An unplanned hiatus

The last year or so is, to borrow from the mistress of dignified understatement, “not one on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure“. As I think often happens with us humans during the more traumatic parts of it I soldiered on because there wasn’t much choice but in the past few weeks, as the cascade of dramas that began with my mother giving herself a life-altering traumatic brain injury and ended (hopefully) with an illness of my own, came to a halt, I had a minor meltdown. From the blog’s perspective (and if I am totally honest to my own deepest concern) the troubling aspect of this is that I have been unable to read more than a few pages.

In an effort to pull myself together, or at the very least tidy up a bit, I went around the house this morning collecting all the books I’ve started but not got more than two dozen pages into in the past few weeks. Apart from being a bit surprised to discover just how many spots I’ve found to attempt to read (it’s a pretty small house) I was disturbed to find there were 21 books in a part-read state. And I couldn’t tell you a thing about any one of them. I’d started to worry I had somehow forgotten how to love reading. So perturbed was I by the notion that this was to be a permanent state of affairs that when an advance copy of a book by one of my favourite authors arrived a couple of weeks ago I hid it in the linen cupboard (don’t ask). If I couldn’t read that book my obviously addled brain thought, then I might never read again.

AMurderUnmentionedGentillOf course I ought to have had more faith.

This morning was a glorious one here in my corner of the globe and I took myself off to a nearby coffee shop to sit in the early morning sunshine and embark upon the latest adventures of 1930’s artist, social activist and crime solver Rowland Sinclair. Two coffees and some raisin toast later I was half-way through the book before I reluctantly gave up my coveted spot and proceeded to the chores that Saturday mornings demand. I finished the book this afternoon.

So it seems my love of reading only took a hiatus. A review of Sulari Gentill’s A MURDER UNMENTIONED will be forthcoming a little closer to the novel’s release date of November 1st. In the interim I offer a virtual but heartfelt thank you to its talented author and her delightful creations for enabling me to be back where I feel most at home. With my nose buried in a book.

Review: ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

ElizabethIsMissingHealeyAudioELIZABETH IS MISSING is a Big Thing in publishing. Its debut author was reportedly paid a hefty sum for the rights and the book has more than once been referred to as Gone Gran in reference to the last thriller-with-an-unreliable-narrator that broke all sales records. For me such labelling was counter-productive. I didn’t really want to read it in the first place (hype shmype). And when it was selected by my book club all the buzz had made me expect a certain kind of book – a thrilling, suspenseful kind of book. When it wasn’t either of those I couldn’t help but be disappointed.

Muad is 82 and has dementia. This makes it difficult for her to make anyone believe that her friend Elizabeth is missing but it doesn’t stop her trying. She reports frequently to the police, visits Elizabeth’s house, writes copious notes to herself in an effort to help her remember what steps she has taken. The circumstance of her friend’s disappearance remind Maud of another missing woman in her life. Her older sister Sukey disappeared when she was a young woman, just after the end of the second world war. The book progresses to unravel these two parallel stories about missing women with Maud increasingly at the mercy of her dysfunctional brain.

For me ELIZABETH IS MISSING does its best work as a study of the impact of dementia on both the sufferer and their loved ones. As both of my parents are currently in the grips of different forms of the disease I definitely identified with Maud’s adult daughter Helen. She swings from annoyance to sadness to guilt when dealing with her mother in much the same way as I have found myself doing. Although it was a tough read precisely because it is so close to my own experiences, I found some solace in meeting a character who struggles to cope with the manifestations of dementia in her beloved parent and doesn’t always behave with the patience and understanding she might hope for. I can’t speak to the experience of someone suffering from the disease but the outward manifestations of Maud’s dementia ring very true too, though her inner monologue sometimes seemed to be too linear and organised to be truly representative.

