Tag Archives: series detective

Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

“I walked out and piloted the agency heap out to my rooming house, feeling like the tail end of a misspent life.”

Almost a year ago, I reviewed The Knife Slipped, the first second Cool and Lam novel written by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A Fair). Turn on the Heat is the second third in the series (see JJ’s comment below), and what a treat it is to see this novel back in print.

Turn on the heat

A Mr. ‘Smith’ employs Bertha Cool Confidential Investigations to find a missing woman. Decades earlier a Dr and Mrs Lintig lived in the small town of Oakview.  According to Mr Smith, who doesn’t explain his interest in the case, a scandal took place, and Mrs Lintig disappeared back in 1918. Obviously there’s a lot more to the case than Mr. Smith is willing to explain, and when Bertha Cool’s operative, Donald Lam arrives in Oakview, he finds out that he’s not the only person who’s looking for Mrs. Lintig.

Digging through old newspapers, Lam discovers that Dr. Lintig sued for divorce in 1918 citing mental cruelty. Then accusations followed from Mrs. Lintig that her husband was having an affair. Dr. Lintig signed over all his property to his wife, and then they both … disappeared. The judge and the lawyers involved in the case are all now dead, but questions remain: where did Dr. Lintig and Mrs Lintig disappear to? Who is Mr Smith and why is he so interested in tracking down a woman who disappeared decades earlier? And who else is looking for Mrs. Lintig?

Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder tangle the Lintig case in knots, and Donald Lam, on his usual shoestring budget from his boss, Bertha Cool, must solve the case without finding himself in the electric chair.

While the case under scrutiny in this fast-paced crime novel makes for entertaining reading, the real fun here lies in the toxic, sinewy relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha Cool “profane, massive, belligerent and bulldog,” is a woman who’s used to getting what she wants, but in Donald she’s met her match. He likes his independence, and she likes to keep control of the reins. There’s no glamour here in the PI business, and Donald Lam, who gets beaten up more than once, can’t be described as a tough guy. Bertha Cool, who talks about herself in the third person, mostly emasculates Lam, describing him as a “half-pint runt,”  handing him the bare minimum to run his case while she, a gigantic, majestic battleship, may well be eating all the profits.

Of course, there’s a beautiful reporter, and a visit to a strip joint:

I found a table back in a corner and ordered a drink. An entertainer was putting on an expurgated version of a chemically pure strip tease. She had more clothes on when she’d finished than most of the performers had when they started, but it was the manner in which she took them off that appealed to the audience: a surreptitious be-sure-the-doors-and-windows-are-closed-boys attitude that made the customers feel partners in something very, very naughty.

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Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

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The Late Show: Michael Connelly

The Late Show brings us a new series from author Michael Connelly and this time, instead of Harry Bosch,  it’s Renée Ballard, a detective in the Hollywood Division. Renée and her partner, Jenkins, work at night, “the midnight shift, the late show, moving from case to case, called to any scene where a detective was needed to take initial reports or sign off on suicides. But they kept no cases.” She’s been shelved and transferred to this shift following a sexual harassment complaint, which was thrown out, against Lt. Olivas. Ballard is still bruised from the experience, but she’s dealing with it, working hard, and trying to do her job.

The Late Show

The book opens with a call to the home of a woman whose credit card appears to have been stolen, and then it’s onto Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for the vicious beating and torture of a young woman (later discovered to be trans gendered), but before Ballard can press for forensic tests, another victim arrives from a quadruple murder that occurred in a Hollywood Club called the Dancers. When that victim, a waitress at the club dies, Ballard goes to the club to talk to witnesses.

So we have three crimes: a credit card theft, the beating and torture of a transgender person, and a multiple homicide at the club. The shooting at the club is odd. How are the victims related? –they’re an assorted trio of felons, a bookie, an enforcer, and a drug dealer, all in the same place at the same time, shot to death. And the drug-dealing waitress was “collateral damage.”

“Did anybody in here tell you they saw the waitress get hit?”

Jenkins scanned the tables, where about twenty people were sitting and waiting. It was a variety of Hollywood hipsters and clubbers. A lot of tattoos and piercings. 

“No, but from what I hear, she was waiting on the table when the shooting started,” Jenkins said. “Four men in a booth. One pulls out a hand cannon and shoots the others right where they’re sitting. people start scattering, including the shooter. He shot your waitress when he was going for the door. Took out a bouncer too.” 

