Tag Archives: series detective

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.


Filed under Fiction, Glauser Friedrich

Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

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Filed under Fiction, Lorac E.C.R.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Your opinion of me worries me exactly as much as dandruff would a chopped-off head.”

Laidlaw from Scottish author  William McIlvanney’s is the first book in a series featuring Glasgow based police detective, Laidlaw–a man with a very definite philosophy about crime and criminals as well as an attitude that doesn’t make him popular with many other officers. With Laidlaw hot on the track of the murderer of a young woman, D.C.  Harkness is assigned as Laidlaw’s new partner. Harkness is fresh from under the wings of Laidlaw’s enemy D.I. Milligan who gives Harkness the warning that Laidlaw is a loose cannon, “less conventional,” an “amateur” who bridges the divide between the law and the criminal far too often.  According to Milligan, Laidlaw engages in “free-lancing,” and “becoming a traveler,” this rogue D.I.  goes deep into the city. Milligan doesn’t want Harkness, his protégé, to pick up Laidlaw’s bad habits. Milligan sees a huge gap between himself and the criminal world while he thinks that Laidlaw doesn’t see the same divide:

I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms? We wouldn’t know who was fighting who. That’s Laidlaw. He’s running about no-man’s land with a German helmet and a Black watch jacket.

Harkness is initially loyal to Milligan and that makes him suspicious of Laidlaw and his tactics. Gradually, however, as Laidlaw and Harkness negotiate some of the shadier corners of the Glasgow underworld, Harkness learns why Laidlaw and Milligan despise each other. Laidlaw sees Milligan as a “walking absolute,” a man full of destructive “false certainties.” As the murder investigation continues, Harkness develops a grudging respect for his new partner and begins to question his own world view:

But there are two basic kinds of professional. Harkness saw that in a moment of self-congratulatory illumination. There’s the professionalism that does something well enough to earn a living from it. And there’s the professionalism that creates a commitment so intense that the earning of the a living happens by the way. Its dynamic isn’t wages but the determination to do something as well as it can be done.

Laidlaw was the second kind of professional. Harkness realized it was a very uncomfortable thing to be because, in their work, ‘well’ involved not just results but the morality by which you arrived at them. He thought of Laidlaw’s capacity to bring constant doubt to what he was doing and still try to do it. The pressure must be severe.

Laidlaw is an excellent, strong first entry for the rest of the series (The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties ), so thanks to Max for mentioning this book to me some time ago. The crime under investigation is the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl who went out for an evening to a disco with a friend and never returned home. Her body is found, and her father, Bud Lawson, a bitter man  whose “face looked like an argument you couldn’t win,” wants revenge. Laidlaw deals with her hostile father, her grieving mother, the Glasgow underworld, and the murdered girl’s secrets. Laidlaw is an interesting character–a mass of acknowledged contradictions, and as a detective this sometimes makes him unpredictable. With a difficult home life, and wife Ena who “liked to bounce her ammunition off the children to get to him,” Laidlaw has secrets of his own.

laidlawWhile the novel is titled Laidlaw and Laidlaw appears to be the main character, Harkness, as a character slightly off the centre of this crime tale, is, for this reader, every bit as interesting as Laidlaw. Laidlaw is a man who’s approaching his fortieth birthday, almost mid-career, plagued with personal problems but bolstered by deeply ingrained philosophy. He’s already well on his life’s path. In contrast, Harkness is a brand new DC, and when the novel opens he’s spending Sunday afternoon with his long-time girlfriend, Mary and her family. While Harkness’s life may appear to be mapped out, in reality, it really isn’t; there’s plenty of time to change, and the partnership with Laidlaw introduces niggling doubts into Harkness’s mind about his perceptions of self and just what he wants from life. He’s already experiencing mild dissatisfaction with the future he knows he’ll have with Mary:

It was a nice place but it bothered him the way houses that have been made self-consciously attractive always did. The whole experience, the talk that had lost all awareness of its one arbitrariness, the carefully arrived at prettiness of the rooms, was like being trapped inside somebody else’s hallucination.

