detectives

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Warning: timeshift approaching

Preparing to leap into 2018 with renewed vigour and a sense of purpose (no, really) I thought I’d wrap up the year with some random observations, mainly springing from Christmas.

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OneMonkey’s parents kindly bought me a couple of graphic novels for Christmas: Grandville Force Majeure, and Blacksad. The Grandville novel is the final volume of Bryan Talbot’s fantastic series about a badger who’s a detective in an England where France won the Napoleonic wars, and I’d been looking forward to it immensely (I read it the day after I got it, and it was tense, thrilling, and a fabulous end). I think OneMonkey’s parents have bought me all five of the Grandville novels, and before that they supplied a few volumes of Cerebus the Aardvark (which kickstarted my love of comics, as detailed here in 2010) so maybe there was a need to fill the gap, or maybe the lass in the Newcastle Travelling Man was particularly enthusiastic, anyway they hit upon Blacksad. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s from Spain, sounds good, and is about a detective (spot the theme?) who’s a cat. OneMonkey immediately noticed the abc of anthropomorphic lead characters in his parents’ gifts (aardvark, badger, cat) so I’m intrigued to know where I might go from here. Any good ones about dragons kicking about?

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I got a couple of other books for Christmas (the Mike Savage one has graphs in, that’ll keep me happy for a while), some notebooks, a beautifully distracting Moomin diary to keep on my desk and write deadlines in, and a pen and pencil set from The Nephew (who I didn’t see until a couple of days after I took the photo). Not many books were exchanged in our house on Christmas Day this year, though we gave The Nephew three: two as presents and one I’d finished with and thought he might like (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow). And come to think of it I bought three for Big Brother and my dad gave him a Robert Rankin novel I was returning to the Library of Mum and Dad (basically he didn’t have anywhere to put it and Big Brother was sitting next to him on the sofa). So some of us did ok for reading material.

I’m yet to count up how many books I’ve read this year, but not as many as in 2016 I think. That could be the lack of a commute beginning to show, or it could be related to the number of story submissions I’ve made this year (again, not counted up yet but a huge increase on 2016). The final submission of the year was made this afternoon, now I’m going to get my reading and writing back in balance by settling down with a cup of tea, the last mince pie, and a half-read copy of Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

Wishing you all a peaceful 2018 filled with all the books you want to read, all the creative endeavours you’ve got the energy for, and a liberal sprinkling of quiet contentment.

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.

Casting the actors in your head

When I read fiction, it’s kind of like watching a film in my head through a murky window – the events play out in my mind’s eye, but not with absolute clarity, though the voices are usually distinct. Often I’ll end up with a real actor playing the character, either because the physical description put me in mind of them, or because they’ve played a similar character in something I’ve seen. Jack Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, for instance, is for whatever reason played by a young James Bolam.

Where I’ve seen a TV or film adaptation, the casting for the version in my head is more straightforward. Both Marlowe and Spade are forever Bogart thanks to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, I probably saw those films before I started reading either Chandler or Hammett. Hercule Poirot can’t be anyone other than David Suchet, again the TV adaptation might have just come to my notice before the books did. Maigret is a trickier one, however. I can no longer remember how I pictured Maigret, or how he spoke, when my dad first introduced me to a shelf of Simenon, but ever since we watched the TV adaptation in the early 90s, Maigret has been Michael Gambon whenever I’ve read the books. It’s with mixed feelings, therefore, that I read of Rowan Atkinson’s role as Inspector Maigret in two new TV films – I’m sure he’ll be good, I just don’t want to muddy the Gambonesque waters.

Interestingly (at least to me), OneMonkey doesn’t always read aloud/hear character voices in his head when he’s reading a book. Nor does he always picture the events being described. Naturally I assume I’m the normal one and he’s odd, but it would be fascinating to find out how other people read (as OneMonkey says, long descriptions of how a room looks are often wasted on him – as a writer am I generally wasting my time on that sort of thing or do most people get something from it?). Feel free to comment here and let me know.

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.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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Imagine a world where Israel didn’t become a state in 1948, and where the largest Jewish community is a North American backwater tolerated (mostly) by the local Tlingit people on the understanding that it’s purely a temporary measure. Now imagine an unidentified Jewish junkie is found dead in his room in the same fleapit hotel that the area’s premier homicide detective currently calls home, on the eve of mass eviction. You have the beginnings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an unusual novel that I enjoyed a great deal.

