End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here

September 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Poetry, The British police procedural)

A shocking death occurs on the island of Oland, off the coast of Sweden. The death is quickly followed by a case of mistaken identity – or rather, a case of  bad information that  the police should have flagged before it was divulged, causing further damage and pain.

When last I wrote about Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, I was about half way through the book and found myself spellbound by its strange admixture of dread and grief. As I read on, though, I found that the concentrated force of the first half of this narrative was diluted by the complexity of subsequent developments. In addition, there were numerous flashbacks to earlier events in the lives of various players in the drama. I have to say up front, I’m not a great fan of time shifts in fictional narratives. I prefer straight ahead storytelling. I always think, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope – it’s definitely good enough for me! (Yes, I admit there are exceptions…but not many.)

My final verdict is still positive. The evocation of atmosphere, the twists and turns of the story, the vividness of the characters who people this bleak yet compelling landscape – all these qualities ultimately overcame the novel’s deficiencies. And I simply must add: in The Darkest Room, Johan Theorin evokes the specter of human suffering with the deepest compassion and empathy. It is a portrayal on a par with the greats of the nineteenth century mentioned above.

[Kalmar County,  on the southern tip of Oland, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.]

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There are some authors whose books I read regardless of what the reviewers have to say about them. Two of these are skilled practitioners of the police procedural, John Harvey and Barry Maitland. The latter is a fairly recent discovery for me and a I must say, a most welcome one. I’ve been reading the Brock and Kolla novels in no particular order, though I’d rather be reading them in sequence. This is a series in which the characters’ situations, both personal and professional, change and evolve over time. Nevertheless, I am such a fan of Maitland at this point, I intend to read all his books, in whatever order they come my way!

Most recently, I read Babel. Max Springer, a professor of philosophy at a London university, was unalterably opposed to any form of religious extremism. His position included, but was certainly not limited to, Muslim extremists. Springer was not afraid of controversy, nor was he shy about making his views known. So when he is shot dead on the crowded steps of one of the university buildings, it is assumed that his unyielding position on hot  button issues has gotten him killed.

But is it really that simple? Of course not.

Meanwhile, Kathy Kolla is recovering from the traumatic events of Silvermeadow. She’s considering leaving the force – the profession, actually – for good. But  this multilayered case, with its odd implications and complications, and her undiminished bond with her boss and mentor David Brock, still work powerfully upon her.

Many mystery fans, including myself, are delighted to find what I call “added value” in the novels they read. Dick Francis was well known for providing this entertaining diversion in his work. (We miss you, Dick!) I’ve been pleased to encounter it in Maitland’s books. A student working with Professor Springer was doing her doctoral dissertation on Hannah Arendt. In Babel, we learn some interesting things about this seminal figure in twentieth century philosophy. (This is a timely reference; in March, a new book came out whose subject is the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger: . How’s that cover for an image to haunt your dreams…two people – both brilliant scholars – at a supremely turbulent moment in history, who should never have become lovers – but did.)

Babel is also concerned with the Yemeni community in London. At one point, a character tell David Brock: “‘Did you know that the Yemenis are the oldest Muslim residents of London?'” (This assertion also appears in Wikipedia.) As you may have surmised, Babel takes as its subject matter the presence of Muslim communities in England’s teeming metropolis. This book was published in 2002 but was completed earlier. The following statement by the author appears in the “Acknowledgements” preceding the text:

This book was written before the terrible events of 11 September 2001, at a time when the story of Islam in Britain was less widely discussed than today.

——————-

Other Brock and Kolla novels I’ve enjoyed:

This is my favorite, so far.

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I’ve long been a fan of the novels of John Harvey. Harvey first gained a following in this country with the series featuring Charlie Resnick.  A policeman in Nottingham, Resnick is a most appealing fellow, with his passion for jazz and his four cats named for various jazz greats. Harvey had ostensibly closed out that acclaimed series with Last Rites (1998), but Charlie had a welcome return engagement in 2008’s outstanding Cold in Hand. Meanwhile, Harvey had created a new protagonist, Frank Elder, a retired detective living in Cornwall. Finally, in Gone to Ground (2007), we were introduced to Detective Inspector Will Grayson and Detective Sergeant Helen Walker of Cambridge. Far Cry is the second outing for this pair. (Having trouble keeping track? You’re not the only one. Thanks goodness for Stop! You’re Killing Me, and Harvey’s own website.)

Londoners Ruth and Simon Pierce are devastated by the murder of their teenage daughter Heather. The tragedy destroys their marriage. Ruth, desperate to start over, moves to Cambridge and gets married again, to the solid, dependable Andrew Lawson. Together they have a daughter, Beatrice. A passionate book lover, Ruth is also studying for a degree in library management. On the surface, her life looks good – very good. But the grief is still there. In point of fact, Ruth is haunted – and in more ways than one.

I found Ruth a very appealing, utterly believable character. (And she has excellent literary taste: one of her favorite authors is Rose Tremain.) The same is true for Will Grayson. He is that rara avis in crime fiction: a happily married family man deeply in love with his wife Lorraine. Monogamy suits Will; it brings out the shine in him.

I enjoyed Far Cry, as I’ve enjoyed John Harvey’s other novels.  Although this one ran a bit too long, I recommend it nonetheless. Here’s how Marilyn Stasio begins her review for The New York Times:

A bleeding-heart sensibility isn’t the first thing you expect from a thriller. Unless, of course, the author happens to be John Harvey, whose boundless empathy imparts a grave and tender tone to his bleak crime novels.

