Review: WHAT STRANGE CREATURES by Emily Arsenault

whatstrangecreaturesemily28636_fThere’s a pretty high degree of chutzpah involved in taking a Jane Austen quote for your novel’s title but Emily Arsenault’s WHAT STRANGE CREATURES is equal to the challenge. The book is often deliciously funny and its protagonist, struggling academic and potential crazy cat lady Theresa Battle, could well be a 21st century descendant of Austen’s favourite heroines.

The book focuses on the relationship between Theresa and her older brother Jeff who we learn in the opening pages is accused of having murdered his girlfriend. In what might be evidence that names matter the Battles have low expectations for their lives

Sometimes, when my father would scratch off a losing lottery ticket or arrive at the movie theatre after all the seats had sold out, he would say cheerfully, “Oh well. We’re Battles. We’re used to disappointment.” Or worse: “We’re Battles. What chance did we have?”

Jeff, the designated family genius who nevertheless couldn’t hang on to his job as a bus driver, seems almost resigned to his fate. Theresa though is not prepared to settle for this and goes to bat for her brother by attempting to uncover who else might have murdered Kim.

The character of Theresa is fabulous. Not fabulous as in she has it all together and can kick ass and bake cupcakes too. But fabulous in the way she is totally believable. She has one failed marriage behind her, a half-finished PhD thesis about a really obscure subject, a growing menagerie of pets and a dull job that was meant to be a fill-in while she finished her dissertation. She also has a wicked sense of humour and is just as willing to turn her humorous observations on herself as on those around her. Without the funny she’d have just been rude and/or morose but with it she is endlessly readable.

The story itself was a little patchier in execution. It’s not bad but it’s not brilliant. The number of references to Theresa’s obscure thesis subject was a little high for me.The first one or two passages in which the 14th Century religious eccentric featured were vaguely interesting but after a while I was just glad I would never have to read the completed thesis. The larger story concerning Kim’s death and Theresa’s ‘investigation’ was a bit rambly too. There’s meant to be a sort of political intrigue in that Kim had become obsessed with some local politician and how she was going to show him up via a viral video. But I never really bought this. Looking back I’m going to blame the book blurb partly for this (I know, I know I don’t read book blurbs anymore. Except that I did just this once. I. Have. Learned. My. Lesson.) because it made this angle seem a lot more substantial than it ever actually was. If I hadn’t been expecting it perhaps I would have felt differently about the fact it was never really a strong theme. Still I liked the way Theresa dove into things, even the way she put herself in danger seemed realistic (if somewhat daft on occasion) and the resolution was a good one.

Given that I read the book for yet another stop on my virtual tour of the US via its crime fiction I’d have liked to gain more of a sense of this book’s location. It took me until three quarters of the way through to confirm it is actually set in Massachusetts (the state I had assigned it to on my reading list) as there is really nothing that sets it anywhere other than “small-ish University town USA”.  But this is more a book of inner places than external ones and Theresa’s inner life and her relationship with Jeff is well worth the price of admission. Sibling relationships – especially between a brother and sister – are something of a rarity in fiction and this one is thoughtfully and credibly drawn. So Arsenault’s borrowing from Austen (the full quote is ‘what strange creatures brothers are‘ from MANSFIELD PARK) is indeed well-earned.

Perhaps not one for the die-hard crime fiction fans but if you enjoy a character-driven novel with self-deprecating humour and a hint of mystery I can definitely recommend WHAT STRANGE CREATURES.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 15th book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher William Morrow [2014]
ISBN 9780062283238
Length 366 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Emily Arsenault, USA | 5 Comments

Review: THE CATALYST KILLING by Hans Olav Lahlum

thecatalystkillinglahulumFor the third instalment of what has become a favourite historical crime series for me we move out of the 60’s and into 1970. The book opens with one of the series’ heroes, Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen or K2 as he’s referred to by the press, sitting on a train and witnessing a young woman outside behaving erratically and seeming to be in great fear. The woman attempts to catch the train and even motions to K2 that he should pull the emergency cord after the doors close before she can board. He doesn’t, not realising what she wants until it’s too late, and a few hours later he is called to the scene of the woman’s murder. She is soon identified as Marie Morgenstierne, the young woman who was the fiancée of Falko Reinhardt, a charismatic political activist who disappeared two years earlier.