Laidlaw makes some fascinating observations on the subject of crime solution and asks how far should one be willing to go to solve a crime while also exploring the failure of the authoritarian approach.   

Finally, an observation to all you crime writers out there. This book begins with chapter about an anonymous man, who turns out to be the killer, as he runs for cover. At this point in the novel, the reader has no idea what is going on, and to be honest the beginning doesn’t exactly pull you in. If anything it’s annoying, and as a reader, my advice to any crime writers would be to avoid this sort of vague opening from a panicked psycho.

NB: There are a few conversations in Scottish dialect that may present a bit of a challenge for foreign readers

Review copy/own a copy.


Filed under Fiction, McIlvanney William

The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“There are people in the world who deserved not to breathe. People who strove only toward their own selfish goals and never looked back at the destruction they left in their wake. A few came to mind. The question was what price should they be made to pay in consequence?”

The Purity of Vengeance is the fourth Department Q novel in the very popular Danish crime series by Jussi Adler-Olsen. I read the first, The Keeper of Lost Causes, and liked it so much I committed to the rest of the series. But numbers 2 and 3, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith escaped me, so a little chagrined, I turned to the fourth novel in the series, hoping that I hadn’t missed too much….

The purity of vengeanceFor anyone new to the series, the lead character is Detective Carl Mørck, once the department’s best homicide detective, but now a pariah thanks to an incident that left one detective dead and another paralyzed.  Haunted by guilt, Mørck blames himself for what happened as he failed to draw his weapon in those crucial seconds. Considered bad for the department’s morale, he didn’t seem to be good for much, and so he was assigned to the newly created cold case department, Department Q. This may sound fancy, but in reality he was relegated to the basement and given a pittance for a budget. My interest in the series was captured by Mørck’s situation. I’d love to work on cold cases, alone in a basement, far, to quote that famous author, from the madding crowd.  Will Mørck sink to everyone’s lowest expectations or will he adapt and accept the challenge?

To everyone’s surprise, it hasn’t been so easy get rid of Mørck. Initially his attitude was to drift towards retirement, but he’s become engaged in the solution of cold crimes. He’s solved some long forgotten cases, has managed to gain some respect, and he’s even hobbled together a couple of weird sidekicks. There’s Assad, whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry.  Even though this is book 4, Mørck is really no closer to uncovering Assad’s secret past, but there are a couple of events that draw Mørck deeper into the mystery of Assad’s origins. There’s also prickly policewoman Rose in our trio of investigators.

In The Purity of Vengeance, Rose brings Mørck’s attention to the disappearance of a Madam, Rita Nielsen who disappeared into “thin air” in Copenhagen in 1987. The initial investigation yielded no clues whatsoever, and while Mørck isn’t interested at first, Rose’s persistence triggers his instinct for detection, and so the case begins. A survey of all those missing in that year uncovers an interesting trend–several of those missing appear to be linked by the infamous camp at Sprogø–not exactly one of the finer moments in Danish history–this was a camp ostensibly to ‘reform’ girls and women of their so-called socially deviant behaviour, but a large number of those women were sterilized against their will.

The story goes back and forth in time with Mørck in the present trying to track down leads on Rita Nielsen. We are also taken back to the 1950s and events that ruined the life of Nete Hermansen, but we also see her in the 1980s, living with the ruins of her life and the consequences of what others have done to her.

