Tag Archives: police procedural

The Lake District Murder: John Bude (1935)

“One wet and windy” night in March, farmer Perryman, returning from Keswick, is looking forward to getting home, when his car comes to a halt. Discovering that he needs petrol, Perryman legs it to the Derwent garage about a quarter of a mile away. This area of the county is “a bleak and uninhabited stretch of road,” and at this time of night, despite the fact that this is tourist country, there’s no traffic.

The garage seems “curiously deserted,” but there’s a “glimmer of light” coming from the shed. Perryman goes inside and discovers that one of the garage owners, a young man named Clayton, is inside his vehicle with the engine running. From the exhaust, there’s an attached hosepipe which is tucked under a mackintosh encasing Clayton’s head and shoulders. It looks like a clear-cut case of suicide.

the-lake-district-murder

Inspector Meredith is called to the scene, and although Clayton’s death certainly appears to be a classic suicide, there are other elements to the case which don’t add up. Clayton was engaged to a local girl, and he’d planned to emigrate to Canada after the wedding. The garage isn’t exactly a prosperous concern, but it’s a steady stream of income, even if Clayton, who has a ne’er-do-well partner, does most of the work.

Inspector Meredith’s suspicions are already aroused when he fails to find a motive for suicide, but then when he learns of a suicide that took place involving another garage owner just a few years ago, he insists on an autopsy on Clayton and begins digging into the case. …

The Lake District Murder is an interesting entry into the British Library Crime Classic list. Both The Sussex Downs Murder a tale of adultery, and The Cornish Coast Murder include amateur sleuths who enjoy the topic of crime, while  Death on the Riviera (which has more than a smattering of humour) involves a counterfeiting ring. The Lake District Murder, with its undercurrent of organized crime (which would seem to connect to Death on the Riviera) is much darker and much more realistic than the other Bude novels from the British Crime Library.

Inspector Meredith is challenged by the fact that he must investigate the murder of Clayton and not the nefarious doings at the garage–as to do so would possibly alert the criminals involved to temporarily shut down operations. In the absence of an amateur sleuth to offer assistance, Meredith bounces his ideas off of other police officers.  Meredith’s investigation is a hard, humourless slog as he stakes out various locations, questions numerous people and travels on a motorbike and sidecar. This police procedural is detailed with Meredith piecing together pieces of evidence and trying to create a plausible murder scenario. This section of the book will either intrigue or lose readers depending on the reader’s eye for detail and desire to solve the crime. Meredith is a rewarding character, very stable, and roping his son in for assistance when necessary against his wife’s wishes.

Lately I’ve been chewing over how some fictional/television detectives suck at their jobs and need to move onto new gigs. Nancy Devlin in The Level is just the latest example of someone who should forget police work and look for another way to make a living. The temperament of Bude’s Inspector Meredith clearly suits his career; he’s calm, patient, low-key and adaptable.

The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions how John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore 1901-1957) knew the Lake District well, and this aspect of the story definitely comes across strongly with descriptions of terrain, landscapes and weather.

For the first time since the Inspector had started to investigate the Clayton case, he could look up over the roofs of Keswick and see the snow-capped ridge of the Skiddaw range etched in details against a hard, blue sky.

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Malice: Keigo Higashino

“It comes down to character.”

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of crime book; I’ve said that many times, but then I read the Japanese crime novel, Malice from Keigo Higashino with contains a plot that managed to do something entirely different from the typical procedural. Malice, with its emphasis not on the perpetrator (we know who committed the crime around the first third of the novel,) but on the psychology of motive is a fascinating read as the detective in charge of the case refuses to take the case’s solution at face value.

