Tag Archives: crime fiction

No Orchids for Miss Blandish: James Hadley Chase (1939)

“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”

No Orchids for Miss Blandish  (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

No orchids for miss BlandishThe story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley “aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.”  But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.

Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….

The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,” is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy”  woman  who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.

Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.

He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.

Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.

Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.

More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.

The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….

No orchids for miss Blandish 1961James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions:  Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951.  The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader” which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?

The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:

“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”

“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** drew his lips back. His mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at *****.

“Take your time, Pal. We ain’t in a hurry.” He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. “Ain’t them clouds pretty?”

And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:

Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.

“*****…” he said softly.

****** opened his eyes.

“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”

Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.

The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Matador Serial by Ray Banks: A Novel Idea

Partly because I’m a fan of Ray Banks, and partly because I want to see how this plays out, I signed up for MATADOR: a 7-part serial available on the kindle. Total cost: $1.99. Beginning on November 20th 2012, one episode out of seven will be published, and the subsequent six episodes will be sent in two-week intervals. Subscribers receive e-mail notification when each new episode is available.

According to Amazon, episode one is 55 pages and the blurb says this:

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

In some ways this has been done before. I’m thinking of the Cornhill Magazine which in 1860 (according to some sources) began featuring the works of many notable writers in serial form, but the reading of novels in carefully parcelled out sections has been passé for years. The world of the ‘printed word’ is changing, and here’s someone grabbing an opportunity in the new still-shifting paradigm. Perhaps I’m easy to please, but I can’t help but be excited about this new serial. Since e-readers open up worlds of possibilities for readers and writers, will we see more of these in the future?

Watch this space…

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Filed under Banks Ray, Fiction, publishing

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

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Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction

The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

Parker Bilal is the pen name for Jamal Mahjoub–an author who has already published a number of novels, and now with this pen name, the author introduces an intriguing new character for what promises to be an excellent series. The Golden Scales is set in Cairo, and the protagonist is low-rent PI Makana. Makana, a political refugee, just barely manages to eke out a living while haunted by memories of his past life as a Sudanese police inspector.

It’s 1998, and shabbily-dressed Makana lives on an awama–a type of tiny ramshackle houseboat which in reality is a “flimsy plywood construction nailed haphazardly on to a rusty pontoon.” He’s behind on his rent and his landlady, Umm Ali is growing impatient. He’s lived a sort of twilight existence working the occasional PI job now for seven years after fleeing from Khartoum.

Usually his clients thought they could get him to work a little more cheaply and discreetly than a local investigator might. Still, in recent months he had found himself struggling. The work had dried up, no one had any money, and Makana was faced with the fact that if things did not improve soon he would have to think about finding some other kind of gainful employment. His needs were not excessive, his one vice being tobacco; other than that he lived the kind of frugal existence that would have shamed a wandering Sufi.

Luck seems to turn to Makana’s favour when he receives an unexpected visit from an employee of Saad Hanafi–one of Egypt’s richest men. Hanafi has his finger in almost every conceivable industry–real estate, construction, and he even owns a wildly popular football team known as The DreemTeem. A number of legends surround the mystery of Hanifi’s ugly past, and while it’s difficult to ascertain just how much is true and how much is fabricated, it is clear that as a young man, Hanafi was involved in major criminal enterprises. These days, however, Hanafi has gilded his reputation with generosity and “The DreemTeem was part of his PR makeover.” Hanafi has discovered a unique way to gain popular support in a country wracked with horrendous poverty:

In this world, it seemed, if you wanted to assure yourself of a seat in the temple among the great and godly, owning your own football team greatly improved your chances. And whereas most teams were associated with one particular part of the city or another, the Hanafi DreemTeem represented the aspirations of millions. This was what he really offered : a dream that everyone could share. In a draw held once a month, he gave away an apartment to some fortunate person. On television you could watch them screaming and fainting as they were given the news. They wailed and howled and fell to the ground. They tore at their hair, and jumped up and down. People supported Hanafi’s team because they wanted something to believe in.

Makana is summoned to Hanafi’s palatial home because the DreemTeem‘s star player, Adil Romario is missing. Just as there’s a legend about Hanafi’s ill-gotten gains, there’s a legend about Adil’s success which involves a story in which Hanafi discovered Adil as an urchin on the streets of Cairo. Hanafi claims he loves Adil like a son, but that after a row, Adil went missing. Makana’s job is to track Adil down and make him return. To Makana, something doesn’t feel right about the case, but he needs the money and takes the job.

Makana’s search for Adil takes him to the DreemTeem‘s manager, a corrupt Italian with mafia connections, Adil’s love interest the actress Lulu Hamra, and to the shabby film studios belonging to Salim Farag. Adil had an ambition to leave the pressures of the DreemTeem behind and become an actor instead. He certainly has the looks for it, but film clips at Faraga Films reveal a lack of talent. And then there’s a predatory Russian in the background. What is his involvement in Adil’s disappearance?