The book includes several sub-plots–vital clues emerge in the case which left one of Mørck’s partners dead and the other paralyzed, and Mørck’s crude, big-mouth cousin is implicating Mørck in the death of his uncle. Then there’s Mørck trying to pursue a relationship with psychologist Mona even as his long-estranged wife announces her imminent re-marriage and tries to wrangle a great deal of money from her soon-to-be-ex. And we also see Doctor Curt Wad behind The Purity Party in 2010 as it prepares to enter a role in Danish government. According to the party’s critics, Denmark will see a repellent political agenda which includes “moral norms, ideas, and ideologies that lead the mind back to an age most of us would be loath to return to. To political regimes that deliberately persecute minorities and society’s weak: the mentally handicapped, ethnic minorities, the socially disenfranchised.”

The book’s main interest comes in this glimpse into Denmark’s past as once again, we see a society reel in, harness and brand women–mostly for what was termed as being “feeble-minded.” One of the subtleties of the book is the way in which Curt Wad tenderly nurses his wife to the end, preserving her life when others may have deemed the quality of her life long gone, so we see a man who sits in judgment of those he classifies as inferior–life terminated for some and extended for others. The book throws this idea out there but doesn’t overwork the comparison between Wad’s crusade for the so-called purity of Danish society and his private life. Another subtle idea in the novel is the ‘purity’ of revenge and deciding who should live and who should die. The person who turns to murder as revenge may have arguments for wrongs done to them, but is taking the lives of others ever justifiable–even if they are maggots in the human race–when one murders those who’ve ‘wronged us’ what does that make us?

On the annoying side, however, flu, sweeps through the police department and eventually makes its way down to the basement. All the references to sniffing, snotty noses dripping all over the place became a little tiresome after a while. I also found Mona, Mørck’s new squeeze to be an incredibly repellant character–doling out favours to Mørck in a rather pavlovian style that is demeaning. I hope he dumps her in the next book.

As a crime book, The Purity of Vengeance steps outside the norm for the way in which it shows how people can become criminals without breaking the law, and by this I’m referring to the character Nete Hermansen, and the way in which “things had gone off in the wrong direction,” and then suddenly she is classed as a delinquent, “a clear-cut case of social retardation,” and marked for life. Sprogø was an all-too real place that existed from 1923-1961, and the irony cannot escape the reader that while most of the women were sent there for what was seen as sexual promiscuity, The Purity of Vengeance shows women there sexually exploited by their jailers and the society that expelled them. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way the author juggles the multiple sub-plots, jumps in time, and ties all the characters and time periods together so smoothly. I knew exactly who I was reading about and exactly what year I was in and author Jussi Adler-Olsen saved an unexpected zinger for the end.

Translated by Martin Aitken

review copy


Filed under Adler-Olsen Jussi, Fiction

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Wexford is back in No Man’s Nightingale, the 24th novel in the Wexford series from British author Ruth Rendell. When the book opens, Wexford is firmly entrenched in retirement and working his way through Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This makes him a sitting duck for the annoying, gossipy cleaner, Maxine, so when he’s called in as a civilian by his old protégé, Detective Superintendent Mike Burden who’s investigating a murder case, Wexford gladly sets Gibbon aside and begins sleuthing. The local vicar, a mixed race widow, a single parent named Sarah Hussain has been strangled at the vicarage. Since there’s no sign of a break-in, it’s assumed that she knew her killer. Sarah was a controversial figure, progressive in her attitudes and approach to the parishioners, and she made many enemies in the conservative town of Kingsmarkham. But there’s also the possibility that the killer was someone from Sarah’s murky past. The issues of racism and sexism are raised repeatedly throughout the story, and both Burden and Wexford self-correct their attitudes at several points.

No man's nightingaleEven as he sympathizes with Burden’s wariness of the press and the pressures of the job, Wexford finds himself at odds with many of Burden’s conclusions, and so while Burden pursues one line of inquiry, Wexford goes in another direction. The two men regroup and exchange notes throughout the novel, and as the case wears on, the divide between Burden and Wexford widens. There’s even a few moments when Wexford finds himself rather pettily launching snide comments at Burden, and even though Wexford is aware of it, there’s part of him that can’t help sinking to that level.