So here’s the plot: best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is murdered in his home the night before he leaves for Vancouver with his wife of one month, Rie. Everything was packed and ready for the move, but Hidaka, alone at the house, was working on a serialized novel. Hidaka was found dead inside his locked office inside his locked house. Yet someone entered the home, bashed Hidaka over the head with a paperweight and then strangled him with a telephone cord. Both Hidaka’s wife and his best friend, a writer of children’s stories, Osamu Nonoguchi have alibis for the time of Hidaka’s death. On the day of Hidaka’s murder, he was visited by a young woman, Miyako Fujio, who was trying to persuade Hidaka to rewrite his novel, Forbidden Hunting Grounds as it portrayed the life of her brother (stabbed by a prostitute).  Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations. ….

malice

Malice is told, mainly, through the two voices of Osamu and Detective Kaga. The two men were teachers at the same school together, briefly, but Kaga gave up teaching to become a police detective while Osamu eventually became a full time writer. Osamu, for his own purpose, has written down accounts of the crime including the last time he saw Hidaka. Osamu visited Hidaka on the day of his death as did Miyako Fujio, so Detective Kaga requests Osamu’s accounts in order to help him piece together the crime.

With a couple of slips made by the killer, it doesn’t take too long for Kaga to solve the crime, and while he’s pressured to close the case, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. A mental duel begins to take place between the detective and the perp–a lazier detective would walk away, but Kaga isn’t satisfied with the solution to the crime. Determined to discover the truth, Kaga keeps digging. Eventually he uncovers a simmering resentment, so evil, it’s staggering in its ambition.

Malice was another foray into Japanese crime, and it was an intense, ingenious, deeply psychological read which showed this reader that the police procedural can be full of unpredictable twists and turns. The witness statements and the detective’s speech at the end of the book were a little rough, but apart from that, Malice is highly recommended. The plot interested me, in particular, because it argues that the victim has no one to speak for them.

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The Trespasser: Tana French

“But I know if we actually catch what we’re hunting, it’s probably gonna rip our faces off.”

In Tana French’s crime novel, The Trespasser, Dublin Murder Squad detectives, Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran investigate what initially seems to be a fairly standard “slam-dunk” domestic violence case involving a young, attractive blonde named Aislinn Murray who is found dead in her tiny home. She had a date that night with a bookshop owner named Rory Fallon, a man she’d met just a few weeks before. Fallon claims that he was invited to Aislinn’s home for the very first time for dinner but that Aislinn did not answer the door. There’s something off about Fallon’s statement, and with Conway and Moran pressured by a senior detective, the slick, popular Breslin and Superintendent O’Kelly, to wind this case up, it seems all too easy to arrest Fallon, but from the start, when Conway and Moran are handed the case at the end of their shift, there are some aspects of the murder that don’t quite feel right.

the-trespasser

Aislinn, at first, looks like a “dead Barbie” to the hardened Conway. She fits the ideal of beauty, paper thin, blonde and dressed in designer clothes. Yet according to her best friend, Lucy, who argues that they weren’t that close, Aislinn had no real friends, had just recently started coming out of her shell, and may have been seeing a married man. There’s something strange about the whole case; Aislinn’s life seems like a cookie cutter version of the brainless blonde, yet as Conway digs deeper, she remembers where she saw Aislinn before, and back then, Aislinn was a completely different person…

Aislinn’s doing it again: getting blurrier with everything I find out about her.

The novel portrays Conway, who’s ostracized from the rest of the squad and Moran, her easy-going partner working on a “never-ending run of domestics,” wanting a case that will require some skill, and not the obvious solve cases they’ve been working lately.  Part of the reason for this may reside in the building hostility towards Conway in the squad room. Conway is on the brink of making a career move when the Aislinn Murray case comes her way. Moran is much more interested in understanding the victim than Conway, and the reason for that resides in Conway’s steely shell .

The plot focuses on the hard grind of designating the minutiae of small tasks, the conversations between detectives of alternating theories, and several intense interviews of suspects. We see how when detectives build theories, there’s a line, a very fine line, between the possible and a fantasy:

All these stories. They hum like fist-sized hornets in the corners of the ceiling, circling idly, saving their strength. I want to pull out my gun and blow them away, neatly, one by one, vaporize them into swirls of black grit drifting downwards and gone. 

The Trespasser illustrates how detectives can be seduced by a theory, the importance of understanding the victim, and how, in the absence of another suspect, circumstantial evidence can go a long way towards conviction.

Even when we have something, touching it crumbles it into nothing. More nothing, sifting down like fine dust, piling up in sticky drifts on the glossy desks, gumming up the swanky computers.

