Tag Archives: detective series

Ice Moon: Jan Costin Wagner

German 2015

For German Literature Month 2014 one of my selections (on a tip from Caroline) was Jan Costin Wagner’s fantastic crime novel Silence. There’s a film made of Silence btw, so if you’re not into reading crime, but you like watching crime, then the film comes highly recommended. Author Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives in both Germany and Finland with his Finnish wife. His crime series featuring detective Kemmo Joentaa is set in Finland but written in German. Since I enjoyed Silence so much, I decided to go back to the first book in the series: Ice Moon.

Ice Moon begins with the death of Joentaa’s wife from Hodgkin’s disease, and the book, a police procedural, follows two narrative arcs–the actions of a seemingly innocuous young man who is a serial killer, and the actions of Joentaa who’s hot on the killer’s trail. Sections in the chapters jump back and forth between focus, and sometimes, for a few sentences of this third person narrative, it’s impossible to clarify whose mind we are in: the killer’s or Joentaa’s. While I disliked the confusion, it’s a technique which reinforces the similarities between the killer and the man who is trying to capture him. The similarities are mindset connections and are also ways in which Joentaa understands the killer’s motivations. When the first body turns up–a woman killed in her bed, Joentaa’s short-tempered boss, Ketola, suspects the culprit is either a lover or a burglar. Joentaa is convinced that the murder isn’t random, and when a second corpse is discovered, Joentaa is certain they have a serial killer on their hands–Ketola thinks the two crimes are unrelated.

ice moonJoentaa’s wife, Sanna, dies on page one, but she appears throughout the book in her husband’s fluid memories. Joentaa, obviously, is severely depressed, and Ketola thinks Joentaa has no business returning to work. Work, however, for Joentaa, is a welcome distraction, and the business of death helps Joentaa connect to the killer’s mind. The killer is a very creepy human being, and because he seems so harmless, he’s also very dangerous.

We get a good look at a very troubled Ketola, that “model of self-discipline,” who’s retired in Silence, and frankly he’s the best character in the book.

Joentaa had always respected Ketola but never liked him. For a time he’d even considered putting in for a transfer, but Sanna had dissuaded him. His addiction to harmonious relations was almost unbearable, she said with a wry smile, but she couldn’t believe that anyone who had fought so hard to get into the CID would throw in the towel after a few harsh words from his boss. Although annoyed with her, Joentaa had known she was right.

Structurally the novel’s premise is problematic for the first in a series. Readers have no emotional investment in either Sanna or Joentaa, so we can’t really mourn along side of our main character. Sanna is dead on page one, and the mourning, the loss, the depression carries on throughout the novel. Sanna’s parents, deep in denial about their daughter’s health (aided and abetted by Joentaa’s poor communication with his in-laws), seem to be more stock characters than human beings. For this reader, killing off the spouse of a main character immediately on page one of the first book seems dicey. I’m thinking of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. Wexford’s sidekick, Mike Burden’s wife became ill and subsequently died well into the series. The news is broken gradually to the reader and the emotional investment in the characters, already well established, continued throughout the books.

I’m not an author; I’m a reader, and I found this novel problematic and rather depressing. When Ketola tells Joentaa he should stay home, I agreed. Joentaa is a mess. Sanna’s death overwhelms the crime section of the novel, and yet since these are new characters, it was impossible for this reader to catch the appropriate wave of concern. Ice Moon did not come close to the excellence of Silence. If I’d read Ice Moon first, I doubt I would have bothered with the rest of the series. The first book is often the weakest, often almost a throwaway when it comes to jumpstarting a series. Ice Moon sets up its series parameters: Joentaa is a lonely man, a widower who is committed to the region and to solving crime, but I found it hard to whip up much enthusiasm for the main character. The quality of Silence convinces me to continue the series in spite of being disappointed in this novel.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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Behind Closed Doors: Elizabeth Haynes

Behind Closed Doors from British author Elizabeth Haynes takes a look at the fallout of a crime that occurred ten years earlier. Fifteen year old Scarlett Rainsford was on holiday in Greece with her thirteen year old sister, Juliette and her parents when she disappeared. DCI Louisa (Lou) Smith, ten years before back in 2003, early in her career, was one part of the team investigating the girl’s disappearance, and at the time there was a theory–never proved–that Scarlett’s parents were somehow involved in her disappearance. The strange family dynamic and the father’s bizarre behaviour led the police to think that perhaps the parents had killed Scarlett, so initially the search was for a body. Lou had “always expected to hear” about Scarlett again one day, but it’s an unsolved case that rankled even after all these years. Here’s Lou discussing the case:

“Didn’t feel right. I know that’s easy to say with hindsight. The family was odd–Scarlett’s sister was monosyllabic, hostile at first; the father was polite, helpful as far as it went. When the mother came back she was in a bad state emotionally.” “What happened with the Greeks?” “It was pretty chaotic. One minute they wanted our help, the next they didn’t. They told us some bits and left out other important things. They thought straight away that she had been killed and disposed of. Somehow the investigators who went out there got the impression that had evidence that she’d been killed, some forensics–but there was nothing like that. For a couple of days we were looking for a body when we should have been checking the ports.” “To be honest, we all thought it was the Dad.”

