crime fiction

Stories of empire

IMG_20180117_162519~2.jpg

Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

A slightly tongue in cheek crime story for a midweek boost

Here’s a short story I wrote as part of an Ilkley Writers exercise in April. We had to imagine we’d been invited to a plush log cabin in the Highlands for a luxurious and relaxing writers’ retreat. We’ve kicked our shoes off and the host’s confiscated our phones so we don’t get distracted, but there’s bars on all the windows, wolves starting to howl outside in the remaining snow, and when someone tries to fetch something from their car they find the door’s locked and our host confronts them with a shotgun. Why is she doing this, and how do we respond? Fun to write, so I hope it’s fun to read…

She’s standing there, snarling over her shotgun, cashmere sweater rucked up under her elbow where she’s resting the gun’s weight. I look from face to unknown face, we’ve all frozen in a loose arc around the doorway. Rob – the guy who made the mistake of trying to fetch his forgotten toothbrush – a few steps in front. A crack from the kitchen and we all flinch.

“Kettle’s boiled,” she says, smiling and cradling the shotgun in one arm. “Who wanted peppermint? I can’t remember.”

I’d only met Andrea once before, at a crime writing conference in York. She’d seemed friendly and open, maybe a bit too open now I came to think of it, and when her email landed in my inbox I was at a low enough ebb with my latest short story collection to take at face value her offer of accommodation. My dad’s old place, she said. Peace and quiet, she said. Undisturbed, she said. I said: Is tomorrow too soon?

In the kitchen area of this open-plan cabin like a hunting lodge from a National Lampoon film she’s spooning coffee with one hand and caressing the gun with the other. Not caressing, I realise after a moment, she’s playing it like it’s a disguised clarinet and any moment she’ll pull it to her mouth and wail out some jazz.

“My glasses,” another woman says. I didn’t catch her name. “They’re in the glove compartment.”

Andrea ignores her, the tiny crease beside her eyes the only sign she’s heard.

I take my mug of Earl Grey warily, poison warnings klaxoning at the back of my mind. Half an hour earlier I was looking forward to a week of writing, now I feel like I’ve been landed in the middle of a thriller. That’s it! She’s working on a novel, she writes crime, maybe she’s one of those crazy writers who approach the craft like a method actor. I grab for the gun, convinced now that it isn’t loaded and getting sick of this childish play-acting. She’s faster, and a spray of wood chips peppers the worktop.

“Oopsie,” she says. “Careful, people can get hurt with these things.”

I hear a sob and one woman pads upstairs in her pop socks to shut herself in her room. All the en-suite bedrooms lead off the gallery and I noticed mine didn’t have a lock. I assume none of the others do either.

“So, who wants to do a writing exercise?” Andrea asks, and we all murmur politely and space ourselves around the U-shaped arrangement of chairs and sofas.

“I’ve left my lucky pen in my coat pocket,” I say, heading for the stairs and glancing back to try and catch Rob’s eye. He’s staring at his feet but Rose, a playwright from Devon, gets the idea and stands up.

“Notebook,” she says and hurries up the stairs after me.

“If we make her waste the other cartridge she’s defenceless,” I whisper as we reach the door to my room.

“What do you want me to do, paint a target on my chest and dance on the coffee table?” she snaps, moving on to the next door.

I duck inside to get a random pen that I hope will prove luckier than usual.

“No but there must be-”

“Ready, ladies?” Andrea calls from downstairs.

An excruciating hour follows in which we pretend to relax as we write paragraphs where every word starts with the same letter, and describe a tree without using the words leaf, trunk or green. Rob lunges for a wine bottle from the crate at one point, I see him hefting it as though he’s wondering what to smash it against. Then Andrea’s smile, and the heavy mould line, make me realise she’s got the wine from an outside catering firm that uses plastic bottles for festivals and catered picnics. She’s cunning, I’ll give her that. Rob spots his mistake pretty soon too, and opens the bottle anyway. He doesn’t bother with a glass.