Fortunately for K2 he is once again able to call on the crime solving assistance of Patricia Borchmann. She is the daughter of an old family friend and her logic and intelligence has helped K2 solve two previous cases (or if we’re being scrupulously honest we should admit she’s done most of the solving all on her own). Patricia is in a wheelchair and chooses not to leave her home but none of that stops her from thinking things through and directing K2’s questioning of suspects and evidence collection. The series titles all relate to the type of crime Patricia sees at the heart of the story and here she feels that the killing of Marie Morgenstierne is the kind of crime that sets of a chain reaction of sorts. Events, including further killings, that might never have taken place but for the original murder. This is just one aspect of the unique perspective Patricia brings to crime solving and the series.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoy about this series is its exploration of Norwegian history. As with the previous two books there are aspects of the story that hark back to WWII but there is a lot of fascinating contemporary detail as well. Marie’s circle of activist friends are key to this element of the novel. Her missing fiancé was leader of a radical communist group which is attempting to carry on its work despite the loss of their leader. The young people’s activism is contrasted with that of a network of older men who had been convicted of being involved with the Nazis during the war and thought, perhaps, to still be active on the right-wing side of politics. Might they really be planning some kind of attack on a prominent political figure? And if so can K2 and Patricia prevent it from taking place?

The suspect pool for Marie’s murder is pretty wide. After Marie’s death there are three members of Falko Reinhardt’s group left for K2 to investigate and he must also look to former member, Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen, who chose to move to a less radical group some time after the leader’s disappearance. There are also several former Nazis whose current activities he needs to dig into and possibly even Falko Reinhard’s parents who are still struggling with the disappearance of their much-adored only child. Even Marie’s father is a potential suspect, having been estranged from his daughter largely due to their wildly opposite political leanings. This all makes for a fascinating and complex story and a difficult crime for Patricia and K2 to solve. Even the resolution here is complicated, though it is satisfying.

There’s some interesting developments in the personal lives of the main characters here too. K2 is glad that Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen proves never to be too high up the list of suspects because he becomes somewhat smitten by her. In a way this fact forms a wedge between K2 and Patricia (though not in the obvious way) and in turn provides one of the most dramatic and heart-breaking moments of the book. I always know I’m getting a bit too invested in fictional people when I start preparing to give one of them a bollocking for some aspect of their behaviour. But I really do like both these main characters and I want them to continue to solve crimes for my enjoyment (it is all about me right?) so I don’t want them being unpleasant to each other. I note though that there is another book in the series already published overseas so I’ll just have to hope that things are patched up already.

Before I wind up I must make particular mention of the translation here. It is so easy to become blasé about having access to such great books thanks to the work of largely unsung contributors. Most people, myself included, tend only to think of the translator when the writing doesn’t read naturally or feels clunky in some way but that is never the case with this series. I was particularly struck this time by the inclusion of several colloquialisms that are perfectly natural in English, describing someone as “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” for example, and couldn’t help wondering if this was an actual translation or whether in the original language a totally different derogatory phrase for calling into question someone’s intelligence was used. And if so how did Kari Dickson (this novel’s translator) choose that particular phrase? I guess I’ll never know but it fitted so perfectly in context, along with the thousands of other choices I’m sure she had to make, and as I am woefully monolingual I am eternally grateful for her efforts.

THE CATALYST KILLING might be my favourite book of this series so far (and I really liked THE HUMAN FLIES and SATELLITE PEOPLE). Along with the well-plotted classic whodunit there is the intriguing look at life in 1970’s Norway, a slew of interesting characters and more than one heart-pounding moment. Although it does have some humourous moments this book isn’t as light as its predecessors. It’s still a long way from the noir-ish end of the genre spectrum but the tensions and heartbreaks of many of the key players give this novel a more sombre tone. Ok there were tears. But I loved it anyway.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Kari Dickson
Publisher Pan Macmillan [this edition 2016]
ISBN 9781447232780
Length 406 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #3 in the Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen series

Posted in book review, Hans Olav Lahlum, Norway | 7 Comments

Review: SANCTUM by Denise Mina

sanctumminadenise4405_fI’ve been trying to whittle down my TBR shelves and plucked this one because I’ve owned it for over seven years without reading it. How preposterous. Especially as I love Mina’s writing.

Written after the Garnethill trilogy, which features a lovable if prickly social worker as the protagonist in some darkly comic stories, SANCTUM (apparently released as DECEPTION in the US) is a standalone novel which sees Mina heading in a completely different direction. In the novel’s prologue she tells us we’re about to read a sensational true crime diary that she owns, having been the successful bidder for the item at auction. What follows is a series of diary extracts written by Lachlan Harriot, the husband of a forensic psychiatrist who has been found guilty of murdering one of her former patients, convicted serial killer Andrew Gow. It starts just after Susie Harriot has been convicted herself when Lachlan thinks she is innocent and will be soon win an appeal. He offers to help by going through the documents and computer files in Susie’s home office. This prompts him to start his computerised diary and what he uncovers makes him question his understanding of what’s been going on with his wife. And his life.