Ruth Rendell excels at creating social situations that explode into violence as the pressure builds, and here there’s a sub-plot involving the Wexford’s cleaner, Maxine. This situation presents Wexford with a moral dilemma in which he must weigh the consequences of betraying a confidence: “Crises of conscience, if that was the way to put them, had never come his way before, or not to such an extent.” The dilemma reinforces the fact that Wexford is no longer a policeman. People confide in him in ways that they would not consider if he was still actively employed as a detective. This is something that Wexford is still trying to adjust to, as we see throughout the novel. Also during the course of his unofficial investigation, he steps into two entirely different marriages, and because he doesn’t have the barrier of ‘authority,’ he’s made privy to the inner workings of two completely toxic relationships.

When for years you have had authority, it is hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stayed disappeared.

As in other Wexford novels, we see glimpses of Wexford’s family–daughter Sheila in London is not involved in this story, but Wexford’s troubled daughter Sylvia and her son Robin are present and become involved with the murdered woman’s daughter, Clarissa. Wexford’s wife, Dora is also here as the bastion of tolerance and support, but even she is pushed to annoyance by her husband’s refusal to let go of his former life as a policeman.

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the book–some readers enjoyed it and others felt that it is time to let Wexford ‘retire.’ The murder aspect of the novel is flawed; the question of exactly who killed Sarah Hussain is, of course, pursued until the end of the novel, but as a character, she remains murky, and the final element involving Clarissa seemed a little too forced given the earlier build-up.

In spite of the book’s flaws, for this reader, picking up a Rendell novel is like returning to an old friend. No Man’s Nightingale is really more about Wexford than the solution of the murder, and I liked that approach as, after all, Wexford is a major character for Rendell. Here we see him in retirement, and as a result of a life devoted to police work, he has zero hobbies beyond reading. Dora has a social life, and the point is made in the novel that she knows Kingsmarkham residents that her husband does not. Wexford has an enormous adjustment to make–he is no longer a figure of authority, he is no longer to be feared, and he can no longer lead an investigation, so he must sit back and watch as the police manage the investigation badly and people die as a result. The complexities of the relationship between Burden and Wexford are seen through the mentor-protégé prism which has now shifted leaving many uncomfortable moments. Wexford itches to order Burden to pursue a particular angle in the investigation, but he cannot, so instead Wexford is reduced to responding with nasty, almost, ‘I told you so’ comments. At various points in the novel, he’s forced to confront some uncomfortable facts–he finds himself calling a witness into question as it “was well-known that elderly people’s memories often behaved in a peculiar way,” and yet this man is a contemporary of Wexford’s. Ultimately, No Man’s Nightingale is about aging and letting go, gracefully, and as always, Wexford has one eye on the game, and one eye on himself, so he reflects about his life with his usual wise observations.

Strange, Wexford thought, how words which when uttered or written pierced to one’s very soul could later on not just be reflected on with wry humour but actually make one laugh.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

“The Japanese tourists were competing in an all-out war, using the weapons of lethal politeness to compete for window space to take pictures. At the second stop, the driver has to get up to help an old couple of about a hundred onto the bus.”

For light relief, I turn to the Inspector Montalbano crime novel series written by Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is one of my favourite detectives–he is not an alcoholic, and neither is he burned out and world-weary. In fact, Montalbano, who adores good food and loves life, is a refreshing change. The Montalbano novels are light on violence, gore is absent, and instead the novels fly on Montalbano’s humour, his sense of justice, and a supporting cast of quirky characters. It doesn’t hurt that these novels are set in Vigata, a fictional coastal town in Sicily and that Montalbano lives in a house (we’d all love to live in) that commands a fantastic ocean view. Reading a Montalbano novel is pure pleasure and a return to a life we wouldn’t mind sharing. Montalbano has a unique approach to crime solving, and while political corruption should be his largest stumbling block, Montalbano doesn’t bother fighting the corruption, but instead he subverts it until the corrupt system moves in the direction he wants it to go.