The Trespasser, although it could be designated as a police procedural, is a very interior novel–mostly focusing on Conway’s thought processes which are influenced, and prejudiced, by her background and the ostracism at work. This is the sixth entry in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and in this novel, we see the career of the hard-boiled Antoinette Conway, and the evolution of a murder detective. With the emphasis on the interior struggles of Conway and the grind of patient police work, The Trespasser may not appeal to readers who are looking for excitement, but due to the usual nature of the plot’s trajectory, it’s easy to see The Trespasser, a tale of revenge, manipulation and obsession, becoming a seminal crime novel for its study of methodology:

You don’t make the Murder Squad without having a world-class gift for finding creative ways to get under someone’s skin and wriggle around in there till they’d rip themselves open to get rid of you.

Review copy

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

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Rain Dogs: Adrian McKinty

Cathy at 746 books hosted Reading Ireland Month during March 2016, so it seemed like the perfect time to pick up Rain Dogs, the 5th book in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty. As a police procedural with just a few references to other cases in the past, it’s possible to read this as a stand-alone.

rain dogs

Rain Dogs finds Detective Inspector Sean Duffy still working in Northern Ireland, in the Carrickfergus CID. It’s the late 80s, and we’re in the so-called ‘Troubles,’ —a misnomer if ever I heard one. Duffy is on the point of a break-up with his live-in girlfriend, Beth, who basically tells Sean that he needs to find someone his own age (ouch!).  Duffy is called out on a very petty incident to locate the missing wallet of a visiting Finn VIP at the toney Coast Road Hotel. The theft turns out to be a wild goose chase, and yet it’s also the incident that opens the door to murder, conspiracy, intervention from higher-ups and even the deepest betrayal from an unexpected direction.

Duffy is subsequently called to Carrickfergus Castle to investigate what appears to be a suicide. An attractive British journalist, Lily Bigelow, who caught Duffy’s eye at the hotel the day before, is found dead on the castle grounds. She appears to have jumped to her death, with depression over a broken relationship as the root cause, but there are two elements to the case which trouble Duffy: her notebook has vanished, and her shoes were placed on the wrong feet. Could this be a homicide? And yet if this is a case of murder, who is the killer? The castle grounds were locked down for the night, and while it’s theorized that Lily hid somewhere on the grounds in order to commit suicide (and CCTV shows her entering but not exiting the castle,) several searches and even tracking dogs do not reveal the overnight presence of a possible killer other than the highly respectable, responsible caretaker who swears that he didn’t see the girl–let alone murder her.

The case haunts Duffy and recalls the Lizzie Fitzpatrick case (Book 3: In the Morning I’ll be Gone)–a case in which a young girl was murdered inside a locked pub. Rain Dogs explores how the random, explosive violence of everyday life during The Troubles is a dance with death and just how easy it is to slip a murder in under sectarian violence. This is also the first time I’ve heard of a mercury tilt bomb.

McKinty brings these troubled times alive with a sense of disturbing reality. Duffy is Catholic which puts him outside of his Protestant CID department, his girlfriend Beth is a Protestant, and he lives in a Protestant neighbourhood. Although he’s surrounded by sectarian violence, Duffy rises above it–labels don’t exist in Duffy’s mind–even though he must survive in a chaotic, violent society in which labels are enough to get you killed. Duffy is intelligent enough to realize that while labels may offer a degree of identity, they certainly don’t guarantee much more beyond that. It’s clear that while Duffy is an excellent detective, he’ll never rise above a certain rank–he’s too much of an independent thinker and while his investigations are intense, he doesn’t have any respect for lines of class, power or money.

Duffy is an interesting character–definitely someone we want to hang out with, and while McKinty keeps Duffy well within the bounds of his well-established fictional creation, Duffy remains surprisingly and pleasantly unpredictable. Something occurs during a trip to England which made me even fonder of this character. As tough as Duffy’s environment is, he’s still humane.