As a novel of thrilling suspense however ELIZABETH IS MISSING missed the mark by quite some distance. I thought the solution to the present-day mystery was obvious from the very beginning and while sometimes the journey to an expected outcome can be rewarding for its own sake I didn’t find that to be the case here. The injection of a potential suspect for Elizabeth’s disappearance felt forced and unrealistic because the conceit that enables there to be a mystery at all is completely unbelievable. The part of the story dealing with Sukey’s sudden disappearance from her family life was more compelling but only relatively speaking. I still found it trod a fairly predictable path, though the sense of time and place which the author created was very well done and the family’s sense of loss was also quite beautifully drawn. So, if I hadn’t been led to believe by the hype machine that is modern publishing to expect a thriller I might not have been nearly so disappointed to find something else entirely.

I will be the first to admit that what I know about the inner workings of the publishing industry could comfortably be written on the back of a postage stamp but it seems to me that with genre fiction especially there is an increasing emphasis on The Premise. The elevator pitch if you will. Hooking people with an idea that can be easily and quickly explained. The problem with such a focus is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity and nuance and sometimes the need for those things – the need for something more than a two-sentence blurb – is forgotten entirely. I felt ELIZABETH IS MISSING suffered somewhat in this way. The hook is a good one – elderly lady with dementia has potentially important information about two disappearances…will she be able to unscramble her memories and thoughts enough for the cases to be solved? – but as far as plot goes there is not a whole lot more than this. The details of Maud’s early life at the end of the war and her present-day experiences of slowly losing her memory and her sense of self are well written and compelling in their way but mystery novel plot development they are not. And the very conventions of the Genre-Novel-With-An-Exciting-Premise lead to an unconvincing conclusion. It feels to me as if a thoughtful character study has been shoe-horned into a suspense novel shaped straight jacket and the end result pays poor service to both art forms.

As always, other opinions are available and most of them are vastly different to mine. But if I were going to recommend a novel about the horrendous effects of dementia on both sufferer and their loved ones I’d opt for Alice LaPlante’s TURN OF MIND. And either way; bring tissues.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher WF Howes [2014]
ASIN B00KIYZLAC
Length 11hours 38 minutes
Format audio book (mP3 download)
Book Series standalone

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Old Books of the Month – July 2014

July was a surreal month for me

It started with a kind of hangover from having spent the previous two months reading more out of obligation than pleasure. I was on a judging panel and quite a lot of the titles weren’t really my thing. They weren’t bad; just not my cup of tea. A few years ago I probably wouldn’t have minded – it was what I used to experience when virtually everything I read came from whatever the library had available – but over the past 4-5 years I’ve had a bit more disposable income and become very good at selecting books that appeal to me. Of course there were some great books in the mix but it was the ‘meh’ books that left an aftertaste.

So at the start of July I didn’t feel like picking up a book at all.

Then I had a brush with a real crime. A man I have known for a dozen or so years committed a horrific murder. I had spoken to him about something entirely inconsequential only the day before. He is an acquaintance rather than a friend but still… You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned of it. Probably still could. Although there is not a shred of doubt about his guilt I still can’t quite process it. I can’t even imagine what his family and close friends must be feeling if I am so unsettled out here at the very periphery of his world.

The silver lining to this particular cloud was that I felt like reading again. But not crime fiction. Not yet.

And, no surprise, I don’t have much else on hand. Except some old favourites. I haven’t done any serious re-reading for years but I found it hugely comforting to revisit some of my very favourite books.

TheHitchhikersGuidetothe11761_fLike Douglas Adams’ THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. I’ve no clue how many times I’ve read this book but it still made me laugh all these times later. And read bits out loud just to hear the cadence of the language. My first copy fell apart due to overuse so I bought a new one a couple of years ago. Plus I have the audio version narrated by Stephen Fry. Bliss. My favourite line remains “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”  That line encapsulates pretty much everything I love about Adams.

YearofWondersBrooksGera11374_fSomething of a change of pace is Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS: A NOVEL OF THE PLAGUE. I’ve read this one less times but still don’t know how many. It is a novel of great despair and great hope too and this time I couldn’t help but be struck by the line “How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.” Indeed.

 

NotesfromaSmallIslandBr10489_fThen I turned to some light non-fiction to re-visit Bill Bryson’s NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND. I’ve probably only read this three or four times but still my copy is falling apart. Bad binding? Rough friends? (it’s been loaned a time or three). I like the way he reminds us that we are (or at least we used to be) generally harsher on ourselves than others could ever hope to be

“How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state – in short, did nearly everything right – and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.”

