Tag Archives: series detective

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

Review copy

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Vargas Fred

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

6 Comments

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

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jónasson Ragnar

The Mystery of the Three Orchids: Augusto de Angelis (1942)

“If everyone who had some reason to kill really did kill, the ground would be strewn with bodies.”

Both The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses feature Augusto de Angelis’s series character Inspector De Vincenzi, and now with the release of The Mystery of the Three Orchids from Pushkin Vertigo, we have a third book in the series. Many of the titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line are outstanding: Vertigo, The Wicked Go To Hell, Bird in a Cage, She Who Was No More, and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia are highly recommended for any crime fiction lover who’s looking for titles that push the genre. That brings me to the De Vincenzi novels, the stack on the left of the Pushkin Vertigo titles; these books are much more standard police procedurals. I wasn’t wowed by either of the two earlier novels, but The Mystery of the Three Orchids picks up the pace, and is the best of the three so far

mystery-of-the-three-orchids

The focus in The Mystery of the Orchids is a fashion house in Milan. On the day that American ex-pat Cristiana O’Brien, a woman with a “magnificent body,” shows her spring collection to “Milan’s very best clients, the richest–truly the ideal clients for a great fashion house,”a body turns up on Cristiana’s bed. The body is Valerio, a young man Cristiana met in Naples, now employed as a “loyal drudge, the slave she used for everything.” Cristiana is shocked by the body, but after all, she had no sentimental attachment to the victim. What does terrify her, however, is the sight of an orchid–a flower she detests–left in her room.

The device of an anonymous letter (which appeared in The Hotel of the Three Roses--it was an anonymous phone call in The Murdered Banker) appears here in order to move along the plot. Soon Inspector De Vincenzi is on the scene to solve the crime, but the body (and the orchid) count rises. The Inspector certainly doesn’t investigate in any sort of formal fashion. He takes a wait-and-see attitude with an emphasis on “psychological clues.” To De Vincenzi, “only someone who knew how to read the murderer’s soul could unmask them.” Of course with this sort of approach to criminal investigation, readers know to expect that De Vincenzi will unmask the criminal, dramatically, at the end of the novel rather than methodically pursuing clues.  While De Vincenzi can hardly be accused of being obsessive about catching his murderer (I’m not convinced he’s a very good detective,) in this novel, the inspector becomes a more interesting character.

When it came down to it he was sentimental, and he had an instinctive respect for the dead, for scoundrels who’d once been alive.

The author peppers the story with some colourful characters, including a bitchy model and an idiosyncratic dress designer. There’s also a very cinematic scene involving a room full of headless dressmaker dummies. While De Vincenzi believes that “lying and distraction come easily to women: their deviousness is automatic” he takes an instant liking to Evelina,  Cristiana’s heavy-set book-keeper. He decides “you can’t weigh more than a hundred kilos without having a correspondingly light conscience.”  Prospero O’Lary, Cristiana’s director is described by De Vincenzi as a “black tortoise ill with meningitis.”

No one in the fashion house is what they seem, and the plot’s emphasis is American gangsterism at play in Milan. De Vincenzi is a reader, a fan of Anatole France, but he’s also read Persons in Hidingwritten by the head of the G-men, J. Edgar Hoover,” an invaluable resource as it turns out. Author de Angelis may show American crime as tainting Milan society, but there’s also a sneaking feeling that the introduction of American gangsters into Italian life is a bit of a thrill.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

9 Comments

Filed under De Angelis Augusto, Fiction

The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

methods of sgt  cluff.jpg

We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, North Gil

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm: Gil North (1960)

“Of course it couldn’t be murder. Not in Gunnarshaw.”

When the body of married woman, Amy Wright is found in her gas-filled home, everyone in the small Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw assumes it’s a case of suicide. After years of nursing her ailing mother, Amy, a woman in her 40s, married a man many years her junior, a ne’er-do-well and a known womanizer. The consensus of the town is that Amy’s death is the sad conclusion to a bad mistake. Everyone from the police surgeon to Inspector Mole tells Sgt Cluff that Amy’s death is sad, yes, but nothing to get worked up about. But Sgt Cluff, a Yorkshire man of very strong opinions, is deeply troubled by Amy’s death.

sgt-cluff-stands-firm

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm from Gil North shows a world in flux. The market town of Gunnarshaw has many houses in which bedrooms have been converted into that perennial luxury: an indoor bathroom. Cottages are being demolished to make way for businesses. This is a time when suicide is illegal, before the birth control  pill became “available for all” on the NHS. This was also the end of the age when it was common for children to nurse their ailing parents until death.