As Makana hunts for Adil, he meets Liz Markham, a British woman who’s searching for her daughter who disappeared in Cairo 17 years earlier. Makana, who mourns for his own lost daughter, experiences a moment of empathy with Liz, and later, he becomes convinced that the mystery of the missing Markham child is somehow connected to the disappearance of Adil Romario.

While Makana investigates the disappearance of Hanafi’s prize football player, an embedded narrative slowly reveals Makana’s past in Sudan.

Then one day the country awoke to find a new regime had arrived, announcing that the solution to all their problems lay in a more rigorous embrace of Islam. The self-styled government of National Salvation promised to overturn the hierarchies of class and ethnicity to make all equal under the sun of religious faith. 

Makana’s memories reveal a country plunged into religious fanaticism, and this story line, slowly parcelled out over the course of the novel,  reveals just how those who formerly enforced Sudan’s laws are subverted and corrupted. In his role as a Sudanese police inspector, Makana was supposed to investigate murders, but when purges and murders are committed by the people running the country, he finds himself in an untenable situation.  

Makana’s department was placed under the command of Major Idris, a stiff-necked military man who not only knew nothing about police work, but didn’t want to know. He didn’t have time for it. To Major Idris, it was all a matter of filling out the right forms and keeping his nose clean. A party member, he was on his way up. Nothing else mattered. Catching criminals was certainly not a priority. Praying was a priority. Keeping his superiors happy was a priority. With Idris came a flood of similar types, Makana had no idea where from. He had never seen them before. They seemed more concerned with flushing out potential critics of the regime than pursuing law breakers.

It wasn’t just the formalities which had changed, it was the very nature of crime itself. You picked up a victim by the side of the road with a bullet in his head, or a man with water in his lungs lying in the middle of the desert, and you asked yourself, how could this have happened? Nobody really wanted to know. As Major Idris reminded him more than once: “You’re a smart man, Makana. Smart enough to know that if I tell you these things are out of our hands then there is no need for you to worry yourself further.”

For those who like their crime fiction to take place in foreign locations, The Golden Scales holds great appeal. Not only is there plenty of local colour and a strong sociopolitical context, but the story takes us from the unrest in Sudan, to the marketplaces of Cairo, to the Pyramids, a swanky casino which bans locals, and the private estates of the fabulously wealthy. Throughout the tale, we see a nervous Cairo determined to facedown Islamic fundamentalists and reassure tourists in spite of the ever-present threat of political instability. In The Golden Scales–which is, by the way–a reference to justice, the author has created a unique PI–a character whose story is yet to be completed.  It’s refreshing to read a tale of a PI who’s not alcoholic and not unhappily married for once.

In spite of the story’s serious political issues, there’s a light sense of humour which balances the tale. Here’s Makana making an observation about Hanafi’s tacky decor:

Two giant glazed ceramic leopards stood guard by the entrance. A reminder that when you had all the money in the world, you didn’t need taste. 

Review copy from publisher.

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Filed under Bilal Parker, Fiction

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy

“This is not a girl,”  he told himself. “This is a little chemical time bomb standing here in front of me, waiting to go off.”

One of the best things about blogging, is that I get tips about books that I might not have found otherwise. So for Irish author Conan Kennedy’s The Colour of Her Eyes, I owe a big thank you to Tom at A Common Reader. Tom posted a review of the book a few months back. I read the review, had a (generous) sample of the book sent to my kindle, and then ordered a copy. For N. American readers, this book came at the ridiculous give-away price of $2.99.

The Colour of Her Eyes is a crime novel, a hell of a suspenseful page-turner (or should I say button pusher since I read it on the Kindle). When the novel begins, we know that a crime has been committed, and we also know that it’s something quite ugly. The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted by D.I. Harris, a member of the Sussex police with John Stanley Dexter, a well-to-do married, middle-aged businessman who 15 years or so earlier worked, unhappily,  as a teacher at Walthamstow  School. The interviews–written in the form of transcripts–alternate with Dexter’s memories of his past and Harris’s mordant ruminations as he investigates the case. Just what that ‘case’ is unfolds in time as the combative interviews play out. Here’s Harris interviewing, or should I say, interrogating Dexter about a girl who attended the school:

“I’m a tit man. And I’m telling you she was wearing a skimpy little top with her tits poking out one end and her belly the other. Am I right?”

“Not quite.”

“Where did I go wrong?”

“Well in those days you wouldn’t see their stomach. It wasn’t the fashion.”

“Ok. You’re the  expert. On underage girls. I’m only the amateur here. But I bet I’m half right. I bet her tits were falling out of her top.”

“It was pretty low cut, yes.”

“You in the fashion business, the rag trade?”

“You know I’m not.”

“Well stop saying things like it was pretty low cut. What we both mean is her fucking tits were falling out of her fucking top. Am I right?”