“I can’t sleep knowing she’s on the loose,” Marie murmurs. She’s been struggling to read back anything she’s written – she’s the one who left her glasses in the glove compartment – and she looks like she’d snap like a mousetrap if you brushed against her. I shuffle a couple of inches further away.

Rob and I lock eyes for a moment and I call our hostess over from the kitchen where Rose is helping her stack the dishwasher. Andrea’s only using one hand because of the gun.

“Is this painting of the view from here?” I ask.

Please come through the U-shape, don’t walk round it, don’t walk-

Rob uncrosses his ankles with a casual movement but he clearly meant to trip her because he’s on her back the second she hits the floor, leaning forward onto her gun arm to stop her moving it.

“Don’t just bloody stand there,” he shouts and Rose and I simultaneously lunge at the prone form beneath him. She’s struggling valiantly but since no reading of fine print is required, Marie joins in too and four against one is no contest.

“Now what?” Rose asks.

Andrea is spitting a machine-gun tirade of obscenities, none of us want to get close enough to her teeth to gag her. Rob is sitting on her buttocks to keep her down, holding her hands to stop her clawing blindly at his thigh. Both Rose and Marie have sacrificed their chiffon scarves to bind her wrists and ankles but we all know they won’t last long, the way she’s thrashing about.

“Hit her,” says Marie. “With the shotgun.”

We do our best to ignore the redoubled yelling from Andrea, and consider our options.

“Shove her outside,” says Rob.

“We need our shoes and car keys first, surely,” says Rose.

She gingerly holds the back of Andrea’s head so I can stick my fingers down the high neck of her jumper to see if she’s got a key on a chain. She has, and I unclasp it. Rose lets go and Andrea snarls: “You have no business in my study whatsoever.”

“Find the study and we’re in business,” says Rose, so we leave Rob and Marie on guard and go in search.

The study turns out to be what Andrea’s bedroom has instead of a bathroom, and our shoes are jumbled on the floor, a pile of keys and phones on the desk next to her laptop. I grab a skirt from the back of a chair and shove the assorted footwear on it intending to use it as a sack.

“Good God,” Rose says. “She wasn’t being kind at all.”

I turn to the corkboard she’s looking at and see a grainy reproduction of my own face from the local paper’s write-up of the conference in York. It describes me as a name to watch out for but doesn’t mention Andrea at all.

“This is from when Marie beat her to second prize in a women’s novel competition,” Rose points to another clipping. “And – ooh – Rob wrote this review of her first novel.” She twists her mouth. “I don’t think there was any need for him to say that.”

I hesitate but only for a second.

“What are you doing?”

Rose sounds shocked, as though I’ve overstepped the bounds of hospitality by unpinning newspaper cuttings. This from a woman who recently tied our hostess’s ankles together with a three-foot length of rose-print, shot through with metallic threads.

“She’d come after us,” I say. “This is no chance gathering of writers. We need to make it look like we were never here.”

“With all the tyre tracks outside?”

“OK, we need to make it look like some or all of us were here, but she never turned up and we left again. And there’s nothing special about any of us.”

Rose stands for a moment with her lips parted as though preparing for some sentence that won’t come, then she turns and holding the edge of her tunic against the desk, sweeps the keys and phones into its billowy material. I get a glimpse of elasticated trouser waist as she leaves the room.

It takes all four of us to put Rob’s plan into action, but we’re too squeamish to knock Andrea out, even Marie. The sobbing woman left with her estate car’s seatbelt alarm clanging rhythmically as soon as Rose took her shoes up to her.

“Curtain tie-backs, it doesn’t look like the sort of thing a hardened criminal would use does it?”

“They’d be improvising,” Rose says. “If they existed.”

We’ve got Andrea trussed up in gold braid, Marie and Rose wearing their scarves again. Everything from the dishwasher is washed and put away. I notice Rob’s transferred most of the wine bottles to his car boot.