There’s one great scene where Killian, a gypsy is arrested for car theft. He coolly brags that juvenile facilities make escape easy:

“We could charge you with conspiracy. I suggest to Special Branch that you’re part of a car-theft ring that aids paramilitaries, I get you sent to an adult prison. Special Branch will keep social services out of it.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To teach you a lesson and stop you stealing cars,” I said, switching back to English.

“That seems a bit of a disproportionate response,” Killian said.

“Maybe I’m the disproportionate response type.”

“You don’t seem the disproportionate response type,” Killian said, blowing a smoke ring up to the ceiling.

“Why’s that?”

“You speak Irish and you’re Catholic, I’d say that you’ve had your fair degree of shite from the RUC and are probably on the side of the underdog, which, in this analogy, would be me.”

I bit down a grin and thought about it. Not a completely unlikeable kid.

By the time the novel ends, it’s clear that Duffy has personal and professional problems in his future. This really is a great crime series and is certainly worth investing in.

Over the past few years, my dislike of finding real people making appearances in fiction has grown. I can’t mention the name of the infamous person who appears here without giving away a major part of the crime factor, so I’ll just say that this is a pet peeve of mine, but at the same time, I understand that McKinty was showing just how absolutely insane a particular situation was. Having powerful friends literally gave this person carte blanche. How disgraceful.

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Thumbprint: Friedrich Glauser (1936)

“Everyone is at least half mad and any investigation has to take that into account.”

German 2015I’ve had a handful of Friedrich Glauser novels on my bookshelf for some time, and German Literature Month was the perfect time to blast off with the first book from the series featuring Sergeant Studer: Thumbprint. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press, has a short biographical paragraph about the author and an excerpt from a letter written by the author in 1937. Glauser, a morphine and opium addict, was born in Vienna in 1896. He served in the Foreign Legion (there’s a Foreign Legion novel apparently that I would love to read,) was sent to prison and spent years in psychiatric wards and insane asylums. He died of a stroke in 1938 at the age of 42. He left behind a body of work that includes 5 Sergeant Studer novels which are all set in the 30s. Given Glauser’s history, I knew I had to read his work.

Thumbprint begins with Sergeant Studer discovering that the man he has just arrested for murder, an ex-con named Erwin Schlumpf, has attempted suicide in his cell. Studer, acting on intuition, returns to Schlumpf’s cell and resuscitates him–perhaps it’s this act which sparks Studer’s determination to discover the truth behind the crime Schlumpf is accused of. It seems to be an open-and-shut case, and while all those involved in the judicial machinery are happy to close the books on this murder, Studer isn’t satisfied that Schlumpf is guilty. Schlumpf is accused of laying in wait for salesman, Witschi, robbing him and committing murder in the process. It doesn’t help Schlumpf’s case that he was seen later that night at a tavern spending a large amount of money….

ThumbprintThis first chapter which opens with Schlumpf’s attempted suicide is called: “A Man Has Decided to Call it a Day,” and that should give you an idea of the type of humour here. One of the best aspects of this police procedural is the main character, Studer. He’s odd and unconventional. When he travels to the country village of Gerzenstein to investigate the murder which is supposedly already solved, Studer senses that the village is a close knit community full of secrets and lies. Studer has far better relationships with all the ex-cons employed in a local nursery than the so-called respectable, upstanding citizens of Gerzenstein. There’s a lot that’s odd about the case. The accused killer, for example, is in love with the victim’s daughter, and the victim who’d dabbled in various investment scams was heavily in debt. Why aren’t the victim’s son and wife mourning? And what about the insurance policy on the victim’s life? Why are the ex-cons hired by the nursery owner willing to help while the locals give Studer the cold shoulder?

While Studer is an unconventional, outwardly unimpressive detective, obviously favouring the underdog, Studer can also be his own worst enemy. After saving Schlumpf, he begins questioning the magistrate in charge of the case, and manages to move the magistrate from a stubborn, snotty lack of cooperation to impressing the magistrate into listening about the holes in the case against Schlumpf. This is all achieved by Studer’s understanding of human nature and adjusting his attitude in order to get under someone’s skin.