Though of course he wrote that before the invention of twitter’s hashtag storms and the comments pages of online news outlets. In those worlds of anonymity cruelty to others has become a dark art. But I digress.

TheWestWingSeason1199935545_fWhen I wasn’t re-visiting my literary comfort zone I was getting stuck into a visual one. I started re-watching THE WEST WING from the beginning. It’s been about five years so it must be time. Part comedy, part fantasy it is my favourite TV show ever. If only wishing could make the world so. I keep thinking that one of the times I start to watch over again I’ll be bored and not want to keep going. It hasn’t happened yet.

By the end of the month I was starting to feel the pull of my TBR pile. But I went and bought a couple of new books instead. As you do. Well as I do. August’s reading?

StKildaBluesMcGeachinGe22408_f ScarredEngerThomas22395_f

Book vs Adaptation: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

I still recall the feeling of wanting to poke my eyes out with a stick while ploughing my way through John Banville’s THE SEA (yes I know it won the Booker but I’m prepared to admit it bored me to tears even if that marks me a philistine) so I wasn’t exactly tripping over myself to venture into his alter-ego’s attempt at a crime novel. But someone had given me a set of the DVDs based on the books so I thought I should have a go at one of the novels first. However I have to acknowledge that while I tried to approach CHRISTINE FALLS with an open mind I probably failed. Just so you know.

The book

ChristineFallsBlack

CHRISTINE FALLS  is the first novel of a series set in 1950’s Dublin and having at its centre the Griffin family who are part of the Catholic aristocracy. Quirke (if he has a first name I missed it entirely) is the foster son of the family, a pathologist and a drunk. When he notices his foster-brother Malachy – also a doctor – fiddling with a file he has no need to be fiddling with, Quirke becomes determined to find out what lay behind Mal’s fiddling with the file of someone called Christine Falls. This leads Quirke to endure his family’s wrath, a couple of beatings-up and a trip to America. At the same time as all this getting drunk and beaten up is going on we meet a young Boston couple who have adopted a baby called Christine.

CHRISTINE FALLS fits into what I call the middle-aged-male-wish-fulfilment genre of novel in which no matter how unattractive he is physically and/or psychologically the ‘hero’ of the story will manage to hang on to his job despite hitherto unparalleled levels of drunken incompetence and have all manner of impossibly gorgeous women tripping over themselves to bed him. Here an attractive nurse literally jumps on Quirke despite him having been beaten to a pulp and still being covered in bruises and bandages. I’m sorry but my eyes rolled. It’s this type of nonsense which stops me reading more noir.

Although in the end it offered a satisfactory, if bleak, resolution I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the plot either though I suspect if you read less crime fiction than I do you might have been less annoyed. I didn’t really get a genuine surprise in the lot but can acknowledge I’m not the average reader when it comes to this stuff.

The other thing I suppose one can’t do when discussing a writer of Black/Banville’s stature is fail to mention the writing itself but even there I’m afraid I wasn’t won over. Some of it – particularly the early scenes depicting Claire and Andy who are the adoptive parents of baby Christine – is rather beautiful but there is a lot of repeated imagery. I lost count, for example, of the number of times people are described as being like a stubborn/surly/recalcitrant child. And towards the end of the novel there’s a rape scene that just made me squirm. I can’t quote the passage now as the book’s gone back to the library but at the crucial moment we’re drawn to the image of dark and powerful waves crashing on nearby rocks. As if rape is as natural as ocean tides? Ick.

So…the book is not for me. I’m probably in the minority (again) but I found the characterisations too stereotypical, the gender politics bloody depressing and the plot easily predictable. As always though other opinions are available.

The adaptation

QuirkeHaving been underwhelmed by the novel I took a while to get around to watching the adaptation but it was a gift and it does feature Gabriel Byrne (on whom I have long had something of a crush). It is the first of three 90 minute episodes of a TV series which first aired in the UK earlier this year (the next two episodes are adaptations of the next two novels in the series).