“Are you sure she’s going to die?” Marie asks for the twentieth time. “We can’t have her talking to the police about this.”

“Have you heard the howls out there?”

“Chuck a chicken out with her,” Rob says, gesturing to the fridge, and Marie hurries over to fetch the uncooked meat. She’s already wearing her woolly gloves, partly against the cold we’re about to encounter, partly to make sure we’re not leaving fingerprints.

As we carry Andrea up the slope behind the cabin, still swearing and struggling and now trying to keep her face away from the plucked chicken resting on her chest, Rose runs through our story one more time:

“The four of us arrived, no idea that it had been cancelled. We stood around exchanging pleasantries until someone thought to try the door to the cabin. It was open, but although we shouted and looked in a few rooms there was no response and we left again as it started dropping dark. Marie and Rob went their separate ways, leaving us to find a hotel somewhere together since we were both heading down the west.”

In truth Rose is planning to drive Andrea’s car north into the next valley and I’ll follow her and bring her back to get her own car. In theory the wolves will be too busy with their chicken ‘n’ Andrea two-for-one by then to bother with us.

“Best of luck and I hope we never meet again,” says Rob, holding his hand out. The three of us shake it and then we’re driving off in convoy down the winding track to the road.

To make it look like a robbery we’ve each taken one of the few valuable items in the place: a small CD player from the kitchen, Andrea’s phone and printer. I’ve got her laptop in the back of my car. I’m supposed to ditch it somewhere unconnected but I think I might keep it. It’s newer than mine and if I wipe all her data who’s to say it was ever hers? I fancy a new laptop anyway, I can feel a novel coming on.

wolf_snow

 

New flash fiction and a review

My just missed the long-list entry to Reflex Fiction’s first flash fiction contest is now up on their site. It’s less than 500 words long, it’ll take you a couple of minutes to read so what are you waiting for? It’s called The Invisible Woman, and I wrote it after going to a literary event with a writing chum – we were both introduced to someone, and a while later they could remember my name but not hers. Why does no-one ever remember my name she complained when we were out of earshot, and a story idea was born. She is not called Catherine, or Emma, or Diane (or Sue, Caroline or Jo, for that matter) and I have no idea if she has a sister.

While you’re in a reading mood, I’ve got a new review up at the Bookbag, for a historical crime novel called None So Blind by Alis Hawkins. It’s set in West Wales in 1850 in the aftermath of the Rebecca Riots, and is pretty tense and nicely done. I’ve written a few stories now with Luddite themes, and I keep toying with the idea of using some of my family history research to write a novel set around Drighlington amid the Chartist riots (I was thinking of making it a detective novel too) so this has given me some further inspiration. Don’t hold your breath though, I’ve got a few other novels to finish/redraft yet (I’m struggling through a major edit of the sci-fi noir one at the moment).

Reading my way through 2016

wp-1483371534857.jpg

As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Quick round-up

I hope regular visitors haven’t been pining too terribly, but in my defence I’ve had visitors, been ill, and lost track of the days during a week off work for Easter. I have been reading lots of books though, and there’s a couple of new reviews up at The Bookbag, both crime novels of a sort. Firstly, from a few weeks ago Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers, in which a couple of old women get caught up in sinister goings-on while trying to help a homeless young woman in a genteel village. Then there’s The Bursar’s Wife by EG Rodford, where a grumpy middle-aged private detective (who must be related to Ed Reardon) does surveillance work around Cambridge and stumbles into something sordid that ends up a bit close to home.

I’ve also read another one of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch, in which PC Grant continues to learn magic in a forgotten branch of the Metropolitan Police. Grant is such a likeable character and there’s such an obvious love for and depth of knowledge about London that they’re a delight to read. Essentially police procedurals but involving weird stuff that the everyday police don’t want to get involved in if they can at all help it.

My most recent read was The Gracekeepers by Glasgow-based author Kirsty Logan, which is fabulous and magnificent, and I shall be reviewing it forthwith. Huge thanks to my eagle-eyed dad for spotting a review of it in The Guardian a while ago and suggesting it should go on my To Read list.

