The mysteries of 2015; top choices, contemporary, Part Four: the best of the rest, in no particular order
I was especially pleased that Tom Nolan, the Wall Street Journal’s crime fiction reviewer, chose this as one of the ten best mysteries of 2015. You can access the full list of his choices here.
I’m mad for this series – devour them as they come out, knowing each book will be better than the last.
I have not yet read Dark Corners, the final work from Ruth Rendell. I look forward to doing so. I shall always think of her as one of the greatest writers of both psychological suspense and police procedurals. Thank goodness she was so prolific; I’ll never run out. When I’m done reading, I can start rereading.
I wrote about this title in Crime fiction: three good ones. The next Bill Slider title, One Under, is due out in February. I await it eagerly; these books always provide deeply satisfying entertainment.
Fast-moving international international intrigue from a master of the genre. First book in The Wide World Trilogy. I wrote about this title (and others) in She Is Too Fond of Books.
I’m pretty sure I’ve left some out, but as they say, it is what it is. Enjoy!
How do I love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels; let me count the ways…
1. Breezy, snappy dialogue
2. Brisk pacing
3. Fascinating glimpses of the California hinterland
[At one point in the investigation, Kinsey finds herself driving through the Los Padres National Forest:
To speak of the national “forest” doesn’t nearly convey the reality of the land, which is mountainous and barren, with no trees at all in this portion of the interior.
On either side of the road, I could see wrinkled stretches of uninhabitable hills where the chaparral formed a low, shaggy carpet of dry brown. Spring mightt be whispering along thee contours, but without water there was very little green. Pockets of wildflowers appeared here and there, but the dominant color palette was muted gray, dull pewter, and dusty beige.
She reflects ruefully “I missed the reassuring fft-fft-fft of water cannons firing tracers out over newly sown fields.” (As I read this, I could see and hear the irrigation system at work – in better days. Ah, California, where nothing ever happens by half measures.)]
4. Kinsey’s cheerfully unreconstructed dining preferences
[Here she is contemplating a meal at an eatery called Sneaky Pete’s:
What loomed large in my mind’s eye was the image of the specialty of the house: sandwich made with spicy salami and melted pepper jack cheese, topped with a fried egg, the whole of it served on a Kaiser roll that dripped with butter as you ate.
Later, she mentions Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies “on which my mental health is so often dependent.” (I felt the same way about that delicious confection, in my pre-diabetes days…sigh…)]
5. The depiction of Kinsey the professional; i.e. how she handles the intellectual and strategic challenges that come her way as the sole proprietor of Millhone Investigations
5. Kinsey’s 89-year-old fit-as-a-fiddle landlord Henry Pitts. In X, Henry’s trying to figure out how to reduce his water usage in advance of mandatory rationing. Possibly he goes a bit overboard…
6. The voice of Kinsey herself. I don’t know of another author who makes better use of first person narration. I feel as though I’m being regaled by a world class raconteur!
6. A certain lightheartedness that expresses itself through irreverence and humor
[Here, Kinsey is making an observation re an opulent hotel room in which she unexpectedly finds herself:
This was a far cry from my usual accommodations, which might best be described as the sort of place where protective footwear is advisable when crossing the room.
Due to the impromptu nature of this overnight stay, Kinsey has to wash out her underwear in the bathroom sink. Her comment on this prosaic necessity: “I can just about promise you Philip Marlowe was never as dainty as I.”]
7. An underlying steadiness and seriousness of purpose – in order to see justice served, the job must be done, and done right
This is the first Kinsey Millhone novel I’ve read in quite some time. When I picked it up a few weeks ago, I was in need of a book that would take me completely out of myself. X was just the ticket.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d become somewhat dismissive about this series. Oh well, another letter of the alphabet, do I actually care… Well, shame on me! Sue Grafton is a master craftsman at the top of her game. X was terrific – read it.
First, the music:
Then, the gift of great art:
Images of love, with the profoundest gratitude:
And finally, the closing scene of A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim ‘s somewhat over-the-top portrayal of Scrooge, but in a great cause, in a film that channels Victorian London in a way that’s almost uncanny. The message could not be more profound: Redemption is always possible, but it’s best not to wait too long. Scrooge almost did. He was lucky.