Byrne makes a decent Quirke. He is more physically attractive than the book suggests but still permanently morose and nearly always drunk so not exactly someone real-world women would jump on with quite the alacrity of fictional ones. But he does get the essence of the character: a man who has lost much and missed opportunities and whose stubbornness on the trail of a mystery is inextricably tied to his family and his own life experiences. I’ve actually watched all three  episodes now so I can’t be sure this is evident from just the first episode, but there’s definitely a sense that Quirke is not always so diligent – only when there’s something personal at stake.

Despite my aforementioned crush on Byrne it was actually Nick Dunning as Quirke’s foster-brother Malachy and Michael Gambon as their father (a judge with much influence both politically and within the family) that steal the show. Both characters are a bit meatier than in the book and the actors seem to enjoy their roles whereas Byrne and the women don’t really have much to do with only one emotion each to play with.

The storyline of the novel is followed fairly closely although the bits which are removed presumably for length reasons are generally the bits of the book I liked most. In the adaptation the depiction of baby Christine and her adoptive parents is superficial at best which is something of a shame.

The winner?

I did enjoy the TV show more than the book but if I’m honest that’s probably because it was shorter and I really had few expectations by that point.

I actually don’t know that a person who hadn’t read the novel would have been able to follow the story all that well as a lot of knowledge about who was who and what their relationships were to each other seems to have been assumed.

Ultimately though I’m not sure I can really award a winner as I really wasn’t taken with either format. For me both versions of the story suffer from offering more style over substance. As if being dark and moody is all it takes to make something interesting.

Have you read the book and/or seen the TV show? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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Musings on FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING by Clayton Rawson

Rich at Past Offences has issued another challenge to blogging readers this month: to feature a book set in 1939. I selected Clayton Rawson’s FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING because I could get hold of a copy and it is a locked-room mystery I hadn’t read. I am a sucker for locked-room plots.

footprints-ceilingFOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING is the second of four mystery novels featuring a magician – one mythically inspired Great Merlini – as the amateur sleuth and a wise-cracking sidekick-cum-narrator in the form of publicity writer Ross Harte. Rawson was a magician himself which probably explains his choice of protagonist and possibly has something to do with the fact he only published four mystery novels and a handful of short stories despite being one of the founding members of Mystery Writers of America.

The book starts with Harte seeing a classified ad seeking a haunted house which turns out to have been placed by his old friend Merlini so Harte drops by Merlini’s magic shop to find out more. He and Merlini are soon deeply embroiled in a bizarre whodunit which plays out on a fortuitously isolated island in New York’s East River. A wealthy heiress named Linda Skelton is found dead in the locked room of an outbuilding of her home while a house party of suitably suspicious guests and hangers-on take part in a séance. Mayhem ensues.

As locked-room stories goes this one offers the classic elements of an impossible crime, as evidenced by the plot hint provided by the title, and gets points from me for having a logical resolution not requiring any paranormal intervention or other such silliness. That said, the plot does rely on some oddities and several people having highly specialised knowledge of vastly disparate subjects. There are for example two characters with extremely rare medical conditions and different elements of the plot which rely on a knowledge of such things as photographic dark room techniques, deep-sea diving and spiritualism. But somehow Rawson – and Merlini – do pull this all together and have a lot of fun along the way. This is not a book that takes itself too seriously and there are even some mild digs at the detective fiction genre.

This is a traditional whodunit which focuses almost entirely on providing an intriguing plot with little consideration given to character development which is par for the course for mystery novels of the period. But other than this the book does not read in a particularly ‘dated’ way even though much of the technology relied upon is of course obsolete now. But Rawson’s writing is good enough to explain all that needs explaining and to easily draw the reader in to the environment. I did wonder if it was because the book is American rather than European that there is absolutely no sense of the story unfolding at a time when much of the world is on the brink of war or if it’s my own hindsight that makes me assume everyone would have been pondering world politics at the time.

I’ll admit I got a bit lost a couple of times when the narrative delved very deeply into very specific technical matters but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a light-hearted tale in which spiritualism is debunked, circus acts make cameo appearances, the magician’s art of misdirection takes centre stage and the resolution to the locked-room plot element is elegant.