Right, that’s about it for now. Did I mention I’m on the radio soon? As the schedule stands right now (though we’re still tweaking) I’ll be reading two stories – one from The Little Book of Northern Women, one you won’t have come across before – Andrea Hardaker will be reading two stories, and Rosalind York will be reading a story and a few poems. All interspersed with snippets of The Cure and The Kinks, The Fall and The Rolling Stones. Chapel FM, April 17th, 2.15pm (full schedule for the festival here). Be there or be awfully disappointed.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

If you’ve dismissed Stephen King as ‘just a horror writer’ but you like a good thriller or a tense detective novel, swallow your preconceptions and give Mr Mercedes a go. There’s less gore than in many a contemporary crime novel, and not the slightest hint of the supernatural. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for nearly twenty-five years (though I do think he’s had a few sub-standard offerings over the years, everyone has off-days after all) and I think this is up there with his best.

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective, lonely and bored without the job that made up his entire adult life. Mr Mercedes is the one that got away, the last big case of Bill’s career. We as readers know his identity from the start (from the synopsis on the back cover, in fact) and we have to sit back and bite our nails as Bill Hodges is (unofficially) back on the case, hunting the guy down as he prepares to strike again. He’s not a policeman any more, he doesn’t even have a private detective licence, all he can do is use his brains and all those years of experience, and sail as close to the wind as he needs to.

As this was Stephen King, the characters felt like real people, the book itself was easy to read, and the cranking of tension was spot on. The only bit I didn’t buy was a particular character having an AC/DC ringtone (same one as OneMonkey’s, in fact) – he just didn’t strike me as a metaller and it’s never explained. I think we can agree that’s a minor point though.

What struck me as particularly interesting (especially as, like I said, I’ve been reading Stephen King novels for close to a quarter of a century) was the amazing cultural disconnect I felt while I read this novel. All the other books I read last year that were wholly or partly set in America (of which there weren’t many, actually – an interesting fact in itself) were set in a historical or alternative past – I can’t think when I last read contemporary American fiction. Mainly it was the little things, characters reaching for their ‘cell’ rather than their ‘mobile’, or some TV channel or brand of beer I assume is real (because I did recognise some others) but haven’t heard of. In what version of reality is chicken, gravy, biscuits and coleslaw an acceptable meal, let alone one you would buy as the default offering in a fast food restaurant? I’m fairly sure that ‘biscuits’ in this context doesn’t mean what it means in the UK, but I honestly can’t think of any plausible definition of biscuits that would make this make sense. Why on earth is getting someone cremated (not buried) a big deal, why would you mock up a coffin to look like metal (when they’re usually wood, hence the term ‘wooden overcoat’) and is it usual for families to put corpses on display at a funeral home, where they then hold the service (rather than at a church or crematorium)? Fascinating, but oddly more foreign-feeling than all the Scandinavian crime novels I read last year.

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

Reading crime, and a shift in patterns

June is National Crime Reading Month apparently – at least according to the Crime Readers’ Association, and surely they should know. True to form, I am of course reading Ed Reardon’s Week which (pilfered magazines from the library aside) doesn’t really feature any crime. However, some of you may be reading some Karin Fossum books after last weekend’s review, and there will be another Scandinavian crime review shortly (I won’t specify when, mainly because it’ll no doubt change in the meantime, but let’s pretend it’s also to give you a nice surprise).

That (in a loose sort of a way) brings me to the other matter, which is a change in blogging schedule. I know most of you won’t have noticed, let alone cared, that I mainly blogged on Wednesdays for quite a while. You may have noticed it go all to pot recently with the mini-series on train journeys of the North. This seemed like a good time to shift back to weekend posting, as I don’t seem to find the time during the week any more (she says, writing a blog post on a weekday evening. And conveniently forgetting about the scheduling facility). Whatever the excuse, posts will be available (on the whole, when I remember) on a Saturday or Sunday from now on. Until I change my mind again.