“Ok, you’re right.”

“Good. Now. So what do we have here. This little teenage poppet. Tits all over the shop. With nice thighs.”

“I didn’t say that. Didn’t say anything about thighs.”

“No you didn’t, but you said she was wearing a skirt.”

“That is not the same thing.”

“Did she not have nice thighs?”

And so it begins again.

Dexter’s memories take him 15 years back into the past to 1996 when he briefly worked as a 25-year-old teacher:

Six months teaching and already he hated the little fuckers. Oh ok, put it a bit more diplomatically, he just didn’t trust teenagers.

He’s chaperoning a disco, feeling he was “too fucking old to be at a teenagers’ disco”   when he meets a 15-year-old teenage jailbait of a temptress who calls herself Moonshine–a girl with remarkable green eyes:

She still didn’t smile, but looked at him intensely. A lot more intensely that he would have expected, with the vodka and drugs and whatever else. That look reminded him of some animal behind bars, in a zoo. There’s a moment when it suddenly catches your eyes. And you realise that you haven’t a clue who is in there. This was that moment. It shook him up a little, unnerved him a bit.

I don’t want to look into this girl’s eyes, he realised.

She’ll draw me in. And I’ll drown. And I’ll end up on a sex register.

As it turns out, and it comes as no surprise, teaching just isn’t Dexter’s calling. He moves on to the business world and as would fate would have it, 5 years after the disco, as a sales manager, he runs into Moonshine (real name Ruth Taylor) who’s waitressing, supporting a child and who’s been on the game. Dexter eventually becomes a rather well-heeled executive who owns a large country home with the baggage of all the material accoutrements–including a pony for one of his children and a wife who demands some ridiculously pretentious social markers. While Dexter may be comfortable financially, there’s something missing from his life. Meeting Ruth again is a momentous occasion which changes Dexter and Ruth’s lives for ever, and then, rather strangely, fate seems to throw them together again in five-year intervals.

These meetings–which may or may not be chance–occur over the years, and Dexter discusses them partly through the police interviews, and partly through memory. Perhaps due to Ruth’s cynicism and life experience, gradually the age gap between Dexter and Ruth appears to shrink. Meanwhile Dexter’s discontent with his wife, Yvette grows:

No, Dexter couldn’t really stand Yvette.

But she was good with the children, and he loved her for that. And he had loved her for all sorts of things too, once. So he loved her for that too.

“She’s volatile,” he said to his boss that night, that particular night after Yvette had stormed out of the room. Not that it had to be any particular night. Yvette stormed out of rooms quite a lot. But disagreement about EU politics was her starting gun for the current storm. Yvette thought most countries should be like Belgium. Only more so.

Due to the novel’s clever structure in which gems of information are parcelled out through police transcripts and memories, author Conan Kennedy creates intensity, suspense, and an irresistible desire to get to the truth. The truth however, proves to be elusive, and Harris’s frustrations with Dexter grow exponentially. When the story begins, Dexter seems to be the main character, but as the plot plays out, that role seems to shift to Harris. There’s no small amount of envy directed from Harris towards Dexter:

A bloke turning fifty with a good job seems to have most things already. Apart from time, and youth, and young women in the bed. Yes, apart from that sort of thing.

Harris looked at women. Pretty. And pretty much out of reach, to a detective inspector turning fifty. Glass between me and the stuff in the windows, he decided, and too much time between me and the girls. Out of reach. Well shit, maybe not completely out of reach. But much like the stuff in the shop windows. He didn’t really want them an awful lot, or need them much. But he watched them anyway.

Harris, who’s fifty, looking at a quiet retirement, and attracted to a young female PC is aware that some of his behaviour crosses or least comes dangerously close to the borders of sexual harassment. Perhaps this explains his barely camouflaged resentment of John Dexter because his suspect is a man who’s crossed the lines of various taboos more than once. Kennedy creates a massive amount of tension–tension between private and public lives, tension between what is desired and what is attainable, and tension between the haves and the have-nots. With this much tension, something’s got to give, and that’s where murder enters the picture. As Harris notes:

That’s a bad triangle. Women and money and revenge.

A great deal of the novel is set in the drabness of the seaside town of Bognor Regis, and somehow the descriptions of the deserted beach and its “long rows of empty deckchairs” suit the atmosphere of this moody psychological crime novel.  I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed in the ending and found myself with a lot of questions, but then, as I clicked to the final page….there’s a sequel! And no doubt some of the questions I have will find answers there. So… Conan, if you read this, where’s the sequel?

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Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Conan

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri

“Dying can be too easy a path to take, believe me.”