 

Books of the months – May and June 2014

I’ve read over 40 books during the past couple of months, mostly the titles nominated for an award that I’m one of the judges for. It’s a great privilege to be part of this process but I must admit the sheer quantity was a bid daunting this year and I’m relieved the hard work is now over. So far I’ve only reviewed a handful of the books as I felt duty bound to spend my time reading rather than reviewing but I have jottings and post-it notes all over the place from which I hope to cobble together some more reviews in the next few weeks.

InTheMorningIllBeGoneMcKintyAlthough I’ve read a swag of great books my pick for this period is Adrian McKinty’s IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE. It’s got everything I look for in my reading: lovably imperfect characters, an enveloping sense of its time and place, emotional highs and lows and some of the best laughs you’ll find between two covers. And a locked-room mystery too. A real treat.

Other notable titles

  • Greg Barron SAVAGE TIDE - a political thriller with bite
  • Agatha Christie’s THE CLOCKS was my choice for the Past Offences 1963 challenge
  • Kathryn Fox’s FATAL IMPACT is a seriously good forensic procedural that is truly topical
  • Kerry Greenwood’s MURDER AND MENDELSSOHN is not my favourite instalment of the Phryne Fisher series but good fun all the same
  • Jan Costin Wagner LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE - barely a crime novel but truly memorable nonetheless
  • Margaret Wild’s THE VANISHING MOMENT - is targeted at a young adult audience but I enjoyed it too, especially the writing and the depiction of the two central characters who both experience and deal with a trauma in their lives
  • Steve Worland COMBUSTION – an action thriller

Progress towards book-ish goals

I’m doing well on my goals relating to reading books by Australian authors but haven’t really progressed much towards any of my other goals. But I’ve a full half year to finish what I’ve started.

Next month?

I’m looking forward to reading purely for choice again though I must admit I haven’t actually been able to pick up a book at all in the couple of days since finishing my duties. The teetering TBR will call me soon though I’m sure.

What about you? Do you have a favourite book you read during June (or May)? I’ve hardly visited any blogs or review sites for the past two months and I’m sure I’ve missed some great titles so feel free to leave me your lists/links to the books you’ve loved. Got anything special you’re looking forward to for July?

Musings on THE CLOCKS by Agatha Christie

Rich at Past Offences issued a challenge to blogging readers this month to feature a book set in 1963. I didn’t have the time to seek out a rarity and the only book I already owned which was originally published in 1963 is an audio version of Agatha Christie’s THE CLOCKS (narrated by Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings in many of the ITV adaptations). Even when I noticed our fearless challenge leader had already discussed the book I decided to forge ahead. There’s always something to say about Christie, right?

TheClocksChristieAudioTHE CLOCKS isn’t one of the classic Christie’s books that takes its time to set the scene by introducing us to all the players and only then murdering one or three of the people we’ve come to know something about. Instead the murder has already occurred when the book opens and the time is taken for us to learn anything much about the victim. The whole thing opens when Shelia Webb, who works for a secretarial agency, is sent to a particular address at a particular time and when she arrives she stumbles across a dead man. She then meets the owner of the house, a blind woman called Miss Pebmarsh, before stumbling out onto the street into the arms of Colin Lamb who is fortuitously passing by. The peculiarities of the incident and what follows are too many to discuss here but these do, collectively, provide the sort of classic element a reader expects of a Christie novel.

Perhaps less expected is a sense of humour. It’s not exactly raucous but the book does display some wry humour and some of it is ever so slightly racy, including this passage near the very opening of the book featuring one of Sheila’s fellow typists

Edna restored the toffee to the centre of her tongue and, sucking pleasurably, resumed her typing of Naked Love by Armand Levine. Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography. In spite of lurid jackets and provocative titles, his sales went down every year and his last typing bill had already been sent in three times.