Ballard is supposed to pass off the cases she works on the Late Show to the day team, but this is a driven detective who, still smarting at an unjust transfer, wants more.

She manages to wrangle holding onto the transgender torture case, but since the victim is in a medically induced coma, many questions are unanswered. Ballard’s partner Jenkins is distracted by his wife’s illness, but Ballard, who likes to go solo in her personal and professional life, starts investigating both the club shooting and the torture cases on her own. …

I thought I knew the direction the plot was heading, but I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. When it comes to crime enforcement, author Michael Connelly obviously has respect for the profession, but not every cop is idealized, and many flaws fester under the badges of some of the characters in these pages. The book’s visceral tone draws the reader into Ballard’s cases, and there’s a sense of immediacy–we are there with Ballard, an intriguing protagonist, who is strong enough to lead a series. It’s fun to think that we know how all the procedures of police work, but occasionally, only occasionally, there were too many details. But apart from that niggling issue, The Late Show is a pageturner.

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The Lake: Lotte and Søren Hammer

The Lake is the fourth novel in the Konrad Simonsen series from brother and sister writing team Lotte and Søren Hammer. Other titles in the series are: The Hanging, The Girl in the Ice and The Vanished. The Lake is the first title I read, and while some of the characters have established relationships, with minor references made to past cases, the book was easy to read without having finished the prior books in the series.

Crime readers are aware that the genre has many sub-categories. In the case of The Lake, which I had expected to be a straightforward police procedural, the narrative, taking a hard, cold look at the layers involved in human trafficking, is more complex. This is definitely a crime novel written to highlight a social ill–one that occurs under the noses of polite society. In Denmark, prostitution is legal, but after that things get a bit blurry. It’s illegal to pimp, run a brothel, or rent out a room that is used for prostitution.  Wikipedia states that approx. 65% of sex workers in Denmark are migrants/victims of human trafficking (other sources are higher), and it seems seriously doubtful that any of them, signed up for the kind of life they ended up with.

The Lake

The Lake begins with a young Nigerian sex worker being driven off to a remote location to be ‘punished’. Henrik Krag, Jan Podowski and Benedikte Lerche-Larsen are all unhappy with “Jessica,” a teenage girl who “lies there like a dead thing,” and as a result unhappy customers have demanded refunds. Jessica isn’t her real name, of course, “all the girls in her shipment had been given names that began with the letter ‘J’ –it was easier that way.” Henrik and Jan aren’t exactly ‘nice’ people, but somehow, Benedikte, born with all of her privileges, being groomed to take over the family business, finds torture of this sad, confused, frightened, disenfranchised girl amusing. Benedikte is the worst of the lot.

“Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.”

The punishment goes wrong, the girl dies and she’s dumped into a remote lake. Months later her body surfaces, and a policeman interviewed on television made a racist remark. Suddenly the girl’s death garners attention. The murder becomes a cause célèbre, and DS Konrad Simonsen and his team are soon on the case…

The murder takes the police to Kollelse Manor and the noble Blixen-Agerskjold family. The estate bailiff, Frode Otto, with his criminal past, comes to the detectives’ attention. Could he be involved? Personal relationships between the police team are highlighted while the criminals here run the gamut: from the lowly, manipulated thug, to the cold masterminds running the show.

This isn’t a novel that you race through, but it is solid, engaging and thoughtful in its portrayals of the different aspects of prostitution with the criminals creaming off the money in this ugly trade in human flesh. Benedikte’s mother, Katrina, is in the market for some new women, and she has three women to trade back for the newer models. The ones she returns like cashing in a coupon are  “barely used as good as new.”  Here she is looking at “applicants” along with a doctor on hand to give them the once over.

All the women were trying to appear sexy and eager to work to the older, blonde woman sitting at the opposite end of the room, scrutinising them. Rumours had long since spread among them: if Katrina Larsen owned you, you would only have to service one client a day. It sounded incredible but it was the truth. And what luxury it would be–just one customer a day! In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The Lake addresses Denmark’s seemingly open-minded approach to prostitution–a trade in which legal residents, in theory, pay taxes, and are much more likely to approach the police if they are threatened or beaten. Foreign sex workers, however, are much more vulnerable. Denmark is rated as a Tier I country when it comes to Human Trafficking. That means “Countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” It’s both a country of destination and of transit. “The Triangle of Shame” is mentioned here: Niger, Chad and Nigeria–three countries from which “many, many thousands of sex slaves exported to Europe each year.”