Now ten years later, the Rainsford family (and their sole daughter) are on holiday once again–Spain this time–when they are given the news that Scarlett has been found working in a brothel in their hometown of Briarstone. Lou discovers that Scarlett, who obviously in hindsight wasn’t murdered, wasn’t a runaway either. As a 15-year-old troubled teen, she was very vulnerable and fell for a local Greek boy, but when a secret meeting failed to take place, Scarlett was smuggled out of the country by human traffickers. Behind closed doorsElizabeth Haynes’s crime novel moves through three narrative voices moving backwards and forwards in time with Scarlett’s terrible story unfolding and alternating with the current investigation. The murder case from Under a Silent Moon (the first in the Briarstone series) is mentioned frequently–along with various characters from the first novel, so there’s some back story here that readers should be aware of. Scarlett’s horrific story is gripping, and so gripping that this works against the novel when chapters flip from Scarlett to the chapters narrated by Lou and Sam. Maintaining momentum through multiple narrative voices is a challenge which is not met here. There was too much fluff with Lou’s love life and the inserted reports were distracting. Nothing could match Scarlett’s story for readability. In the creation of Scarlett, the author shows impressive depth for not only does she tackle a very real social problem, but she faces prostitution head-on in all of its ugliness–even addressing the red-light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.

Did they genuinely think she was here through choice? That she would choose to sit in a window in her underwear, on display, waiting for the next ugly, filthy, sexually inadequate bastard to come and use her body? Why did none of them ever stop to think about it, about the hideousness of it all, of what they were doing? How could this ever ever be right?

But here’s what she has been told to tell customers:

“I came here because I always wanted to do this,” she recited, trying to keep her voice light, knowing it sounded flat. “I always wanted to make people happy. You see, I have an insanely high sex drive. I need to fuck guys all the time or else I feel sad. So this is the perfect job for me.”

It’s with the character of Scarlett that Elizabeth Haynes takes some bold chances and succeeds in examining the deeper psychological aspects behind the case. Here’s a now 25 year old woman who was kidnapped and sold into a life of prostitution at age 15.  At one point, Scarlett is being interviewed by the police and they seem amazed that she doesn’t know more about the men who moved her around Europe or the apartments she was kept in. By alternating the investigation with Scarlett’s story, we see how the police fail to grasp the abysmal conditions and imprisonment Scarlett has endured along with the inevitable crushing of any hope of escape that she may have tried to hold onto. At one point, Scarlett says she was told she was in a specific country but she really doesn’t know that for certain–after all she only sees four walls and the sweaty bodies of men on top of her. We accept her story while the police are skeptical. At another point, she describes how a girl being trafficked was shot in the head–one of the investigators wonders if Scarlett may be making this up and even questions if her tears are real. And this brings me to the crucial part of the story–at some point Scarlett moved from being a victim to being seen as thoroughly corrupted and part of the criminal problem. She is as objectified by the establishment as she is by the pimps and the johns. Because she is 25 when she’s found in a brothel in Briarstone, the police don’t understand why she doesn’t run away, but that’s the whole point. After ten years of this life, where do you run to? Who wants you? A young, innocent girl is stolen from home, but that young girl–while maintaining a strong character–has become an incredibly cynical human being who will probably never be able to trust anyone or have a normal sexual relationship again.

Stories have hit the news about real-life victims found after years locked up by some sexual predator. Kept in horrendous circumstances, beaten and subjected to the sort of physical, sexual and mental torture few could withstand, of course the big questions in these cases are: how can these people adjust back to any sort of normal life? They’ve been damaged, but at what point are people damaged beyond repair? How much recovery can take place?

I think, of course, of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at age 7  & held by a sexual predator. He managed to escape at age 14 taking another victim with him, but died in a motorcycle accident at age 24. In an interview, Steven, who had problems adjusting,  once said “I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?” In a bizarre twist to this story, Steven Stayner’s brother Cary is a serial killer.

But back to our story of a 15 year old girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and then rescued 10 years later. Bravo for presenting Scarlett’s story stripped of any prostitution mythology, and bravo again to the author for tackling some important social issues. Unfortunately, Scarlett’s story was so effective, so gripping that the rest of the novel couldn’t compare in readability.