Perhaps this is a sign of how Christie changed with the times? Surely a well-bread young lady in a 1930’s Christie novel wouldn’t have known what pornography was let alone have humorous thoughts about the subject. It’s not just the (very) mildly risqué elements that set the novel noticeably in the 1960’s. There’s quite a post-war/cold war sensibility to proceedings as Colin Lamb soon emerges as some sort of shadowy covert operative and there seemed to me to be more than the usual number of female characters in charge of their own destinies here. Mrs Pebmarsh is a particular standout.

I have some vague recollection of another Christie story in which Hercule Poirot does most of his investigating remotely (due to an illness on that occasion I think) but THE CLOCKS is reportedly the only one in which he is deliberately physically distanced from the investigation. It comes about because Colin Lamb, who becomes more embroiled in matters than most passersby would do, is an old friend of the great detective’s and challenges Poirot…calls his bluff really… to solve the baffling mystery from his home saying “I’ve always understood from you that that it was perfectly possible to lie back in one’s chair, just think about it all and come up with the answer.” Frankly this feels like an experimental plot device and I don’t think it works particularly well. The great man doesn’t show up until well into the story and really plays a minor role in comparison to Lamb and the police inspector assigned to the case so when Poirot appears for the inevitable dénouement it seems a bit more unrealistic than usual.

Another thing that struck me was Poirot’s new (and fleeting?) obsession with crime fiction. There’s a long passage in which Poirot talks about mystery novels he has been reading (some of them real books and some not) and his solution to the case is bound up with his intimate knowledge of a range of writers and their styles. I know these days it is common for fictional detectives to have copies of crime novels on their bedside tables but Poirot has previously been a bit dismissive of fictional detectives if he has mentioned them at all. He never even seems that impressed with the work of his novelist friend Ariadne Oliver. So his sudden love for these novels seems like another experiment on Christie’s behalf and it didn’t ring particularly true for me. Or perhaps she felt the need to follow a new trend?

So…not my favourite Christie tale but an enjoyable enough puzzle and a bit of unexpected humour made the past week’s bus rides pass very satisfactorily. Hugh Fraser is a great narrator.

Musings on the 2014 Petrona Award

In a few hours the winner of the 2014 Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel translated into English will be announced as part of CrimeFest festivities and, like last year, I’m quite glad not to be the one deciding. But having finally managed to squeeze all the shortlisted novels into my crowded reading schedule I feel the honourable thing to do is express my opinion before the winner is announced rather than waiting until I have the benefit of hindsight so I can sound knowledgeable.

First, the shortlist:

Next, some random observations:

  • It’s geographic spread is pretty good including one book set in each of Finland, Norway and Sweden, two set in Iceland and one (the Nesser) set in generic “Scandinavia”. Denmark is the only country to miss out on representation this year. It’s nice to see that Sweden doesn’t always have to dominate.
  • Two of the authors were represented last year (on the shortlist for the inaugural award which was won by Liza Marklund’s LAST WILL)
  • The gender mix is less diverse with only one female writer being included (though three of the six translators are women)
  • Perhaps the least diversity though is demonstrated by the types of crime novels represented. On this list there are no crime capers, no domestic suspense novels, no historical crime (though the Indriðason does contain a historical thread it’s not really what I’m thinking of), no spy-laden thrillers or hardboiled novels and nothing that comes close to what I think of as noir (despite the phrase Nordic Noir being bandied about with abandon on the blurbs).  In case there is doubt I do not mean this point as a criticism of the judges – they can only select from the eligible publications and, as pointed out by Irish crime novelist Declan Burke a couple of years ago, the Scandinavian stuff does tend towards the procedural novel in which some kind of official or quasi-official investigator tackles at least one case that is, at least broadly, a whodunit. Or at least that’s what gets translated for us English-readers.

And finally, my personal choice (though with my track record an unlikely winner)

  • For me CLOSED FOR WINTER and STRANGE SHORES aren’t really in the hunting. They’re both good but not great books
  • I can see why LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER might be the choice for some – parts of it are brilliant – but ultimately I thought the book could have done with a darned good edit to make it really shine
  • Any of the remaining three novels could easily walk away with the honours in my opinion. THE WEEPING GIRL has a fantastic plot that kept me guessing all the way and its morally ambiguous ending appeals to me. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME surprised me by being better than I’ve come to expect from this author and it tackled a difficult subject (disability) very well. LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE is almost not a crime novel at all, it’s at least equally a love story, and is the one least likely to appeal to die-hard traditionalists but I loved its moodiness and the way its protagonist turned to something other than alcohol when depression threatened to overwhelm him.