I’m deeply fortunate to be blessed with so many loving friends and such a marvelous family. I wish all of you the Merriest Christmas possible!
It’s been a while since I read Martin Walker’s The Children Return, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. As with Until Thy Wrath Be Past as well as several titles from Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this narrative. In addition, we get caught up on Bruno Courrege’s ever-changing love life as well as updates on the progress of Balzac, his basset hound puppy who’s a truffle dog in training.
But most of all, you get a rich helping of life in (fictional) St Denis, in the (real – very real!) Perigord region of southwestern France: its people, cuisine, wine making traditions, and beautiful unspoiled surroundings. In this passage, Bruno brings Nancy, his new American friend, to a ‘fete des vendanges,’ or grape harvest festival:
He felt the strange sensation stealing over him of time slipping, of the modern France of high-speed trains and computers giving way to a scene that was medieval or perhaps even older. The setting of stone and fire and meat roasting over open flames could have taken place in this valley in the days when men carried swords and wore chain mail and kept guard against English raiders, or millennia ago when they wore furs and painted prehistoric beasts on the walls of caves.
Every time I read a title in this series, I start googling tours of the Dordogne region. Martin Walker has a place there, where he spends part of every year – lucky, lucky man.
The next entry in the series, The Patriarch (published in the UK as The Dying Season), is already ensconced on my night table.
I’ll begin with Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson. Wrath was the final selection discussed by the Usual Suspects in this, our international year. Having done plenty of substantive research, my friend Marge led a stimulating discussion of this complex, haunting work. Wrath was voted the “best read” of the year by the Suspects.
When an attractive young couple goes missing, the hunt is on. Although the whereabouts of Simon Kyro and Wilma Persson is a mystery, it’s suspected that they are drowning victims. When the body of Wilma is discovered, the investigation is kicked into high gear. Strangely, we have already encountered Wilma in another dimension, as it were (or, as I like to think, Rod Serling of blessed memory would have phrased it).
Key roles in this story are played by members of the Krekula family: parents Isak and Kerttu and their sons Hjalmar and Tore. Kerttu and Isak in particular are fighting to hold on to secrets that date back to the years of World War Two. Should the truth of their activities at that time come to light, they would at the very least be vilified, possibly even prosecuted.
The lead characters on the side of law enforcement are Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, and Detective Anna-Maria Mella. Both are complex and interesting women. At one point, Anna-Maria travels alone to the Krekula house in the hopes of gathering some useful information. Instead, Tore and Hjalmar play several dirty tricks on her, one involving the safety of her daughter. This astonishing scenario is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a police procedural. Those Krekulas, brutal and fearless and utterly repugnant, are a piece of work!
I did have a few issues with this novel. For one thing, the narrative is punctuated by flashbacks that on occasion I found confusing. Also I became impatient with the lengthy passages in italics. The book may have been longer than it needed to be. But these are minor cavils.
I especially liked the way in which Asa Larsson evokes the atmosphere of rural Sweden – particularly of Kiruna, the country’s northernmost town:
This region, one of Western Europe’s last wildernesses, represents for Swedes what Glenn Gould, in a Canadian context, called “The Idea of North.” Though Kiruna itself is a modern town, with an economy based on iron-ore mining and tourism, its population is small—22,972 in the 2012 census—and the mountains and forests, bordering on Norway to the West and North and Finland to the East, are sparsely populated. In Steven Peacock’s words, north of Kiruna, “there is only roadless, uninhabited land. To the East, boreal forests stretch for hundreds of miles into Finland and Russia” (125). In Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Larsson fully exploits not only the isolation and harsh winters of this region, but its liminality, in a literal and metaphoric sense.
….animals in the novel—reindeer, elk, fox, and above all bear, dogs, and ravens—are important to atmosphere, plot, character development, and symbolism and interact with the human characters.
(The above passage is from an article entitled “Till My Change Come: Nature, Justice, and Redemption in Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past.” It appears in a journal called Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. This is an excellent source that you might like to check out; it has other articles on Scandinavian crime fiction. They appear to be erudite yet at the same time quite readable.)