Scandinavian crime: Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum

The joy of libraries in the digital age, eh? Just before my May Day holiday my dad emailed me a list of Scandinavian women whose crime novels he’d recently read courtesy of the e-book loans from his county library service. My nearest Kobo-friendly library service had a few of them too, so the night before I left I was able to load up with half a dozen crime novels by unfamiliar authors without bulking out my rucksack. I won’t say I picked them on the recommendation of my dad, because in his usual style he said he couldn’t remember which ones were any good.

I tried a couple of chapters of an Anne Holt novel (according to the blurb she’s a former minister in the Norwegian government) and found the style a bit too lyrical for murder, so I picked Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum at random from the remainder of my list. I was hooked by about page 2.

The central thread concerns the body of a girl found by a tarn, but it ends up being about so much more than that. The setting is a small village at the foot of a mountain where everyone knows each other, rumours spread fast, and yet somehow everyone has secrets. Some of them might even be worth killing for. The connections between the residents are complex, and once you start untangling a trail, who knows where it might lead.

The sense of place in this Norwegian novel was wonderful – admittedly I’ve never been to Norway but the isolation, stillness and beauty were conjured vividly. Refreshingly the police detective, Konrad Sejer, instead of being jaded, hard-drinking and divorced, was a reasonably contented grandfather, albeit still mourning for his late wife, and his sidekick Skarre seemed like a nice chap, full of boyish enthusiasm. There was a small amount of violence in the novel but nothing particularly graphic or out of place; if you like your detectives full of action like Harry Bosch or Elvis Cole, you’ll be disappointed here.

Fossum wrong-footed me constantly with this novel, and it’s hard to say much about the plot without letting a spoiler slip, but I raced through, desperate to find out where it was going next. The frequently switching point of view (at least once to a dog) might be disconcerting if you prefer a tight focus, but I know I’ll be reading more from Karin Fossum before long. If you like the more thoughtful end of crime fiction (Ross Macdonald, say) I recommend you do too.

The Overlook by Michael Connelly

56-year-old Detective Harry Bosch is on his first case since moving to the LAPD Robbery Homicide Division. A medical physicist has been murdered, and the killer may have taken dangerous substances from him. The terrorism alarm bells start ringing and before Harry has chance to do much work, he’s saddled with the FBI and all the extra bureaucracy and secrecy (and frustration) that brings.

This was the first Michael Connelly I’d read, picked from a library shelf because I thought the name seemed familiar from a casual recommendation I’d had. I toyed with giving up on it partway through; it looked like a fairly stereotypical thriller with obligatory mentions of the Middle East, the twin towers plane-crashes, suspicion of Muslims, and an unrealistic-sounding threat that was only vaguely (if at all) understood by the police involved. It redeemed itself by the end by turning out to be more subtle, more intelligent, and more of a detective story than that, but I’m still not sure I’d read another.

I’ve read and enjoyed (as light entertainment) a few Elvis Cole novels by Robert Crais. The Overlook was set in the same sort of location, and other than Harry being a policeman whereas Elvis is a private detective, there was some similarity. A lot of driving around Los Angeles being a bit of a maverick, with the occasional mention of a traumatic experience in Vietnam, and more people than seemed strictly necessary getting shot. Elvis Cole spends his life circumventing the LAPD, Harry Bosch circumvents the Feds. Given this similarity I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy The Overlook more than I did, but I wonder if this (the 13th Bosch novel) was a bad place to start. Harry has a new boss, a new partner, and though he did encounter people he’d run across when he worked for a different division, I didn’t feel like I got much of an insight into his character. The events of the whole novel took place in less than 24 hours, perhaps not enough time to get to know him.

Interestingly, in the edition I read there’s a section at the end where Michael Connelly ‘interviews’ Harry Bosch. That was nicely done, and did give more of Harry’s background and personal life away, plus an insight into what really drives him. It’s a writing exercise I’ve come across a few times – interview your main character – but this shows that not only can it help the author nail the details of a character, presented to the reader it can help to make that character seem more real.