I have to admit I didn’t really buy into the premise that this was a real world case (in fact I found the set up a bit naff) but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the fiction of a diary written from an interesting perspective. It says a lot for Mina’s skill that neither the naff-ness of the novel’s premise nor the unlikeable-ness of its narrator prevented me from getting into the book and staying with it.

It is compelling to feel like we are inside the head of someone who is undergoing some major, life-altering discoveries. His initial belief in Susie and willingness to do all he can to help get her out makes way for confusion and uncertainty as he learns new things. Snippets of information from various sources allow him to piece together an alternative version of his life and there is genuine suspense in the way Mina brings all this together. At the same time we watch Lachlan unravel somewhat in his personal life which is not all that surprising I guess. And its not what makes him unlikeable. He’s kind of a pratt to start with really in terms of his behaviour and life choices. He’s got a medical degree too but has never worked as a doctor, nor really as anything else and his decision to be a stay at home dad to the couple’s toddler daughter is not quite as redemptive as it might seem given the pair also have a full time nanny. Fair enough I suppose that he was fully occupied with his wife’s case when we meet him but I couldn’t help wondering what the heck he did all day before Susie got the sack and then went to prison. But even though he’s hardly endearing there are still some heart-wrenching moments when Lachlan has to visit Susie in prison, cope with the ‘help’ of his and Susie’s visiting family members and re-engage with normal life when he feels like everyone will be talking about him and/or Susie’s conviction.

SANCTUM’s storyline has some predictability to it but I didn’t pick the ultimate resolution and there were plenty of surprises along the way. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel like we got to know Susie – I didn’t but wasn’t that fussed – but the depiction of Lachlan is a treat. Irritating traits and all. The only thing missing for me was the dark comedy that I’ve come to associate with Mina’s work but as this novel was clearly an attempt at something brand new I won’t hold it against her. Perhaps not my favourite of Mina’s novels but still a cut above the average crime read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bantam Books [2002]
ISBN 0553813293
Length 362 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Denise Mina, Scotland | 5 Comments

The Book Club defence…and a poll

For the past couple of years I’ve been pretty restrained with my book buying. Partly due to my commitment to only buy from Australian stores (books are darned expensive here so I am selective). Partly due to my desire for less clutter (I keep only books I adore and want to share with others or read again). Partly due to wanting to save money for other things (turns out I can’t renovate a house and buy my own weight in books every few weeks). But over the last month or two I have regressed to the bad old days of buying more books than I can possibly read even though I have a pile of unread books waiting at home and a perfectly wonderful library system at my disposal.

I’ve been telling myself it’s because I’m trying to find something interesting to nominate for my book club (it’s my turn this month) but myself doesn’t really believe that excuse. It’s not like I’m going to read the first chapters of them all before deciding which one to choose for us all to read.

I think I just missed buying books. And in the scheme of things it’s a pretty harmless addiction so I’m not going to fret too much. Most of the house renovations are done now🙂

Meanwhile, I have no clue what to choose for my book club to read so it’s over to you… vote in the poll or leave a comment offering a passionate argument for one or other of these books…especially if you think it’s a good book for a group read/discussion.

Confession: I’ve actually bought more books than this but for one reason or another they are not suitable for book club. Which of course makes the book club defence even more outlandish than ever. Sigh.

maninthecornerbesserAustralia – Can you become someone else without the world noticing? When David’s wife confesses that she was once a prostitute, the revelation doesn’t disturb him — he considers it simply an error of youth. But the following night David collapses from a rare brain disease and within a few months his world is turned upside down. It was a perfectly acceptable life — successful business, happy marriage, two children. Why then has David involved himself in an identity-theft crime worth millions of dollars? Why is he taking instructions from the oddly eloquent, handsome criminal, Ben Strbic? David can’t quite understand the sequence of events that has led him here, only that he must continue to the very end. As the days and months progress, a scam that was meant to be straightforward becomes a perilous mystery unfolding in David’s very own life.

theowlalwayshuntsatnightbjorkNorway – When a young woman is found dead, the police are quick to respond. But what they find at the scene is unexpected. The body is posed, the scene laboriously set. And there is almost no forensic evidence to be found.

Detective Mia Krüger has been signed off work pending psychological assessment. But her boss has less regard for the rules than he should. Desperate to get Mia back in the office, Holger Munch offers her an unofficial deal.