Asa Larsson’s writing is wonderful (and so, by implication is the translation, done by Laurie Thompson.) In the midst of all the turmoil, the tenderer human feelings are not ignored. Here she recounts an exchange between Rebecka and Krister Eriksson, a grievously injured man with a heart of gold:
“Hi,” he says before she has a chance to say anything.
It is such a tender-sounding “hi.” It sounds happy over the fact that she has called him, and ever so intimate. It sounds like a “hi” the second before a man slides his hand under his lover’s hair and around the back of her head.
Are they falling in love? Could be. Krister is the police department’s canine handler; through him, we get to know some noble, courageous, and lovable dogs.
Until The Wrath Be Past, which came out here in 2011, is the fourth novel featuring Rebecka Martinsson. The Second Deadly Sin, the fifth and final novel in the series, came out last year.
Highly, highly recommended.
One of the raps against Golden Age mysteries is that being all about clever plotting and puzzle solving, they lack psychological depth and subtle characterization. I’ve been reading quite a bit in this area this year, largely due to the appearance of British Library Crime Classics on the publishing scene. In my view, there’s some truth to this allegation, yet some of my recent reading serves to dispute that assumption.
In Before the Fact by Francis Iles, a woman named Lina Mclaidlaw enters into marriage with Johnnie Aysgarth, a feckless charmer who may turn out to be a murderer. Iles throws plenty of curves at the reader before the arrival of the novel’s climax. As with many basic plot devices, this one doesn’t seem at first to be startlingly original, yet in the hands of a skilled writer like Iles, it becomes very compelling. An Amazon reviewer commented that Iles’s description of Johnnie’s clever wooing of Lina “ startled me with its psychological accuracy.” I agree.
Johnnie could always make her laugh. That, Lina knew, is the greatest bond of all between two people, to be ready to laugh at the same things. And they did laugh, enormously. Lina told Johnnie that he had laughed his way through their honeymoon from beginning to end; as indeed he did, and sometimes in the wrong places.
“Francis Iles” was a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox, a major figure in the pantheon of Golden Age crime writers. Before the Fact served as a the basis for the 1941 Hitchcock film Suspicion. The novel is currently available as a $.3.99 Kindle download on Amazon.
I was intrigued by what crime fiction scholar and novelist Martin Edwards wrote on his blog about Henry Wade:
‘Henry Wade’ was the name under which Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher wrote varied, thoughtful and entertaining crime fiction for thirty years. His career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1950s, when psychological suspense was coming to the fore. He played an important part in the development of the genre, especially but not only in the credible portrayal of the business of detection, and the ordinary people whose lives are changed by crime. I am really not sure why his gifts have long been under-estimated by commentators, who are apt to bracket him with the so-called ‘humdrum’ writers such as John Rhode.
Aubrey-Fletcher had a distinguished military career during the First World War, and several of the Henry Wade novels reflect his understanding of the impact that conflict had on those who lived through it. The Dying Alderman (1930) is a capable whodunit with neat use of a ‘dying message’ clue, but Mist on the Saltings (1933) is even more effective; a study in character that was ahead of its time. The novel also benefited from an evocative setting on the East Anglian coast. Released for Death (1938) presents a sympathetic picture of a criminal exploited after leaving jail by a career villain.
In the opening passages of Mist on the Saltings, as he is introducing the reader to the character of John Pansel, a painter, Wade/Aubrey-Fletcher alludes angrily to the War and its consequences for the young men who were caught up in it:
The ball had been at John Pansel’s feet, fame beckoned to him with golden finger, the glory and wonder of his art and his opportunity dazzled him–and a group of young firebrands in Sarajevo threw a bomb which shattered the whole firmament of creation into a million fragments and turned all the thoughts and efforts of men for years to destruction, destruction, destruction…
Such bitterness has the acrid tang of first hand experience.
Like so many others, John Pansel emerges from this Hell on Earth wounded in both body and spirit. Eventually he and his wife Hilary take a cottage at Bryde-by-theSea, a small Norfolk village. John hopes to recover his strength, and to be able to make art again; Hilary aspires only to be his help-meet and smooth his way.
