Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review of My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2009, Hodder)

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is a lawyer based in Reykjavik who has overseen the sale of an isolated property to a businessman who has turned the place into a new age hotel.  Only there is a problem -- the property is haunted and he wants compensation from the sellers.  Thóra is invited out to the hotel to investigate and whilst she is there the hotel’s architect, Birna, is found beaten to death with pins inserted into the bottom of her feet.  Rather than leave the death to the police, Thóra decides to investigate, stealing the dead woman’s notebook.  Soon she is advising the hotel owner, who has become the prime suspect.  It soon becomes apparent to her that the haunting and death are connected to the convoluted and tragic history of the family who owned the property.  However, uncovering that past and the killer is not straightforward for an amateur sleuth that the police do not trust.

My Soul to Take is the second book in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series set in Iceland.  It is effectively an amateur sleuth tale, with Thóra running her own investigation that parallels, and at times, undermines the police’s work.  The story is lively and engaging with a nice blend of various sub-plots concerning the contemporary investigation, the past concerning the hotel site and its former owners, and Thóra’s family.  Sigurðardóttir populates the story with a mix of characters that all have possible motives for murdering the hotel architect or lack a convincing alibi, and keeps many of them in the frame for a sizable chunk of the tale, slowly whittling down the list of suspects.  That said, it’s clear that it’s one of two people, and the reason why, from quite a long way out.  The Icelandic landscape also provides an atmospheric backdrop.  The pace is quite leisurely, with Sigurðardóttir spinning the tale out through a series of blinds, feints and tension points.  My main issue with the tale was the amateur sleuth angle - Thóra’s actions, especially with respect to evidence and the police, or why various suspects are prepared to talk to her, is not really clear.  Putting this issue of credibility to one side, the story is entertaining read.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Through a combination of illness, travel and work my reading has slowed quite a bit in January.  I'm presently making my way through Max Hastings history of the Korean war.  Not the cheeriest of reads as ignorance, diplomatic and strategic mistakes pile on top of each other with deadly consequences, especially for the civilian population.  A war that seems to have set the pattern for every Anglo-American military intervention into other countries subsequently. 

My posts this week:
Dead ends
Review of A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dead ends

‘I love you,’ Eddie slurred.  ‘I swear, honey.  I mean it.’

‘She hates me, Eddie,’ Charlene mumbled back.  ‘My own daughter.  She hates me for being with you.  She hates me for being me.’

‘Ah, come-on, love.  She’s just jealous.  Of us.’

‘She wants to go and live with her granddad.  She said she’ll go to the social.’

‘Ah, god.  Look, I’ll have a word with her.  Try and talk her round.’

‘No, no, no.  Leave her alone.  She hates you, Eddie.  She hates us both.  She hates the drink and drugs and ciggies.’

‘Like any of us have choices.’ 




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014; 2002 in Italian)


Rome in 1944 and the Allies are on the verge of starting their offensive to move up the leg of Italy.  Martin Bora is a major in Wehrmacht and an aide to General Westphal.  As well as undertaking his normal army duties, Bora is tasked with diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and investigating the murder of a German embassy secretary with the aid of Sandro Guidi, a local detective.  The job is made more difficult due to the interest of the local Gestapo and SS, and the desire of the local police chief to frame a political rival, and the actions of local partisans determined to disrupt operations and kill as many Germans as possible.  Bora has a doctorate in Catholic theology, is a battle hardened veteran of Poland and Russia, and is used to playing political games, but the byzantine tangle of lethal rivalries has even him floundering.  And whilst very different in nature, Bora and Guidi are driven by the desire to see justice administered before the city falls.