Sitka, in Michael Chabon’s world, is a small Yiddish-speaking homeland in the heart of Alaska on a 60-year lease starting in 1948. It’s now autumn 2007, 2 months from Reversion when the population of displaced European Jews and their descendents will be displaced again, this time by their American landlords. The novel apparently comes from the author having found a Yiddish travellers’ phrase-book from the 1950s and imagined what kind of place it might be useful, and heard about a failed 1940s plan to resettle displaced European Jews in Alaska. Laced with ornately mournful humour, the book was reminiscent of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth noir  in its alternate history and almost surreal setting, though it seemed less tongue in cheek (then again, I’ve never been to Alaska or a Jewish enclave, so I could have missed the overtly silly parts).

Meyer Landsman, a middle-aged alcoholic detective who’s falling apart at the seams, is nevertheless a sympathetic main character. I was rooting for him, I warmed to him, and I felt for him. First and foremost he is a policeman, and when Reversion comes the Sitka police force will be disbanded. What then? And what will happen to his neighbours, friends and family? There is an interesting theme of chess throughout the story – the ritual of playing it, the shame of not enjoying it when everyone else does, its puzzles as an allegory of life.

Chabon has written such lyrical prose that despite the relatively short chapters and the tension of the murder investigation (not to mention the headlong flight towards Reversion), I found myself putting the novel aside frequently to savour the images. At one point he described Landsman as walking ‘with a kink in his back and an ache in his head and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity’. It was a book that deserved to be read slowly.

Fans of the hard-boiled detective story might need to be patient with this novel, it’s probably not as spare as they’re used to. If you’re not a detective fan, don’t be put off – like the rugby in This Sporting Life it’s a key part of the setting but not the only point to the story. I would recommend this widely to lovers of lyrical literature of wide open country, like The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.

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.

Looking back on 2013

The year’s not quite done yet but given my recent form, this could well be the last post of the year. What better time to have a look at what 2013 brought?

Strictly speaking it was the last few days of 2012 that brought my e-reader; I’ve had it a year today and most enjoyable it’s been. Somewhere in a post I can’t put my finger on at the moment, I mentioned my epiphany on the e-reader (the Walkman to complement the bookshelf’s LP collection), and I’m glad that realisation came. I’ve read a whole host of books I wouldn’t have got round to in print, at least in part because of their size. Most of them have come from ManyBooks.net, but some were borrowed from the library (Leeds Libraries have loads of new ebooks available, North Yorkshire libraries also provide an ebook service, Bradford doesn’t as yet but has a list of places to obtain them free of charge. Check your local library but remember Kindles don’t work with library loans); I’m already planning my borrowing to brighten up the commute in January.

I seem to have read my traditional mix of SF, Doctor Who novels, crime fiction, writing manuals, and socialist history this year. A bit of Anthony Trollope and a lot of John Ruskin sprinkled throughout. I’ve only put 7 book reviews up this year, but you can read them all here.

My short story submissions and my attendance at the Telegraph SSC have both been woefully inadequate, particularly in the second half of the year, which is not unrelated to my NaNoWriMo effort (still limping towards 40,000 words, thanks). Sci-fi noir, what was I thinking? Actually I was probably thinking how much I’d enjoyed The Manual of Detection, or Finch, or Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series. If you think that might be your kind of thing, check one of those novels out while you’re waiting for mine to be finished (I may be some time).

Back in March I released my first short story collection, The Little Book of Northern Women, which was positively received. It’s nearly sold as many copies as my novel Wasted Years, which had a 7-month head start. In August I tried an audio version of the final story in the Little Book, and I’d still be interested to hear what you think. I might try recording other pieces in the coming year.

Probably all that’s left to do is wish you all a peaceful 2014, and I hope you read some good books and travel to some interesting lands via the power of words.

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.

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.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.

Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.

The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

Tankie Trotter is the last National Service man. He never liked the idea of being conscripted, and he showed it in none too subtle ways. But time spent in the glasshouse doesn’t count towards his two years’ service, so here he is, several years later, with a grudge against anyone who can be blamed for having a hand in this wasting of long years of his life. Chief among them is one Andrew Dalziel, brash Chief Inspector in the Midyorkshire Police, who kept handing Tankie back to the army when he went AWOL.

If Dalziel had to be taken hostage, it’s a fair bet he wouldn’t have chosen to be accompanied by newly arrived, wet behind the ears university graduate DC Peter Pascoe, who isn’t even a Yorkshireman. These things rarely come down to choice though, and their loss is our gain as we watch the first hours of a lasting partnership that seems like it can’t possibly get off the ground.

