Tag Archives: series novel

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.

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Point and Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

“Wait, wait, wait.” Hardie said. “Water evacuation? Knocked unconscious? What happened to all that shit about a gentle splashdown.”

It’s been over a year since I read part II of the Charlie Hardie trilogy by pulpmaster Duane Swierczynski. The first novel in the series Fun and Games is the story of middle-aged, washed up former police consultant Charlie Hardie who’s split from his wife. Hardie’s latest gig is housesitting; it may not sound like much–no pension, profit sharing or career expansion, but hey, with a heavy burden of guilt, all Hardie wants these days is the quiet life. He’s looking forward to his job housesitting for a Hollywood music producer, but all hell breaks loose when he steps inside the Hollywood Hills home and encounters a terrified bit part actress, Lane Madden who claims that The Accident People–a secret team who specialize in Hollywood whack jobs are outside of the home and about to murder her….

Part II Hell and Gone finds Hardie incarcerated in a secret underground prison compound, site 7734, owned and operated by The Accident People. For those under lock and key in the facility, it’s hell on earth with no parole, daily brutality and an on-going mind-fuck.

point and shootNow that brings me to Part III, and for this Hardie/Swierczynski fan, the book was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. With a trilogy, there’s always the concern that the action will flag, but no, Swierczynski, who creates micro worlds of paranoia and violence loaded with sophisticated, adrenalin-high, pulp-action, Point and Shoot brings the Hardie trilogy to a phenomenal conclusion. Fans of the earlier two books will not be disappointed, and if you haven’t read any of the Charlie Hardie books, you need to start at the beginning.

For those who have read Fun and Games and Hell and Gone, some old, familiar characters are back in action–including Hardie’s arch-enemy, Mann  “with Charlie Hardie blinking neon in her brain,” hot on his trail, and thirsting for revenge. Mann is one of The Accident People –Hollywood Star Whackers who then stage grubby “narratives” to support the death scenes they create.  The Accident People are just one arm of The Cabal–power brokers whose tentacles of control and manipulation extend far beyond Hollywood. Hardie is the only person to cross The Accident People, dig into the structure of The Cabal and still live to tell the tale. Part III: Point and Shoot finds Hardie trapped in a secret satellite, in orbit 500 miles above the earth. He has a food and water supply, a list of duties to perform along and an order to kill anyone who shows up–not that that seems to be a likely scenario. There’s no communication with the outside world, and Hardie has been told that he must ‘behave’ or that his estranged wife and son, back in Philadelphia will have “an accident.” Just in case Hardie gets any big ideas, and in order to keep Hardie focused, he receives a daily transmission from a hidden camera inside his family’s home. Hardie, who’s gained a reputation of being unkillable, sees no choice but to behave, and he plugs along stoically and stubbornly, but then one day, he receives a visitor….

That’s as much of the plot as I will reveal. To those new to the trilogy, you will discover Duane Swierczynski’s unique style which blends non-stop action with humour. After all, here’s Hardie, this geezer, an unlikely hero, no spring chicken, who keeps on truckin’ with stubborn tenacity. Hardie is a loner, a one man-show, and this is one of the facets of his personality that has kept him alive. Reading the books in the Hardie trilogy is a unique experience in a literary Die-Hard sort of way.  If you want action, if you want distraction, then Swierczynski is the author for you. Honestly, no-one does this sort of pulp action better. Please someone out there make films from these books; they’re begging for movie adaptation.

“Whoah. You okay, man?”

You twist your head around to see a bearded guy standing there with a notebook in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Even upside down you can tell he’s a hipster douchebag, central California version. The chunky glasses, the greasy hair, the tight unbuttoned shirt. He’s in dire need of a shower and a hug.

“I’m doing just great,” you say.

“Where did you come from?”

“Space.”

The hipster douchebag, probably a fucking poet or something, doesn’t quit know how to respond to that, so he focuses on the big dude lying facedown in the sand next to you. He crouches down next to you both.

“What about him? Is he okay? wait a minute…are you guys wearing spacesuits? I thought you were just fucking around with me there.”

Can’t get anything past this guy.

“Can I show you something?” you ask, reaching for an imaginary pocket, and the moment his eyes track down to you hand you nail him. It feels good to take out some aggression on someone who totally doesn’t deserve it. By the follow-up rabbit punch he’s already out cold on the sand. Leaving you with two unconscious bodies on the beach. Let’s hope hipster douchebag has car keys.

The best thing about the books of Swierczynski are that they may be works of the imagination but they are not that far-fetched that they seem impossible. We’ve probably all read a story in the paper that somehow doesn’t smell right. Duane Swierczynski writes pulp novels, but he does a great deal more than that; he mines the depths of the weirdest stories out there, and then with imagination and humour pushes the boundaries of fiction until the impossible, the conspiracy theories, the shadowy power-brokers, and our deepest fears and paranoias becomes strangely, and terrifyingly, possible.

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Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

“You don’t think there’s something eye-catching about jack-boots, Nazi uniforms, death’s head insignia?’