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translated by Charlotte Barslund

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The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

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The Cheltenham Square Murders: John Bude (1937)

Regency Square, with its “Georgian origins,” is a prestigious neighbourhood in the town of Cheltenham Spa. It’s composed of a mere ten houses in a quiet-cul-de-sac with all the houses facing a “central communal square of grass.” The area sounds so peaceful, and there’s the sense that this is a “quiet, residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.” But of course, as any self-respecting crime readers know, appearances are deceiving.

The Cheltenham Square murder

When John Bude’s crime novel The Cheltenham Square Murders opens, the residents of this elite neighbourhood with its forced intimacy are quarreling over whether or not an old elm tree should be cut down. The residents are divided on the subject, but while this may seem the overriding issue in the neighbourhood, there’s actually a few scandals afoot. The dashing “floridly handsome,” car salesman Captain Cotton, who rides in and out of the Square on his very loud motorbike, is conducting an affair with Mrs West, and the residents are scandalised and appalled. In the meantime, Mr West not only seems in danger of losing his wife, but he’s also lost his fortune after taking the investment advice of his neighbour, stockbroker Buller.

When Captain Cotton is shot through the head with an arrow, there is no shortage of suspects since several residents of the Square are proficient members of the Wellington Archery Club. But of course, since Captain Cotton had an affair with West’s wife, West immediately becomes the prime suspect.

As luck would have it, Aldous Barnet, “writer of detective stories” happens to be staying in his sister’s house in the Square and he’s invited Inspector Meredith to spend part of his holiday in Cheltenham Spa. Although the local coppers are called to the scene for Captain Cotton’s murder, both Aldous Barnet and Meredith can’t resist becoming involved.

John Bude gives us a lively assortment of residents to spice up this police procedural including the militant Miss Boon who believes that “dogs were the only sensible housemates,” two elderly spinster sisters, the “aloof” Sir Wilfred Whitcomb and his wife Lady Eleanor, the fussy Reverend Matthews along with his sister Annie, “a faded, anaemic creature in nondescript clothes,” who acts as his housekeeper and who has been “agreeing with him for over forty years.” 

With West as the very obvious prime suspect, we all know that the case can’t be so simple, and Barnet and Meredith begin digging under the surface of life in the Square to capture the real culprit.

Even though I guessed the identity of the real killer before the real sleuths did, the fun here is twofold: the assortment of residents and the liberal humour in so many scenes. Bude clearly had fun with this tale and intended his readers to put their feet up and enjoy the ride. The crime takes place in a very small neighbourhood, and it’s clear that the forced intimacy has festered and fostered murder. While this is not the strongest entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, its intention is to be a fun, diversionary read, and in this, it succeeds

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Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly: Adrian McKinty

“I’ve stirred up something strange, something deep.”

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, the sixth entry in the Sean Duffy series from author Adrian McKinty bears an unwieldy title,  but don’t let that stand in the way of picking up this well-crafted crime novel. Set in 1988, during The Troubles, this latest book from the consistently reliable McKinty, is an explosive police procedural set against the violence of the times.

Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, now in middle-age, a father with a live-in girlfriend wonders just how long his career will last. On one hand he’s a Catholic officer in the almost entirely protestant Carrickfergus RUC–that means as a catholic officer, there’s a IRA bounty on his head, and due to his past decisions, he knows he’ll never be promoted. In this novel, Duffy’s old habits, combined with the endless stress of the job find him out-of-shape and struggling with asthma. Can he give up the smokes, the booze and the other recreational habits he’s acquired in order to cope with his efforts to stay alive, solve cases and maintain some degree of integrity?

police at the station

The novel’s powerful opening finds Duffy marched off by masked men (and one woman) to a remote area to dig his own grave, and then the novel backtracks to the incidents that led Sean to this point. Backtracking from a moment of great tension is a risky venture for some novelists (my next review will cover that topic) but in McKinty’s capable hands, the action, with just a touch of humour, never stops, and as a result, the intense page-turning backstory maintains momentum.

