detectives

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

Yiddish Policemen's Union

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.