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this time it’s the second volume of the author’s Volkswagen trilogy: Still Life with Volkswagens. This follows Street Sleeper, and there are so many repeat characters with continued history that readers should begin with the first book and then read on. In Street Sleeper, Barry Osgathorpe aka Ishmael, the Zen Road Warrior, bought a battered old VW Beetle, dumped his long-suffering girlfriend, Debby, and took to the road to ‘find himself.’ Along the way he met Fat Les, a VW mechanic, who converted Barry’s junker into Enlightenment, a loaded Beetle that is the envy of those who see this gleaming machine, and together with Enlightenment, Ishmael had many adventures and met the woman of his dreams–even if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

still life with VolkswagensBack to Still Life with Volkswagens which finds Barry (yes, back to plain old Barry) dossing in a caravan in Yorkshire. His short-lived days of adventures are over, and Enlightenment is permanently parked and covered due mainly to Barry’s current obsession about the planet, greenhouse gases and global warming. He’s considering forming a club called the Green Beetles for those committed to never driving their cars:

They may clean and polish them once in a while, even sit in them from time to time with their friends and families. The important thing is; they will never drive them. They will leave their cars parked next to their house or caravan, never start the engines, never pollute mother earth with their deadly fumes.

Debby is still in Barry’s life, and she’d still like to travel a bit but Barry defensively argues that he “never want[s] to go anywhere or do anything.” Problems begin for Barry when Volkswagens mysteriously begin exploding all over England, and banking scion Carlton Bax, the world’s “foremost Volkswagen collector[s]” goes missing. Involved whether he likes it or not, Barry is forced to abandon his inertia. Not only is Barry a prime suspect for both crimes, but the love of his life, Marilyn, now a weather-presenter on television, reappears in Barry’s life and begs for his help. Marilyn suspects that her father, Charles Lederer, recently released from a mental asylum may be responsible  for the war against Volkswagens and the disappearance of her lover, Carlton Bax. (If you’ve read Street Sleeper, you’ll remember both Marilyn and Charles Lederer, and it’ll also make sense to you why Lederer hates Volkswagens).

Since author Geoff Nicholson developed some many great characters in Street Sleeper, it’s wonderful to see them back for the second part of this trilogy. After all, why waste characters by only using them once? So Fat Les reappears–now the proud owner of a “clean and flawless Volkswagen emporium” near Southend. It’s in this building, an “exhilarating piece of Odeon-style seaside deco” called  ‘Fat Volkz Inc,’ that Fat Les runs his very lucrative VW business.  According to humorless Detective Inspector Cheryl Bronte, Fat Les is yet another suspect in the disappearance of Carlton Bax. Also making a re-appearance is Marilyn’s nymphomaniac mum, Mrs. Lederer who gets her “revenge”  on her neglectful husband by offering her body to cab drivers which is a bit difficult when a man she mistakes for a cab driver is driving a custom Beetle.

Add to this crazy list, Phelan, a sicko, cunning neo-Nazi who likes to be whipped (amongst other things) by leather-clad dominatrix Renata Caswell (who also appeared in Street Sleeper). Phelan’s master plan is to organize a gang of yobos or as he describes them: “A band of supermen, roaming this great country of ours in chariots of fire, by which I mean Volkswagen Beetles.”

Naturally Still Life with Volkswagens is full of Nicholson’s brand of dark humour. Here’s Barry having a conversation of sorts with Phelan:

“You’re like me Barry. You look at all these people and what do you see? Do you see your equals? Do you see creatures made in god’s image? I don’t think so Barry. I think you see a lot of useless clutter. Don’t you think a lot of that clutter could be tidied away?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” Barry says.

“Oh, I think you have,” Phelan says insinuatingly. “Haven’t you ever thought to yourself that the world would be a much better place if only there were more people like you in it?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m here to tell you Barry that there are more people like you in the world than you might think.

Take a drive around the M25 Barry. What traits are displayed by your fellow man? Aggression, selfishness, bad temper, competitiveness, madness brought on by stress. that’s not what the world ought be like, is it?”

“No,” Barry admits.

“When Adolf Hitler conceived of the idea of the autobahn that’s not what he had in mind at all. He saw long straight fast motorways uncluttered by riff raff and deviants.”

“What?” says Barry.

“You’re a good citizen, aren’t you Barry? You’re law-abiding, moral, politically middle of the road, not sexually or socially deviant. You’re male and you’re white.”

“Well, to an extent,” Barry stutters.

“Why deny it Barry? Why be ashamed? You don’t want the world left in the hands of extremists and perverts, do you? Of course you don’t. In your heart of heart you’re just like me, just like us. You know Hitler was right.”

“About motorways?”

In this tale of the battle of ‘good’ vs. the forces of evil, Geoff Nicholson’s humour knows no taboos, so he’s just as ready to poke fun at neo-nazis as he is at any type of extremism–be it perversion, obsession and collectors (all favourite themes for this author), so it should come as no great surprise that while the book includes a fair amount of trivia about Volkswagens, somehow or another, various Volkswagen drivers and collectors are mentioned: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hitler and even the Fabulous Elvis also find their way into these pages. And for anyone who plans to scream in outrage at the very idea, let me say that Nicholson’s black humour diminishes Manson and Hitler into the pathetic, sick human beings they were, empowered by people misguided enough to sign on for their madness (and no I’m not comparing Manson to Hitler. They just both happen to appear in the book). Who knew so many weirdos were attracted to Volkswagens, and what does that say about me? Oh never mind.