The characters in this novel manage to be at the same time ordinary an fascinating. In addition, Wade effectively evokes the subtle feel of their dwelling place:
Bryde-by-the-Sea, though nominally a harbour, lies nearly a mile back from the ocean which surges invisibly against the line of low sand dunes limiting the northern horizon. In between lies a wide expanse of weed-grown mud, intersected by a maze of channels which at high tide are full to the brim of salt water and at low are mere trenches of black and treacherous ooze. These then are the Saltings; the home of a hundred varieties of sea-birds, of countless sea plants, of insects, reptiles, fishes, animals–according to the state of the tides and the time of year; at one time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with samphire, at another brown with the sea-churned mud, and sometimes–at the highest of the ‘springs’–completely submerged under the smooth, swirling waters of the flowing tide.
The author concludes this vivid evocation with this observation:
Dreary and desolate though they are, the Saltings have for those who love them a fascination which no written word can describe, a beauty which defies the most skilful brush.
I found this to be a powerful novel, beautifully written. (My paperback copy is replete with Post-it flags.) According to Martin Edwards, Lonely Magdalen by this author is even better. I own it and hope to read it soon, although it clocks in at 350 pages of rather small print. Like Mist on the Saltings, it’s not currently in print, nor is it available as an e-book. I obtained used paperback copies from Amazon.
For reasons which I can’t quite pin down, I’ve not heretofore been a fan of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels. Campion always struck me as a low rent Lord Peter Wimsey; that goes double for his “man,” Magersfontein Lugg (no comparison with the stately Bunter, I mean). But this year I read Police at the Funeral and loved it. It’s the story of a very strange family in a heap of trouble. Some the family members are actually rather appealing on a personal level; others, not so much.
At any rate, Campion has a good friend whose fiancee lives in the home with these folks, and he comes to Albert entreating him to help. And Albert agrees to do so, getting himself involved clear up to his eyebrows and beyond.
I was delighted with Police at the Funeral from beginning to end. The writing was characterized by the same wit and elegance that we usually associate with Golden Age works:
The room they entered was a typical Cambridge study, aesthetically impeccable, austere, and, save for the two deep arm-chairs before the fire, slightly uncomfortable. As they entered, a wire-haired fox terrier of irreproachable breeding, rose from the hearth-rug and came to meet them with leisurely dignity. Marcus effected an introduction hastily. ‘Foon,’ he said. ‘Written “Featherstonehaugh”.’
Somewhat to his host’s embarrassment Mr Campion shook hands with the dog, who seemed to appreciate the courtesy, for he followed them back to the hearth-rug, waiting for them to be seated before he took up his position on the rug again, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings with the same air of conscious breeding which characterized his master.
There will be more works by Margery Allingham in my reading future. I chose this particular title, by the way, because of its appearance on a list of Suggested Reading generated by The Golden Age of Detective Fiction Conference that took place under the auspices of the British Library this past June. (Additional suggestions from my mystery-loving friends would be most welcome.)
Felony & Mayhem Press have done a great job of bringing the Campion books back into print.
The last two titles I want to cite here are part of the much-praised British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. First, J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story.
A train gets stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach a railway station on foot.
With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.
To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?
It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.
Mystery in White was a surprise hit in the UK last year. It’s a real treasure – and a great Christmas gift for the mystery lover on your list.
A fair number of the British Library Crime Classics are short story anthologies. These give the reader a chance to sample the works of a number of distinguished writers of the crime fiction of the past. Thus far I’ve read two of these collections all the way through: Resorting To Murder and Capital Crimes.
Skillfully curated and annotated by Martin Edwards, both were very enjoyable. The latter seemed somewhat meatier to me; it’s my next selection for discussion with the Usual Suspects when my turns comes around again (July 2016). Most (not all) of the authors included in Capital Crimes were not known to me, or barely known: John Oxenham, Richard Marsh, Ernest Bramah, Edgar Wallace, Thomas Burke.
There are seventeen stories in all; Margery Allingham makes an appearance, as does the aforementioned Henry Wade. Just looking through the book again makes me realize I’m going to have to reread it in order to refresh my memory. Such a pleasing task. Well – pleasing in general, the exception being the first story in the collection. This is one of the most genuinely shocking tales I’ve come across in a long time; it’s at least as much a horror story as it is a crime story. For me, this was especially true, given the identity of the author. Hint: it is not a Sherlock Holmes tale.