The examining magistrate broke off, though he couldn’t have said why himself. The man on the chair before him was a detective, a simple policeman. He was middle-aged and there was nothing special about him: a shirt with a soft collar, a grey suit that had gone slightly baggy in places because the body inside it was fat. He had a thin, pale face with a moustache covering his mouth so that you didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. And this simple policeman was sitting there in the chair, legs apart, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped …

The magistrate himself couldn’t have said why he suddenly adopted a slighty warmer tone.

“You must realize, Sergeant, that it looks to me as if you’ve exceeded your authority.” Studer nodded and nodded. Of course, his authority! “You handed over this Erwin Schlumpf to the prison officer, all according to regulation. What reason did you have for going back to see him again? Your return, I have to admit, was highly opportune, but that is not to say that it is covered by police authority. You have been with the force long enough Sergeant, to know that productive collaboration between the various branches of the legal system is only possible if each ensures to stay strictly within the limits of its own authority …”

That word: authority. Not just once, no, three times. Now Studer knew where he stood. That’s a piece of luck, he thought, they’re not the worst, the ones who keep going on about their “authority”. You just have to be nice to them and let them see you take them seriously and you will have them eating out of your hand.

That’s a really long quote, but it gives a sense of the author’s style but more importantly, it gives a strong presentation of Studer’s character. He can read people–the problem is, however, that while his readings are accurate, he can’t keep in the appropriate role, in this case, of obsequiousness. He’s too sincere, too intense a thinker, so while he adopts the appropriate role, he always slips out of his contrived character when he starts thinking.

Thumbprint is at its best in its emphasis on the psychological aspects of the case and in the character of Studer, a man who’s both endearing and admirable. On the down side, too much of the solution piles up in the last few pages, but I enjoyed this enough to commit to the rest of this unique series.

Translated by Mike Mitchell.

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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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Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykänen

Behind God’s Back, the second in the Inspector Ariel Kafka series is a police procedural from Finnish author Harri Nykänen. I haven’t read the first in the series: Nights of Awe, but I will be correcting that. Starting with the second in the series, I didn’t feel as though I missed much by jumping in, and instead Behind God’s Back was an interesting read from Bitter Lemon Press–a publisher whose name is well-known to fans of international crime fiction.

Behind God’s Back features Inspector Ariel Kafka, a Finnish bachelor, a Jew, who’s just beginning to think that perhaps devotion to his job and the neglect of his personal life may have caused him to miss some opportunities. Kafka is an intriguing main character, a man we want to spend time with. He doesn’t have a drinking problem, he’s not a train wreck, but he does have the saving grace of possessing a lively, quirky sense of humour. Not that there’s much humour to be found in the crime under investigation–the assassination style shooting of a prominent Jewish businessman who made the mistake of opening his own front door to the killer.

Behind God's backWhen the novel opens, Finnish police are involved in Operation Jaffa aka Operation Haemorrhoid–renamed for the hours spent “without a break on the hard-edged, unpadded kitchen chair” watching a suspect through a telescope. This case, which purportedly involves a high-profile assassination, sprang from monitoring a group called Seeds of Hate who targeted a handful of “prominent Jews” for hate mail. The organization is also responsible for the kidnapping and beating of a professor, so the threats must be taken seriously.

The situation becomes even more serious when Samuel Jacobson, the owner of a chain of office supply shops is killed when he opens the door to a man who posed as a police officer. Inspector Kakfa, from the Violent Crimes Unit, and a member of the relatively small Jewish community, knew Samuel and briefly dated his daughter many years previously. Stepping into the case and becoming re-involved with Samuel’s family takes Kafka back to his teens when he was deemed not good enough to date Lea, Samuel’s daughter. It’s a weird, almost surreal turn of events for Kafka who, as he investigates, discovers that Jacobson’s company over-leveraged during the Boom years and is now heavily in debt. On top of that, Lea, now living in Israel, is married to a man who has ties to the Russian Mafia.