Not only does the author show some of the weirder aspects of the Volkswagen enthusiasts, but by interjecting fact into his fiction (there’s even a bit of the author’s own life in these pages), somehow the craziness blends, and neo-Nazis of the Apocalypse and Volkswagens exploding nationwide just don’t seem that far-fetched:

Manson starts to live out more of his fantasies. He sets up a production line behind the Spahn Ranch, which he calls the Devil’s Dune Buggy Shop. Volkswagens are stolen from town, taken to the ranch, stripped down, converted into vehicles of the Apocalypse. Some of them can be bartered for drugs and weapons, and he hopes they’ll be useful in some of his other fantasies, like kidnapping busloads of schoolgirls, raiding a military arsenal, murdering a few rich pigs.

Pride of the fleet is Manson’s own command vehicle. It is one Hell of a dune buggy. It looks both futuristic and ancient. There is a ‘magic sword’ sheathed in the steering column. locks of human hair tied around the roll bar, a sleeping platform, armour plate, a machine gun mounting, a fur canopy. It has been recently resprayed, then desert sand thrown onto the paint while still wet, to form a kind of camouflage.

When the whole shooting match is over, this Command Vehicle will be displayed at a car show in Pomona, California, and get a lot of admiring attention from the custom Volkswagen fraternity.

Charles Manson Family Dune buggy graveyard Spahn Ranch Dec. 27, 2011 Santa Susana Pass Road

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Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

“We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the coloured lights had been turned off.”

A few years ago I read Australian author Michael Robotham’s Suspect, the first in the Joe O’Louglin series.  In this novel, the London-based clinical psychologist, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is drawn into a murder investigation and lies about his past relationship with the victim. Say You’re Sorry is the sixth novel in the series (Suspect, Lost, Shatter, Bleed for Me, & The Wreckage). Since I have a weakness for books that feature psychologists, I’d been meaning to get back to this series, but somehow, 4 of them have passed me by, so here I am with number 6. I’ve missed a bit along the way. Joe has moved back to London, and he takes medication for Parkinson’s which seems to be helping. He’s separated from his wife, Julianne, and his daughter Charlie is now a rebellious teenager. Joe works 2 days a week for the NHS and the rest of the time he works on “referrals [from] the Crown Prosecution Service.” There’s the sense that Joe’s work has become a little too routine and predictable, but all of that is about to change when Joe is pulled away from his commitments to make a psychological evaluation of a murder suspect.

The plot revolves around two crimes: the disappearance three years earlier of the two 15-year-old “Bingham girls” Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, best friends from school. Good-looking and confident Tash came from a rough home life and had a bad reputation. Fully aware of her attractiveness, she played teasing games with many of the males in her circle. Piper, who came from an upper-class background, seems an unlikely friend for Tash, and when Piper’s friendship with Tash began to lead to trouble, her parents shipped her off for to a re-education centre. But intervention from Piper’s parents inevitably backfired, and the two girls disappeared without a trace one summer night. The consensus is that the girls ran off to London.

The second crime takes during a blizzard at the remote farmhouse which used to be the home of Tash’s family. Joe is heading for a long weekend in Oxford “to talk at a mental health symposium” when he’s co-opted to provide a psychological evaluation on the suspect of a bloody double homicide. Initially the crime has the hallmarks of a classic home invasion. The husband was trying to run when his assailant bashed in his skull with a blunt object. Nasty, but the wife met a worse end. She was tied down onto the bed and set on fire. The police have a suspect–Augie Shaw, a handyman employed by the victims. The handyman has a history of mental problems and he’d recently been fired over a matter of missing underwear. The police are happy with an open and shut case, but Joe can’t fit the crime to the handyman, and then again there are some very troubling clues at the crime scene that leads Joe to think that the double homicide was linked to something else that occurred at the farmhouse.

Joe makes an interesting series character, and in this novel, former Det Insp. Vincent Ruiz (from Suspect) is back and joins Joe in his hunt for the truth. Joe finds himself investigating the cold case of the missing Bingham girls, and just as a crime scene can become contaminated as people inadvertently trammel clues, the stories about the girls have become distorted with time, and Joe has to wade through the myths built up around the two missing teenagers.

Everyone had a story about us–even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.

People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented because of the posters and my collection of crystals  and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.

Narrated in turn by Piper Hadley and Joe O’Loughlin, Say You’re Sorry is the perfect distraction read, and by that I mean that you can be on a train or a plane or surrounded by annoying conversationalists, but you won’t hear them; you’ll be turning the pages of this book. On the down side (and this may seem a strange comment), I didn’t want to put this book down as by doing so, I was prolonging a crime. There’s an uncomfortable complicit feeling of reading a book while a crime is in process. I had the same feeling when I watched the film, The Cell. Almost fast forwarded the DVD for that one.