In Cluff, we have a hero who hates his car, loves his dog (who accompanies him on his investigations), a solitary man who’s bonded to the land and has a solid moral core when it comes to right and wrong. Cluff isn’t entirely convinced that Amy’s death was suicide, and yet even if it was, can justice be brought to the callous husband who pushed her so far? Cluff takes a holiday to pursue the case, and that means keeping a close eye on Amy’s philandering husband in this tale of marital strife and revenge.There’s more than a dash of misogyny in the novel–but this is clearly not from the author but from some of more ungracious characters who pass judgments on Amy who is seen, by some, as foolish for marrying a man so much younger than herself in an ‘well-she-asked-for-it’ sort of way. The author makes it easy to delineate characters into those we should like and those we should dislike by their treatment of Cluff’s dog.

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is the first in a series of 11 novels. Gil North (1916-1988) whose real name was Geoffrey Horne was, like his protagonist, from Yorkshire, and his Cluff books were very popular in the sixties, spawning a television series. Sgt Caleb Cluff, a heavy-set bachelor who lives with a Persian cat and a dog named Clive (one in a series of Clives) is a solid character who inspires respect from the locals and fear in the baddies. Inspector Mole, Cluff’s superior, dislikes animals and is a snob. He is “at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch.” Mole underestimates Cluff, and yet Mole also dismisses the darker aspects of the Amy Wright case in his eagerness to end the investigation. According to Mole, “there’s nothing to get excited about,” and even the police surgeon chalks the woman’s suicide up to “the menopause.

This is a short, cinematic novel–not really a whodunnit. Instead the plot shows two people who made marriages for material gain–a young, ambitious woman who married a much older farmer, and the sleazy Wright who married Amy for the security she offered. Cluff is positioned in the novel, unusually for a policeman, as a wrathful, vengeful man who intends to get ‘justice’ for Amy–a woman who was neglected and ignored by everyone who knew her. As a crime novel, Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is an unusual pick for British Library Crime Classics, but then that’s part of the attraction of the series which introduces readers to British crime classics that were formerly OOP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s a competently plotted novel–although I did find some of the descriptive sentence pacing on the annoying side:

He was meagre under his gaberdine raincoat, his knees pointed, his shanks like sticks under their covering. His eyes were shifty, never still. His lips were hardly perceptible. His nose was sharp like a ferret’s. He gave the impression of being suddenly trapped. He opened his mouth. His teeth were needles.

The novel’s strength comes in the force of Cluff’s personality and battle between good and evil. Analytically, given the times, Cluff could be seen as a bastion of moral values. He doesn’t approve of a young woman in the book who appears to be a quasi-prostitute, so perhaps Cluff’s popularity was partly in response to what was perceived as the erosion of morality in the 60s. We have no doubt that crime would run amok in Yorkshire if not for Cluff’s impressive presence, and as always with a series, it’s affection for the main character that guarantees success.

Review copy

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, North Gil

Death on the Riviera: John Bude (1952)

“You’re sure… you’re quite sure it isn’t another woman?”

“Good God! before breakfast? Don’t be crazy.”

In 2015, I read John Bude’s 1936 novel  The Sussex Downs Murder, and Death on the Riviera, published in 1952, came much later in Bude’s writing career. This later novel is much more confident, and Bude (Ernest Elmore 1901-1957) seems much more relaxed with his characters, even throwing in a little light humour. Bude’s series detective, Inspector Meredith, pursues a case of forged currency in France, and this allows Meredith to enjoy the climate, deal with French police, British expats, driving on the right side of the road and language obstacles.