Last year I watched the terrific crime film The Secrets in Their Eyes, and if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? But then again, perhaps you may want to read the book first. Since I saw the film before reading the book, I knew, of course, what was coming, but there are some differences between the two, and I’m really glad I read the excellent book as it de-emphasized the love aspect and concentrated on the shifting relationship between the two central male characters instead.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, The Secrets in Their Eyes is a story told by Benjamin Chaparro, a clerk who works in Argentina’s legal system. Translator John Cullen explains that at the time the novel takes place, the “Argentine judiciary was divided into two jurisdictions, investigative courts and sentencing courts. Judges–examining magistrates–presided over investigative courts, and every judge’s court comprised of two clerk’s offices. A clerk employed about eight people, of whom the second in command was the deputy clerk and chief administrator.” The novel’s narrator, Benjamin works in this system. I’m including that quote because some sources describe Benjamin as a detective, and that description gives the novel a rather different flavour. So to clarify, Benjamin works as a clerk in an office which investigates crimes.

The novel begins with Benjamin’s retirement and moves into his decision to write a book based on an experience that haunts him more than 30 years later. Obviously a man in Benjamin’s position,  a man who lived through Argentina’s Dirty War, has no shortage of raw material. But Benjamin decides to write the story of the crime that bothered him the most–the 1968 murder of Liliana Morales, a young beautiful woman, still a newlywed who was brutally raped and murdered in her own home.

Benjamin recalls the day his office received the call about the murder, and his “profoundly cynical” attitude as the case falls to his jurisdiction:

Not for a moment did we stop and think that if the telephone was ringing, whether five minutes before or five minutes after eight, it was because someone had just killed someone else. For us, it was simply a matter of office competition, and the loser had to bust his butt. We’d see which of us was the lucky one, which of us was cool.

As it turns out, the murder of Liliana Morales is to have a lasting impact on Benjamin’s life, but it takes him some time to realise just how important the case is. From the moment Benjamin sees Liliana’s body “flung, face up on the bright parquet floor,” he begins to feel that this case stands out from the rest. Perhaps it’s the victim’s beauty; perhaps it’s the shabby details of the tiny apartment. The task of telling the victim’s husband, gentle bank clerk Richard Morales fell to Benjamin:

I watched his expression grow more and more vacant. His features gradually relaxed, and the tears and sweat that had dampened his skin at the start dried up definitively. It was as though Morales–once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins of his life–could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if  he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing.  

At first it seems as though the culprits have been caught, but Benjamin quickly ascertains that two innocent men are being conveniently scapegoated for the crime. With the trail growing cold, it looks as though the killer will never be caught, but as the years pass, Benjamin, inexplicably keeps in touch with Ricardo Morales, and it’s during one of their bleak meetings that Benjamin stumbles across a clue….

Chapters which record the investigation of the crime, and by extension the crimes of a government, are occasionally broken up by Benjamin’s struggles with the progress of the book and meditations on his personal life. While Benjamin offers a brief outline of his troubled personal life, the one constant–the one unbroken link in the chain–remains the relationship between Benjamin and Ricardo Morales:

I’m not sure about my reasons for recounting the story of Ricardo Morales after so many years. I can say that what happened to him has always aroused an obscure fascination in me, as if the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability.

At first Benjamin, wrapped up in the demands of his job, and inured to violent death, tends to dismiss Ricardo as a nonentity, a gentle, unassuming man whose life, ripped about by violent death, will never heal. But as the years pass, and the strange, undefinable bond between the two men grows, Benjamin re-evaluates Ricardo and grows to respect him:

Morales remained turned away from me, looking out at the street with an expression of great disappointment on his face, and I was able to study his features for a long time. I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or of the ‘self’ I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit, or–worse yet–like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could.

While The Secret in Their Eyes is the story of a crime, the emphasis is not on its solution. Instead the author explores the moral quagmire of ‘justice’ in a country in which the military junta is actively engaged in murder and where the concept of justice is certainly not equated with the various institutions who are supposed to be enforcing the law. While murderers and victims are inexorably linked to one another, in this tale Benjamin finds that he is forever connected to Liliana’s murder and the man she left behind. The murder of Liliana Morales becomes a major defining event in Benjamin’s life, and the enduring, trusting relationship between Benjamin and Ricardo Morales is a searing, loyal constant in a country which sinks into butchery and state-endorsed crime.

Review copy courtesy of Other Press.

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Filed under Fiction, Sacheri Eduardo

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (Rockstar Games)

One of the features I really like about the Kindle (apart from the free classics) is the way stories, novellas, and novels not published anywhere else find their way onto this device. Example: I came across L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories for the princely sum of 99 cents. How could I not buy this?

Ok, so what do you get for your 99 cents?

That Girl by Megan Abbott

See the Woman by Lawrence Block

Naked Angel by Joe R. Lansdale

Black Dahlia and White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

School for Murder by Francine Prose

What’s in a Name by Jonathan Santlofer

Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski

Postwar Room by Andrew Vachss

Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, wrote the introduction which explains that Rockstar Games set out to create a classic noir experience,” and that LA Noire puts the player “into the shoes of Cole Phelps” former Marine now a member of LAPD. In addition to creating the game, Rockstar Games also “invite[d] some of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the noir storytelling art … to each write a new short story inspired by the world of LA Noire.” Some of the stories, apparently, are inspired by cases in the game.