I’m not sure this 1994 novella is still available (I picked it up second-hand) but anyone who has enjoyed Dalziel and Pascoe would be well-advised to seek out a copy. It’s not a conventional mystery or detective story but it does involve crime and psychology and is by turns (or at the same time, in places) tense and amusing. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful character study of colleagues who might not be as mismatched as either of them thinks at first.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

If you haven’t encountered Lew Archer yet, think Philip Marlowe with a less terse and more poetic turn of phrase. Ross Macdonald’s private eye also works in California and the 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast sees him taking on a case in Malibu that starts out as a simple request for a bodyguard. It’s quickly replaced by the search for a naive Canadian sports reporter’s errant young wife, believed to have returned to her Californian roots. Even that doesn’t remain Archer’s focus for long, and he follows a trail to the filthy underbelly of Hollywood, where the glamour cracks apart to reveal blackmail and murder. Dreams turn rotten with age, and cops turn rotten with money, and all the while Lew Archer does his best to remain unsullied and serve up justice when even the good guys are asking what’s the point.

One thing I particularly liked about The Barbarous Coast was the almost total absence of police, except as shadowy figures in the past, or offstage characters who Archer hands evidence to. Until this felt so refreshing, I hadn’t noticed how often private detectives run up against obstructive policemen, or work around the activities of the police department, trying to stay one step ahead. Because the police aren’t interested in the justice Archer is looking for, he has free rein and over a couple of very long days his determination allows him to gather the evidence he needs.

The novel does use a sneaky ploy that, depending how much of a murder mystery purist you are, you may find irritating. However, because I spotted it before Archer did, I didn’t feel tricked and I was prepared to forgive his slow realisation on the grounds that he was tired and overworked. With its sad portrayal of love gone sour, and the exploitation of vulnerable people, this is not a light-hearted read but I found it gripping and satisfying, and I’d recommend it to readers of the flawed American dream (F Scott Fitzgerald perhaps?) as well as lovers of classic noir.

Reginald Hill: worth celebrating

In case anyone who enjoys crime fiction hasn’t noticed, the Crime Writing Month blog has a whole host of articles on Reginald Hill’s life and work this month, along with reviews of some of his books and memories from those who knew him. I came across it via an article by Martin Edwards on Reginald Hill’s short stories. Although I’m well aware of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and know about (though haven’t sampled) his Joe Sixsmith series and some of his stand alone novels, I didn’t realise Hill was a writer of short stories as well. I took this as a cue to search some out and I’ll report back (possibly) once I’ve read my newly acquired copy of There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.

The Judas Goat by Robert B Parker

This 1978 novel features Parker’s Boston private eye Spenser but it’s not what I was expecting from what I’ve encountered previously.

I’ve read and enjoyed other Spenser novels but I wasn’t as keen on this one. To my mind it didn’t read like a private eye story so much as an international action thriller, set as it is in London and Montreal with brief stints in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, chasing a group of young terrorists. I could almost picture the film adaptation in my head as I read it, there seemed to be a lot in the way of blond moustaches, flamboyant shirts and being hard, and what with the London section it did make me think of some kind of Alistair MacLean episode of the Sweeney. It didn’t help that at a distance of thirty-odd years, Spenser’s friend Hawk comes across as a black American stereotype: the drawling, slick-dressing ladies’ man.

I read it to the end – it’s not very long, after all (about 170 pages in my Penguin edition) – but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of the private eye novel looking for a way in to Parker. If 1970s action-packed thrillers are your thing, you might have more luck with it.

Detective novel as geography lesson

Many people class detective novels as trashy, throwaway fiction; ok for passing the time in hospital or on a long journey, but adding nothing to the reader’s life or intellectual development. I won’t get into an argument here about doing the Times crossword vs solving fictional crime before the end of the book, and I won’t try and persuade anyone of the elegance of prose in, say, a Ross Macdonald or Stephen Dobyns novel. However, I will try and show how culturally enlightening it can be to have wide-ranging tastes in crime fiction.

Proust and a handful of nineteenth-century Russians aside, in my family the most-read works in translation are undoubtedly detective novels. From Simenon’s Maigret to Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano via Henning Mankell, my dad and I have travelled the world on the back of a crime novelist’s pen. OneMonkey’s dad has been watching French, Swedish, and Danish crime series on TV recently, now dismissing the British adaptation of Wallander as second-rate, and barely stomaching the first episode of an American remake of one of the other Scandinavian series. Would he even be tempted by a subtitled European sitcom? Unlikely.

Crime fiction more than any other genre seems to be rooted in a sense of place, more often than not a real place. Read enough of them and you too can walk the streets of 1990s LA with Robert Crais or 1930s San Francisco with Dashiell Hammett, the deserted canyons of 1940s California with Raymond Chandler or the backstreets of Paris with Georges Simenon. While the settings are often fictionalised versions of a real town, or even a fictional town placed within a real area, some writers do use real locations quite faithfully, which is where the modern miracle of Google maps comes in.