I had exceptionally good reading in mysteries this year. I didn’t realize just how good until I started looking back and putting this post together. The following, in varying degree, were good, solid reads, with much to recommend them:
Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland
The Company She Kept by Archer Mayor
[I reviewed both of the above titles in a recent post.]
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin* [reviewed in The Golden Age of Looking Back]
Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series.
Hush Hush by Laura Lippman
The Butchers of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield*
The Youth Hostel Murders* by Glyn Carr
The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald [reviewed briefly, along with other mysteries, in a post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve Loved (or at least liked) this year]. I am an ardent fan of Ross MacDonald. This is an early entry in the Lew Archer series and not quite the equal of the stellar later novels. But there’s a revelation at the very end that really stunned me. Possibly I should have anticipated it, but I didn’t. Part of the genius of this author.
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another entry in the pantheon of British Crime Classics. I expected to like this book more than I did. It got off to a terrific start, but then about half way through began to drag, partly I think because it was encumbered by an overly complex plot device. Still, I enjoyed the ingenuity and the richness of the period details.
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. I commented on this title in two posts: Some thoughts on historical fiction and Crime fiction: three good ones. The post on historical fiction also features reviews of A Plague of Angels by P.F. Chisholm and The Hidden Man by Robin Blake.
A Plague of Angels features series protagonist Sir Robert Carey. Carey is equal parts fearless and feckless and is often a trial to his Sergeant-at-arms Henry Dodd. Keeping Carey out of harm’s way is Dodd’s remit, and it’s a full time occupation. The exploits of these two are very entertaining. Chisholm – pen name for Patricia Finney – is a marvelous writer who has deeply researched the Elizabethan era in which she sets this series. Her plots are much enlivened by the intermittent presence of Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, who flit in and out of the narrative like colorful exotic birds.
Chisholm’s main inspiration for this series was a volume of history entitled The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, written in 1971 by George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels. Here’s a quote from that book:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history. Any number of factors, including geography, race movement, and the Romans decided where the line should be, and once it was there, on the map, on the countryside, and in men’s minds, the stage was set. Possibly English on one side and Scots on the other could have lived peaceably as national neighbours—indeed, for long periods they did; but it was not in the nature of either of the beasts to stay quiet for long. No doubt they ought to have done; successive English kings thought so, and did their utmost, by fair means and foul, to bring about the amity and unity which eventually prevailed At least, unity prevailed; amity is a more questionable commodity, especially north of the Border, even today.
(That agglomeration of adjectives at the beginning of the paragraph delights me!)
The Hidden Man is the third entry in Robin Blake’s series featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his colleague and friend Luke Fidelis, a physician. These novels are situated in a precise time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740s. Blake is yet another author who knows his historical venue intimately but who never lets that knowledge crowd out a good story.
I tend to get very invested in the personal lives of the protagonists in my favorite series. In the post Some thoughts on historical fiction, I wrote the following:
….having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
False Tongues by Kate Charles. In 2011, we had the pleasure of meeting Ms Charles in Ludlow, in the Welsh border country. Her novel Appointed to Die had been on our reading list, and I had enjoyed it immensely. False Tongues is part of a different series, one that features Callie Anson, a recently ordained Anglican cleric. With her hesitancy and her soft heart, Callie is one of the most genuine – and genuinely appealing – protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time. (There’s more on this title in the above mentioned post, Crime fiction: three good ones.) This nugget of biography appears on Kate Charles’s site:
Kate Charles, who was described by the Oxford Times as “a most English writer”, is in fact an expatriate American, though an unashamedly Anglophilic one. She has a special interest and expertise in clerical mysteries, and lectures on crime novels with church backgrounds. After more than twenty years in Bedford, Kate and her husband now live on the English side of the Welsh Marches with their Border Terrier, Rosie.
I can’t help reflecting, albeit with some envy, that for years I’ve had a fantasy of living this life – and here is someone who has gone ahead and done it.