The novel opens with Meredith and Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang travelling to France via ferry in hot pursuit of a team of currency forgers. Scotland Yard recently seized a note that contains the signature elements of master forger, Chalky Cobbett. Chalky who “was pulled in just before the War after flooding the West End with spurious fivers” has been out of prison now for 4 years but suddenly vanished. Then “a flood of counterfeit thousand franc notes” appeared on the Riviera with “Chalky’s touch.” Since the forgery ring preys on wealthy tourists and their “hundred quid travel allowance,” Meredith’s investigation indicates that the Riviera may be a hot spot of activity.

Death on the Riviera

Action centres on Menton and the Villa Paloma, owned by wealthy socialite and widow Nesta Heddderwick, a middle aged woman with a soft spot for “many improvident young men.” Is it then any wonder that her home has become a no-cost refuge for a handful of males raging from artist Paul Latour and dissipated Tony Shenton? Meredith and Strang arrive in Menton to liaise  with French police, and as luck would have it, Strang’s amourous adventures lead to suspicions about the inhabitants of the Villa Paloma.

Murder does occur, but it occurs relatively late in the novel, and this gives the reader plenty of time to enjoy the humour to be found in Nesta’s despotic treatment of her mousy companion, and artist Paul Latour’s latest “masterpiece.”

But, mon dieu! a cod’s head capping the naked torso of a woman balanced on two cactus leaves and garnished with a motif of lemons and spaghetti.

One of the characters references the fact that it’s ten years post Dunkirk, and there’s the feeling that the post WWII boom has created a new sort of crime wave with affluence feeding various types of crime. Not only are forged notes floating all over the “gilded coastline” of the Riviera, but smuggled American cigarettes, a new problem for French police, are also a hot item. Bude explores the tight-knit ex-pat community and the way in which simply being British seals relationships that would not exist in England. At one point, Meredith visits a British Major who lives on the Riviera

it was like stepping out of France into an infinitesimal but unmistakable scrap of the British Empire. It was as one would have expected–regimental groups; a rack of sporting guns; a couple of stuffed salmon; a mantelshelf crowded with silver cups and trophies; and everywhere about the room the indiscriminate lares et penates of the Colonel’s extensive sojourns in the Orient.

This is a novel of its times, so there are a few comments about women being more gullible etc., when there’s a male character who’s every bit as gullible but who is seen as trustworthy, reliable, and a rock solid bastion of society. Bude feels confident enough with his characters to even introduce the question of whether or not Meredith has “been reading too many detective yarns.”

I didn’t quite buy the motive for murder, but in this well-paced tale, the author effectively shows how crime and bad behaviour invite murder into the mix. There’s a great intro from Martin Edwards which includes biographical details including the author’s writing routine and his favourite holiday destination: Menton.

Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Bude John, Fiction

The Murdered Banker: Augusto De Angelis

“Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.”

Last year, I read and review a few titles from the new Vertigo Crime imprint from Pushkin Press. Naturally Vertigo had to make the list–along with She Who Was No More and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia. 2016 brings me to The Murdered Banker (1935), an Italian crime novel from Augusto De Angelis. This novel features series detective, Inspector De Vincenzi, who’s working late one night when an old friend, former classmate, Aurigi, unexpectedly turns up at the police station in an agitated state. Aurigi’s visit seems to be a curious coincidence when De Vincenzi receives a call regarding a murder that has taken place in Aurigi’s apartment…

the murdered banker

The murdered man, who has been shot, was a banker, and Aurigi was deeply in his debt. Aurigi should, by rights, be arrested for the crime, but for Inspector De Vincenzi, that solution seems too easy. Yet there are many reasons that Aurigi should be implicated in the crime. After all the banker was shot in Aurigi’s apartment, and Aurigi was heavily in debt to the victim and apparently had no means to settle his debt. Aurigi’s engagement to society beauty Maria Giovanna was predicated on his wealth which makes Aurigi an even bigger suspect. Yet when a  small golden phial of poison is found in the kitchen of Aurigi’s apartment, Inspector De Vincenzi starts to believe that more than one tragedy lies in the murder….

In that room, in that apartment, a heavy, gloomy atmosphere hung over everything like an invisible weight-something monstrous, inhuman. And not only the mystery of the body, but some other unthinkable thing. He felt it. Not only was Aurigi mixed up in it–the friend with whom he’d studied at school and who was a poet like him-but everything, all of if felt strange.