With a cast of nicely-drawn secondary characters (including a couple of nosy neighbours who keep a handy pair of binoculars close by,) Kafka works his way through the crime and makes the uncomfortable discovery that his much more successful brother, corporate lawyer, Eli is also involved in some shenanigans. As this police procedural unfolds, Behind God’s Back, is mostly a leisurely read–although as often is the case with police procedurals, the plot tends to pile in on itself as the solution nears. The plot does not rely on tension, violence or gore, but instead the emphasis is on Kafka’s dogged pursuit of the truth–no matter where that journey takes him. Kafka’s bachelorhood and relationships with his colleagues are all tinged with humour:

My relationship with Lea had come to an abrupt end when someone had blabbed that, after a party at my friend’s, I had stayed behind with Karmela Mayer, the daughter of the fur shop owner. I had dated Karmela for over a year, and had almost ended up under the chuppah. Karmela lived in Israel these days, and had three children. I still had restless dreams about her large breasts. Lea also moved to Israel later and married a wealthy entrepreneur, or at least that’s what I remembered someone telling me. That’s the extent of what I knew about her family life.

I had dated three other Jewish girls and screwed up those relationships , too. When you add one-night stands, if you wanted to draw a hard line, I was disqualified when it came to every single Jewish family in Helsinki.

The murder of Samuel Jacobson forces Kafka to confront his past as the investigation involves questioning people who consider him an outsider now and not quite good enough for their society or their daughters. The cast of characters includes:

Kafka’s boss, former male model Chief Detective Huovinen who “always looked polished down to the tips of his toes.”

Sidekick Detective Simolin:

a good police officer, but so inherently innocent that he often found himself coming up against life’s realities. He was fascinated by North American Indians. He even had an Indian name, which he wouldn’t tell anyone, and a set of buckskins complete with moccasins and a feathered headdress.”

Detective Arja Stenman:

To be honest, she looked too classy for rough-and-tumble police work. She would have fit right in as the trophy wife of a middle-ranking CEO. In a way, she had been pretty close. She was divorced, but her ex-husband owned, or had owned, a construction equipment rental company. He had sold it in the nick of time before the police and the tax authorities caught up with him. Stolen machinery had been found in the company’s warehouses. In any case, Arja Stenman had been accustomed to a life where you didn’t have to worry about whether the money would stretch until payday. She had clear skin, freckles and a straight nose. I couldn’t deny it: she was easy on the eyes.

While the solution to the crime held my attention, my main interest lurked on Kafka:

Living alone had its advantages, but it wasn’t a dogma or principle for me. It was ninety per cent sad especially when your wildest partying days had passed and started valuing other things.

I don’t know what my problem was, but I attracted the wrong sort of women. They represented one of two extremes: either they were too bossy and domineering, or too meek and adaptable.

Another problem was that all the women my age were divorced and usually bitter about it. Plus they had children, and even though I had met some nice kids, I didn’t want to be a father to the children of a man I didn’t know.

As a bachelor over the age of forty, my relatives considered me a strange bird. I was continuously dodging their attempts to marry me off. “Good Jewish girls,” were foisted off on me under any variety of pretences.

Kafka has an interesting voice, and he’s a character who blends well with his quirky colleagues. The term crime fiction covers a vast range of subjects and cannot fit into some one-size-fits-all description. This series should appeal to fans of international crime, Nordic crime, or police procedurals that are light on violence but emphasize an affection for returning characters.

Translated by Kristian London

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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The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

The Dying Hours is the 11th Tom Thorne novel from British crime author Mark Billingham. The book begins with a death taking place, and then shortly thereafter DI Tom Thorne is called to the scene of what appears to be a double suicide of a couple in their 70s. Something doesn’t seem right to Thorne, and that comes partly as a sense from years of being detective but it’s also partly from subconscious recognition that he’s missing something. The suicide scene and then the hustle and bustle of police work and the subsequent reports are all very well set up:

They both turned as the bedroom door opened and one of the PCs who had been stationed downstairs stuck his head around it. Before the officer could speak, the on-call doctor pushed past him into the room; young, rosy-cheeked and rugger-bugger-ish. He spent no more than a few minutes examining the bodies, while Thorne watched from the corner of the room. Downstairs, Woodley hammered a small pice of MDF in place across the broken window downstairs while another PC made tea for everyone.