Duffy is called to investigate a murder–the weapon of choice in this case is a crossbow, and the victim was a lowly drug dealer. There’s pressure from above to close the case, and Duffy is told in no uncertain words to ‘move on.’ When Duffy keeps digging, bad things begin to happen, and Duffy along with two trusted members of the force: Crabbie and Lawson in effect, lead a secret investigation that tunnels back to the past.

Series novels always include details about the characters’ personal lives. In this novel, Duffy, now a father, has deeper concerns than he’s had in the past. Plus Duffy’s live-in Protestant girlfriend isn’t happy living in a Catholic neighborhood and she isn’t sure she wants to raise a child in Northern Ireland. Duffy juggles pressures from his superiors with domestic strife and very real threats to his life. Plus thanks to health issues, he may be tagged as unfit for duty.

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is possibly the best entry in the series so far. Once again, McKinty places us squarely in the murky times by dropping in mention of real events: the Gibraltar terrorism, and the murder of two British army corporals. Curious, I looked up the RUC on Wikipedia and the article states that “at its peak” the force had 8500 officers and that “during the Troubles 319 RUC officers were killed and 9,000 injured in paramilitary assassinations or attacks.”

It would be fairly predictable to place a character in these times and show how things are never black and white, but McKinty does something entirely different. The Sean Duffy novels at all about identity and primary loyalties. In Duffy’s case, he’s a Catholic from working class roots, but he is not an ideologue; he’s first and foremost a policeman who is going to get the job done. Now if he rubs up against Catholics, Protestants or the wealthy along the way to solving his case, these labels are all white noise to Duffy. Being primarily a policeman has carried Duffy so far but now he’s a father and these two labels: father and policeman have their own magnetic pulls.

As I said, this is the sixth in the series, and while some brief references to the past are dropped in the plot, you can jump in with Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly--although it’s better to start at the beginning in order to follow Duffy’s career trajectory. The end of the novel finds Duffy at an interesting place in his career, and now I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

Reading Ireland Month

This is my entry for Reading Ireland Month held by Cathy 746 and Niall at The Fluff is Raging

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A Climate of Fear: Fred Vargas

“You don’t just go killing people left and right, for want of anything better to do.”

In A Climate of Fear from Fred Vargas, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg returns to investigate a series of connected murders. Adamsberg is dragged into the death of an older, terminally ill woman who appears to be a suicide. It seems to be an open and shut case, but there are some niggling problems that gnaw at the edges of Adamsberg’s mind: Why was the woman so determined to post a letter shortly before her death? Who was the letter to and what did it contain? Finally what is the relevance of a sign drawn at the scene of the woman’s death? Then a helpful citizen steps forward with information about the letter, and Adamsberg goes to talk to the recipient only to find a second ‘suicide’ and the same sign left next to the dead man.

At the scene of the second ‘suicide,’ Adamsberg is told a strange, chilling story about a trip made to Iceland more than ten years earlier. The trip went horribly wrong and ended up like some frozen version of Lord of the Flies. The two ‘suicides’ were both people on the trip, and it seems that those former tourists are being bumped off one by one.

a climate of fear

While attempting to puzzle through the Iceland Tourists murders in his own inimitable way, Adamsberg begins investigating a second series of murders occurring within the secretive “Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre.” It turns out that Danglard, a walking encyclopedia, who “knows things that you won’t learn in thirty lifetimes,” is very familiar with the writings and speeches of Robespierre, and Danglard looks like a natural dressed in an elegant 18th century purple frock coat.

With two parallel investigations, Adamsberg’s team is stretched to the limit, and when the investigations stall, Adamsberg comes under criticism from some squad members–including the ever-faithful Danglard. Vargas shows most effectively that thought processes, which are unique to each individual (especially Adamsberg who tends to approach crime in an intuitive way,) isolate and in this case, frustrates many of Adamsberg’s fellow officers.

At 415 pages this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tightly plotted crime novel, but I loved every page. For example, there’s a long section with Adamsberg and Danglard interviewing the woman who picked by a letter dropped by the first victim. This woman, Marie-France, has a dreamy, yet very specific thought process which Adamsberg relates to:

‘After that I thought it over, seven times, not any more.’

‘Seven times,’ Adamsberg murmured,

How could you count the number of times you thought something over?