A Dark Song of Blood is the third book in the Martin Bora series translated into English.  My reviews of the first two can be found here and here.  As with the earlier books, the strength of the story is the character of Bora and the moral ambiguities of the tale.  Bora has aristocratic roots, is a committed military man who has served in Spain, Poland, Russia and Italy, and is strong willed, intelligent, principled and brave.  Although he knows he serves a corrupt regime he has a strong sense of duty and loyalty, but he’s no apologist for the German army.  He also abhors the Gestapo and SS and their work and methods, and hates the treatment of the Jews and will actively intervene on their behalf.  At the same time, he’s quite happy to see partisans executed, but not the ratio of reprisals.  The story unfolds over the first six months of 1944 and mostly focuses on Bora’s interactions with the local police, the Gestapo and SS, and the Church, with the murder investigation forming one thread amongst a number, being very slowly edged forward and at times almost disappearing entirely.  At one level, this is fine, as there is plenty happening, but another it left the plot a little rudderless at times.  And whilst Pastor keeps a number of possible suspects in the frame,  I found the denouement a little unsatisfying.  Overall, an interesting story centred on a fascinating character.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

This week has been a hectic and tiring one.  After spending last weekend in bed with flu I managed to crawl out the house and get on a plane to Brussels on Monday for a meeting on Tuesday.  Then onto Frankfurt to give a talk on Wednesday, with talks in Manchester and Sheffield on Thursday and Friday.  Then to a family get together for the weekend.  Lots of late nights and early starts.  Still spluttering and now have an eye infection.  Hopefully the coming week will be more sedate.  I did manage to find time to read Ben Pastor's The Dark Song of Blood, which I'll review in the next few days. 

My posts this week
Review of Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh
Review of Red Bones by Ann Cleeves
Called from the path

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Called from the path

‘Can you hear that?’

‘Hear what?’ Jane stared into the fog.

‘A child crying.’

‘You must be imagining it.  What would a child being doing out here?’

‘There it is again.  It’s coming from over there.’  Paul started out across the bog.

‘Where are you going?’

‘To find that child.  She must be lost.’

‘You’re leaving the path.  We’ll never find it again in this fog.’

‘Come-on.  She’s over here.’  His figure disappeared into the mist.

‘Paul.  Wait.’  Jane stepped off the narrow path, then stopped.  ‘Paul!’

There was no answer.

‘Paul?  Where are you?’ 

Tentatively, she crept into fog. 





A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review of Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (Pan, 2009)

On the small island of Whalsay in the Shetland Isles two young archaeologists are undertaking a dig on the croft of the elderly Mima Wilson, hoping to find the remains of an old merchant house.  In a practice trench they discover a human skull and other bones.  The following night Mima is shot dead in a seemingly tragic accident.  Inspector Jimmy Perez journeys to the island to investigate, aided by Sandy Wilson, the grandson of the deceased.  Perez is not convinced it’s an accident, but there’s little evidence to suggest foul play.  As the two cops probe, the long-standing tense relations between two island families surface, with rumours circulating as to the provenance of the old bones.  When a second death occurs, this time a supposed suicide, Perez knows he’ll need to use the past to flush out the killer before they strike again.

Red Bones is the third book in Ann Cleeves Shetland series featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez (here are my reviews of books 1 and 2).  The strength of the tale is the sense of place, atmosphere, characterisation and social relations.  Cleeves drops the reader into the wild landscape and seascape of the Shetland Isles, vividly portraying the desolate and isolated beauty and the close relationship between people and place.  Moreover, she nicely captures the close knit nature of small communities, inter-linked through familial connections and generations of friendships and rivalries, and uneasy relations with blow-ins and visitors.  The style is quite descriptive, providing plenty of detail about each character, their back story, the settings, and historical context.  This works to produce an interesting narrative, but also leads to a slow pace, perhaps fitting of the setting and tale, and to some repetition in observations.  The plot is relatively straightforward and I felt the police procedural elements were a bit thin, especially with respect how each death is dealt with, for example in terms of postmortems which should have been standard and would have transformed the investigation.  Rather it is driven more by gut instinct and a certain amount of bumbling around.  Overall, an enjoyable, atmospheric tale.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1935, William Collins)