Falling in Love won’t go down as my favorite Guido Brunetti novel, but in the main, Donna Leon never disappoints. I also enjoyed rereading The Girl of His Dreams for the AAUW Readers. Usually if I’m the facilitator, I’m too worried about keeping track of things – and keeping things on track – to actually relax and enjoy the discussion. But this one was the exception.
Jo Bannister’s crime fiction is meticulously plotted and peopled with interesting, believable characters. I’m particularly liking her new Hazel Best series. The first in the series is Deadly Virtues; Perfect Sins is the second. Hazel, who’s just learning the ropes as a constable, is a very appealing protagonist. She has befriended Gabriel Ash, a man driven half mad by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In her turn, Hazel gets unflagging support from her father; their relationship makes these novels shine. (The third in the series, Desperate Measures, has just come out.)
I gather that Keigo Higashino’s Inspector Galileo series is gaining traction world wide. Based on my reading of The Devotion of Suspect X*, this acclaim is deserved. I didn’t think I’d like this novel of contemporary Japan, but I did, quite a bit. It provided an interesting window on a place not well known or understood by me. I always find that with books like this, the particulars (of the culture) and the universal emerge, and merge, in surprising and distinctive ways. And this book had one of the more powerful endings I’ve encountered in crime fiction in quite some time.
*indicates a book read for a Usual Suspects discussion
There’s more to come on the mystery front – stay tuned….
For this, our year of (mostly) international reading, these are the titles we selected:
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (primarily Egypt)
A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana (Barcelona)
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Tokyo)
The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield (Australia)
The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr (Cumbria, England)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Southern Italy)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (France)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Istanbul)
A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani (Israel)
Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden)
(I did not read the Solana title, being immersed at the time in work on the true crime course.)
Each year we vote on our favorite discussion book. This year’s winner was Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Nothing surprising about that choice: this was a terrific read that elicited a very enjoyable discussion (ably facilitated by Marge). Tied for second place were The Devotion of Suspect X and The Bachelors of Broken Hill. (For me personally, first place was a tie between Until Thy Wrath Be Past and A Possibility of Violence; for second place, also a tie, I’d vote with the group.)
As usual, Pauline prepared helpful handouts for us. These included a grid displaying information about each of the year’s selections (awards received and any other relevant facts) and a list of general questions for discussion. Some of these questions elicited an exceptionally spirited response; others, not so much.
1. Has the decision to read international mysteries been worthwhile? This was answered in the affirmative, albeit to a different degree by each person present.
2. Do you think you’d be interested in participating in another themed year at some time in the future? This question was followed by a list of suggestions that was sufficiently varied and provocative that we agreed, albeit cautiously, that another “theme” year might be worth trying.
Here are those suggestions:
i. books that won an award– Edgar, Dagger, many others (I believe we agreed that award winners, arbitrary and even capricious as they can be, would be a poor basis for choosing a title. In addition, Carol pointed out that on occasion, these awards can and do devolve into popularity contests, in which the perky and ingratiating winner gets to bound up to the podium at a mystery convention and proceed to be irresistible for the benefit of fans and colleagues.)
ii. books by an author who is new to you,
iii. books made into a movie,
iv. books recommended by a friend,
v. first books in a series,
vi. books from a “best mysteries” list,
vii. books by a long-time favorite author,
viii. books that are a specific type of mystery, e.g. historical, police procedural, amateur detective, espionage, others,
ix. books with a specific setting, e.g. Africa, China, Maryland/Virginia/DC, New York City, etc.,
x. books written or published during a certain time period, e.g., Golden Age (c. 1920-1940), or a particular decade such as the 1950’s or 1980’s. (Carol’s question). Ann mentioned three series protagonists who were young women making their way in the aftermath of the First World War: Bess Crawford (written by Charles Todd), Maisie Dobbs (written by Jacqueline Winspear), and Kate Shackleton (written by Frances Brody). All, I believe, are well regarded.