Montalbano's first caseMontalbano’s First Case, is the prequel to the series,  it’s 1985, and 35 year-old Salvo Montalbano is at an important crossroads in his career. Montalbano is under apprenticeship as “deputy of Mascalippa,” a small town in the Erean Mountains. While many people would love to work in this picturesque area, Montalbano hates it and considers the mountain air positively unhealthy.  He knows that he’ll be transferred soon, and he longs to move to the coast. Of course, for those familiar with the series you know that Montalbano gets what he wants, and he’s transferred to Vigata. He arrives there fresh from the tutelage of Chief Inspector Libero Sanfillipo, a man who knew “how to keep his inner balance in the face of serious and upsetting events.” Sanfillipo advises Montalbano:

If you let yourself be overrun by your emotions, by dismay, horror, indignation, and empathy, you’re completely fucked.

For those who’ve already read some of the Inspector Montalbano series, then you’ll recognize that Montalbano followed his mentor’s advice–not always so successfully, because Montalbano has a temper and a short fuse when it comes to dealing with frustration and incompetence.

Montalbano can’t believe his luck when he hears that he’s being posted to Vigata. The brand new Chief Inspector already has a history with the region, and so he’s delighted to return to an area he knows and loves. Of course the transfer means that he’ll be farther from his long-term girlfriend, but the relationship seems to thrive on personal space and distance. He’s forewarned that the area is managed by two mafia families: the Cuffaros and the Sinagras–“each family had its own saint in paradise,”  and in this case that translates to mean that each family has a powerful political representative in their pockets.

Montalbano’s very first scouting trip to Vigata sees him involved in a crime in which the power of the mafia dwarfs the rights of an elderly resident. A seemingly simple traffic accident that morphs into an assault charge forces Montalbano to testify in a fixed case, so Montalbano is instantly educated in the reality of the justice system through a laughable trial that is pure “theater.” But even more than that, Montalbano becomes involved with a strange case involving Rosanna, a local girl, a girl who’s been thrown out of her home by her family for her so-called promiscuous behaviour. The girl who lives, literally, in a pig pen, is an assassin, and yet she appears to have the mental abilities of a 5 year-old. While Montalbano unravels this mystery, somehow or another he has the feeling he’s being played, and since he is never one to settle for the easy solution, he keeps digging….

Montalbano’s First Case is certain to delight fans of this wonderful series. This novella (97 pages according to Amazon) fills in some blanks while showing Montalbano in embryo. All of his key characteristics are there, so we see him keeping his girlfriend at arm’s length, indulging in various  extraordinary gastronomic adventures, and feeling less than content with various aspects of the investigation. Some favourite characters are also here–Fazio and journalist, Zito. We also see how far Montalbano will go to solve a case. He doesn’t care too much about rules and regulations, but there’s a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion, and in this, Montalbano’s First Case, we see just how Montalbano manipulates a corrupt system to get what he wants.

Not surprisingly, Montalbano has transferred well to film, so there’s an entire series of Inspector Montalbano films–including The Young Montalbano which includes this story.

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Review copy.


Filed under Camilleri, Andrea, Fiction

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


Filed under Billingham Mark, Fiction

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

“Perhaps there’s an ancient cloud around here, some mist, a disturbance, a memory still hanging in the air.”

Earlier this year I read The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas as part of my virtual gift exchange with Emma.  This choice has turned into the gift keeps on giving, and by that I mean that The Chalk Circle Man was the first book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, and I knew that I had to read the rest. Well I sort of cheated, and instead of faithfully plodding through the backlist, I leaped forward to the new release of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.

The Ghost RidersWhile I can tell that I’ve missed events (there are some new characters and references to incidents), I was very easily able to jump right in to the story without feeling disoriented–and that’s in spite of the fact that Adamsberg, who was a lonely bachelor pining for his runaway love in The Chalk Circle Man, now has a grown son in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. The book begins with a strange case of homicide which Adamsberg solves in his own inimitable way before moving into the main course.