While Say You’re Sorry is a crime novel with a strong psychological bent, it’s also qualifies as a thriller towards the end. I didn’t guess the perp for this one, and the book kept me guessing to the end….

Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful

Review copy.

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Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I’ll admit to a growing fascination with Iceland–not that I think I’d like to live there, but I can’t forget the scene of a character in the film Jar City going to a drive-in kiosk to buy a decidedly grey-looking sheep’s head for dinner. Given the weather and the terrain, there must be an impact not only on how people live, but also how they view life. These thoughts were all in the background as I read the Icelandic crime novel Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 

The novel begins with a horrible murder and then segues to a scene in a small fishing village on Heimaey Island in the Westman Islands. Lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir has been retained by former islander Markus to defend what he claims is his privacy. Markus was just a teenager in 1973, and besotted with a local girl, when a volcano blew and the islanders were evacuated in the midst of panic and chaos. Now it’s 2007, and in comfortable middle age, Markus, one of the heirs to a fishing fleet, for some reason is extremely agitated by the news that an archaeological team engaged in a project known as “Pompeii of the North,” is about to dig his former home out of the volcanic dust. His legal action has effectively halted the ongoing dig, and the archaeological team members have interrupted their work in order to allow Markus to be the first one into his former home–specifically his basement which, he insists, he must be the first person to enter. Thora has accompanied her client to the dig, and after successfully arguing that he has the right to be the first one on the scene, she waits while he descends to the basement.    

When Markus discovers a severed head in the basement as well as three ash covered corpses, he becomes the prime suspect in a multiple murder case. He has a story–which cannot be substantiated–and Thora finds herself investigating a quadruple murder with all the clues long-buried in the past.

Ashes to Dust is a fairly complex story, and a rather large cast of characters are involved. While she tries to dig deeper into the investigation, Thora finds it expanding into an ever-widening circle, and she discovers that some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. One of the biggest puzzles is how four people can disappear without trace and their absence go unreported. Due to the island’s tiny population, Thora gradually rules out the possibility that the victims were locals and she begins to wonder if the dead men were involved in the Cod Wars.

Thora and her extremely interesting yet independent assistant, Bella form an ad-hoc PI team, and the investigation takes them from the closely-guarded secrets of the islands to the mainland where they question the role of a rape crisis centre and a swanky plastic surgeons’ office in the crime. As with any novel of this genre, some scenes give glimpses of the main character’s personal life, so we see Thora considering the pro and cons of a long-term relationship even as she juggles single parenthood and a son who’s recently fathered a child. The character of Bella, Thora’s secretary is handled in a rather unusual manner. Thora dismisses her rather unpleasantly as dressing as though “she were on her way to the stage to act in a play about the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.” We’re also told that she wears make-up that makes her look like a “vampire.” I interpreted that to mean that Thora is a bit behind the times and doesn’t recognise Bella’s look as Goth. Bella turns out to be a far more complex character than Thora realised. She’s not above using sex to get information, and she’s also intelligent. There are a couple of amusing scenes, nicely placed in contrast to the murder investigation, which show Thora bitching at Bella to not charge alcohol to the expense account.

I had some difficulty with the names–my fault as I’m not used to Icelandic names, but apart from that the novel gave a taste of a Iceland–and specifically, a rather close-knit community that exists outside of the mainland in more ways than one.  At one point in Ashes to Dust, it’s mentioned that dog ownership was forbidden on the island, but that most of the cats there died in the volcanic explosion. Anyone have any ideas why dogs were forbidden?

Translated by Philip Roughton. Review copy from publisher.

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Blue Monday by Nicci French

“Everyone hates Mondays. It’s the low point of the week. When the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning and it’s still dark outside, and you know you have to haul yourself out of bed and begin all over again.”

I’ve seen a couple of made-for-television films based on Nicci French books–Without You and  Secret Smile to be specific. I’ve intended to read one of the novels for some time, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Blue Monday, a book I wanted to read after seeing reviews on Caroline’s blog and also on Reading Matters. Blue Monday is, according to the authors, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, a husband and wife team–the first in a series of eight, so sign me up for the long haul; I’m hooked.

The novel begins very strongly with the disappearance of a five-year-old child. It’s 1987, a Monday and two little girls, sisters Joanna and Rosa walk home from school together, but when Rosa loses sight of her sister for just an instance, Joanna disappears. The novel charts the case with gripping intensity and poignant moments: the initial intense investigation, the suspects, the guilt, the grief, and then finally the acceptance that this child has vanished. Joanna’s father, the main suspect at one point, is a wreck of man who compares  Joanna’s disappearance and the subsequent fallout to the unravelling of piece of knitting:

“Everything simply comes undone and in just a few moments nothing’s left to show anything was ever there.”