Thanks to Caroline for directing me towards Elizabeth Haynes in the first place with her review of Into the Darkest Corner

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Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty

“How can you investigate a murder in a time of incipient civil war?”

Irish author Adrian McKinty, now living in Australia, wrote Dead I May Well Be, which is one of the best modern crime novels I’ve ever read. This is the story of Michael Forsythe who, finding himself running out of options in his native Ireland, relocates to New York where he becomes an enforcer for crime boss Darkey White. If you haven’t read Dead I May Well Be, the first in the Michael Forsythe trilogy, then do yourself a favour and grab a copy.

McKinty’s Gun Street Girl is the fourth in his Sean Duffy series, and while I own all of the books, I am hoping aboard for this one. With just a couple of brief references to an incident or two in his past, this Sean Duffy novel can easily be read as a stand-alone, so if you read it and like me, enjoy it, it’ll be easy to go back and pick up Sean’s earlier history.

Gun Street girlThe story focuses on what appears to be an ‘open-and-shut’ case (Duffy hates that term) of a double murder-suicide involving a very wealthy middle-aged couple and their son, Michael, who’s just been kicked out of Oxford following a scandal. The murders take place in Whitehead, just “over the line in Carrick’s RUC turf,” and Inspector Duffy, the head of the CID unit, has to decide whether or not to fight for the case or to hand this high-profile murder to Larne RUC.  Duffy makes his decision under a great deal of stress, and he opts to fight for the case–a decision which says a great deal about his tenacious character. One of the interesting implications of this turf war is that if Duffy hadn’t fought for the case, the outcome would have been far different:

“Do you think these victims were shot by a nine-millimeter?”

“Again forensics will tell us for sure, but if you ask me the wounds are consistent with a pistol of that caliber.”

“Yeah. Almost certainly.”

“But you’re not happy?” he said, reading my expression accurately.

I shook my head. “I don’t know, Crabbie, I can see where you’re pointing me, but this thing has a professional killing vibe about it, don’t you think?”

While the clues to the crime are dropped like gingerbread crumbs to lead Duffy to the solution,  Duffy, instead focuses on the things that don’t fit the scenario, and soon he’s up to his neck in rogue Americans who may or may not be spooks, the closed ranks of the upper-class British, and M-I5.

The story is set against the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it’s 1985, and the violent riots which break out wreak havoc with Duffy’s investigation.  Gun Street Girl places its characters squarely in the tumultuous 80s, and the author’s note at the end of the book admits to “several real historical events of the time period.” These real events–along with frequent music references help build a solid sense of atmosphere.

Duffy is the sole catholic working in his department and living in the protestant neighbourhood of Carrickfergus. McKinty’s realistic characters are complex, and that’s one of the fascinating aspects of this excellent, compelling crime novel. Duffy navigates a fragmented, chaotic, violent society in which people are defined by labels–labels which on a peer level are theoretically safety zones but paradoxically also attract unpredictable, random violence. These are labels that show clear demarcations of beliefs and loyalties: cop, crook, Catholic, Protestant, IRA, UDF and yet as the plot continues all the labels assigned or selected by various characters, blur and pixelate.

“Would it surprise you to learn that one in four IRA volunteers now works for us in some capacity?” Kate said, deadpan.

“One in four! You’re joking!”

“One in four. Actually in terms of percentages it’s around twenty-seven percent.”

“A quarter of the IRA are actually British agents? Bollocks!” I said utterly shocked.

“It’s true,” Kendrick said. “One in four IRA volunteers work for us in some capacity as fully paid informers, as petty touts or occasionally as active agents.”

I was struggling to take this in. “But, but … but if that’s true why haven’t you shut them down completely?”

“The cell structure,” Kendrick explained.

“Some commands have entirely resisted infiltration. The South Armagh Brigade, for example. The sleeper cells in England and Germany. And then there’s also the fact that we’re playing the long game with many of these agents and informers. Letting them rise as far as they can …”

“So you let them commit the odd murder here and there so they can prove their bona fides and move up the ranks?” I said with some disgust.