Arthur Surbonadier is an mildly talented actor whose uncle, Jacob Saint, owns a string of theatres, including The Unicorn.  Arthur has been cast in a significant role, but he would like to be a lead actor and is prepared to blackmail his uncle to get his way.  He’s also vying with the charming Felix Gardener for the hand of leading lady, Stephanie Vaughan, and playing hooky with the props master’s daughter.  In the finale of the play Arthur is shot by Felix’s character using blanks, but the night that Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn is in the audience with his friend and journalist, Nigel Bathgate, the gun contains real bullets, with Arthur dying as the final curtain is closed.  With no shortage of suspects, Alleyn starts to investigate the case, trying to determine who swapped the blanks for real bullets.
Published in 1935, Enter a Murderer was the second book in the Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn series.  The story is effectively a locked mystery in that the perpetrator has to be either one of the actors or the stage hands with access to the stage props just prior to the final scene in which Arthur Surbonadier is shot dead, and Alleyn is in the audience and is present on stage just seconds after the shooting meaning that the time for tampering with evidence is minimal.  Marsh sets the story up nicely so that there a number of credible candidates for the role of murderer, all with the motive, opportunity and means to do away with the rotter, Arthur.  The telling is essentially plot driven, focusing on the action, interchanges between characters and the mystery puzzle, and almost has the feel of a play script.  The characterisation is somewhat weaker, with the cast made up of theatre and upper class stock types, and there is little sense of place - the tale could have been set in any theatre, anywhere.  Marsh slowly moves the pieces into place, with the hapless Bathgate providing the diversions as he jumps to conclusions, whilst Alleyn haughtily slots the evidence together, revealing the killer through a classic denouement of restaging the final scene.  Overall, an interesting theatre-based mystery puzzle.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

My Christmas present to myself this year was a splurge on some noir films.  The box full of DVDs turned up during the week and included those listed below, mostly released in the 1940s and early 1950s.  I'm looking forward to working my way through these and wallowing in a bit of noirish nostalgia.

The Thin Man [1934]
The Glass Key [1942]
This Gun For Hire [1942]
Double Indemnity [1944]
Murder, My Sweet [1944]
Laura [1944]
Fallen Angel [1945]
The Blue Dahlia [1946]
The Killers [1946]
Crossfire [1947]
Out of the Past [1947]
The Big Steal [1949]
Whirlpool [1949]
Night and the City [1950]
In A Lonely Place [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Where the Sidewalk Ends [1950]
The Big Heat [1953]
Kiss Me Deadly [1955]

My posts this week:
Review of Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier
Around the world in 2014
My reading plans for 2015
Books by Irish authors read in 2014
Review of Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn
Save it for the court, doll

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Save it for the court, doll

‘Come on, spill it, lady!’

The detective jabbed his finger at the perplexed woman.

‘Spill what?’

‘How you had Mr Carter iced.’

‘Iced?’

‘Slain.  Cut down in his prime.  Murdered.’

‘Murdered!  Why would murder Mr Carter?’

‘You were always threatening to murder Mr Carter!  It didn’t matter what the job was you told him he’d be killed if he messed it up.’

‘That’s just a figure of speech.  How do I know it wasn’t you that killed your father, Kevin?  This is just a ruse to shift your guilt onto me!’

‘Save it for the court, doll. You’re under arrest.’





A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Review of Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn (Washington Square Press, 2010)

It’s 1953 and in the aftermath of his last case, Emmanuel Cooper has been forced to resign as detective sergeant in the South African police force and he has been reclassified as ‘mixed race’ in the wake of new race laws.  He’s relocated to Durban and is now working in and around the docks whilst moonlighting for his ambitious ex-boss, Major van Niekerk, spying on corrupt officers.  Whilst patrolling the freight yards one night he discovers the body of a young white boy.  He knows he shouldn't get involved, but his old detective instincts kick in and he starts to investigate.  Shortly after his landlady and her maid are found murdered.  The local cops target the simplest explanation - that Cooper is responsible - and arrest him.  van Niekerk uses his political clout to set him free, but he’s only forty eight hours to clear his name and discover the real killer before he’s back in the frame.

Let the Dead Lie is the second book in Malla Nunn’s series set in 1950s South Africa.  The strength of the story is the characterisation, its historical contextualisation, and atmosphere and sense of place.  Emmanuel Cooper is an intriguing character, a kind of nowhere man that belongs to no community, but somehow manages to straddle both white and black worlds.  He is surrounded by other conflicted and flawed characters that are all well penned.  The tensions and shifting social and legal landscape of South Africa is vividly bought to life, especially the marginal spaces around the Durban docks.  Whilst the story is engaging and entertaining, I found the plotting and pacing a little tenuous in the first half, becoming more purposeful and sure in the second, turning into a real page turner as the political intrigue deepened and tension rose as Cooper’s deadline approached.  Moreover, the story concentrates on the first murder and it never really became clear to me why the second and third murders occur.  Overall, an interesting read and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series.