Valentine Vendermot, a mousy little woman from the village of Ordebec in Normandy visits Adamsberg in his office. Clearly terrified, she tells a strange tale of murder yet to take place, and this, of course, puts Adamsberg in the unique position of being able to stop murders before they occur. The woman claims that her daughter, Lina, has seen the legendary Ghost Riders–minions of hell who “seize” evildoers and drag them off for their unpunished crimes. A particularly nasty piece of work, a hunter named Herbier, a man so vicious that he’s even been expelled from the local hunters’ league for his brutality, has gone missing, and apparently Lina saw him in the company of the Ghost Riders along with three other people from village. According to local legend, these four people are all marked for certain death. Madame Vendermot, whose children are already considered freakish, fears not so much for the villagers Lina saw in her vision of the Ghost Riders, but more for the consequences against her family, and there’s a historical precedent to help argue her case. Normally Adamsberg would not get involved in a case so far from Paris, but through a chain of events, he finds himself sent to the village to solve the mystery, juggling the solutions of three crimes: the mystery of the Ghost Riders and the Furious Army (The Wild Hunt), an arson fire which resulted in the death of a wealthy Parisian, and the cruel hobbling of a pigeon condemned to endure a hideously slow death had not Adamsberg intervened.

Now the details of those three crimes should give you a hint about the book: it’s primarily quirky. Adamsberg, who has a nose for cruelty, shuffles the crimes, with one not particularly taking precedence over the other in his mind. And while the solutions to the various crimes, are of course, important, it’s the delightful characters here, and the story which is infused with humour, that makes this such a wonderful read.

Sent to the village of Ordebec, Adamsberg, who is a very sensitive, intuitive character, becomes involved in the lives of some of the locals–people who know each intimately and are aware of the village’s darkest secrets. While the village is picturesque and idyllic, it’s a hotbed of gossip, ancient feuds,  and more than one very suspicious death. Adamsberg finds that he admires the character and the independence of very elderly Léone–a woman who may hold a clue to the Ghost Riders “ an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.” Rather interestingly, atheist Danglard, who is out of sorts with Adamsberg, knows quite a bit about the Ghost Riders.

The case of the Ghost Riders and the missing hunter, Herbier, should by rights, be investigated by Ordebec’s Capitaine Émeri–a vain man who thinks that France’s best days were those of Napoleon. Émeri’s ancestor was Marshal Davout, “Born on the wrong side of the blanket, one of Napoleon’s marshalscommander of the third corps of the Grande Armée.”  Émeri is inordinately proud of this legacy and his inheritance,  “two sparkling pieces of silverware” complete with the imperial eagle “and his ancestor’s initials”  take pride of place in his “recreation of an Empire salon.”

Émeri wasn’t stupid. He knew that this homage to his ancestor was a form of compensation for a life which he himself regarded as humdrum, and a character showing none of the Marshal’s famous audacity. Lacking sufficient courage, he had ducked out of  a military career like his father’s, opting instead for the gendarmerie nationale, while his conquests were restricted to the opposite sex.

Even though a couple of the deaths are gruesome, they take place off the page with the result that nothing is too serious here. Adamsberg, as usual, is underestimated by his foes and even his faithful sidekick, Danglard can’t fathom Adamsberg’s motivations. Adamsberg, meanwhile, develops a fascination with Lina’s “splendid” breasts with the result that he wonders if they “were blinding him to the possibility of finding fault” with her strange, outcast family. At the same time, Adamsberg discovers a growing relationship with his son, Zerk–a young man who is quite evidently a chip off the old block, for he can fathom his father’s thought processes while others are clueless. Some of the humour comes from the idiosyncratic members of Adamsberg’s crime squad which includes a narcoleptic and an amateur zoologist. Another member of the squad the statuesque, impressively built Violette Retancourt goes undercover–a woman whose talents range from pigeon rehabilitation to domestic spy.