Fast forward twenty-two years; it’s another Monday and psychotherapist Frieda Klein is introduced into the story. She runs a small practice in London, lives alone, and is given to solitary walks at night–a habit that suits her insomnia and allows her to think through her many problems–both personal and professional. Her latest patient is Alan Dekker, a married man in his 40s. Lately Alan doesn’t feel quite well and suffers from nameless anxieties, panic attacks and the feeling that “a storm’s coming.” He admits to a “sense of being in the wrong life,” and wonders if he’s having some sort of mid-life crisis. Plagued by nightmares and strange visions, he consents to therapy and through circumstance, ends up sitting in front of Frieda. Although Alan is tightly wound and an introvert, he admits to longing for a child, a little red-haired boy, and then Frieda realises that Alan’s description uncannily matches the description of a missing five-year-old boy. Frieda faces a moral dilemma–should she tell the police or are her client’s fantasies harmless and coincidental? This moral dilemma leads Frieda to step outside of the patient-therapist boundaries and into the investigations of two missing children.

The authors successfully mesh the investigation of the missing boy with Frieda’s private and personal life. She struggles with her relationship with her one-time mentor, Reuben, who now finds himself bored by his patients and unable to concentrate on his cases, and Frieda must also come to a decision regarding Sandy, a man she’s finally allowed into her life. Then there’s her needy sister-in-law and her self-mutilating niece who aren’t above using a little emotional blackmail to exact a bigger slice of Frieda’s time. This is a lot for Frieda to absorb in her personal life while maintaining balance enough to help patients. Here’s Reuben on being burned out as a therapist:

You wouldn’t believe where I’ve gone. You wouldn’t believe the shit that flows through my human brain, and I’ve walked through it up to my neck. Men have told me things about children and women have told me things about their fathers and their uncles, and I don’t know why they didn’t just go out of the room and blow their fucking brains out, and I thought if I went on the journey with them, if I showed them that they weren’t alone, that someone could share it, then maybe they could come back and make something of their lives. And you know what? After thirty years of it, I’ve had it.

Frieda makes a marvellous series character; she’s intense, incredibly mentally tough, a loner, and committed to her job. Her main premise is that her job is “helping people sort the story of their lives. Give them a narrative,” yet in true therapist fashion (and I have a weakness with stories that feature therapists as characters), Frieda is often weighed down with her own problems. There are hints of Frieda’s problems with her mostly invisible family, and she readily admits she’s not sure of her own narrative. But Frieda isn’t the only fascinating character here, and there are plenty of hints that we’re going to see more of Ukrainian Josef,  Detective Inspector Yvette Long and her boss, divorced Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. While I guessed two of the plots twists and turns (one of which caused me to become somewhat annoyed with the police investigation), Blue Monday, comparable to the best of Ruth Rendell is full of engaging, sympathetic characters who demand sustained attention, and is an excellent beginning to a new series of page-turning psychological suspense novels. Given the ending, I’d hazard a guess that there’s some unfinished business in this story that will reemerge somewhere in the next seven novels.  

Finally here’s a quote from Frieda, an observation on one of her walks which ties in very subtly with the disappearance of a child twenty-two years before and whose traces remain only in the minds of those who loved her:

But Frieda was walking along the course of an old river. She had always been drawn to it. Once it had flowed through fields and orchards down to the Thames. It had been a place for people to sit by, to fish in, What would they have thought, men and women sitting on a summer evening, dangling their feet in the water, if they had seen its future? It had become a rubbish dump, a sewer, a ditch clogged with shit and dead animals and everything else that people couldn’t be bothered to do anything with. Finally it had been built over and forgotten about. How could a river be forgotten about? When she walked this way, Frieda always stopped by a grating where you could still hear the river flowing deep below like an echo of something. And when you had left that behind, you could still walk between the banks rising on either side. Even the occasional street name hinted at the wharves where barges had been unloaded and before that the rises, the grass slopes where people sat and just watched the crystal water flow down into the Thames. That was London. Things built upon things built upon things, each in their turn forgotten about but each somehow leaving a trace, if only a rush of water heard through a grating.

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The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac

“You know what kiddo? Dragging myself up in Belleville for the last month’s at least taught me one thing: wrinklies can wander the streets at night, stark naked, with diamond studs in their navels and the family silver hanging round their necks and not one smackhead’ll so much as touch them.”

I’d had my sights on the crime novels written by French author Daniel Pennac for some time, so when Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to do a virtual book exchange for Xmas, I was happy to see that one of Pennac’s novels made my list. This brings me to The Fairy Gunmother (La Fée Carabine), the second book in La Sage Malassène, a series of novels concerning Benjamin Malassène and his idiosyncratic family.  The first book is The Scapegoat (La Bonheur des Ogres) which introduces the main character, Benjamin.

The title, The Fairy Gunmother may give you a hint of what you’re in for as the writer loves wordplay, and if I had to compare this author to anyone else I’ve read, then that would be Raymond Queneau–specifically Zazie dans le Métro, which I loved incidentally. But back to the plot and more about the wordplay later.

The book begins in Belleville on a cold winter’s night with police Inspector Vanini hanging out on a street corner. There have been a number of old ladies robbed and murdered with their throats slit in Belleville, and with no suspects (other than Arabs in general), Vanini is on the lookout for suspicious persons and old ladies in trouble. As fate would have it, Vanini spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:

Then the old dear’s shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She’d lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn’t like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.