But the usually brilliant Mia is struggling and the team are unable to close the case. Until a young hacker uncovers something that forces the team to confront the scope of the murderer’s plans and face the possibility that he may already be on the hunt for a second victim.

inthemonthofthemidnightsuneckbackSweden – Historical – Stockholm 1856. Magnus is a geologist. When the Minister sends him to survey the distant but strategically vital Lapland region around Blackasen Mountain, it is a perfect cover for another mission: Magnus must investigate why one of the nomadic Sami people, native to the region, has apparently slaughtered in cold blood a priest, a law officer and a settler in their rectory.

Is there some bigger threat afoot? Blackasen seems to be a place of many secrets.
But the Minister has more than a professional tie to Magnus, and at the last moment, he adds another responsibility. Disgusted by the wayward behaviour of his daughter Lovisa – Magnus’s sister-in law – the Minister demands that Magnus take her with him on his arduous journey.

Thus the two unlikely companions must venture out of the sophisticated city, up the coast and across country, to the rough-hewn religion and politics of the settler communities, the mystical, pre-Christian ways of the people who have always lived on this land, and the strange, compelling light of the midnight sun.

thesilentdeadtetsuyahond29324_fJapan – When a body wrapped in a blue plastic tarp and tied up with twine is discovered near the bushes near a quiet suburban Tokyo neighborhood, Lt. Reiko Himekawa and her squad take the case. The victim was slaughtered brutally—his wounds are bizarre, and no one can figure out the “what” or the “why” of this crime.

At age twenty-nine, Reiko Himekawa of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Homicide Division is young to have been made lieutenant, particularly because she lacks any kind of political or family connections. Despite barriers created by age, gender, and lack of connections, she is mentally tough, oblivious to danger, and has an impressive ability to solve crimes.

Reiko makes a discovery that leads the police to uncover eleven other bodies, all wrapped in the same sort of plastic. Few of the bodies are identifiable, but the ones that are have no connection to each other. The only possible clue is a long shot lead to a website spoken only in whispers on the Internet, something on the dark web known as “Strawberry Night.”

But while she is hunting the killer, the killer is hunting her… and she may very well have been marked as the next victim.

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fAustralia – It starts in a suburban backyard with Darren Keefe and his older brother, sons of a fierce and gutsy single mother. The endless glow of summer, the bottomless fury of contest. All the love and hatred in two small bodies poured into the rules of a made-up game. Darren has two big talents: cricket and trouble. No surprise that he becomes an Australian sporting star of the bad-boy variety—one of those men who’s always got away with things and just keeps getting. Until the day we meet him, middle aged, in the boot of a car. Gagged, cable-tied, a bullet in his knee. Everything pointing towards a shallow grave. 

Posted in musings, poll | 8 Comments

Review: HELL FIRE by Karin Fossum

hellfirefossumaudioKarin Fossum has never seemed much interested in crime itself and rarely dwells on the details of the horrible things that have befallen the many victims 12 police procedurals demand. Instead she focuses on the circumstances that enable crime to happen: what is it about the lives of the victims and perpetrators that lead to the horror. As I am equally disinterested in bloody corpses and violence I am a fan of the way Fossum approaches the genre and was not disappointed by her latest offering.

HELL FIRE (or HELLFIRE?) is the 12th novel to feature Norwegian police inspector Konrad Sejer and is particularly melancholic, with three parallel narratives that spiral inevitably towards each other. The novel’s central crime takes place in the summer of 2005 and sees a woman and her young son murdered in an old caravan they’ve borrowed for the night. Initially there is some thought that the murders were committed by someone connected to the farm on which the caravan is parked, several foreign workers are employed there after all, but Sejer is not one to rush to judgement. With little forensic evidence to go on he slowly and methodically interviews everyone who knew Bonnie Hayden – her family, friends, the elderly people she assisted as a home help – and builds up a picture of what was happening in her life at the moment she was murdered.

The novel’s other two threads start about a year before the murder. In one we meet Bonnie and Simon and are provided an intimate and quite detailed picture of their day-to-day life as a single mum struggling to make ends meet financially and a quiet but sweet young boy. The final thread introduces another single mother Thomasine “Mass” Malthe and her adult son Eddie who is smart but not entirely able to cope on his own in the world. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out broadly how these two threads will intersect but that’s to be expected with Fossum. She is far less interested in whodunit than why, and that is what she takes the time to reveal.