‘Not five and not twenty. My father always said you should think something over seven times in your head, before you act, not less, because you might do something silly, but especially not more, or you’d go around and around in circles. And end up corkscrewed into the ground. Then you’re stuck. So I thought: this lady went out on her own to post this letter. So it must have been important, don’t you think?’

Vargas takes her time developing the crimes, the solutions and the dynamics of each crime milieu–in particular the Robespierre society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime fiction, for its focus on the transgressive,  is a great way to infiltrate a foreign culture, and in A Climate of Fear, we are cast back into the French Revolution. I had no idea that Robespierre was such a controversial figure, and Vargas explores the nuances of Robespierre’s character and why some people worship him and why others find him an object of hate.  The psychology of historical reenactments as “an arena for people’s fantasies” is explored very well, and there are plenty of details about Robespierre, his downfall and death in this rich crime novel.

A Climate of Fear is the eighth in the Commissaire Adamsberg series (if you don’t count the graphic novel). It’s possible to jump in with this one if you feel so inclined as there’s not a great deal of information about Adamsberg’s personal life, and the relationships he has with his squad members is fairly self-explanatory. A couple of mentions are made of the past, and there are returning characters, but there’s not much that should interfere with enjoying this crime novel on its own.

Thanks to Emma for turning me onto Vargas in the first place

Translated by Siân Reynolds

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The Trophy Child: Paula Daly

“One of life’s great taboos: comparing one’s current wife to one’s last.”

I really enjoyed Paula Daly’s novel The Mistake I Made (even if the ending was a bit over the top) for its wonderful voice, and so I turned to The Trophy Child for more of the same.  The two novels are nothing alike, and The Trophy Child which features the return of DS Joanne Aspinallleans more towards the police procedural rather than the female-in-peril category.

The Trophy Child is set in the Lake District and centres on the Bloom family. To outsiders, they seem to have it all: a beautiful home with father, MD Noel Bloom and attractive wife Karen, but scratch the surface and you find a very unhappy blended family. Verity, Noel’s 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage hates her stepmother but is forced to live with her as Noel’s first wife, who has MS, lives in a residential care home. Then there’s Ewan, a son from Karen’s relationship with a mystery man. Ewan lives above the garage and smokes marijuana to his stoned heart’s content. Finally, there’s poor Bronte, a sweet but not particularly bright ten-year-old, the trophy child of the title, who is pushed to the limit by her mother’s extreme parenting.

the-trophy-child

I can’t reveal much about the plot without tossing out spoilers right and left, so I’ll just say that something bad happens, and this rips off the lid of the supposedly happy home. Consequently, the twisted lives of the Blooms become a matter of public knowledge.

I liked the premise of The Trophy Child a lot, but something went wrong in its execution. Although I know people like Karen, I’d never even heard the term trophy child before reading the book, and author Paula Daly certainly nails this type of “extreme parenting.” It’s clear that Bronte’s life isn’t about Bronte; it’s about Karen–a woman who drives her poor daughter from harp lessons to piano lessons to tap dancing while avoiding basics like … cooking…

Karen liked to say she didn’t cook; she ‘arranged food’.  And that’s what she was doing right now: sliding cold, roasted chicken thighs on to plates, along with a sad-looking salad, and some cheese and onion crisps.

Karen Bloom is clearly the arch-enemy here–neurotic, demanding, inflexible, she rules the Bloom family making life impossible for everyone, and no one dares cross or question her. And yet… while I can’t argue that Karen is really a revolting person, she is dealing with a pot-head son and a husband I found incredibly self-centered. Yes life at the Bloom house sucks, so while I can’t blame Noel for hitting the bottle, I found the behaviour of this weak man appalling. He likes to take off on Sundays by himself and go and find a nice quiet pub to drink in. This leaves HIS CHILDREN at the unadulterated mercy of Karen. I felt as though the plot set up Karen as this blight on the Bloom family when really she’s just part of it. That’s not to say that she’s not a frightening person: think Mommie Dearest on steroids, but that said, the plot went too lightly on others in the household who are not blameless, and this gave the plot a simplicity that didn’t do the novel any favours.