Duffy is a prime example of a McKinty character who could be defined by labels–he’s a Catholic cop (hated by both sides of the population), but in Duffy, McKinty creates a strong main character, someone we definitely want to hang out with–a man who, once you scrape the surface, defies labels, doesn’t kiss ass and breaks the rules. There’s some deep inner core of highly individualistic integrity in Duffy, so while he does the odd line of coke, he refuses to be intimidated by the power structure of the British government. Duffy is a man you could count on to do ‘the right thing’ but it’s the right thing as defined and performed by Duffy.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, but I’ll add that Duffy lives in a Protestant neighbourhood–a decision that makes a definite statement.  Every time Duffy gets into his car, he looks for bombs, and the author adds this detail repeatedly which, rather unpredictably, adds humour even as it underscores the fact that Duffy can never relax as to be caught off his guard could prove deadly. Duffy’s outlook–although jaded and cynical–is still somehow refreshing & humorous which fits the insanity and chaos of his environment.

In Gun Street Girl Duffy breaks in two new detective constables. In the beginning of the novel, Duffy prefers the female as “the slightly more interesting of the two.” The other detective constable is Alexander Lawson, who’s liked by the other coppers, but Duffy “feel[s] a little irritated by his slickness.” As the plot moves on, Duffy finds himself working closely with Lawson and in time his impression of the newbie improves, and again this says a lot about Duffy’s character as he doesn’t pollute his relationship with Lawson with snobbery. There’s a great moment in the novel when Duffy and Lawson travel over to England and get a taste of what it’s like to live in a country that’s not a war zone but also what it’s like to be treated like a couple of sightseeing, boozing idiots by the British police. Prejudices and assumptions bombard the two Irish cops and Duffy, who really can be a chameleon, sets his British hosts straight about his serious approach to the case. Here’s Duffy and the woman who runs a B&B in Oxford:

“Inspector Sean Duffy,” I wrote in the book. She didn’t notice the “Inspector,” but the name and the accent gave her a fond memory: ‘”Of course, in my late husband’s time we had a strict rule about Irishmen. He was very particular. Do you remember that, Jeffrey?”

“No Irish, no West Indians,” Jeffery said.

“Oh yes, he was very particular was my Kenneth. You knew where he stood.”

Again back to those labels.

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The Kings of London by William Shaw

She’s Leaving Home was the first in a proposed trilogy from British author William Shaw. Set in the 60s, She’s Leaving Home introduced CID CS Cathal (“Paddy” to his workmates) Breen and Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) Helen Tozer. Breen, an outsider in D Division, and Tozer, a female copper who wants to cross gender boundaries and work in the Murder Squad, make an interesting team. In She’s Leaving Home, Breen and Tozer investigate the murder of a teenage girl found dead under a mattress. While the crime under investigation in this first novel was engaging, the book’s strength came from the crackling dynamic between Tozer and Breen. This is the Swinging 60s and Breen is feeling left behind and out of touch with the new subversive elements of society whereas Tozer, subjected to continual harassment from her male colleagues, opens doors that close in Breen’s face.

She’s Leaving Home is a solid introduction to the Breen-Tozer team, and so here we have the second in the series The Kings of London. Once again, there’s an absence of 60s nostalgia, but this is late ’68, and in this world of shifting morality and changing attitudes, both Breen and Tozer find themselves, once again, butting up against laws and shifting attitudes towards abortion, sexuality, and narcotics.

Kings of LondonBreen investigates the death of Francis Pugh, living on a trust fund, a man who played the field with an endless stream of married women, and who collected art. He’s found dead in his home moments before it, and any possible evidence, explodes into a fire. Francis was the son of a Welsh politician, and so pressure’s on for Breen to solve the case, but also to not make noise when seeking witnesses.

She’s Leaving Home took this reader straight back into the 60s–a strange time–a time when meaningful social change occurred but was somehow tragically derailed by the drug culture. In The Kings of London, the cultural references were occasionally, just occasionally, more like name dropping rather than bricks in the solid wall of genuine atmosphere. The story has a strong 60s feel, and it’s mostly ugly: Tozer’s boss doesn’t hesitate to grope her, Tozer lives in segregated housing, Breen must suffer the bother of feeding the electric meter, people fire up cigarettes casually in restaurants, the now vanished rag-and-bone men (immortalized by Steptoe and Son) make an appearance, and a disabled child is ordered to leave the library by an employee. It’s these well-worked in references that build and create atmosphere, placing us effectively in the attitudes and expectations of the Age. The more obvious references–especially to the rockstars, added too much name-dropping tinsel and felt forced.

The strength of She’s Leaving Home is absolutely in the dynamic between Tozer and Breen. There’s a sexual attraction from Breen towards Tozer, but she, a child of the 60s has an entirely different attitude towards relationships. In The Kings of London, Tozer, who’s decided to leave the force and plans to return to the family farm in Devon, is somewhat sidelined, but every time she appears in the book, that central dynamic resurfaces. And what’s so interesting here is that even though just a few years separate Breen and Tozer, they are clearly the products of a different age. Unfortunately for Breen, he’s caught between floors; he doesn’t fit with the Establishment and its values, but neither can he adjust to this new world of hippies, Hare Krishna, Free Love, and the Psychedelic 60s.