As a novel of character studies HELL FIRE is absorbing. All of the central characters are highly believable and it is, at least at the outset, almost impossible to imagine that any of them will be involved in murder. Fossum’s strength though is in ensuring that by the end the reader will believe the resolution and understand why seemingly ‘normal’ human beings have behaved in a way so at odds with expectations. Along the way the book offers plenty of opportunity for us to get to know the core characters – so much so that we become invested in wishing for a different ending for everyone. There’s one twist that is both joyful and heartbreaking at the same time and I did find myself thinking uncharitable thoughts about Fossum and her meanness to her characters. But of course that’s the point: to show us the cruel tricks of fate and ponder how seemingly tiny decisions can have everlasting consequences.

Karin Fossum is one of few writers of long-running series whose work I have found consistently above average and HELL FIRE is no exception. It is almost poetic in its writing style, so kudos must also go to translator Kari Dickson, offers an emotionally wrenching storyline and is ultimately satisfying, though terribly sad. Much like the real world. I don’t think I can recommend Fossum highly enough and if you are an audio book fan you could do much worse than let David Rintoul tell you this particular story. It’s a treat.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator David Rintoul
Translator Kari Dickson
Publisher Random House Audio [2016]
Length 7 hours 25 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #12 in the Konrad Sejer series

Posted in book review, Karin Fossum, Norway | 3 Comments

Review: SEE ALSO MURDER by Larry D. Sweazy

Many thanks to Bitter Tea and Mystery and regular blog visitor Kathy D for prompting me to try this series. 

seealsomurdersweazyIf you heard of a book set in the relatively recent past (early 1960’s) featuring a farmer’s wife turned reference book indexer who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation you might imagine a typical, amateur sleuth-led cosy mystery. You’d be as wrong as I was. SEE ALSO MURDER is more melancholy than cosy, has one of the most beautifully depicted settings I’ve ever read and introduced me to someone who is destined to be among my favourite fictional characters. Of all time.

I chose to read the book because it allowed me another stop on my virtual tour of the USA via its crime fiction and so was particularly pleased to find the book oozing with a sense of place. Larry Sweazy’s rural North Dakota in 1964 is evocative. Not in the sense I’m champing at the bit to visit (assuming time travel was possible it’s a little cold and isolated for this city girl) but in the sense I feel like I’ve already been. Both time and place are brought to life partly with passages like this one

Farming in North Dakota has never been an easy way of life, and restraint was a necessary quality no matter the season. The winters were hard. The wind was so fierce at times you felt it was going to tear your eyes out. A relentless scream of air raced forever across the flatlands, entered your head like a tapeworm, burrowing deep in your mind, allowing no silence, no peace, unless you knew how to make it for yourself.

But there are lots of small little details too which help provide a picture of the isolation, the practical form of the local community’s spirit, the direct impact of weather on every aspect of life. And so much more.

Marjorie Trumaine is the novel’s heroine. Even before the book’s crimes takes place she’s doing it tough. Her husband Hank has suffered a traumatic accident which has left him blind and a quadriplegic. It has also left him with a burning desire to be dead, though he’s unable to make this happen himself so sometimes beseeches his wife to kill him. Marjorie misses the physicality of her husband’s presence, the practical things he can no longer do, and mourns the loss of the future the couple had dreamed of. But she doesn’t complain or collapse into a funk. Women like her don’t do that. She had turned to indexing before Hank’s accident – when the farm needed some extra income – but now relies heavily on the work so the family can stay financially afloat. And she loves the work. Really loves the way it allows her to learn about the world beyond her farm and organise things and use her brain in the way her parents always hoped she would. Many years ago I was the designated indexer for the official publications of the organisation I worked for then and I still miss that aspect of that job so I completely identified with Marjorie’s love of the work. But I think I’d have fallen for her anyway. She’s resilient and pragmatic and deals with her foibles, such as her occasional need for a cigarette and a tendency towards plain speaking, as best she can. She also reminds me more than a little of my mum.

I haven’t even talked about the story yet and I won’t say too much. Except that it’s excellent too. It begins with the brutal murder of the couple who own the next farm to Marjorie and Hank. The crime horrifies the entire community, not just the Knudsen’s two adult sons. Marjorie becomes involved because the local Sheriff, Hilo Jenkins, asks her to do some research on an amulet that was found at the crime scene. Marjorie, he says, is the smartest woman he knows and he trusts her to get to the bottom of it. She has to do things she doesn’t want to in order to help Hilo – leave Hank in the care of someone else, talk to her cousin Raymond who always puts her down, put aside her current indexing project and risk missing a deadline – but of course she she dives right in. Because she is needed. As is the way of things in crime novels things get worse before they get better and I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat by the end. The resolution, though terribly sad, is fitting.