So we know that Vanini isn’t hanging around in Belleville for the love of old ladies. In fact he’s hoping that this particular old lady will slip and fall and give him a good laugh in the process. So why is Vanini in Belleville on a freezing winter’s night? Simple: he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the vicious crimes, and he has very specific ideas about Arabs:

He was Nationally Frontal and made no bones about it. And that’s just why he didn’t want people to say he was NF because he was a racist. No, like he’d once learnt at school. This was not a case of cause and effect. It was a case of consequences. That blond head of his had become Nationally Frontal as a consequence of having objectively thought through the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. And he had quite sensibly made up his mind that all scum should be chucked out of the country as soon as possible. Firstly, with a view to saving the purity of the French livestock, secondly because of unemployment and, finally, to uphold law and order. 

So although Vanini would love to see the old lady slip on the ice, he notices two Arabs standing opposite, and since he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the latest elderly whackings, he decides to go and help the frail old lady and to act as a “deterrent” to the Arabs’ imagined bad intentions. To the astonishment of the bystanders, the old lady pulls out a gun and blows Vanini “to smithereens.” The Arabs, knowing full well that no one will believe their story that a geriatric woman just felled Vanini, run from the scene of the crime.

The Fairy Gunmother then follows the fallout of Vanini’s murder as Chief Superintendent Cercaria swoops into Belleville on a mission to catch the killer. There’s a dramatic division within the department with Cercaria’s mob believing that the Arabs are to blame for everything, but meanwhile Inspector Van Thian argues otherwise. And he should know since he’s living disguised as “wrinklie” granny, the widow Ho in the middle of Belleville.  But since the police are unable to catch the granny-snuffers, Belleville grannies don’t count on the police for help, and instead  they begin arming themselves…

Benjamin, the main character of the series, is employed by Queen Zabo at Vendetta Press. He lives with a sprawling family with so many members it wasn’t easy keeping track of them all–especially since they tend to ‘adopt’ various old men–some of whom have been led into a life of ruin by drug pushers. The story has various threads which cover a number of crimes under investigation (with Benjamin becoming a suspect in all of them), and while the story may seem to swing out of control at times, by the end of the novel, all the loose ends are neatly tied together. Gentrification, racism, and the care of the elderly play no small role, and while there are a lot of laughs, the story’s message is deadly serious. Pennac’s tale is rife with playful humour, and many parts of the novel, bolstered by Pennac’s use of language, are laugh-out-loud funny:

Minus twelve weather can freeze your balls off, but Belleville was still bubbling like a devil’s cauldron. It was as if every copper in Paris was getting in on the act. They were crawling up from the Place Voltaire, parachuting onto Place Gambetta, doing pincer movements from Nation and the Goutte d’Or. With sirens blaring, lights flashing, tyres screeching left, right, and centre. The night was on fire. Belleville was vibrant. But Julius the Dog didn’t give a damn. In the half-light that goes with doggish pleasures, Julius was licking up a sheet of Africa-shaped black ice. It tasted delicious to his dangling tongue. A city is a dog’s favourite dinner.

During this razor-sharp night, it was as though Belleville was settling all its old scores with the Law. Side alleys rang to truncheons. Information highways stretched through Black Marias to the Station. Pushers were having their sleeves pulled, the Arab hunting season was open, big mustachioed pigs were out for a barbecue. Apart from that, the neighbourhood was much the same as usual, that is to say, ever-changing. It’s on its way to being clean, on its way to being smooth and on its way to being expensive. What’s left of the old Belleville housing sticks out like fillings in a grinning set of Hollywood teeth. Belleville’s on its way.

Translator Ian Monk

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Getting Lucky by DC Brod

I’m going to say upfront that I dislike the title of DC Brod’s novel Getting Lucky. There’s an easy-pick-up implication to the novel that doesn’t do the plot or the book’s content justice. I’m also going to say that I read this on a whim–not sure if I’d like it at all. My review copy came from netgalley, and I decided to give it a go after taking a look at the author’s website.

The novel’s protagonist is freelance journalist, forty-something Robyn Guthrie–a single woman who ekes out a marginal living in the town of Fowler, Illinois. Robyn’s life, shared with her dog, is fairly standard and non-glamorous. She lives alone, has a boyfriend, a strange, slightly shady character–ex-jockey, Mick and her mother is safely stashed, albeit reluctantly at Dryden Manor with the other “decrepits.” When the novel begins, Robyn is confronted with two situations:

1) Her mother has decided she wants to buy a house and share it with Robyn

2) Robyn is asked to take over the work left by a reporter killed in a hit-and-run accident.

It’s difficult to say which scenario causes Robyn the most anguish.

The reporter killed in the accident was Clair, a woman whose integrity Robyn admired. Clair worked for the Fowler News and Record and was working on a piece about Cedar Ridge–a new  ‘Green’  housing development at the time of her death. Clair’s boss, Nita asks Robyn to take over the assignment and picking up Clair’s notes, Robyn begins working on completing the story while simultaneously digging into the details surrounding Clair’s death. At the same time, she also juggles her mother’s demands to snap up a house in this buyer’s market.