Breen is the main focus here, and we see his character shift as he’s forced to either allow the Establishment to roll over his career or to take steps to manipulate his future. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the novel, but even more intriguingly we see Breen developing and, as he fights for his career, wondering if this is how corruption begins.

He was fifteen minutes early for the 11:52 at Paddington. He stood on the platform end. He was back at work. He was a policeman again. He had something to do. But he was also a little appalled at himself. First Tarpey, now Creamer. This was the way it started. A slow corruption.

Many of the characters first seen in She’s Leaving Home continue their stories in this second volume. The unpopular “old-school policeman,”  Inspector Bailey, who never seems to connect with D Division, is still as out of touch as ever, Division secretary Marilyn still has a thing for Breen, and the ferrety Jones still can’t quite align himself with impending fatherhood. Given that one on-going thread/mystery in this novel concerns Breen’s arch-enemy, bent, but popular copper Sergeant Prosser, to get the full impact of The Kings of London, She’s Leaving Home should be read first. Fundamentally this is a novel about change–at the fore, of course, is the dynamic, constant shift of the 60s. New Scotland Yard has relocated to posh new digs and the Drug Squad is the place for the ambitious to make their careers.

The Drug Squad was still recruiting. Carmichael wanted Breen to follow him into it. But they were a loud team, brash and confident. Always getting in the papers. Not only were they fighting a whole new type of criminal, but the ones they were arresting were usually far more glamorous than the usual CID fare.

Underneath that main emphasis of the shifting 60s, William Shaw creates characters who must face changes in their lives, whether they seek those changes or not. Tozer is very much a New Woman–a woman who rejects the traditional path of marriage and children. Breen sees Inspector Bailey as a good man but largely ineffectual and fossiled in the attitudes of the past. The big questions remaining at the novel’s conclusion: Can Breen change with the times? Are Breen’s aggressive career moves simply self-defense or is he on a slippery moral slope?

Rock on volume 3….

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The Secret Place by Tana French

“Young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective.”

I missed Tana French’s first three crime novels concerning the Dublin Murder Squad (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place), but I caught up with her for number 4: Broken Harbor, a book so good, it made my best-of-2012-list. The story of Broken Harbor is haunting; it was one of the best new crime books I’d read in ages, and yes, it was a page-turner, but the book was a lot more than that; it was also an exploration of human nature and how some of us deal with crisis.

The problem is that when a book such as Broken Harbor is that good, you start wondering if the author can hit the same stride for the next novel, and that brings me to The Secret Place–a book which is going to make my best of 2014 list. While Broken Harbor concerned the murder of an entire family in a seaside ghost estate, The Secret Place concerns the murder of a teenager, a boarder at an elite boys’ school.

The secret placeDetective Moran is stuck working cold cases when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of Frank Mackey (from Faithful Place), and a boarder at St Kilda’s girls’ school, arrives with evidence in the cold case murder of sixteen-year-old Christopher Harper. The year before, Christopher, the son of a wealthy banker, and a boarder at St. Colm’s, an equally elite boarding school for boys, was found murdered on the grounds of St Kilda’s. Various theories floated throughout the investigation at the time, none proved, and the case remained unsolved. Holly arrives in Moran’s office with a card which includes a picture of Christopher and the words “I know who killed him.” She tells Moran that she found the card posted on “The Secret Place,” a noticeboard devised by the school as an outlet for students to “express emotions that they don’t feel comfortable expressing elsewhere.” That’s PC-speak to explain that the noticeboard is ideally to curb internet bullying.

Moran approaches the lead detective for the case: Antoinette Conway, an attractive, icy, woman who has a poisonous reputation in the Dublin Murder Squad.

A woman working Murder shouldn’t rate scandal, shouldn’t even rate a mention. But a lot of the old boys are old school; a lot of the young ones too. Equality is paper-deep, peel it away with a fingernail. The grapevine says that Conway got the gig by shagging someone, says she got it by ticking the token boxes–something extra in there, something that’s not pasty potato Irish: sallow skin, strong sweeps to her nose and her cheekbones, blue-black shine on her hair. Shame she’s not in a wheelchair, the grapevine says, or she’d be commissioner by now.