There’s nothing flashy about SEE ALSO MURDER. It’s cover is not particularly eye-catching and it is not accompanied by the hype or buzz words that most books are paired with these days. Indeed it is so unassuming you could easily miss it all together. And that would be your loss. This book is an absolute treat. I read it in a single day and for the last 50 or so pages was torn between desperation to know how everything would be resolved and not wanting my time with Marjorie to be over. I’ll definitely be revisiting North Dakota in the second book of this series.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 14th book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Seventh Street Books [2015]
ISBN 9781633880061
Length 250 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Marjorie Trumaine series

Posted in book review, Larry D. Sweazy, USA | 7 Comments

Review: THE RED THUMB MARK by R. Austin Freeman

One good thing about Crimes of the Century travelling as far back as 1907 this month is that quite a few books are out of copyright and easily available for free. As it was the first of his many novels to feature medico-legal expert Dr. John Thorndyke I opted for a reasonably well digitised version of Richard Austin Freeman’s THE RED THUMB MARK (some free eBooks are so poorly formatted and have so many typographical glitches they are basically unreadable).

theredthumbmarkricharda28920_fI haven’t read a lot from this era and so can’t really comment on whether or not THE RED THUMB MARK is indicative of contemporary crime fiction but it certainly fits my personal notion of what older crime novels offer. The primary element is the story’s plot – there’s not much room for character development in around 200 pages pages – and it hinges on minutiae and evidentiary details that only a lone genius can spot. In this instance the genius is a doctor turned lawyer who has at his disposal a compliant and technically competent manservant-come-laboratory operator and an old medical school chum who is currently unemployed and fulfils the Watson role to Thorndyke’s Holmes-like one. I know the comparison is probably unfair but like Watson Christopher Jervis is a doctor and he acts as the narrator of the story and dutifully awed recorder of the brilliance that is Dr. Thorndyke. Jervis is not only concerned with the intellectual superiority of his friend but his remarkable outwardly appearance too, as evidenced by this passage which appears towards the end of the novel when Thorndyke takes to the stand in Court for the first time

…I had never before appreciated what now impressed me most: that Thorndyke was actually the handsomest man I had ever seen. He was dressed simply, his appearance unaided by the flowing gown or awe-inspiring wig, and yet his presence dominated the court. Even the judge, despite his scarlet robe and trappings of office, looked commonplace by comparison, while the jurymen, who turned to look at him, seemed like beings of an inferior order.

He goes on for a another page or so in the same vein. This kind of hero worship is pretty common in the classic whodunnit which is one of the reasons it will never be my favourite kind of crime fiction.

The story here is remarkable mainly because it is a mystery that doesn’t involve a murder, though this was probably more common in 1907 than it is today. Instead we learn about a robbery of some uncut diamonds from the safe of a family business. One of the business owner’s two nephews, Reuben Hornby, is accused of the theft thanks to a piece of paper left at the scene of the crime which helpfully (for police) has Reuben’s thumb print clearly left in blood. The young man’s family don’t really believe Reuben to be guilty but the police are sure they’ve got their man and even his lawyer recommends a guilty plea. Thorndyke is almost immediately convinced of the man’s innocence and proceeds to collect alternative evidence to support this line of thinking. The real culprit was blindingly obvious to me too but that’s got more to do with my knowledge of whodunnits than my skills in fingerprint forgery, typewriter analysis and cigar manufacture.

It wasn’t just Jervis’ over-the-top adoration of the novel’s hero that had me wondering if R. Austin Freeman was actually a pseudonym for a female writer (perhaps a teenage one). The whole text was pretty melodramatic and Jervis in particular was swooning over more than just his chum. He falls rather heavily for Juliet Gibson, a friend of the Hornby family, after knowing her for all of a nano-second. Juliet possesses many fine qualities and “…was in nowise lacking in that womanly softness that so strongly engages a man’s sympathy” but poor Jervis has to hide his emotions (from her, not from the reader) for reasons of honour.

So, THE RED THUMB MARK is, I suppose, a decent example of crime fiction of the era but not really my cup of tea. The writing is too flowery. Why use one word when 17 can be used instead such as when Jervis is researching suicide or, in his words, “…[undertaking] the consideration of the various methods by which a man might contrive to effect his exit from the stage of human activities“.  There really isn’t much substance to the story and a lot of the arcane details are repeated multiple times which diminishes what little interest they offered to begin with. The last quarter of the book, which takes place in court, is about as dull as it gets for me as it repeated many of the details we’d already gleaned. There is a hint of social commentary when Thorndyke waxes lyrical about the fiction of the presumption of innocence in the legal system, but even this lost its lustre for me when it became clear that Thorndyke (or Freeman) only really thought that people of the middle and upper classes ought to be spared the indignities of a flawed judicial system.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Publisher This edition Amazon Digital Services 2012 (original edition 1907)
ASIN B008493V28
Length 235 pages
Format eBook
Book Series #1 in the Dr John Thorndyke series