Books by Irish authors read in 2014

Of the 109 books I read and reviewed last year 16 were books by Irish authors, all but one of which was crime fiction.  This is a slight reduction on the 20 books by Irish authors I read in 2013, but I think a reasonable slice of my reading time.  I plan to read about the same number in 2015.

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey *****
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent ****.5
The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn ***.5
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty ***.5
Istanbul Puzzle by Laurence O'Bryan ***
In The Morning I'll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty *****
Another Case in Cowtown by Mel Healy ***
Keep Away From Those Ferraris by Pat Fitzpatrick *****
Disappeared by Anthony Quinn ****.5
Corridors of Death by Ruth Dudley Edwards ****
The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly ****
All the Dead Voices by Declan Hughes ****
Darkhouse by Alex Barclay *****
The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black ***.5
Broken Harbour by Tana French ***

The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger by Sean O’Riain *****

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My reading plans for 2015

I see that other bloggers are setting their annual challenges and aims for their reading for 2015.  I usually keep these to a minimum, being more guided by whatever takes my reading fancy once I've finished a book and I'm looking to start another.  This year, however, I am going to try and be guided by some rough parameters:

1) expand my geographical horizons.  To date, the 591 books reviewed on the blog have been set in 53 countries, 8 of which were not the primary setting (the tale travelled across different territories).  I plan to read books set in 7 new-to-me countries.

2) continue to expand my reading of books written prior to 1970.  I plan to read at least 15 such books.

3) for the past few years I've been mostly reading books by authors new to me.  The 591 books I've read and reviewed have been written by 446 authors.  I plan to read at least two books by authors I've read previously for every new-to-me author (so most of the newbies are going to have to come from points 1 and 2 above).

4) I've a particular interest in crime fiction set in Ireland or written by Irish authors and usually read around 15 or so each year.  My plan is to maintain the trend in 2015. 

5) my to-be-read pile has been expanding a little in recent months.  My plan is to reduce it quite substantially over the year by reducing the books I buy this year by a half to about 60.  I'm assuming I'll read around 100 books.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Around the world in 2014

I managed to travel virtually to 27 countries during 2014 via the books that I read.  Here's the breakdown, with the full list of titles and links to reviews below.

34: United States
11: Ireland
10: England
4: Australia, France
3: Germany, Scotland
2: Canada, Italy, Russia, Thailand, Turkey
1: Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Sweden, Yugoslavia
7: More than one country (Germany, England, USA, Cuba, India, Afganistan, Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, France, Czechoslavakia, Romania, Canada, Scotland)

Argentina
The Secrets in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri ****.5

Australia
Nice Try by Shane Maloney ***.5
A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill **** 
Prime Cut by Alan Carter ***
The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott ****

Canada
Black Rock by John McFetridge ****.5
The Safe Word by Karen Long ***

England
The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey *****
The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths **
A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson ****.5
The Late Greats by Nick Quantrill ***.5
Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth **** 
Long Way Home by Eva Dolan *****
Crossword Ends in Violence (5) by James Cary ***.5
Gently Floating by Alan Hunter ***
Dark Winter by David Mark ***.5
Dead Lions by Mick Herron ****.5

France
Summertime, All the Cats are Bored by Philippe Georget ***
The Panda Theory by Paschal Garnier ***.5
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo ***.5
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon ***

Germany
Potsdam Station by David Downing ****
The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson ***
A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell *** 

Ireland
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent ****.5
The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn ***.5
In The Morning I'll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty *****
Another Case in Cowtown by Mel Healy ***
Keep Away From Those Ferraris by Pat Fitzpatrick *****
Disappeared by Anthony Quinn ****.5
Corridors of Death by Ruth Dudley Edwards **** 
All the Dead Voices by Declan Hughes ****
The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black ***.5
Darkhouse by Alex Barclay *****
Broken Harbour by Tana French ***