While she’s made good career moves so far, the palpable antagonism against Conway in the squad room from her male colleagues has left her isolated and “flying solo” without a partner after her previous sidekick retired.  Aware that his career is stalled, Moran sees Holly’s tip as a way of getting out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad where he’s currently on the “shit list for the forseeable.” Conway’s life in the Murder Squad is hell. She’s not treated like one of the guys, and she won’t tolerate the sexual innuendos, so in the eyes of her rejected male colleagues this makes her perceived sexual orientation/preferences a source of jokes–to them, she’s either a lesbian or a dominatrix:

Conway was in an interview. I sat on an empty desk in the Murder squad room, had the crack with the lads. Not a lot of crack, now; Murder is busy. Walk in there, feel your heart rate notch up. Phones ringing, computers clicking, people coming in and out; not hurried, but fast. But a few of them took time out to give me a poke or two. You want Conway? Thought she was getting some, all right, she hasn’t busted anyone’s balls all week; never thought she was getting it off a guy, though. Thanks for taking one for the team, man. Got your shots?  Got your gimp suit?

Moran’s origins are working class, but whereas Moran can accept the knowledge that privilege and money will always open doors, Conway, from Dublin’s inner city “tower blocks IRA-wannabe graffiti and puddles of piss,” has zero patience for social status and niceties. Conway hit a wall in the investigation a year ago, and she got nowhere with the “shiny pedigree bitches” at St Kilda’s, girls from the wealthy homes who sniff her working class origins. The only lead Conway ever caught was that the victim was rumoured to be dating a St Kilda’s student named Selena.

The book goes back and forth from the present investigation to the past events which led up to the murder. The present, set within St Kilda’s, has a tightly, compulsively readable claustrophobic feel as Moran and Conway begin interviewing girls who knew Christopher. They try to penetrate the social world of these teenage girls, tentatively probing the membrane of friendship, loyalty and rivalry, and discover two sets of suspects: one group nicknamed the Daleks: 4 students dominated by a girl named Joanne, and another clique which includes Holly and Selena. Moran interviews each girl with intriguing results, and he’s very good at reading people, crafting an individual approach for each interview:

You want in a witness, you figure out what she wants. Then you give her that, big handfuls. I’m good at that.

Just as Broken Harbor recreated the desperate human face behind the housing crisis, The Secret Place showcases the artificial world of a girls’ school where the teenage girls compete, often viciously, for the attention from the boys at the boarding school next door. The nature of school life is ephemeral, and while some things that happen at school seem so important at the time, in the bigger scheme of an entire lifetime, these incidents will fade and disappear. But St Kilda’s, for some girls, is a crucible and because many of them have problem home lives, they’ve developed bonds that are unhealthy.

You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled right enough to scold you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.

Tana French brilliantly explores the world of teenage girls–girls who are at a delicate, crucial time of life when their flexible morality is developing in the shift towards adulthood.  Broken Harbor concerned the death of an entire family in a house which held the echoes of the crime, and the same is true of The Secret Place. St Kilda’s is a vast school set on beautiful grounds, but there’s a strong sense of disquiet, the rumor of a ghost, and an atmosphere that fed murder–a very particular murder set firmly in its context and its unique set of circumstances.  The case throws Moran and Conway back into their pasts. The girls at St Kilda’s remind Conway of everything she had to overcome, and Moran finds himself remembering his own teen years while stepping very carefully to avoid the hazards of some of the more dangerous St Kilda’s students. A murder set among teens would normally not pique my interest and would more likely result in a yawnfest. The Secret Place is so much more than a crime novel, and yet it’s my favourite sort of scenario that explores a crime created by a unique set of circumstances, time and place. Highly, compulsively readable, the novel is structured to keep us guessing until the end while throwing in issues of class conflict, class acceptance, teen angst, sexual politics and above all, the extent, and the limits, of loyalty.

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She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw

How are you doing with that women’s libber of yours, Paddy?” asked Jones. “Wouldn’t mind seeing her burning her bra.”

William Shaw’s title She’s Leaving Home references a Beatles song, and it’s an appropriate choice given the subject matter and the times in which this excellent crime novel is set. It’s 1968, London, and the naked body of a teenage girl is found stuffed under a mattress right next to some flats and around the corner from EMI Studios, located on Abbey Road. A couple of details about the placement of the body don’t add up, and troubled CID DS Paddy Breen is assigned to the case. Paddy hails from Ireland but now works in D Division where he’s a distrusted, disliked outsider. Bailey, who ineffectually heads the station, is also disliked and has no control over the Division coppers who make fun of him behind his back. When the novel opens a murky incident which involves Breen and the very much-liked Sergeant Prosser has taken place. The incident, a robbery, only underscores the contempt aimed at Paddy, and he’s warned by a friend to get out of Murder and D Division and get into drugs where all the growth and excitement will be:

We’re on the tip of the iceberg. Come aboard, Paddy. Ship’s about to sail. Murder is just the same old same old. And I’m on vice. That’s even worse. Vice is done for. This is the permissive society. When there’s people starkers on stage up at the Shaftesbury Theatre singing about the age of the Hairy-Arse, who needs to pay for it anymore? Did you go? No? I did. God, there’s some ugly women in that. I felt like shouting, ‘For God’s sake out your clothes back on.’ In a couple of years, we’ll be like Sweden, I tell you. The point is, nobody even has to pay for it these days. These young girls, nowadays, they’ll fuck anybody. Nobby Pilcher’s got it right. Growth industry. I’m serious, Paddy. You need to get out of D Div.

