second German Ladythriller once I’d finished Les Mis. Charlotte Link’s The Other Child is set in Scarborough. I’ve been there too, though admittedly only for one day,and I didn’t see much. It was so foggy that I couldn’t see the castle and I was only 50 feet away! So I smiled wryly every time the fog was mentioned. Plus there was a lot of fog plotwise, which, just like the day I got lost in the area, began to clear in the vicinity of Robin Hood’s Bay. Uncanny.

I have to say that the details of British life in this German thriller were very acutely observed, whether that be in descriptions of life in wartime London, on a Yorkshire farm or contemporary life in a northern town. Tobler’s translation is seamless. In fact, I downloaded the German text as I was curious to see how these authentic northern accents had been rendered in German!

There are two murders to solve. Same modus operandi but one murderer or two?  As the investigation proceeds, the layers of the thoughtless and indifferent past are uncovered alongside the truly chilling fate of the eponymous other child. I could weep.

I did, however, see through the smoke and mirrors quite early on with regards to both  murders. However, a number of really absorbing psychological portraits more than made up for that.

Both Neuhaus and Link are superstars in Germany, having sold millions upon millions of copies between them. These are the first works to be translated into English and I’m delighted there are further translations to appear later this year. A second edition of German Ladythrillers is a dead cert.

Snow White Must Die (translated Steven T Murray) 3hstars
The Other Child (translated Stefan Tobler) 4stars

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Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy influenced my reading more than anything else last year.  From the minute I finished the second title, my cravings for part three began. To distract myself I went on a reader’s island hop round the globe. Accumulated a goodly number of air miles too!

(2990) From the Isle of Lewis to the fictional island of Skios
(1557) From Skios to Venice
(490)To Sardinia
(5854) To Java
(4727) To New Zealand
(5600) New Zealand to Samoa
(7295) Then to an unspecified location in the Caribbean where I was shipwrecked for a while.
(8220) Rescued finally by January in Japan
(6806) To bring me back to the Isle of Lewis.

By my reckoning that’s 43,539 airmiles, just to end up back where I started. Was it worth it?

Well, there is the weather on the Isle of Lewis but the atmospheric landscape more than makes up for that.

The sight that greeted him was almost supernatural. The mountains of south-west Lewis rose up steeply all around, disappearing into the obscurity of low clouds. The valley below seemed wider than it had by the lightning of the night before. The giants shards of rock that littered its floor grew like spectres out of a mist that rolled up from the East, where a not yet visible sun cast an unnaturally red glow.

This leads us straight into the mystery of the disappearing loch.

 Then he turned back to the valley. But there was no loch. Just a big empty hole … A mile long, half a mile across, and fifty or sixty feet deep.

A bog burst – the thought of all that water simply sliding away to another destination terrifies me. The discovery of a small plane with corpse on the bed of the one-time loch chills me further particularly when I start to think about the moments the plane is going down. Moving swiftly on …

The grisly discovery is made by Fin Macleod and the confidante of his teenage years, wild man Whistler Macaskill. Assumptions are made about the identity of the body in the plane and this brings back many of Fin’s former friends for the funeral – including a past love. Many old tensions and rivalries bubble right back to the surface … with developments turning ever more sinister. Fortunately the Lewis Chessmen are on hand to help.

So far, so good but the underlying strength of May’s trilogy lies not in the murderous plots but in the complicated human transactions that form the stuff of life. Fin’s now living with his childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, but they cannot recreate what they had in the years before his selfishness wrecked their romance. Whistler is estranged from his rebellious teenage daughter (the most vivid character study of the piece). Cantankerous Donald, the Free Church minister, while not facing a legal trial, must answer to an ecclesiastical panel for his shooting of a gangster in The Lewis Man

The present is always haunted by the past and while atonement and redemption are hoped for, they are not always possible. Neither can consequences be avoided. It’s a question of whether the characters can – or even whether the author will let them – live with the outcomes. (Question to author – ARC p 378 How could you?)

Fin’s future on the island will be as coloured by these events as his present was coloured by the events of his teenage years. Only he’s now sadder and wiser and worse still, middle-aged. This is no trilogy with the hero walking off into a glorious sunset but he may, just may, be able to set some matters straight.