Exactly.

One final observation: there’s a bit of misdirection toward the novel’s climax that really threw me off the scent – very cunning!

———————–

Other favorite novels by John Harvey:

I particularly enjoyed this standalone about crime in the art world.

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In a recent post on thrillers, I praised The Silver Bear by Derek Haas. I’d like to take this opportunity to enlarge on those comments.

In this novel, Haas has created a truly fascinating character, a killer for hire whose inner conflicts and propensity for deep thinking make him an intriguing protagonist. He is known only by his adopted name, Columbus.

Columbus has become a contract killer almost by accident. To begin with, he is given the  chance to put to death an individual by whom he has been extremely ill used.  Events are arranged so that the crime goes unsolved. From there, he proceeds to murder for hire. In other words: first, it’s murder for intensely personal reasons; then, it’s murder for money. And of course, once you’re in, you’re in.

Columbus makes some shrewd observations about his almost inadvertently chosen occupation:

To hunt a human being, it is not enough to plot from afar, externally. An assassin must understand his prey by storming the target’s mind the way an army storms enemy territory. He must live, sleep, eat, breathe as the target does, until he has merged with the target, until they are one. To kill a man, he must become the man, so that he can live as himself beyond the man.

Then there’s this:

How does an assassin bring down a good man? He summons up his own iniquity; he measures himself against the man and feeds on the distance he falls short. And where would that road lead, when there was no connection to sever?

Finally, he asks himself this question: “What price would I pay for focusing my hate on myself?” This puts me in mind of Graham Greene’s explanation of why he became a Catholic: “I had to find a religion…to measure my evil against.” In a sense, by choosing the religion of killing and death, Columbus has done the same. Graham Greene’s situation contained within itself the potential for absolution; such is not the case for Columbus.

I could not help comparing Derek Haas’s portrayal of a hit man with that of Lawrence Block in the Keller stories. In Hit Parade, Block went for the subversive and irreverent; the stories  were at times quite humorous. But in Hit and Run, the tone becomes more somber. Keller is faced with an agonizing dilemma, one which Columbus also faces in The Silver Bear; namely, can I have love in my life and still be who – and what – I am?

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I read Robert Goddard’s first book, Past Caring, when it came out in 1986. What I chiefly remember about it was the wonderful writing, the exotic atmosphere, and the intriguing plot. Two years later came In Pale Battalions. This is both  a love story and a tale of suspense; it begins during the First World War. I recall being enraptured by this novel and have long intended to re-read it. This review has reawakened that resolve.

I’ve been returning to Goddard’s elegant thrillers off and on for over twenty years. Just recently I read Long Time Coming. This is a story that moves back and forth in time, primarily from 1976 to 1940. Having ditched both a career and a fiancee in Houston, Texas, Stephen Swan has returned home to live with his widowed mother while he decides what  to do next. To his surprise, he learns that an uncle he had thought was long dead is not only alive but is currently living in his mother’s house. Eldritch Swan, now in his late sixties and wheezing with smoker’s cough, also needs to figure out his next move.  But unlike Stephen, Eldritch is nearly destitute. Why? He has just been released from an Irish prison, where he spent the last 36 years. Eldritch has a score to settle and reparations to claim. And before he knows what’s happening, Stephen gets drawn in to his uncle’s schemes – and into his past as well. That past involves a shady diamond merchant and stolen (and possibly forged) paintings by Picasso. And this is just the beginning.

Long Time Coming is a fiendishly complex novel full of unexpected twists and turns. Clocking in at over 400 pages, it ran a bit long. The time shifts could be confusing. But overall I enjoyed it, as I have every novel I’ve read by this fine writer.

Here’s Part One of an interview with Robert Goddard by Barbara Peters of the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Click here for the second and third parts of the interview.

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I’ve always meant to seek out the source of the title In Pale Battalions. It comes from a poem entitled, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead:”

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all this for evermore.

The author, Charles Hamilton Sorley, was killed in World War One. This poem was found among his belongings after his death.

4 Comments

  1. kathy d. said,

    I read “Cold in Hand,” by John Harvey. Will try “Far Cry,” based on your recommendation, but the TBR pile and my to-be-bought pile are huge, but it will find a place soon.

    Have you tried “Death wore white,” by Jim Kelly? It’s very good. I plan to read the new one in that series, “Death Watch,” reviewed at Eurocrime a few weeks ago.

    So much to read, so little time is my motto.

  2. kathy d. said,

    Also will try to find Maitland’s “Babel.” Sounds fascinating. I’d like to read others by him but am swamped with book ideas and library reservations.

  3. Lorraine Slattery said,

    Your blog is absolutely fascinating! Accidentally came across it looking up Charles Ephrussi from The Hare with Amber Eyes. I thought there were only political blogs which I don’t read. I also thought your name was Robert Arood! Your reviews, interests and photos are top notch. You even recommend stop you’re killing me website! I’m also an Anglophile (without the Royals) and a Francophile. Can’t count the number of books I have of each. I check your blog daily, and am trying to plan a schedule of visiting your previous entries. There’s so much to read and experience.
    Thanks,
    Lorraine

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Lorraine,
      I deeply appreciate your gracious comments and welcome you to Books to the Ceiling. It’s a labor of love – emphasis on the labor! – so all compliments are gratefully received.

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