While Breen investigates the murder of the teenager, he is accompanied by Temporary Detective Helen Tozer, originally from Devon, who wants to work murder. Women PCs are “only on admin and social work. If a crime involved a kid, you’d ask one on them in. Apart from that they never came into a CID office.” Tozer, who has personal reasons for wanting to work in murder, must face an avalanche of attitudes from her fellow police officers.  Repeatedly ordered to make the tea for the male officers, it’s also assumed she’s promiscuous when she identifies a stain as sperm on a dress found in the bins near the victim. Her suggestions are treated as a joke and the implications are that she’s either good for fresh cups of tea or as a potential sex partner. Fortunately, she’s thick-skinned enough to let the insults slide off her back. While Breen expects that the male officers will taunt Tozer, he’s unprepared for the venom directed at Tozer by one of the female secretaries.

she's leaving homeTozer and Breen make a great team, and a great deal of the novel’s interest can be found in the way Breen learns to bend to Tozer’s suggestions as they investigate the opaque world of crazed Beatles fans–the masses of young girls who camp outside the homes of their idols and sleep outside of the recording studios hoping for a glimpse of the Beatles as they arrive. While Breen represents the fossilized world of Authority, Tozer can relate to Beatlemania.

One of the refreshing aspects of the novel is the total lack of 60s nostalgia, so forget the up-beat score of Pirate Radio. In Shaw’s world, the 60s is an unpleasant place–racism and sexism are unchecked and even applauded. We see a world in flux, so while young men with long hair walk around in flowered shirts and flared trousers, and greasers and their girls snog publicly, the older generation tut and complain and rain judgments down about the new permissive society where anything goes. There’s an ugliness to this world found in the small-minded callousness of many of the characters Breen and Tozer question in the course of the investigation. The judgmental and primly unpleasant Miss Shankley, for example, who lives in the flats where the body was found, assumes that the naked girl was a prostitute, while to members of D Division, she’s just another “naked bird.” But even the smaller details coat the story with the minutia of life in the 60s–from coin-operated electric meters to  pregnant women smoking as a matter of course.

West London was full of color. Each year the colors got louder. Girls in green leather miniskirts, boys in paisley shirts and white loafers. New boutiques selling orange plastic chairs from Denmark. Brash billboards with sexy girls in blue bikinis fighting the inch war. A glimpse of a front room in a Georgian house where patterned wallpaper had been overpainted in yellow and a huge red paper lampshade hung from the ceiling. Pale blue Triumphs and bright red minis parked in the streets.

Around Clerkenwell the color faded. The old monochromes of post-war London returned. Still flat-capped and gray. East London continued its business.

Breen and Tozer make a terrific team, and I was much more interested in them, I’ll admit, than the solution to the crime.  He’s lonely and attracted to this young woman who’s a bit out of his league, and although the premise isn’t overworked, it’s clear that Tozer is the new kind of woman–a woman who wants to be taken seriously, and a woman who wants a career–not a family in this age when “women officers aren’t allowed to drive cars.” The plot is also a commentary on the shifting face of crime in Britain with celebrity drug-busts and young officers, thrilled by a break from tedious routine, excited to participate in a car chase or a murder. Author William Shaw, a journalist, has written other books which he terms “narrative non-fiction.”  She’s Leaving Home is also published as the title A Song From Dead Lips and is the first of three planned books set in London 1968/69 and featuring DS Breen and PC Tozer. I’m in for the duration, and for anyone scouting for material out there, this book would make a great television series.

review copy

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Lonely Hearts by John Harvey

“Got to be more to life than sex and violence, hasn’t there?”

Lonely Hearts, from British author John Harvey, is the first novel in the long-running Charlie Resnick series.  With interesting characters, the book is a good beginning, and the emphasis is on a handful of Nottingham based police detectives who work for Resnick. These detectives have an array of personal problems which become glaringly apparent as Resnick’s team try to solve the vicious murder of a young woman. 