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Venue: County Halls, Stirling
Date: Saturday 15th September
Occasion: The inaugural Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival

From left to right:
In the red corner: Literary critics:  Stuart Kelly and Professor Willy Maley
Referee Chair: Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival
In the blue corner: Crime Writers extraordinaire: Ian Rankin and Peter James

Nick Barley introduced the motion: Is it time a crime novel won the Booker? Before arguments began, he took a vote. In an auditorium packed with 300 crime-writing enthusiasts, only 3 hands (my own included) voted against the motion. The critics were onto a hiding to nothing.

Peter James opened the arguments quoting the founding objective of the Booker Prize. It was a quest to get the British public reading good novels and there are years when the judges forget this. He quoted a friend of his who wanted to kill the judges who voted for The Bone People, a book which was putting him off reading. James argued against the prejudices of Gilbert any-book-that-makes-me-want-to-turn-the pages-can’t-be-worth-reading Adair and insisted that many a classic novel would have originally be found on the crime shelves: Therese Raquin and Bleak House

Professor Willy Maley took the house by storm. Unfortunately he delivered his speech, in which there was punchline after punchline, so rapidly that I had no time to take copious notes. Besides which, I was laughing too much. Crime writers are being greedy, he said. They already have readers, mega sales, and money from their own prizes. They can’t have the literary Booker as well. He quoted James Kelman’s blistering attack against the genrification of fiction. He also claimed the superiority of the free form and subject matter of literary fiction. A literary novel may contain a crime. A crime novel has no choice.

Ian Rankin talked about crime novels transcending their genre. The problem, he said, is that as soon as a crime novel does this, it ceases to be a crime novel! Crime novels can be political novels, as in Scandinavia and France. They can also be literary, particularly if they have the word snow in the title: Snow falling on Cedars and Snowdrops being cases in point. There is mystery in all writing, he argued. It is, by its very nature, the art of withholding information.

Stuart Kelly defended the right of any prize to define its own criteria. The convention of the genre is a blunt instrument on which to measure crime fiction. Crime and Punishment is as fine a literary crime novel as there ever was and he based his own opposition to the motion on the basis that crime novels have already won the Booker: Something to answer for, Rites of Passage, The Blind Assassin, The True History of the Kelly Gang, Vernon God Little, and Wolf Hall.

Additional points brought out during audience questions:

Peter James: How ironic is it that the Booker Prize is funded by the literary estates of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley? Greene’s Brighton Rock changed all the rules. Not only did the mind of the criminal suddenly become the plot but it was the first crime novel to attain the status of literary fiction. There are no rules in crime fiction now, he said. in fact, crime on the spine is purely a marketing tactic.

Stuart Kelly listed other crime novels that can easily be labelled literary: Asta’s Book and King Solomon’s Carpet, both by Barbara Vine; John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener and Allan Massie’s novels set in Vichy France. He added that he would be delighted if Sophie Hannah won the Booker one day. Her novels are exceptional, he said.

As you can see this was a very civilised bout in which the opposing sides sometimes forgot which side they were on. Peter James, the most rigorous defender of the right of a crime novel to win the ultimate accolade, made the most outrageous statement of all. Despite all my arguments, he said let’s be quite clear. I’d rather have my gallbladder removed without anaesthetic than win the Booker Prize!

Let’s be quite clear, I thought, I’d perform that operation on you as payback for your snide opening comments about Keri Hulme’s wonderful novel. And so, when Nick Barley asked if any of the original 3 opposers of the motion wished to defend their position, my hand rose of its own accord and I crossed swords with Mr James, defended The Bone People, and uttered something about no matter how good a crime novel is, I have never awarded 5-stars to one.

Driving home I realised I was talking nonsense. I have and it was to China Mieville’s The City and The City. (Mr James, I herewith return your gallbladder.) Even so, I would not have been happy for it to win the Booker in 2009, not in the year of Wolf Hall.

Anyway back to the debate. The chairman asked for a second show of hands and there were now somewhere in the region of 20 hands raised opposing the motion. Meaning minds had shifted from the idea of a crime novel winning the Booker and the defenders of the literary faith had won the day!

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