3. There haven’t been any nonfiction books this year. Have you missed reading nonfiction? Of course, Yours Truly waved her hand wildly and said yes loudly. Others did not exactly chime in! But to be fair, Midnight in Peking – an Edgar winner, BTW – and The Poisoner’s Handbook both came in for favorable mention. I brought up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In that work, author Kate Summerscale, structured an entire society around a single – and singularly heinous – crime. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were both intrigued by the mystery. Elements of it appear in Lady Audley’s Secret, which I read as a result of encountering it in this book and enjoyed immensely.
4. We have read mysteries set in Cumbria and London in England, England/Egypt in Death on the Nile, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, Australia, Italy, France, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Israel, and Sweden— on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia. Is there a country or continent we should try to read about in the future? Or doesn’t it matter? I think we agreed that it didn’t much matter.
5. Which authors would you read again? Asa Larsson and D.A. Mishani were mentioned with special enthusiasm.
6. Did any of the protagonists stand out as being particularly memorable? Which ones did you like? Dislike? Were there any differences in the range of protagonists this year? Anyone really unusual? D.A. Mishani’s Avraham Avraham and Arthur Upfield’s “Bony” Bonaparte were mentioned in this context.
7. The breakdown of periods for our ten 2015 books is: Historic: 5—1836, 1937, 1940s, and 2 Mid-20th century, Contemporary: 5. We had a 50% division between historic and contemporary. Would you have preferred to read more (or less) about any particular era? I didn’t get a chance to bring this up, but it seems to me that a fair number of crime fiction novels are currently being set in the nineteenth century. Several have received excellent reviews, among them The Fatal Flame by Lindsay Faye, Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell (I very much enjoyed the predecessor of this title, Murder as a Fine Art.), Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch, and Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl.
8. Regarding the international titles we read this year, how important was the work of the translator? Did any titles stand out as being particularly good or particularly inadequate translations? Or is it possible to tell if you don’t know the original language? (Roberta’s question) I believe it was Pauline who observed that when a translation is well done, it does not draw attention to itself, whereas the opposite is true of a poor translation.
9. This year there have only been 3 female writers out of 10. Should we try harder to diversify, or doesn’t it matter? We agreed that it just turned out that way, and moved on.
10. When we read a book that was not the first one in a series did it affect our understanding or enjoyment of the story? These books are Death on the Nile, The Bachelors of Broken Hill, The Youth Hostel Murders, Temporary Perfections, A Possibility of Violence, Until Thy Wrath Be Past. We agreed that for books that were part of a continuing series, the author almost always fills in the new reader with facts he or she needs to know. This is usually done in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Jumping in in the middle of a series is not ordinarily a bar to enjoyment of the novel.
11. Please comment on any of the writing styles of the various authors that you wish to. (Frank’s question) I think we felt that we’d already addressed this subject when we talked about translations.
For this meeting, we were each asked to bring one or two books to recommend to the group. Here’s how that portion of the afternoon went. (Thanks to Pauline for this list.):
Mike: A Necessary End by Peter Robinson. Series with DCI Alan Banks. Marge and I couldn’t help thinking how long it had been since we first read this book, the third in a by now venerable series. Mike made us want to read it again – at least, that’s how I felt.
1. Blood Royal by Eric Jager. Murder in medieval France. nonfiction. Also recommended by same author:The Last Duel, nonfiction, medieval France. The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse: an Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell, nonfiction.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, nonfiction. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridasan, Icelandic mystery, 1st in series. There’s a film based on the book, but it may be hard to find.
Philip Kerr’s 30s mystery series. The 1st 3 are a trilogy called Berlin Noir with detective Bernie Gunther fighting crime and trying to stay away from the Nazi power structure. Very gritty and good. Latest in series is The Lady from Zagreb.
Somehow, I don’t feel as though this write-up conveys the liveliness and conviviality of this discussion. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Thanks to Pauline for facilitating these proceedings.
Next year is already shaping up nicely. This January we’re reading Beast in View, Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award winner (1952). Some years ago I read An Air That Kills by this author and very much enjoyed it. Millar was married to Ross MacDonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar.
Just when you start feeling desperate for intellectual stimulation, along comes a session like this, to serve as a reminder that the life of the mind is still, in some circles at least, of vital importance. Oh and by the way, there’s nothing stodgy about these gatherings – we had our share of laughter. My fellow Suspects are witty as well as brainy; it’s a great pleasure to spend time with them.