Vargas has a unique, seemingly random way of approaching her subject which is mirrored by Adamsberg’s peculiar and unique approach to crime, and Vargas creates a world–although dark–we’d all like to be part of. Here’s Adamsberg’s neighbor, Lucio, another amateur accomplice on the subject of unsolved crime and unfinished business:

In the end, it was as his old neighbor Lucio was always telling him: Lucio who had lost his arm as a child during the Spanish Civil War. The problem, Lucio would explain, wasn’t so much the missing arm as that when it happened he had had a spider bite on it which he hadn’t finished scratching. And seventy years later, Lucio was still scratching away at empty space. Something that isn’t finished with properly will irritate you forever.

This delightful series is highly recommended for those who like foreign crime which oozes with culture and humour. Translated by Siân Reynolds. Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Vargas Fred

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.


Filed under Fiction, Vargas Fred

A White Arrest by Ken Bruen

“See, you gotta let ’em see you’re the most brutal fuckin’ thing they’ve ever seen.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed London Boulevard some time ago, so when I was offered a copy of A White Arrest, I grabbed it. After finishing London Boulevard, I picked over this author’s back list and discovered that A White Arrest,  the first part of a trilogy followed by Taming the Alien and The McDead, was OOP and pricey if you could find it. Now back in a $9.99 kindle version is the entire The White Arrest trilogy. People can bitch as much as they want about the evils of the kindle, but for many crime fans, electronic readers have brought back some fantastic titles. Case in point.

the white trilogyFirst things first: A White Arrest, and a term I’ll admit I’d never heard before, is  an arrest that is “the pinnacle of a policeman’s career,” and now that I’ve given that description, I’ll say that it seems extremely unlikely that Irish Detective Sgt. Brant, the antihero of this story is ever going to get white anything. That’s because Brant isn’t exactly a by-the-book copper. He’s crude, coarse, a sexist who leaves a trail of complaints in his wake. Brant’s boss is Chief Inspector Roberts, and they are known in the department as R and B:

The relationship twixt R and B always seemed a beat away from beating. You felt like they’d like nothing better than to get down and kick the living shit out of each other. Which had happened. The tension between them was the chemistry that glued. Co-dependency was another word for it.

Both men have hellish personal lives. Roberts has a fancy house and an even fancier wife, and together they have a teenage daughter who just got kicked out of private school. While Fiona Roberts pulls the disapproving Ice Queen routine on her hubbie on a nightly basis, her afternoons are spent on the sly buying sex from studley, oiled young men. Whereas Roberts’ expensive and complicated home life is poison, Brant is now single and his flat is a “one room basic unit. He kept it tidy in case he scored.”

To complicate matters, Brant fancies Fiona Roberts, and there is some debate whether this misplaced lust is genuine or whether it springs from a desire to cuckold Roberts. Every interaction between Brant and Roberts is fraught with tension–Brant, for example, insists on calling Roberts Guv–even though he’s told repeatedly to knock it off. On another level (and one I’ll admit I delighted in) there’s an ongoing literary duel between the two coppers about the best crime writer. Brant is a fan of Ed McBain, and he owns a prize collection of his favorite author’s books in his grotty council flat in Kennington with “one whole wall devoted entirely to books.” He owns the entire Ed McBain series, “two shelves were given to the Matthew Hope series” and the bottom shelf is the home of the Evan Hunter books–or as Brant likes to think “the three faces of the author.” When Brant isn’t quoting McBain, he’s trying to get Roberts to read him, and the fact that Roberts rejects McBain only underscores Brant’s view of his boss’s serious character flaws. Here’s Brant trying, unsuccessfully once again, to get his boss to read McBain.

I’ve another McBain for you.

He tossed a dog-eared book on to the desk. It looked like it had been chewed, laundered and beaten. Roberts didn’t touch it, said: “You found this in the toilet, that’s it?”