By the width of a bee’s whisker I think I’d give the nod the Håkan Nesser’s THE WEEPING GIRL but it’s a close run thing.

I wonder what the judges will go for?

Petrona 2014

Review: LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE by Jan Costin Wagner

LightInADarkHouseWagner21931_fI’ve just had a look at my review of this novel’s predecessor and realise I could start this review in exactly the same way. LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE is (also) a peculiar book. I’m not sure if the fact I liked it very much makes me peculiar too though I can live with it either way.

It opens with a party. The police of Turku in Finland are gathered in celebration of someone’s birthday and detective Kimmo Joentaa is there with his girlfriend, a prostitute he knows by the name Larissa. She appears to recognise Kimmo’s boss and this fact – and its implications – indirectly causes a rift between the two which prompts Larissa to abruptly disappear from Kimmo’s life.

Professionally he begins working on the unusual case of attempting to identify a woman who had been comatose in a local hospital until she was murdered. Appeals to the public for help with the identification generate more than 2000 tips but none, at first, appear to offer genuine information and the case languishes in a way that probably happens quite often in the real world but is almost unheard of in crime fiction. As the months pass small advances are made and other information is revealed, often to the reader before Joentaa, that indicates who the woman might be and what event might relate to her death. A grim story indeed.

So the novel is not one for those keen on plots that move at a clip, nor those disinterested in characters of moody introspection. Kimmo Joentaa rivals Icelandic fictional detective Erlunder in this regard. And perhaps during some other week or in the hands of a less skilled writer I would have been bored but I was quite entranced by this book.

It is as much a love story as it is a crime novel with Kimmo’s love for his dead wife coexisting with his longing for the reappearance of Larissa. His attempts to maintain their tenuous relationship – one-sided as they mostly are – are at once heart breaking and heart warming. I think what I liked so much about Kimmo is the rarity of seeing a man with troubles depicted without turning to alcohol or violence as the ‘go to’ solutions.

The second half of the novel does move at a faster pace (all things are relative of course) as deaths in another jurisdiction appear to have some connection to the Turku case. Joentaa hooks up with two other policemen and a more procedural tone develops although even here it is generally left-of-centre thinking that propels things forward.

Ultimately this seems to me to be a book in which the traditionally strong elements of crime fiction – the procedural, the whodunit, the suspense-fuelled plot  – are almost non-existent. It is primarily a novel of moodiness, esoteric details and thoughtful character development, though the case at its heart, which stems from an incident of brutal violence, is ultimately resolved in a way that would satisfy most fans of the more traditional forms of the genre. I suspect the book is not for everyone but I will admit to being very taken with it indeed.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Anthea Bell (from German)
Publisher Harvill Secker [2013]
ISBN 9781846556531
Length 325
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in Kimmo Joentaa series

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Book vs Adaptation: The Guards

The book

ken-bruen-the-guardsIn what I’m sure some would view as heretical behaviour I’ve come to Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, starting with THE DRAMATIST which is the fourth novel of the series and the book I now use as my reference point for crime noir perfection (I still shiver when I remember its ending). I’ve since read and enjoyed a couple of the later books and only recently picked up the book which started it all: THE GUARDS. I’m sharing this personal history because I suspect it has coloured my experience of this book. If I had read the series in order, if I didn’t know how exquisitely, almost tortuously perfect a later book would be, I would surely have viewed this book quite differently.

I don’t mean to suggest I hated THE GUARDS but I kept comparing it to THE DRAMATIST and finding it a little disappointing (in a way that didn’t happen when I read books written subsequent to my favourite) (don’t ask me to explain myself). It introduces our anti-hero when he has not been a policeman for about 10 years. He is now (and was then for that matter) an alcoholic who visibly struggles with his demons but who has a surprising number of friends for someone who is so unreliable. His job, of sorts, is as a kind of private investigator (though Ireland doesn’t really take to the profession due to its history with informants) but it doesn’t occupy a lot of his time. Dealing with his addiction (feeding it or fighting it depending on the day) is Jack’s main occupation.