PC Patel is making routine inquiries regarding another crime in a neighborhood when a vague suspicion sends him into a house where he discovers  the body of Shirley Peters, strangled with her own scarf. At first, the murder seems like a nice, tidy “open and sodding shut” case. Shirley’s ex boyfriend is violent and jealous, and he has a history of stalking Shirley. But then a second murder occurs–even more violent than the first, and a forensic match tells Resnick that the two women were murdered by the same man. A little digging uncovers the clue that both women advertised in the ‘lonely hearts’ column of the local paper, and Resnick suspects that the killer selected his victims from these encounters. The second victim even kept a pile of letters from the men she met–43 letters total.  Resnick’s case isn’t easy. One of the women met a man a week. So Resnick’s team painstakingly tracks down the many men who answered ads placed by the two victims.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Millington said, adjusting his tie.

“What’s that?”

“All these blokes out there. Needing to, well, go through this rigmarole.” He stood up, flexing his legs where the muscles had been stiffening. “I never thought anyone took it seriously. Personal columns. Computer dating. What sort of a state do you have to be in to do that?”

Resnick looked at him. “Lonely?”

Years ago, I read James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places. For anyone out there who doesn’t know, Ellroy’s mother was brutally murdered in 1958. The memoir, which has to be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, includes details of many murders, and one of the points Ellroy makes, and one I cannot forget, is that women who have a secret sex life are very vulnerable. Women who date under normal circumstances tell their friends who they are seeing–perhaps the new beau even meets the family or the roommate, but in cases of casual sex, and in the cases of adverts, women expose themselves to danger because they have exited the usual safety nets. This is certainly true in Lonely Hearts. Our two victims meet a man who misrepresents himself, and as result both women die horrible deaths.

Lonely HeartsAgainst the backdrop of the murders of these two lonely women, John Harvey creates Resnick, a man who understands loneliness; he’s divorced, middle-aged and lives with four cats for company. While he’s a good detective, he neglects himself, so he often turns up in rumpled clothing, and at one point has a food-stained tie. Resnick’s neglect of himself is becoming so obvious that he’s beginning to generate comments. Even his boss Superintendent Jack Skelton, who jogs every day, tells him: “You ought to get married again, Charlie.” Resnick, deep in middle-age, has neglected his body, and since he eats badly ( he eats heavy meals irregularly), he’s beginning to turn to fat. Resnick is every bit as lonely as the dead women who placed the ads.

Another theme of the novel is abusive relationships, and there’s certainly more than one of those here. Resnick is scheduled to appear and testify in a sickening child abuse case, and it’s a situation in which he finds himself considering how the ‘law’ doesn’t equal ‘justice.’ He meets and becomes attracted to Rachel, a social worker, whose relationship with her live-in boyfriend is going south. Lonely Hearts shows how relationships that go wrong can so easily flip into violent abuse when one partner refuses to accept that it’s over. But even the non-abusive relationships in the novel seem to be examples of people ‘settling’ for another person who’s little more than a warm body–anything except be alone. So on one hand, we see characters who are seeking love, companionship and sex, and on the other hand we have characters who have partners who occupy a space in their lives but little more. Many of the couples seem to be together out of habit and are so plagued with inertia, they lack the energy to leave.

The ending of the novel was too Hollywood/sensationalistic (read unrealistic) for my tastes, and Rachel was a rather annoying character. The best part of the novel for this reader, and it certainly promises more for the series, are the interesting characters surrounding Resnick: there’s Divine, an old school sexist detective who harasses his married partner, Kevin Naylor. Kevin Naylor is distracted by the sudden overwhelming requirements of married life and its endless demands. He feels somewhat disoriented by the sudden new path his life has taken as if he took the wrong escalator and can’t get off. In many ways Naylor, who keeps his problems to himself, envies womanizer Divine:

Why couldn’t he be like Divine? The world divided into three equal parts: you drank it, fly-tackled it, or got your leg over it.

Of course, men like the crass Divine want men like Naylor to envy them. Then there’s Lynn Kellogg, a young “stocky, red-faced” policewoman from Norfolk whose instincts indicate that she’s going to have a stellar career. There’s some unspoken antagonism between Lynn and Divine, and there’s a question about who ripped off Divine’s beloved girlie posters off the wall. Resnick is considering reshuffling partners as the story plays out, and that should make for some intriguing sequels. Lynn, in many ways, is a female Resnick; her energy and her passion centre on her career, and she’s just one of the characters who evaluates a tepid relationship:

She had moved to a housing association flat in the Old Lace Market area of the city, where she lived with a professional cyclist who spent most of his spare time pedaling over the Alps in bottom gear and the remainder shaving his legs to eliminate wind resistance.

This has been made into a TV film with the excellent Tom Wilkinson as Resnick.

Review copy.

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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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