I’m a Megan Abbott fan, so I was happy to see her included, and her story, The Girl is a female-centric tale that focuses on the tawdry side of Hollywood. I’ve read all of Abbott’s novels, btw, and The Song is You is my favourite. The Song is You was inspired by the real-life, unsolved disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. It’s a bitterly haunting novel, and I found myself thinking about it as I read The Girl. The Girl is set in a “famous” LA house, and I know which house inspired Abbott here. It’s a “Mayan fortress made of ferroconcrete blocks stacked like teeth.”

The protagonist of the story is an actress called June. She doesn’t have much of a career, but she’s married to a gangster named Guy, and this career move has removed some of the desperation from June’s life. June’s agent tells her that she’ll meet Huston at the party:

“Key Largo. The part’s perfect for you.”

“Claire Trevor’s got it sewn up between her thighs,” June said softly, looking up at the house from the open door of the agent’s middling car. “Ten years, every bed I land in is still warm from her.”

“She’s not married to Guy,” the agent pointed out.

“You see how far that’s got me,” June said.

Ok, this is a Hollywood party of the movers and shakers, the power people of Tinseltown. June has already admitted that she’s slept around to get parts. What else is she willing to do?

The first few years in Hollywood, times were hard and June shared apartments, rooms, even, with a hundred girls, their shared pillowcases flossy with their peroxided hair.

Working counter girl, working  as an extra, working as a department-store model, a girl to look pretty at parties, she got by, barely. She even filled her teeth with white candle wax when they turned brown and died.

She said she would do things, and she wouldn’t suffer for them. She’s seen where suffering could get you, and it wasn’t her bag.

So she hustled and hustled and finally found the ways to get all those small roles at Republic, B-unit jobs at Fox. She never could be sure, though, is she was making headway or running on her last bit of garter-flashing luck.

I am a fan of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, so it wasn’t too surprising that another favourite story came from this author. Lansdale’s story, Naked Angel, is about patrolman Adam Coats who finds a dead body frozen inside a huge block of ice.

Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half-eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.

I wasn’t sure which was worse–thinking that the morgue attendant’s smock was covered in blood or realising that he was eating a messy meatball sandwich a few feet away from the stiffs.

Another favourite I’m going to mention is Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski. This is the story of Bill Shelton, an underpaid Los Angeles surveyor who thinks he gets lucky when he picks up a waitress named Bonnie. Wait. I’ll revise that. She picks him up. Bad sign. A few dates and a little tongue hockey later, Bill’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Bonnie out of trouble.

These are classic noir tales: the easy pick-up femme fatale, affairs torched by lust, greed and ambition, and our characters lured by opportunity only to be tricked by fate. Some of these short stories have the feel that they could be fleshed out into novellas, but hey for 99 cents, I’m not bitching.  And if you want the low-down on the other stories, knock yourself out and spring for a copy.

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Filed under Abbott Megan, Block Lawrence, Fiction, Lansdale Joe R, Oates Joyce Carol, Prose Francine, Santlofer Jonathan, Swierczynski Duane, Vachss Andrew

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

“I’ve unleashed an architectural mental case.”

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo is the story of a hit-man who discovers a life beyond his work, and for someone who’s been traveling the globe assassinating a fair number of people, this intellectual  ‘awakening’ begins to cause problems. De Feo’s clever character-driven plot follows the hit-man as he steps away from his unexamined life and begins to discover a world beyond his weapons. The result is an excellent, unusual and intense character study which combined with the book’s unexpected dark humour makes Calling Mr King one of my finds of the year.

The book’s title is actually the modus operandi with which the shadowy organisation called the Firm keeps in contact with their top hit-man. This American-born assassin who hails from New York state has one talent, and it’s a talent he marketed when he had nothing else to sell. He’s a superb shot, and this makes the hit-man a valuable commodity.  Hits are conducted for the Firm on a world-wide scale, and during the course of the tale, the hit-man travels to Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. When given a new job, he hops a plane to his destination, and then waits in a hotel room for the phone call. An anonymous caller will ring and ask to speak to Mr. King. That’s the signal for the hit-man to find the nearest public phone, call his contact and receive instructions for his next hit.

When the book begins, the hit-man is in Paris. The city is wasted on the assassin; he dislikes the French (but then he dislikes people in general), and at one point he tells a Parisian taxi driver to “go choke on a snail.” Paris may be a tourist destination, but to the hit-man, it’s just another hotel in another town, with another man to kill–the sooner the better:

All these people around us were of absolutely no importance. They didn’t really exist anymore. They were part of the scenery. They were nothing. Paris now contained only him and me.