“Right then” the doctor said. He closed his bag and checked his watch to get an accurate time for the pronouncement. “Life extinct.” he sounded rather more cheerful than anyone had a right to be at quarter to four on a drizzly October morning.

 The doctor deems the case “a nice easy one,” but the scene of the seemingly double suicide troubles Thorne. In his mind, there’s “something off,” and when he brings his concerns to Detective Inspector Binns, Thorne is smacked back down into his place. Once part of a murder squad, Thorne, “not demoted strictly speaking,” but transferred to Lewisham and back in uniform after years on the force is now policing some very mundane cases, and he’s not happy about it. Thorne’s intuition about the seemingly-double suicide is interpreted by Binns as simply a desire to see murders where there are none, and Binns is delighted to treat Thorne and his concerns with scorn. Thorne, however, doesn’t stop with a refusal to investigate, and so he begins digging around on his own.

The Dying HoursThe Dying Hours finds Thorne morose and depressed with his new status after being punished for what is seen as the cock-up that occurred in Good as Dead. Thorne is taking his punishment well–on the outside at least but, in reality, chafing and humming with discontent against his new role. His general attitude isn’t exactly helping with his new relationship with Helen, another police officer.

The plot underscores two intriguing points: 1) the suicides of anyone in their late 60s and above seem to be something detectives accept without too much question and 2) the very disturbing thought that investigations can fly or not depending on the personalities and relationships of the officers involved. Thorne repeatedly tries to get these suicides investigated, but the stain against his professionalism guarantees that no one will listen. Hardly a comforting thought.

Although I am new to the Thorne series, on the plus side, I didn’t feel as though I was out of step at all. It was easy to step into this, the 11th book, without missing a beat or feeling as though I had to play catch up with either Thorne’s personal or professional life. On the down side, I did not get a clear sense of just who Thorne is. We see a few brief scenes with Helen, and a few scenes of Thorne butting heads, but apart from that, Thorne’s character was thin. I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Ken Bruen’s fantastic A White Arrest –a crime novel which includes an incredibly well-drawn protagonist, Detective Sgt. Brant, a man whose complex, difficult character oozes off the page. That sort of complexity is absent here; instead Thorne is a man doing his job, and while there’s a sense of this character’s tenacity (and also why he ended up in trouble), there’s not much beyond that. As a series character, this spells trouble as I don’t have an urge to go back and read more.

 

Review copy

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.”

Those two opening lines from Irish author, Tana French’s fourth novel, Broken Harbor tell us a lot about Dublin Murder squad detective, 42-year-old Mick Kennedy: 1) he cares deeply about his job 2) he’s an engaging narrator, and 3) this is a man who places a great deal of importance on the rules. If you stop and think about it, murder is an instance in which rules are broken; I’m not just talking about laws because that’s obvious. But murder also breaks the rules of what we expect: parents kill their children, children kill their parents; spouses vow to love and cherish ’till death do us part,’ until murder suddenly and inexplicably becomes an alternative to divorce. Even neighbours sometimes engage in feuds that end in death. We’re all supposed to grow to a ripe old age, yet murder violates these expectations and breaks the so-called rules of these trusted relationships. As regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot of crime novels, but Broken Harbor is ahead of the pack for lots of reasons but more of that later.

The novel begins with Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Ritchie Curran on a new case. Kennedy, whose nickname is Scorcher, appeared in Tana French’s earlier novel Faithful Place and he’s back here as the narrator. Scorcher had the “highest solve rate” in the department but his success took a beating after a case went wrong, and now down to “second” he’s been given a chance to redeem himself by his boss, who hands him the case.

The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next on the rota, or, if he’s out, whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendant O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.

The case is a triple homicide: dad, Pat Spain and his two children, Emma and Jack are dead, and Pat’s wife, blonde beautiful, Jenny Spain lies in hospital in a coma hovering between life and death. Right from the outset, the big money is on Pat as the suspect:

When it plays out like this, it’s usually the father: a woman just takes out the kids and herself, a man goes for the whole family.

The Spains lived in a large new home in Broken Harbor, a coastal town–now renamed Brianstown in a housing estate called Ocean View:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTRE. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance something was wrong.