One of the first things Robyn does is keep a meeting Clair had scheduled with Joseph Kendrick, the man “behind the Cedar Ridge concept.” The meeting takes place at the snotty Douglas Grove Country Club, and it’s here that Robyn begins to sense that there’s more to the Cedar Ridge story. Here’s Robyn’s meeting with Kendrick:

Although middle-age spread had begun to claim his waistline and his face was a bit jowly, Kendrick gave the impression of being the image of health, His smile was warm and energetic, and when he shook my hand I felt as though he meant it. He was one of those shakers who moved in with his other hand and grasped my elbow as he pumped. Nothing unseemly about it, but I’m one of those people who appreciates the concept of personal space.

As luck would have it, Kendrick’s trophy wife, Katherine–now trendily known as “Kat” is an old nemesis from Robyn’s past. Kendrick and Kat, a lawyer who worked for Habitat for Humanity seem to treat Cedar Ridge as an idealistic project rather than a business venture. According to Kendrick, he and his wife consider Cedar Ridge a way of “giving back”

At Cedar Ridge, we’re developing a community of affordable green homes and offering low-interest loans to help people buy those homes.

Sounds good, but then Robyn has this feeling that everything at Cedar Ridge isn’t as perfect as it appears, and she begins to wonder if Clair’s story on the housing project had anything to do with her death.

D C Brod’s storyline is well constructed, but it’s the warmth and humour here that make this an entertaining read. Robyn is a great character–certainly not perfect and sometimes so frank that it’s very easy to identify with some of her opinions and reactions. Here’s Robyn remembering, but trying to hide, how much she disliked Kat:

Isn’t it great the way life loves to bite you on the butt every now and then? How the mere mention of a name evokes all that high school angst, reminding you that we never, ever really get over it. Your face may clear up and you may be earning enough to put a roof over your head, but a high school moment still has the power to flatten you.

I realized he [Kendrick] wasn’t looking at me anymore, and was, in fact, watching me. Compelled to give him something , I just said, “It”ll be fun to see her.” Why I said that and not something like, “Keep that bitch away from me,” I’ll never know.

The novel is also strong on characterisation, and we see Brod’s characters through Robyn’s eyes, with her wit and her pithy comments. Here she is at the Country Club catching a glimpse of a nasty piece of work, a man named Leoni:

As Leoni waxed on, Kendrick, who had begun to perspire, mainly nodded and produced monosyllabic responses. Apparently that was all he had to do, because Leoni seemed capable of long chats with himself. I also noticed he didn’t quite focus on Kendrick, looking past him, toward the patio, as though something there distracted him. Diverted him. Almost like he was admiring something. When I followed his gaze, I couldn’t figure out who was out there. The tables were empty and no one was strolling across the patio. And that’s when I realized what it was–he was flirting with his own reflection. When it hit me, I tried not to laugh. He must have realized he’d been busted when he glanced my way, seeing how hard I was trying not to laugh. He abruptly broke off his fixation and turned towards Kendrick.

The scenes with Leoni’s bratty daughter are hilarious, and for this reader, I admired the way D. D. Brod took ‘the road less traveled’ in her portrayal of a child who’s less-than angelically perfect. Robyn is a plucky heroine: practical independent, a dog lover. She’s the sort of person whose beliefs have defined her lifestyle but in a subtle–not obnoxious way, so we find her working freelance and worrying more about the quality of her work than a splashy career. Meanwhile she juggles her relationship with her mother and her relationship with Mick, and all these mundane concerns make her a very real person. Throughout the course of the story, Robyn moves from Fowler’s elite to Fowler’s underbelly, and naturally she feels more comfortable with a local prostitute than she does with the country club crowd. It’s Robyn’s sense of humour (and probably the author’s) that made this an enjoyable read. Getting Lucky is, apparently, the first installment in a new series. After finishing the book, I strolled over to Amazon and found the second installment, Getting Sassy (again I’m not a fan of this title either) free. You bet I’ll be reading it. Getting Lucky is lighter than my average fare–yes, there are a few bodies but the violence is off the page and some of it is even amusing, but in spite of the fact this novel is not as hard core as my usual picks, I really enjoyed it nonetheless. The experience felt like a short trip in friendlier climes, and if you find yourself enjoying the quotes, I’d hazard a guess that you’d enjoy this book too.

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Lumen by Ben Pastor

When it comes to crime novels with an international flair, I’ve found some really interesting titles from Bitter Lemon Press. Recently I received a copy of Lumen by Ben Pastor for review. I had a scornful reaction to the words on the cover: A case for WEHRMACHT CAPTAIN MARTIN BORA.

Pleeze…..

Part of my initial distrust in the novel arose from my skepticism surrounding the meteor shower of Scandinavian crime titles currently hitting North America. Thanks to the success of  the series: The Girl Who Shoved the Hornet’s Nest up Someone’s Bottom, publishers are scrambling for the next big series detective hit. Picking over some of the titles, I wonder if they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Reminds me of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Anyway, who in the hell would write a detective series about a friggin’ Nazi officer? Who in their right minds would read it?

Well sign me up, baby. Lumen is fresh, original and a compulsive read.

So what’s it about?