Posted in book review, England, R. Austin Freeman | Tagged | 8 Comments

Palate Cleansers x 2

Whenever I have read a particularly harrowing or thought-provoking book I find myself looking for the literary equivalent of a palate cleanser. I still want quality storytelling but am happy to just go along for whatever ride the author has chosen to deliver without having to worry too much about just how doomed humanity might be. After reading Jane Jago’s THE WRONG HAND, which deals sensitively but comfortingly with the issue of children who commit crimes, I needed just such a breather.

lethalletterselleryadams25610_fEllery Adams’ LETHAL LETTERS was a safe bet for me as I’ve enjoyed all the earlier books of this series set in a small North Carolina seaside town. It features a feisty business owner, her standard poodle Haviland and her writer’s group which doubles as the town’s amateur crime solving squad. The sixth installment of the series has two weddings, the discovery of a time capsule which turns out to be something of a Pandora’s box for one of the town’s old-money families and a lovely depiction of a strong friendship between two young women which, in a way, survives the death of one of them. I suspect it’s not much of a spoiler to say there is a happy ending here which series fans will particularly enjoy.

forreasonsunknownI then opted for procedural by new-to-me author Michael Woods. FOR REASONS UNKNOWN is a ripper of a yarn which sees a female DCI return to work after compassionate leave. Rather than leading Sheffield’s Murder Investigation team, as she had before her leave, she is asked to look into an unsolved cold case. Matilda Darke is not happy with this assignment but she knuckles under and is soon knee-deep in the details of the murder of Stefan and Miranda Harkness who were brutally killed at their home at Christmas time 20 years earlier. The only witness was their 11-year old son Jonathan but he never spoke to police at the time of the crime, he appeared to literally be struck dumb, and it transpires that there was never any follow up with him. The plot here starts quickly and never lets up; there’s a new twist or turn every few of pages. This makes the book highly unputdownable but did mean the author had to cram an awful lot of plot into what is actually quite a short book so as a total package it felt a smidge unbelievable by the end. The characters – particularly Matilda Darke and Jonathan Harkness – are well drawn, displaying the ways that life’s dramas and tragedies can affect people indefinitely. I assume this is the first book of what is to be a series and I would happily meet up with Matilda Darke again.

Posted in Ellery Adams, Michael Woods, mini review | 3 Comments

Books of the month: September 2016

Pick of the month

adeadlycambodiancrimespree2308_fWith my reading get back to something like normal during September the choice for book of the month was very difficult. Half of the 10 books I finished this month are worthy of the title but I’m opting for Shamini Flint’s A DEADLY CAMBODIAN CRIME SPREE because it encompasses so much of what I look for in crime fiction yet didn’t leave me feeling suicidal. As I said in my review “I don’t know what else you could possibly want from a novel than an evocative setting, a genuinely thought provoking narrative and characters who worm their way into your heart. Even those who haven’t read earlier instalments of this series need not worry: this is a novel that stands entirely on its own.

The rest, in reading order 

  • Tania Chandler DEAD IN THE WATER (an Australian novel with review to come closer to the publishing date)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers STRONG POISON (I enjoyed my second Sayers more than my first for a 1930 book but can’t imagine the insufferable Lord Peter Wimsey ever being a firm favourite)
  • Val McDermid OUT OF BOUNDS (McDermid is in top form with both her writing and social commentary in this cold case novel)
  • Meg and Tom Keneally THE SOLDIER’S CURSE (I thoroughly enjoyed the first instalment of historical fiction set in a colonia penal settlement from this father/daughter writing team)
  • Todd Borg TAHOE DEATH FALL (Was glad to find a non-Vegas story for the Nevada leg of my Reading USA Fiction challenge and really enjoyed the secret-laden mystery and meeting Spot, a Great Dane with heart)
  • Belinda Bauer’s THE SHUT EYE (One of the few authors who could get me to read a novel dripping with ‘woo woo’ elements, this novel is all heart)
  • Georges Simenon PIETR THE LATVIAN (I decided to visit 1930 a second time and found lots to enjoy in the characters and setting, even though the story itself did not grab me entirely)
  • Zygmunt Miloszweski RAGE (this Polish novel that views domestic violence from multiple angles and features a fabulously well-rounded lead character in prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a brilliant read)
  • Sue Williams DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE (a light, fun-filled romp through a small Victorian town in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and murderers hide in plain sight)

The only book I didn’t think much of this month was one I didn’t bother to finish so I can happily recommend all of the above titles.