That’s a promising quote, and it’s easy to imagine that the solution to the crime is going to be something intriguing, different, memorable. Unfortunately, the solution, while involving a complex chain reaction between various characters, never quite lives up to the quote.

The Murdered Banker is the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, and although the series character is interesting and has a unique humane approach to crime, this is not a particularly strong novel. The book starts strongly but then weakens as attention is focused on the various characters who live in or visit Aurigi’s apartment. As the plot unfolds, the scenes could be stage sets for a play. One of De Vincenzi’s methods, for example, is to lead various characters, without warning, to the dead body, so that he can monitor their reactions. This may have more impact on the stage than it does on the page.

This is one of those crimes where the reader doesn’t really know what is going on, and the inspector seems to have ideas which he hugs to himself and doesn’t disclose. The stage is set, however, for some interesting series characters, including Maccari who is troubled by the dead and is only three years away from retirement. Still The Murdered Banker is the first in a series, and the first novel is often the weakest, so I’m looking forward to the next title: The Hotel of the Three Roses.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

8 Comments

Filed under De Angelis Augusto, Fiction

Crucifixion Creek: Barry Maitland

Crucifixion Creek is the first novel in the promised Belltree Trilogy written by Barry Maitland and featuring Homicide detective, army vet, Harry Belltree. Belltree is the son of Australia’s first Aboriginal judge of the NSW Supreme Court who was killed along with his wife in a mysterious car accident three years previously. There’s just one clue that festers in Belltree’s brain–a swipe of white paint on his parent’s demolished car and a “patrol car reported seeing a white tow truck further down the highway.” Everyone tells Harry that he needs to move on, but his brother-in-law, builder Greg, suspects that the reason Harry became a homicide detective resides in the deaths of his parents.

The novel opens with a hostage situation which ends badly in Crucifixion Creek, but this is just one in a series of incidents which take place in the drab, mostly deserted neighbourhood inhabited and dominated, with just a few exceptions, by a Bikie Group known as the Crows. One of the murders drags Detective Belltree, already under a cloud in the department, under closer scrutiny “for a fitness for duty assessment,” but it’s ambitious reporter Kelly Pool who works for the Bankstown Chronicle who begins to connect the seemingly random events.

crucifixion creek

With Belltree very personally involved in one of the murders, he steps beyond orthodox police work and begins a parallel investigation of his own. This involves his wife, Jenny, blinded in the same accident that killed Belltree’s parents. Before the accident, Jenny was a researcher for a law firm, and now with a special computer, she still works part time from home. Belltree, driven by the imperative to investigate the connection between the recent killings and the murder of his parents, relies on his wife’s computer skills.

This brings me to the one beef I had with this novel. I can understand someone being a whiz at computers, but Jenny’s abilities strain credulity–some of it I could buy but some of her hacking seemed to exist to further the plot, so much so that I almost abandoned the novel. It’s to the novel’s sheer readability that I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Strong on atmosphere and characterization, Crucifixion Creek argues that we never really know anyone or just what they’re capable of. Belltree has a number of revelations regarding his brother-in-law, Greg March, a man who appeared to have a lucrative business and plenty of money, yet Greg, who maintained an affluent lifestyle in an architectural wonder of a magazine-worthy home, had many problems which all began and ended with money. Greg March’s accountant may or may not be bent, and here he is in a poky, smelly little office–another character who’s making ends meet and who may be open to making money on the side.

The accountant’s office is in a suburban shopping centre, above a fast food outlet. Sam Peck is a small, rotund, cheery man and he has a bag of golf clubs sitting in the corner of his office, like a promise to himself. This, together with the smell of old grease that seems to have saturated everything, does little to fill Harry with confidence.

This is a very dark, tense, fast-paced crime novel, a story of twisted power and absolute corruption with blurred lines between conflicting loyalties, justice and the law. Belltree never hesitates to cross those lines; there’s no moral quibbling as he plunges into the very personal investigation of his parents’ death. Initially his brutality is shocking, but it meshes perfectly with the rest of the novel.

While this story of shady moneylenders, crooked politicians and meth-dealing bikies ends, it’s clear there are still loose ends for Harry Belltree to pick up in book 2. I’m in.

Review copy.

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maitland Barry

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Glauser Friedrich