Noting that Saratoga Springs was a real place while reading a Charlie Bradshaw book by Stephen Dobyns, I looked it up on a map. That gave me a sense of where it was, and how far from Albany and other locations sometimes mentioned in the books, and is as far as I would have been able to go in the past. Enter Google and its street views. I can walk down the main street following Charlie from the pool to his mother’s hotel, or see the race track entrance as Victor sees it. I can immerse myself in the town and its make-up. Of course I’m not expecting all the streets that Dobyns mentions to be real, I’m not even expecting him not to take liberties and make the town hall visible from a street where actually all you’d see is the looming library. However, that extra element, beyond his descriptions, of seeing the width of the streets, the trees, the age and style of buildings, the jostling of old and new – it’s certainly more entertaining than any Geography lesson I had at school. I don’t think I’d use a detective novel as a guide book to a foreign city, but they can open up an easy doorway to a different world.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

Paris Noir anthology

I’d seen a couple of the other anthologies in this series from Akashic Books in the library before but Paris was the first one that prompted me into borrowing it, as I’ve actually been there. I figured that part of the idea behind a one-city setting was that you could immerse yourself, and it helps if you can picture the streets, hear the sounds. All the stories were translated from French, which adds an authenticity (and sometimes a confusion, though no more than I occasionally get from, for instance, American writing).

I nearly gave up on this book, I will admit – the first 2 or 3 stories I dipped into were, to my mind, more monosyllabic brutality than richly atmospheric crime fiction. However, I persevered and the next couple were OK, and then I hit upon The Revenge of the Waiters by Jean-Bernard Pouy. It takes a theme I often play around with (but have never yet finished a story on), that of the familiar stranger and particularly the way we notice their absences and wonder what’s become of them. With a welcome injection of dark humour, Pouy sets a band of bored waiters on an investigation into such an absence, with escalating consequences.

La Vie en Rose by Dominique Mainard makes good use of a technique that’s sometimes seen as old-fashioned, that of having our main character sit down and listen to a long and almost unbroken exposition of the back-story from the other main character. As an interesting twist, the listener is a proto-crime-writer pretending to be a private detective in order to gather material, but he soon finds he’s out of his depth.

I’m not sure if I’d read other volumes in the series, but if I do dip in, I’ll let you know how they measure up.

New genre excitement

It’s reasonably apparent to anyone reading this blog that (Anthony Trollope aside) I go for genre – count the references to sci-fi, fantasy, the occasional bit of horror, and detective stories, and…actually you’d be bored quite quickly so I wouldn’t bother, but you get the gist. OneMonkey likes a similar mix, and my dad got me into both Raymond Chandler and Philip K Dick. So for all of us, and those with similar tastes, Comets and Criminals sounds like a good plan. Starting in October, this New Zealand-based outfit will be offering up sci-fi, crime, adventure and westerns in a quarterly package. Why am I telling you this? Well, the eagle-eyed will have spotted earlier in the week the new ‘forthcoming’ line on my list of successes, though this post is scheduled for my usual weekend sort of time (at the weekend I will probably be writing the detective novel: 24,000 words and counting). Ladies and gentlemen, I have sold a detective story; all that wearing of a trilby at a rakish angle was not in vain.

Revelation number nine: detecting a good ending

A blogging prompt I saw a while ago was ‘describe a recent Aha! moment’. None of you want to relive the last time OneMonkey burst into the room singing Take On Me (least of all me) so I’ll take that to refer to a revelation of some kind. Maybe it’s down to me writing some crime stories recently but I find I’m working out the culprit more often recently, when I’m reading detective novels. Not that I was always unaware till the last moment, but I’m definitely getting it right more often, working it out earlier in the book, and also figuring out motives and details to a certain extent too. Perhaps the writing mind is beavering away in the background working out plausible ways to get out of the situation, as though I was writing the novel, not reading it.

The big exception (there’s always one) is Reginald Hill’s Pictures of Perfection, which starts with the description of the crime then goes back a couple of days to describe the events leading up to it, which involve other crimes (some of which I did figure out). The sleight of hand involved, and possibly also the idea from the start that you know what’s happened so you’re not there to figure it out, you’re there to enjoy the ride, meant that the ‘real’ ending was as much of a surprise to me as if it hadn’t been included at the beginning. That takes some doing, and I doff my trilby to Mr Hill with great pleasure and an elegant flourish.

There are some readers who feel cheated if they don’t work out who did it, others who feel cheated if they do (at least with more than a few pages to go). I enjoy puzzling it out, there’s a real sense of achievement if I get to the end and find out I was right all along (though I rarely mind if I was wrong, as long as I’ve enjoyed myself along the way). The only caveat is that there has to be ‘an Aha! moment’ – the solution needs to hit as things slot into place, rather than be handed to me on a plate or ringed with neon arrows leaving no room for doubt. Why did I decide to write a detective novel this year?