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

First draft excitement

Pretend you’re interested for a moment while I share the excitement of having completed the first draft of Sunrise over Centrified City (the SF noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo). I wrote the final scene this evening and am now bathed in mild elation tinged with regret. The thing about finishing a long piece is, you have to leave behind some characters you’ve come to know deeply. Although as OneMonkey pointed out, it won’t be for long – I’ll need to start typing up (having written it longhand) and then re-drafting in a couple of months. In the meantime I’m marvelling at the accessibility of this achievement. In January I worked on the novel on only 3 Sundays and a Saturday, and produced a total of 10,000 words. Doesn’t that sound so easy to fit around other commitments and general life stuff? I don’t know whether to be inspired, or disappointed that I don’t manage this kind of output more often. However I end up feeling about it, this is only the beginning. The real work begins when I start plugging all the plot-holes with the rewrite, and I can see that taking me all the way to November and the next NaNoWriMo.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

A crime novel a little off the beaten track for me, but I enjoyed the film LA Confidential, so when I saw that novel plus a couple of Ellroy’s others in a charity shop, I thought I’d give them a go.

The Big Nowhere is not for the faint-hearted, though I did appreciate as I read it that some events were put across in a couple of matter of fact sentences, when in a more salacious setting they could have been lingered over in awful detail. Even so, there’s a fair bit of violence, some nasty murders and a couple of forensic scenes, not to mention bizarre sex crimes. I kept marvelling at the fact I was still reading, but the power of the writing and characterisation was such that I had to know how it all worked out, I had to know who was responsible for what.

Set in the first days of 1950 in Los Angeles, The Big Nowhere follows a murder investigation seemingly linked to gay men, and an investigation into Communist activity in the motion picture industry, at a time when being gay or being Communist were about equally likely to turn you into a pariah. This is the scuzzy underside of the city, rife with corruption and blackmail, victims no-one cares about, and rivalry between city and county police. It seems there are no good guys or bad guys, only bent cops and gangsters with half an eye on justice. Sometimes they’re the same person.

It’s a complicated novel, the pieces of the puzzles so intricate that I occasionally had to re-read to make sure I’d got it straight before I moved on. On the whole it had an urgent tension to it that kept me reading, but every so often the police procedural aspect of it slowed me down (lists of names, licence numbers, addresses that people read out over the phone to each other, for instance) but I’m not sure how else you’d be able to do it so that the reader sees the information and can put two and two together at the same time as the character. It has a gritty, dirty feel to it, and was depressing in places but I like the fact that it didn’t have a neat uplifting ending with all loose ends tied. Once I’ve cleansed my palate with something uproariously funny, I’ll be back for more of Ellroy’s harsh urban style.

Ultra-short crime

There’s only a couple of days left to enter CrimeFest’s Flashbang competition, it’s open till midnight on Friday 1st March. I haven’t yet come up with a 150-word crime story I’m happy with, but I did enjoy reading the winning entries from last year, particularly the clever approach of the winner, Iain Rowan. Frankly it’s enough to make all my efforts feel a bit lame, but there is still time for inspiration to hit.

Weather reporting

Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.

Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.

Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.

  • A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
  • A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
  • Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
  • Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.

In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.

For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’

Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.

Friends and connections

Friend D (otherwise known as David Lear of Firestone Books) has been interviewed over at Teresa Stenson’s blog, which you may be interested in not just because he’s a long-standing friend of mine (though really, that makes him instantly fascinating to you all, doesn’t it?) but because he’s looking for submissions of (genre) novels and – get this – short story collections. I won’t be submitting, to avoid accusations of nepotism (if he accepted it) or uncomfortable silences over dinner (if he didn’t), but if I wasn’t in this position I’d be looking into it because next to no-one accepts story collections as far as I can tell.

 

Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.