He’s known for his efficiency in tracking his target and establishing a pattern of behaviour, even forming a strange sort of “bond” with the victim as he gets to know his routines and some aspects of his life. This time it’s different; the killer finds his Parisian target “exhausting.” The hit-man tracks his victim day after day as he “bounced around Paris”  for appointments, shopping, dates with friends, a meeting at an art gallery, and an evening at the opera. The hit-man realises that there’s no clear established pattern of behaviour this time–his victim who’s like a “damn kangaroo” is packing his day with appointments and activities:

I became absolutely convinced that he knew his days were numbered. And since he knew, he wanted to get a lot of living done before the end. What I was watching then, all of this peculiar energy, was simply a pathetic attempt at a last fling.

As the days multiply without a clear, safe opportunity for assassination, something begins to happen to the hit-man. He becomes extra cautious, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his edge. While the Firm is impatient for the contract to be completed, the hit-man begins to wonder about his victim. Was it “last-minute curiosity? A kind of softening.”

When he returns to London, the hit-man, who’s given the name Peter Chilton, by the firm, is a little shaken by the events in Paris. The next hit takes place in Derbyshire, and once again, Chilton hesitates, and this hesitation–a sort of emotional involvement or interest in his victim–leads to some complications. As far as the Firm is concerned, Chilton screwed up big time:

You see, if you had fucked up this way in the city, I don’t think it would have caused such a stink. After all, city life has its hazards. You wanna live here, you gotta take your chances. Sometimes people get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes they’re hit by stray bullets. It doesn’t happen here like in New York, which is the fuckin’ Wild West, but it happens. And, of course, we have all those crazy mick bastards running loose blowing off heads, legs, dicks and time they feel like it. But it’s all part of living in good old London. You understand.  

Like I said, if this old man had been shot here, I don’t think it would’ve been noticed so much. Nobody would’ve been  happy, of course, and there would’ve been some bad press, but the fact is it wouldn’t have been unusual enough to make a really good story. He was an old bugger too, so it wasn’t as if he had years ahead of him. ‘Old Man Killed in Street Shoot-Out.’ That would have been it. But what happens instead? The old bugger gets his head blown off in some fuckin’ field in Derbyshire. You see the drama here? The oddness? When was the last time you heard of a pensioner being gunned down in a field in Derbyshire, or, for that matter, in any bloody country place? You get my drift? Nothing much ever happens in places like Derbyshire. Mostly what they get in the counties are serial lunatics. And that’s because of boredom more than anything else. You stay in the country long enough and either you grow brain dead or else you turn into a fuckin’ madman. You begin to hate your wife or girlfriend or maybe even your very own mum. And before you know it, you’re roaming the countryside chopping up women. Very sick, but there it is. And yet when you look at it, these lunatics are pretty rare. Maybe one turns up every two years, three years. Maybe that’s because most people get so brain-dead in the country they don’t even have the energy to go crazy.

As a result of his screw up, he’s sent on a ‘holiday’ back to New York by the Firm. This seems like punishment, or it just may be until things calm down, but deciding that his future with the firm is murky, Chilton plunges into his holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, delving into his new-found interest in Georgian architecture. Soon Chilton begins resenting his work as it interferes with his reading, and when the Firm orders him to leave the city, he takes a trip back to his old home town–now withered and gutted by a lack of industry. In this bleak town, Chilton’s memories reveal a bleak childhoodwith zero chance for personal enrichment.

As Chilton moves across the globe, this man whose original identity has been eradicated, begins to form another self. Chilton tells himself that “except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was a pretty decent sort,” and really treads into unreliable narrator territory.  There’s a definite splitting as Chilton, the killer, morphs or at least reinvents himself as Peter Chilton, English gentleman of leisure and taste and even  the genteel, urbane Sir Peter Chilton at one point:

I stopped in at the Rizzoli Bookstore, which was wood-paneled and had a kind of English feel to it. Chilton seemed to fit in here. Wealthy snobs roamed about with their wealthy little shopping bags–Tiffany, Gucci, Bergdorf, Goodman, Bally. Fashionable foreigners jabbered to one another. I noticed a couple of well-dressed wops jawing away over some wop fashion magazines–they always sounded so damn dramatic, like ham actors. Calm down, I felt like telling them. How in hell can you get so worked up over a few dumb magazines? Chilton suddenly stepped in here. They’re always amusing these Italians, he thought, remembering his various trips to Rome and Venice. Spirited. Fun-loving. Yes, good old jolly Italians. You can always count on them when you’re feeling a little down.

As Peter Chilton fabricates an imagined life–complete with country estate, a posh flat in London, and a third home in Nice, he continues to absorb architectural facts and begins to feel the birth of an interest in art. How will the hit-man–a man who’s disinterested in everything and everyone align his old self with his new interests? Can both sides of this man live within one skin?