The novel has info padding on the subject of MS and also there’s hint of a lecture when it comes to “British parents […] sneakily adopting the Chinese model of parenting. “ The sections regarding DS Joanne Aspinall’s private life were excellent: her breast reduction, her life as a sad single, her ex-pat mother living in Spain. Capturing the inflammatory nuances of today’s world Daly shows the way in which big-mouth Karen escalates the situation using social media. Hint: if you’re involved in a scandal, keep off the internet!

Here’s Cleo’s review

Review copy

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Filed under Daly Paula, Fiction

Snowblind: Ragnar Jónasson

“There’s something about a murder in a small community that’s disturbing, especially at a time like this-the middle of winter.”

Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snowblind is a perfect example of how a crime novel grants the reader an opportunity to worm a way into a foreign culture. Set during the Icelandic financial crisis, the book is the first in a series featuring rookie policeman Ari Thor. When the novel opens, twenty-five-year old Ari is living in Reykjavik with his girlfriend Kristin. Former theology student Ari turned to a career in the police and he’s on the last leg of his studies when he sends out job applications. This is a bad time to be seeking work, but then he gets a call from Tómas, the police chief in far-way Siglufjördur. Without consulting Kristin, who’s finishing up her medical studies, he takes the job, and leaves for this remote northern town.

snowblind

The book contains two maps: one of Iceland and one of Siglufjördur. The first map shows just how remote Siglufjördur and goes a long way to explaining Kristin’s attitude towards Ari’s relocation. But Siglufjördur is an interesting town and a perfect setting for a series. Once the town flourished, but now is shrinking with the loss of the herring industry, yet while Reykjavik is in chaos, the economic crisis somehow bypasses Siglufjördur. I looked up photos of the town, and it really is spectacular in a postcard sort of way. Author Ragnar Jónasson’s relatives hail from the town, and because of its geographical isolation it must indeed be a unique place. The town is accessible by a long tunnel and windy mountain roads, and at one point in the novel, due to heavy snow fall, the town is completely cut off. The book explores this uniqueness through the town’s residents: people move there and never leave, retirees return, and some people go there to disconnect with the rest of the world.

He started the day with cereal, ice-cold milk and yesterday’s newspaper. He had started to get used to seeing the papers late, as the morning editions didn’t reach this far-flung fjord until at least midday. Not that it mattered. The rhythm of life was different here, time passed more slowly and there was less bustling hurry than in the city. The papers would be here when they were here.

Ari’s new job would seem on one hand to be a cushy deal. There’s relatively little crime (no one locks their doors) and he’s given a large house to live in. For the first few days, he’s bored–after all he trained for the police as he was looking for a job “with a little excitement to it.” Just as he’s thinking he’s made a horrible mistake moving to this peaceful town, a death occurs. Hrólfur, now in his 90s, the author of one of Iceland’s most famous books, falls and dies during a rehearsal at the local theatrical group. Tómas is certain it’s an accident, but Ari isn’t ready to jump to that conclusion. Then a woman is found injured in the snow. Could the two events be related?

The plot follows these two events and Ari’s investigation. As always in a series novel, the life of the series character comes under scrutiny, and in this case Ari finds himself torn between Kristin and Ugla, a young woman who’s moved to Siglufjördur to escape her past.

Snowblind is an extremely strong first entry in the series. Not only does the book contain a strong sense of place, the ups and downs of small town life, but elements of  Icelandic culture are very subtly woven into the plot–traditional Christmas dinner is smoked pork, for example. At one point, Ari finds himself alone working on Xmas Eve. He takes Christmas ale, smoked pork wrapped in foil, a white candle and a new book to work his solo vigil at the police station.

The Icelandic tradition of reading a new book on Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of the morning, had been important in his family’s home.

What a great tradition.

I read some reviews that complained the book had the old cliché of the rookie policeman solving the crimes. While I understand where the complaint comes from, Snowblind is the launch of the new Dark Iceland series, and what better way to start than with a rookie? Plus it’s easy to accept Ari’s desire to ‘see’ crimes where his boss does not as Ari is beginning to think that he’s made a terrible mistake leaving Reykjavik behind. At one point during the plot, the author keeps Ari’s thoughts about one of the crimes (there are several) off the page, but the clues were there thrown out very subtly throughout the story. Plus we see Ari developing  a professional persona that he hopes will work with the locals. There are a few loose ends to follow in book 2, and I’m looking forward to it. Marina and Crimeworm are enjoying the series too.

Translated by Quentin Bates

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Jónasson Ragnar