Italy
A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco ****
I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio De Giovanni ****

Japan
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida *****

Mexico
The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler ***

Norway
Closed for Winter by Jorn Lier Horst ****.5

Papua New Guinea
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty ***.5

Russia
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith ***
Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich ***** 
 
Scotland
Southsiders by Nigel Bird ***
The Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney *****
Bitter Water by Gordon Ferris *** 

South Africa
The Steam Pig by James McClure ****

Sweden
The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg ****.5

Thailand
Salty by Mark Haskell Smith ***
Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage ***.5

Turkey
The Gigolo Murder by Mehmet Murat Somer ****
Istanbul Puzzle by Laurence O'Bryan ***

USA
The Boy in the Snow by MJ McGrath **.5
Keystone by Peter Lovesey *** 
Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 ****
All God's Children by Arthur Lyons ***
Because the Night by James Ellroy ***
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald ***
Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh *****
I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woodrich *****
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers ***
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler *****
Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett ***.5
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz ****
Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson  ****.5
Grind Joint by Dana King *****
Washington Shadow by Aly Monroe ***.5
The Carrier by Preston Lang ***.5
Dog On It by Spencer Quinn ****
Casual Rex by Eric Garcia ***.5
Briarpatch by Ross Thomas ***.5
Raylan by Elmore Leonard ***.5
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy ***.5
To Die in Beverly Hills by Gerald Petievich ****
Salt River by James Sallis *****
Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis ****
Bird Dog by Philip Reed ****.5
Night Moves by Randy Wayne White ***
Tropical Freeze by James W. Hall ***.5
Margin of Error by Edna Buchanan ***
Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey ***.5
Tropical Heat by John Lutz ***
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane ****.5
The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister ***
The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly ****
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ***** 

Yugoslavia
The Man From Berlin by Luke McCallin ****

More than one country
The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson **** (Germany, England, US, Cuba)
Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser **** (England, Scotland, India, Afganistan)
The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin *** (Turkey, Italy)
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst **** (Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, France, Czechoslavakia, Hungary)
All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre **** (Scotland/France)
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway *** (Cuba, USA)
Entry Island by Peter May *** (Canada, Scotland)

Review of Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier (2008, Vintage Canada)

Private investigator Jonah Geller’s life has taken a nose dive -- he fouled up an undercover operation leading to him being shot, a cop being paralysed, and a high ranking member of the Toronto mob, Marco Di Pietra, walking away from a conviction; his girlfriend also threw in the towel and him out; and he’s plagued by nightmares from his time in the Israeli Army.  His boss at Beacon Security now has him pretty much desk bound.  One of his colleagues, however, wants him to do more than type up notes; whilst Franny plays around with his girlfriends, Geller is checking out a neglect case at a nursing home.  Geller is happy to be back in the field, but is less content when Dante Ryan, a local hitman, turns up at his apartment wanting help to identify who’s commissioned him to murder a local pharmacist, his wife and kid.  Ryan draws the line at killing the latter two, but know it might come at the expense of his own demise.  In fact, he wants out of the mob altogether.  Shortly after Geller is attacked and Franny is murdered.  Whilst the police would like Geller to come clean with what he knows, his pact with Ryan makes that difficult, and the two become bound together in a dangerous investigation concerning the illegal trade of prescription medicines into the US. 

Buffalo Jump is the first book in the Toronto-based Jonah Geller private investigator series.  For me it was a book of two halves.  The first half was quite pedestrian and I felt little affinity for the tale or the characters.  About halfway through, however, the story seemed to shift register and became more engaging and compelling.  In part, I think, this was because Geller became more multidimensional as chunks of his back story were divulged (he’s the usual flawed, damaged, independent PI, but has enough twists that he doesn’t neatly fit the mould), his relationship to the hitman, Dante Ryan, developed through a nice set of interchanges, and all the various plot strands started to be woven together into a clearer tapestry.  Indeed, the plot focus on the illegal cross-border trade in prescription medicines provided a nice hook.  The denouement seemed a little rushed, but nicely tied off the tale.  Overall, a decent, if a little uneven, read that introduces an engaging lead character that I’d be happy to spend more time reading about.