It’s October 1939, just days after the Nazi army invasion of Poland. Army Intelligence Officer, Captain Martin Bora is stationed in Cracow. It’s been a successful invasion, and now the German army and the SS are ferreting out pockets of resistance, rounding up jews and feeling smug about the ease of conquest so far:

Bora walked back to the army car trying to remind himself that this was war also, killing the livestock of those who harboured Polish army stragglers and deserters. A far cry from the excitement of winning towns house by house, door by door. It seemed to him that the glorious days were already past, and now the business of war–another month at most, no doubt–would go downhill from the exhilaration of the first three weeks. He even wondered what he’d do with himself for the remainder of his life.

This is an interesting passage as it illustrates Bora’s naiveté about the Nazi mission, and it also places the reader in the spot of knowing more than Bora about what lies ahead.

Bora is shortly assigned to investigate the murder of a popular abbess, Mother Kazimierza. She was known for prophecies and also for “the phenomenon of the stigmata.” Although most of her utterances seemed apolitical, there are rumours that she was involved with the Resistance. This makes her a political issue, and since the bullet which killed her was Polish, the Germans are eager to place themselves well away from any blame. An American priest, Father Malecki is in Cracow by order of the pope to investigate the powers of the abbess, and Malecki becomes Bora’s contact in the convent.

Bora is an interesting character, and I’m impressed with how author Ben Pastor fashioned him. She certainly didn’t go overboard and make him too sympathetic, and logically that makes sense. Make him too sympathetic and he becomes a victim who’d be gobbled up by the Nazis. Instead, he’s idealistic, pragmatic, and strait-laced. So for example, driven by duty, he understands orders such as clearing the library of so-called anti-German texts and slaughtering the livestock to punish Polish farmers who’ve hidden deserters. To him that makes sense, but he doesn’t understand taking the farmer’s women, raping and then murdering them.

It’s as if Bora hasn’t “got it” yet. As he investigates the murder of the abbess, he uncovers an alarming number of atrocities (the systematic murder of Polish officers, for example–a foreshadowing of Katyn), he reports to his superiors honestly thinking that those responsible will be punished. Instead he finds himself on the slippery moral slope. He can continue to complain and take the consequences or shut up and get on with his job. These a definite hierarchy afoot which is determined by rank, of course, but there appears to be another silent system with those who weaken replaced with harder characters.

Pastor, wisely I think, does not make Bora squeamish about grabbing the confiscated property of Jews. Bora is assigned a splendid Cracow apartment which he must share with the libidinous Major Retz. The apartment comes complete with a piano and an impressive library, but neither man cares where the occupant is. Booty is a given. At one point Bora runs into his old piano teacher, a Jew named Weiss, who’s now forced nighttime labour and about to be “relocated.” We can imagine where:

The truth was that Bora didn’t want to be kind to Weiss, didn’t want to feel sorry for him. Right then he didn’t want to feel anything. Anger and shame made him egotistical. Two blocks away there was a dead nun whose murder he was expected to solve, and this little man, his old piano teacher, asked for more light. What about the light he needed?

“I can’t stay,” he said, even though he could have stayed because he had nothing to do for the next two hours. But he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He didn’t want to stay. 

At another point, Bora and Retz make a chilling foray into the Cracow ghetto with Retz operating with “the manner of a carefree tourist guide.”

Bora is a character I wanted to read more about–a Prussian aristocrat who’s married to some horribly selfish Nazi-Amazon-Equestrian-Bitch whose father is big in the party. Bora’s stepfather, a general, isn’t impressed by the marriage as he realises that it signals an alliance with the new Germany. Bora’s superiors sense his conscience is troubled by some of the things he sees and as readers it’s obvious that there’s trouble ahead for Bora–even if he does tow the line. He’s already had to make a choice between his conscience and orders, and while he may obey, there’s no sadist gusto, and his superiors know this:

“If you start feeling sorry so early on, Bora, you’re screwed. What should you care? We have our orders and the SD have theirs. It was only an accident that you didn’t happen to have similar orders. And these Polack farmers–they aren’t even people, they’re not even worth reproducing. I can see you’re perturbed, but believe me, don’t start caring.” Bora said something, and Schenck interrupted. “We’re all in it. If it’s guilt, we’re all guilty. This is the way it is.”

“I cannot accept this is the way it is, Colonel. We also have laws.”

“So early on, and you’re already talking about laws? You yourself have come tearing down through Polish villages like a cyclone in your first days here. What laws? Leave things very well alone. First you report to me about the hanged Ukrainians, and now it’s Polack farmers. Harden your heart, as the advice was given to us at the beginning of this campaign. It’ll do you good in life. You’re just a young captain with scruples, not a relevant or even useful position at all.”

One of those most significant relationships in the novel takes place between Father Malecki and Bora, and perhaps this is because the two men have some common issues. Just as Bora isn’t free to punish men for rape and murder, Malecki is forced to obey orders from the Vatican. Neither man is free to take independent action, and both men wrestle with their conscience at several points. I particularly enjoyed the way the author showed how morality is so easily eroded in time of war, and the extraordinary courage required by those who step up and refuse to carry out orders that cross the line.

Apparently there’s a sequel on the way, and I’ll be reading it.

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