I’m a big fan of Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla mysteries. They’re set in London and are characterized by a nice feel for the great metropolis. Maitland currently lives in Australia, the setting for his newly begun Harry Belltree series. I usually feel somewhat frustrated when an author abandons a series I enjoy in order to start a new one. However, Crucifixion Creek has gotten very good reviews, and I do admire Barry Maitland’s writing, so I thought I’d give this one a try.
For starters, I’d call this novel a thriller rather than a mystery. The action is pretty nonstop – so nonstop that at times, I had trouble deciphering the plot. A biker gang figures prominently. They’re called the Crows; hence this cover: The writing is excellent, as I knew it would be. But I was hoping for more of an Australian ambiance.
Harry Belltree is an interesting detective, one who is not afraid to bend the rules to suit his own purposes. Oh, and here’s a strange thing: He’s the second fictional policeman I’ve encountered in recent years whose wife was blinded in an accident. The first is Reginald Webster, a member of George Hennessey’s team in the Peter Turnbull series.
When I finished Crucifixion Creek, I had a feeling somewhat like you get when you’ve eaten an entire bag of potato chips (not that I’ve done that lately, more’s the pity): overstuffed but undernourished. I hope we haven’t seen the last of David Brock and Kathy Kolla.
Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series is one that I turn to when I’m in the mood for good, solid crime fiction. Not only are the plots interesting, if somewhat convoluted at times, but the characters are three dimensional people that you care about – that even includes, at times, the “bad guys.” Mayor has created an ensemble cast for the (fictional) Vermont Bureau of Investigation that’s the last word in realism. It includes not only Gunther himself, the consummate law enforcement professional, but also the irascible misanthrope Willy Kunkle. Willy has surprised everyone by falling in love with fellow officer Samantha “Sammy” Martens. They are now married and have an infant daughter. She’s naturally the apple of Willy’s eye. He’s softened a bit as a result – but not too much.
In this series, Vermont is a state of mind as well as a place with its own unique character. Like his creator, Joe Gunther could come from nowhere else:
His rural heritage– truly springing from the soil of this unusual, hard-working little state–had given him not jut an identity, but a sense of moral sturdiness that had served him well through the decades.
Archer Mayor’s intimate knowledge of law enforcement in Vermont is no accident. The jacket copy informs us that he’s “…a detective for the Windham County sheriff’s department, a death investigator, and the state medical examiner, and he has twenty-five years of experience as a firefighter/EMT.”
The Company She Kept is the twenty-sixth novel in this series. Like its predecessors, it was a pleasure to read.
Not really, but that opener was simply my effort to convey the bleakness that suffuses this brief heart breaker of a novel. A small boy has met with a death by drowning; that much is known from the outset. But was it an accident – or something else… Carmen Zita, the victim’s mother, is hard to read; she is alternately flighty, self-obsessed, and desperate. The father can barely speak; he is consumed by grief.
Once again, Inspector Sejer and his second in command Jacob Skarre are on the case. They are called upon to be both sensitive and probing, in their efforts to reach the truth of the matter. It will take some hard digging, combined with a maximum exercise of tact. Among the facts that had to be taken into account: little Tommy had Down Syndrome.
I enjoy spending time with Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre. Their conversations are invariably interesting, whether they’re discussing an investigation or something else. At one point, Sejer questions his fellow officer, a church goer, on the subject of his religious belief. He observes that the cruel death by drowning of a toddler makes it hard for him to believe in the benevolence of a Supreme Being:
“And according to your faith, everything has a meaning; isn’t that right? That’s what I’ve always struggled to understand”
“Yes, it’s not easy, I have to admit. And to be honest, I sometimes falter too. But doubt is an important part of faith; that’s all there is to it. And unlike you, I at least have somewhere to go with my complaints. Others flail around without focus, but I couldn’t take that. I need a wailing wall.”
(I very much empathize with that last bit.)
I am a committed reader of Karin Fossum’s crime fiction. Her insights into human nature are eloquently expressed and her plots are rarely too convoluted to comprehended. Her writing s beautiful, and kudos are merited for the translations, this one by Kari Dickson (from the Norwegian).