There is however a case to be solved. Jack is sought out by a woman whose teenage daughter has died of an assumed suicide. But Ann Henderson doesn’t believe her daughter would have killed herself and wants Jack to look into things. With an ex-military friend of his he ruffles a few feathers and gets beaten up a few times in what passes for investigation in Jack Taylor’s world. Even when the books are truly brilliant you don’t read Jack Taylor novels for their adherence to the tropes of procedural crime fiction.

You read them primarily because Jack is compelling. It is too dismissive to think of him as just another alcoholic protagonist of the genre. He doesn’t drink because of the rigours of his job. He drinks because he can’t not. The addict’s desperation, his inevitability of giving in again to the urge, his total lack of capacity to care about the consequences are all in evidence. Jack is, at times, likeable  (he is nice to old ladies, very well-read and has a dark and dry sense of humour) and at other times someone you’d fancy throwing a brick at (when he misses a close friend’s funeral because of a binge for example). But at all times he demand’s the reader’s attention in the way that a pile-up demands the passing motorist’s gaze.

You might also read these novels for the writing. It is concise (the book is close to novella length, especially when stacked up against the tomes of today) and has something of a poetic sensibility. This stems in part from the many references to other literary works and song lyrics, and also from the liberal use of a peculiar writing style in which things that don’t need to do so appear in lists rather than standard prose. I think Bruen’s writing gets better with the later books, here both of these elements are a bit overused for my liking. The dialogue and Jack’s internal monologue show the promise of the brilliance they will display in the later novels.

So, this is a good (if not great) book which has a very strong sense of place and character but not much of a narrative and a disappointing ending. I think this is what makes me harsher on the book than I perhaps ought to be. I admire Bruen’s bravery with his later endings and I know I should make allowances for him having to work up to that. But I haven’t done.

The adaptation

JackTaylorCollectionOne65517_fA television movie of THE GUARDS staring Scottish actor Iain Glen in the role of Jack Taylor aired in the UK in 2010 (a decade after the book was published) as the first of what is now six feature-length episodes of a Jack Taylor TV series. In many ways the film epitomises the core of the problem that adaptations present.

Why do they get made?

Is it to faithfully recreate their source material in a visual medium? If so then this one isn’t awful but neither it is a gleaming success. Glen does well in the role of Taylor – quite believable as the semi-functional addict – though his accent is less successful in the role of being consistently Irish. But the plot, not exactly a masterpiece of suspense in the source material, is played with fairly pointlessly (e.g. Ann’s daughter is not dead but missing and the ending is all wrong) and has even less twists than the original. The supporting characters are smoothed over, presumably for the wider audience expected of TV viewing, and in one case rather muddled by combining two characters from the books. There has been an attempt to achieve the fist-person perspective of the books by Glen doing an occasional voice-over and this doesn’t really work (I’m not sure if that’s due to the random inconsistency or the fact that I really don’t like voice overs).

If, on the other hand, the idea of an adaptation is to use the source material for inspiration only and to give it a whole different spin then this film doesn’t work on that level either as it sticks too close to the original for anyone who’s read the book. It doesn’t take us anywhere new, except perhaps in making Jack more lovably incorrigible here than in the book which is a mistake. Jack is not meant to be a loveable rogue.

The winner?

Even though I didn’t love the book as much as its successors if is, for me, a clear winner. I think I want adaptations to be one thing or another. Either a faithful recreation of the source material, only making changes necessary for the difference in medium or length, or a basically new work that pays only a nod of recognition to its source material. For me THEGUARDS occupied the no man’s land in between these extremes and so as an adaptation is not wholly successful. That said, as a movie in its own right it makes for decent enough watching, especially with whole passages of Bruen’s crisp and darkly funny dialogue translated to spoken language.

Have you read the book and/or seen the film? Agree or disagree with me? Where do you stand on the whole question of why adaptations get made? Do you like your adaptations faithful or inventive?

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