Look at these poor excuses for town houses, he thought, I thought, we both thought.

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via netgalley. Read on my kindle

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The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“In every investigation, there was always a moment when a detective fervently wished that he could have met his victim when he or she was alive.”

Discovering a new crime fiction series presents a dilemma in the form of the number of new books that I may feel compelled to read, so I tend to approach a new series with some inherent skepticism along the lines of: “What separates this series from other books in the genre? This series has to be good enough, original enough to convince me that I want to commit to the lot.” Enter Carl MØrck and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen.

Detective Carl MØrck is recovering (and I’ll use that word loosely) from a horrendous shooting incident that left one partner dead and another paralysed. Although he suffered a head wound in the incident, nonetheless, he feels guilty that he didn’t react differently to the violent situation. He’s always been considered a problem by his fellow officers, and he’s certainly not the sort of person anyone would consider a “team player” (a horrible term in my book). With his partners dead or out-of-commission, Carl, depressed and feeling guilty that he survived, presents even more of a problem than usual. His ‘superiors’ would like to get rid of him, but under the circumstances they can’t, so instead, responding to political pressure regarding several cold crimes, Carl’s boss devises a solution to isolate Carl so that he does the least damage to the department and morale.

Called in to talk to his boss, Carl, who’s morose, depressed and suffering from “profound indifference,” is surprised to learn that he’s been given a promotion of sorts. He’s to be the head of Department Q–a department devoted solely to the solution of cold case crimes. Carl soon discovers that the reality is a converted basement office and a ‘department’ of one. Carl’s attitude towards his new assignment is basically to play cards and generally coast out the time until his retirement, but then he’s given an assistant, Assad, a curious character whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry.  Assad is ostensibly employed to clean department Q and do the occasional odd-job, but his natural curiosity is contagious. Almost against his will, Carl becomes engaged in a cold case crime file.

Carl divides the stack of files that represent the cold crime cases into three piles, and then selects the case of the disappearance of an up and coming politician, Merete Lynggaard. Merete was an extremely attractive young woman whose bright political future was cut short when she disappeared without a trace while on a ferry years earlier. It’s assumed that she was a suicide, and the only possible witness to what happened is Uffe, Merete’s institutionalised, mentally damaged brother.

It doesn’t take long for Carl to uncover some suspicious circumstances in the case–after all Merete had many political enemies, but the fact that Merete maintained a heavily guarded private life doesn’t help Carl’s investigation a great deal. His methodical investigation, aided and abetted by Assad, slowly peels away layers of the past, and Carl becomes convinced that Merete was a victim of foul play.

It’s imperative that a series character is interesting. In Carl, author Jussi Adler-Olsen has created an original, intriguing and sympathetic character. Carl copes with the sort of personal problems many middle-aged men face: loneliness, an argumentative teen and an inability to approach women. Carl’s clumsy attempts to date a woman caused this reader to wince. Years spent at the mercy of his erratic wife, Vigga, have left Carl in a state of emotional limbo: 

First his wife took off. Then she decided she didn’t want a divorce, but instead took up residence in the allotment garden. Next she went through a whole series of young lovers, and she had the bad habit of ringing Carl to tell him all about them. Then she refused to let her son live with her in the garden cottage any more, and in the throes of puberty the boy had moved back in with Carl.

Vigga is painted as annoying rather than evil. In a moment of stray generosity, we might call Vigga a “free spirit” but it would be more accurate to call her exploitative. She wants her freedom from the constraints of motherhood and marriage, but she expects Carl to fund her latest nonsense (an art gallery which features the ridiculous art she and her young lover create). Carl is unable to tell Vigga to take a hike, and so he responds to her demands and seems unable to resolve his ever-extending commitment to her. Obviously this is a subject that will raise its head in future novels, and it’s an interesting twist to the story. Also the relationship between Assad and Carl grows from annoyance to mutual respect. Carl begins to listen to Assad’s suggestions even as he understands the man’s limitations when it comes to questioning suspects. Although this is a crime novel, the plot includes its share of humour, and most of the humour is found in the unlikely relationship between these two men. Assad has a unique appreciation of a female office worker Carl can’t stand (he calls her Ilse the She-Wolf), and Assad causes departmental eyebrows to raise when he begins bringing fragrant baked goods and tea into the basement. Ultimately Carl and Assad work well as a team because they complement each other and they are both outcasts.

The novel is full with of carefully drawn characters and attention to detail. Here’s Carl returning from work:

When Carl got home, he leaned his bicycle against the shed outside the kitchen, noting that the other two occupants of the house were both there. As usual, his renter, Morten Holland, had turned the volume all the way up as he listened to opera in the basement, while his stepson’s downloaded shred metal was blasting out of a window upstairs. A less compatible collage of sounds couldn’t be found anywhere else on the planet.