“It’s his best yet. No one does the Police Procedural like Ed.”

Roberts leaned over to see the title. A food stain had obliterated that. At least he hoped it was food. he said: “You should support the home side, read Bill James, get the humorous side of policing.”

“For humour sir, I have you–my humour cup overflowed!”

In spite of the fact that tension flows between Brant and Roberts, they work well together, and oddly enough Roberts protects Brant at crucial moments. When the novel begins Brant is in no small amount of trouble.

All his little perks, minor scams, interrogation techniques, his attitude, guaranteed he’d be shafted before the year was out. A grand sweep of the Met was coming and they were top of the list. Unless … Unless they pulled off the big one, the legendary White Arrest that every copper dreamed about. The veritable Oscar, the Nobel prize of criminology. Like nailing the Yorkshire Ripper or finding the shit-head Lucan. It would clear the books, put you on page one, get you on them chat shows. Have Littlejohn kiss yer arse, ah!

So those are our coppers, well a couple of them. There’s also WPC Falls “the wet dream of the nick. Leastways she hoped she was. A little over 5′ 6″ she was the loaded side of plump, but it suited her.” And there’s young, weak Brant wannabe PC Tone who imitates his idol and feels “dizzy with the macho-ness” of unaccustomed phrases and actions.

Now to the crimes: there are no less than two serial murders taking place. A gang of young racist thugs begin by murdering drug dealers and then move on to other targets, and then there’s a total psycho who’s bumping off members of the England cricket team in spectacularly exotic fashion. R & B are on the trail of the killers with Brant determined to get his White Arrest and wipe his dirty slate clean.

In spite of Brant’s abrasive, coarse personality, there’s the core of twisted idealism alive and well festering in his perverse heart. In between ripping off pizza delivery boys, and harassing Indian newspaper vendors, Brant, a crime film and fiction aficionado freely quotes from some of his favourites and would like to style himself on the Ed McBain novels:

For some perverse reason he finds that Ed McBain in the police procedural comes closest to the way it should have been. Long after he’d dismissed Dixon as a wanker. his heart still bore the imprint of Dock Green. In Brant’s words, television had gone the way of Peckham. Right down the shitter.

It’s through Brant that one of the novel’s sub themes is most evident, and that’s the way we tend to need heroes in our lives; there’s PC Tone whose desire to emulate Detective Sgt. Brant leads him on a deadly path, there’s Brant who really wants to be a cop in Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, there’s Roberts who relates to the heroes of film noir, and vicious thug Kevin’s emulation of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. On that note, here’s a free tip: want to know what someone really thinks?… ask ’em who their heroes are before you take them home to meet mother.

 I read a lot of crime, and sometimes when you read a lot of one particular genre, books blend into each other and the characters and story threads blur: missing teenage girls who walked away from a party and never came back, alcoholic policemen who turn up disheveled and red-eyed for roll-call, the detective who must beat the clock before a sicko-serial killer offs his next squirming teenage captive…. well you get my drift. A White Arrest crackles with originality and delivers sordid details of those on both sides of the fence–Brant is a flawed morally reprehensible human being whose, let’s say, unconventional approaches to crime solution leave a lot to be desired, but he is also at the same time a very unique and very real creation. Brant does awful things to people he deems weaker than himself, but even so there is some sort of moral line he won’t cross. To those who work with Brant, that moral line may seem non-existent, but it’s there nonetheless. Brant with his gleefully nasty larger-than-life-in-your-face-and fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it personality is someone I want to read about. Ken Bruen added just enough tiny details to Brant’s character to salvage him from a total wipe-out to someone who has a few deeply hidden human traits that are rarely shown to those within the department. Highly recommended for those who like their crime dirty, dark  and hard-boiled with just the right touch of black humour.

For those interested, to date there are seven novels in the Brant series.

Review copy


Filed under Bruen Ken, Fiction