crime fiction

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.

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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.