That “something wrong” is a housing estate that started to be built during the economic boom but fell flat shortly after the economy tanked. Only a few houses on the estate are occupied. Other cheaply made houses were in various stages of being completed before the builders abandoned the project. There are “random collections of walls and scaffolding,” many houses lack windows or interior finishing,  some rooms are “littered” with remnants of building materials. It’s as if an alarm sounded and everyone walked off the job leaving the desolate housing estate semi-completed. A few families live on the estate, but squatters have moved in. The Spains lived in one of the occupied houses, and the feeling that there’s something radically wrong with Broken Harbor increases when the detectives enter the Spains’ home.

Scorcher is an engaging narrator who through training Curran also trains us about police procedure. Rule number one, according to Scorcher, (back to those rules again), “no emotions on scene.” Curran argues that his impoverished background and working in Motor vehicles has prepared him for “pretty bad stuff.”

All of them think that. I’m sure I thought it too, once upon a time. “No, old son. You didn’t. That tells me how innocent you are. It’s no fun seeing a kid with his kid split open because some moron took a bend too fast, but it’s nothing compared to seeing a kid with his head split open because some prick deliberately smacked him off a wall till he stopped breathing. So far, you’ve only seen what bad luck can do to people. You’re about to take your first good look at what people can do to each other. Believe me: not the same thing.”

And here’s Rule Number Two:

When someone’s behaviour is odd, that’s a little present just for you, and you don’t let go of it till you’ve got it unwrapped.

I’ve exchanged comments with Max at Pechorin’s journal regarding the creation of literary detectives. It’s ok to have a barely functioning low-rent PI who’s boozed up to his eyeballs, but once you have an alcoholic murder detective who’s on the skids, as a reader, I get fed up with this type of character appearing repeatedly. Scorcher is different. He’s a bloodhound on the scent of the killer, and once he has his teeth in a case, he doesn’t let go, and if that means working 20 hour days, then that’s what it takes. Part of the novel’s power can be found in the way the story is told. Scorcher and Curran arrive at the fresh and relatively undisturbed crime scene and we effectively arrive with them. Author Tana French creates a visceral shock and an intensity as we accompany the detectives through every room in the house.

When you get a chance to see a scene that way, you take it. What waits for you there is the crime itself, every screaming second of it, trapped and held for you in amber. It doesn’t matter if someone’s cleaned up, hidden evidence, tried to fake a suicide: the amber holds all that too. Once the processing starts, that’s gone for good; all that’s left is your own people swarming over the scene, busily dismantling it print by print and fiber by fiber. This chance felt like a gift, on this case where I needed it the most; like a good omen. I set my phone on silent. Plenty of people were going to want to get hold of me over the next while. All of them could wait til I had walked over my scene.

As you can tell from that passage, Scorcher is possessive about his crime. It’s his to solve–no one is going to take it away or screw it up for him, and this brings me to another story thread involving Scorcher’s past. Broken Harbor has a lot of bad memories for Scorcher, and these memories are impossible to bury as the investigation continues. By creating this thread, French draws some nice parallels between Scorcher’s past and the crime, and the case inevitably causes Scorcher to question his carefully constructed belief system. The story is also loaded with some sharply drawn secondary characters:  Office slouch, Quigley who’s viciously jealous of Scorcher’s success and can’t wait to stab him in the back if he gets the chance, Cooper the pathologist who goads Scorcher every chance he gets, Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona who makes Scorcher uneasy for some reason he can’t fathom, and then there are the Spains’ low-life neighbours, the resentful Gogans who thought the Spains were snobs. Even Broken Harbour seems to become a character–a relic of smashed dreams of suburban success and rising affluence, and a place where violent events seem to be the natural results of a world in which everything went wrong.

While this is a who-done-it police procedural, there is also, rather interestingly, equal weight given to the ‘whys’ of the crime, and perhaps this is yet another reason that makes Broken Harbor stand out from the pack. Bottom line, for this reader, it’s Scorcher’s intelligence and single-minded drive that makes the book a riveting read, and here with one final quote is Scorcher’s “dirty secret” about murder:

I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people live’s. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.

Review copy from the publisher

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