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read 13.5 and reviewed 12.5 books (the 0.5 is due to a male/female writing team)
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  5/6 achieved
Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 147 at end of month
Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0 this month, 3 in total this year
Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  9/6 achieved
No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

It still looks like I’ll only achieve 2 or 3 of my bookish goals for the year but I’m not too disappointed. I know, for example, that I’d have bought a lot more cheap books from Amazon and elsewhere if I didn’t have my ‘buy Australian’ goal in mind all the time. Each of the three times I’ve bought from non-Australian stores I’ve had sound (to me) reasons and overall I still feel pretty good about supporting local booksellers as much as possible.

Speaking of which I went on a bit of a book-buying spree during September, something I haven’t done for ages and really enjoyed. Here’s what my new haul, all from local bookshops, looks like in my cataloguing app (I use Collectorz).


What about you? Did you have a great read during September? Anything good coming up for October? 

Posted in Belinda Bauer, books of the month, Dorothy L. Sayers, George Pelecanos, Meg Keneally (Aus), Shamini Flint, Sue Williams (Aus), Tania Chandler (Aus), Todd Borg, Tom Keneally (Aus), Val McDermid, Zygmunt Miloszewski | 4 Comments

Review: RAGE by Zygmunt Miloszewski

ragezygmuntmiloszewski28347_fThe third and apparently final story to feature Polish prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a cracker of a read, especially for those who don’t mind their protagonists jaded and their humour black. Very, very black.

Szacki is living and working in Olsztyn, geographically and socially distant from his beloved Warsaw. Whatever other awards the book’s author may have picked up I’m pretty confident he won’t be receiving any love from the Olsztyn tourism board which can’t be happy at his depiction of their city. I am left with the impression that the only beauty comes from architecture the Germans left behind while everything is else is “bland at best, but usually hideous,” that the traffic engineers head the list of incompetent public officials and that even the weather can’t do anything right

Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around

But while it may not be an inviting depiction of place it is certainly evocative and one of the real strengths of the novel. This is not one of those ‘could take place anywhere’ books.

Another strength is Teodor Szacki. He is not likeable in the traditional sense and some of his inner thoughts border on the deeply troublesome but he is compelling and the kind of person I am drawn to, in fiction and in real life. His flaws seem more human than those that have become clichéd for fictional detectives though perhaps this is simply because they are not the normal things one expects. He is for instance depicted as someone for whom life is a constant tussle between the man he wants the world to see and the man he really is. Sometimes this plays out in minor ways – such as drinking black coffee which he hates but thinks is more manly – and sometimes much more significantly. Like when the disdain of a junior prosecutor makes him re-think his offhand dealing with a woman who might have been subject to domestic violence. His strained relationship with his teenage daughter is due in part to this dichotomy too though there are other elements at play. It’s a beautifully and realistically drawn relationship, with both parties showing difficulties expressing their true feelings, and another highlight of the novel.

For me the story is the least successful part of the novel. The first half of it had me completely gripped but then it started to lose its authenticity and by the end was, frankly, farcical. It’s so hard to talk about why I felt this without giving away spoilers but I’ll just say it strayed to far into ‘world being orchestrated by a tortuous mastermind’ territory for me. The themes it explores make it worth reading though. Domestic violence is a pretty ‘hot’ topic these days but it can always do with more exposure and particularly from the male perspective. This is a book I can imagine recommending to a male reader who might need or want to learn something about this issue which is not something I can say about many of the books written by women on this topic. I don’t mean to be dismissive of those stories and the voices they allow to shine, but if we want to actually effect change in the world then we have to give men a way to learn about what’s OK and what isn’t too and they are far more likely to take notice of other men. The issue is explored in depth here and with enough nuance to give all readers some awkward moments, especially when combined with the exploration of the notion of accountability. Everyone in RAGE is forced to take responsibility for their actions or their lack of action.

Miloszewski has spoken about his work in translation as being a real collaboration and that does shine through here. There is humour and cynicism and all manner of linguistic delights that demonstrate Antonia Lloyd-Jones did a lot more than choose English equivalents for Polish words. The final product is a thought-provoking, memorable romp of a read that I highly recommend.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Publisher Amazon Crossing [2016, original edition 2014]
ISBN 9781503935860
Length 428 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #3 in the Teodor Szacki series

Posted in book review, Poland, Zygmunt Miloszewski | 1 Comment