Morbidly obese Morten, Carl’s renter, a 33-year-old video store clerk, is the “best housewife” Carl has ever known. Morten cooks and cleans for the all-male household:

He’d spent the last 13 of those years diligently studying all kinds of subjects other than the ones having any direct bearing on the three degree programmes in which he was officially enrolled. The result was an overwhelming knowledge about everything except the subjects for which he was receiving financial support and which in future would presumably earn him a living. 

Morten is just one instance of author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s marvellous detailed characters:

An overgrown adolescent and androgynous virgin whose personal relationships consisted of remarks exchanged with random customers at the Kvickly supermarket about what they were buying. A little chat by the freezer section about whether spinach was best with or without cream sauce. 

The disappearance of Merete is a page turner, and the result is a superior, tense crime novel. But much more than that, in The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen created a set of characters I want to return to. Soon.  

Translated by Tina Nunnally

Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.

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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

“All my life I have imagined that my morals were high, that I was decent and honest and truthful. But what happened to my morals when I was tested?”

I came across a review of Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum at Reading Matters. I’d heard of the book before, and while I’m not that thrilled with Scandinavian crime novels, Kim’s review made me rethink my initial dismissal. Bad Intentions is one in a series of Inspector Sejer mysteries. This is the first I’ve read, but that didn’t seem to matter. Some reviews I read complained about the lack of Inspector Sejer’s presence in the novel, and it’s true that he isn’t around a great deal until closer to the end of the book. This is somewhat unusual for a series novel as readers frequently return to the next novel in order to hang out with a favourite fictional character. The lack of Inspector Sejer’s appearances did not trouble me as I am new to the series, and the story of Bad Intentions is engrossing. Even though there’s not much about Sejer’s personal life here, there’s enough info about his psychology to make him interesting. This is a man who dislikes loose ends:

He liked interrogating people, he liked spotting the lie when it came. A lie had its own pitch, and over many years he had learned to recognise it. He liked the moment when the confession finally spilled out, when all the cards were on the table and the course of events could be mapped out and filed.

The story begins on Friday the 13th of September (not a good sign) with three young men who’ve arrived at an isolated lakeside cabin: Axel is a 25-year-old advertising executive who drives a Mercedes, Philip is a passive druggie who barely manages to hold a menial job at a hospital, and finally there’s Jon, a frail young man with a number of health problems. Jon is currently a resident at a local mental hospital, and he’s been encouraged by his therapist to go off for this weekend with his friends. He’s a nervous wreck and popping anxiety pills every four hours doesn’t seem to help.

Obviously the three have shared childhood memories and are around the same age, but apart from that it’s not easy to see why they maintain this relationship. Axel is a domineering, materialistic character who makes the decisions for all three. He’s a charmer, a born actor and it seems odd that he’d continue, in adulthood, to hang out with Philip and Jon. The ill-groomed Philip’s behaviour is marred by passivity and drug use, and Jon is a tangled, neurotic mess. It’s arguable that Jon and Philip might want to hang out with Axel since he has more independence, but why does Axel want to hang out with these two?

Axel suggests a boat trip onto the lake in the moonlight:

Axel Frimann was looking out of the window. It was almost midnight on 13 September and the moon cast a pale blue light across the water. There was something magical about it all. At any moment, Axel imagined, a water sprite might rise from the depths. Just as the image came to him, he thought he saw a ripple in the water as though something was about to surface. But nothing happened and a smile, which no one noticed, crossed his face.

Three men leave and two return. Can’t say more than that, and then the novel segues into the investigation. The novel peels away layer after layer of deceit, and the mystery becomes not just what happened that night, but the events that led up to that night.

Bad Intentions is a page-turner as it explores the psychology of the relationships between these three young men. One of the reasons the novel appealed is that it taps into a pet theory of mine–that certain combinations of character types can be deadly. The title gives clues to the novel’s moral message. I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” and in this novel, we see three young men–two of whom are weak and malleable who make some very bad choices. Crimes take place within these pages, but at the heart of these crimes lies the question of intention. And how can we know what anyone really intended to happen? We are only left with the consequences.

Axel started listing the good intentions which had motivated them originally. What had followed was bad luck, pure and simple, and beyond their control. In a moment of weakness they had been tricked by one of nature’s whims.

Inspector Sejer and his sidekick Jacob Skarre find that they must unravel a mystery in which intention plays a pivotal role. Their investigation takes them to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital and to the homes of grieving mothers. The best thing about the novel is its different slant on crime. There’s an emphasis on guilt, responsibility and intent, and at one point Inspector Sejer gives a very interesting speech on the subject:

Just because you’re to blame for something doesn’t mean you accept that blame. Or that you feel guilty. Gacy killed more than thirty people, but he said it was like squashing cockroaches. When he was finally caught, he went on about his childhood and how awful it had been. He spoke the following classic line when he was put in prison: “I’m the real victim here.”

My copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the Kindle.

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