Alexander Soderberg- The Andalucian Friend

Living a quiet life in the suburbs, Sophie Brinkmann is captivated by the handsome and sophisticated Hector Guzman. She has no idea that beneath Hector’s charm lies something far more dangerous. Hector is the head of an international crime syndicate. He is used to getting what he wants, and what he wants now is the total annihilation of his rivals. Before she can fully grasp the extent of Hector’s world, Sophie is trapped within it. Her house is under surveillance, her family is at risk. Hector is at war – with Russian hit men, South American drug traffickers, German gangsters – and now Sophie is too. But who can she trust when even the people who have sworn to uphold the law are as dangerous as those dedicated to breaking it? If Sophie is to get out alive, and with her integrity intact, she will have to summon everything within her to navigate this intricate web of moral ambiguity, deadly obsession and ruthless killers.

 I usually judge how good a book is by the amount of time it takes to me to read the first 100 pages. Often I become distracted, wander off for coffee or snack raids to the kitchen or decide that yes, my apartment is a tip and needs tidying, leaving my book to one side to be picked up again later. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking, like me, that on initial inspection ‘The Andalucian Friend’ would be a Scandinavian crime novel very much like any other Scandinavian crime novel but you would be wrong…so wrong… So the fact that I read this in pretty much one sitting- all 446 pages- completely immersed in its myriad characters and beautifully interwoven plotting, bears testament to how good this book truly is.

I was instantly drawn into this tale of organised crime- a sordid world of  drug trafficking, gun-running and police corruption where any sense of morality can change in a heartbeat. This is a world dominated by money and power, with opposing criminal gangs jostling for control and the story flows effortlessly back and forth across Europe, as each tries to usurp the other leading to bloodshed and betrayal. The ‘bad guys’ are pitch perfect in their characterisation veering from the ruthlessness and wily intelligence of the really quite charming Hector Guzman, to the scheming and unflinching coldness of the Hankes heading up their German crime syndicate, and in direct competition with Guzman and his cohorts. Throw into the mix some truly psychopathic and coldblooded Russians and  Jens Vall, a Swedish gun-runner who falls foul of the said Russians, which reluctantly leads him into Guzman’s web and let the mayhem commence. There are shoot-outs, dismemberments in restaurant kitchens and double crossings at every turn which would be more than enough for any reader, but Soderberg has more strings to his bow, so read on to discover how he  rises above the bog standard organised crime yarn…

Into this mix comes Sophie Brinkmann and Lars Vinge, two  brilliantly conceived characters who add a depth and richness to the overall plot and whose experience in this sordid world fundamentally change them in ways they could not have imagined. Sophie is a nurse, a widow and a mother, just a normal fundamentally good woman, who becomes more and more tainted by her involvement with Hector Guzman, but who grows exponentially in character and strength as the plot progresses, through her immersion in this dangerous and violent world. Lars Vinge is a Swedish police officer, tasked with surveilling Sophie, whose moral and physical decline becomes such a potent part of the novel, as his obsession with her and his building distrust of his colleagues, draw him down into a world of addiction and bleakness that at times is truly heartwrenching. His suspicions are in no way groundless, thus unveiling the morally bankrupt and corrupt world of those tasked to catch and punish kingpins like Guzman, and whose greed and moral bankruptcy knows no bounds. Sophie and Lars completely held my interest throughout the novel, experiencing the highs, but generally more numerous lows, of their differing involvement in the violent power struggles of the warring criminals at great personal cost to them both.

 As I said in my introduction, this is unlike any other Scandinavian crime novel I’ve read as in all truthfulness this does not read as a Swedish crime novel per se, but more as a strongly all encompassing European style in characterisation, dialogue and atmosphere. Soderberg captures perfectly the subtle nuances in his characterisation of the differing European protagonists, but also writes with a lyrical style more prevalent in French crime fiction and the emotional intensity of an Italian crime novel, whilst interweaving the bleak psychological darkness of his Scandinavian counterparts. Interestingly his depiction of violence feels distinctly American, and there is one altercation that brings to mind a Tarantino-esque movie scene where no one could possible escape unscathed. The translation by Neil Smith, beautifully allows these contrasting styles to be self evident to the reader, and to my mind certainly, supports the effortless flow of the narrative.  Soderberg is supremely confident in linking these different styles together, and with a fairly large cast of dramatis personae to introduce,  ensures from the outset that the reader can easily navigate their relationships to one another as the story unfolds and their connections and conflicts are revealed. I am delighted that this is part one of a projected trilogy of books, because purely on the strength of this one this could be one of the most powerful trilogies ever produced in the crime genre. A remarkable debut novel that only bodes well for further books by this author.

‘The Andalucian Friend’ will be published 14 March 2013 by Harvill Secker

(With thanks to Random House for the ARC)

Introducing The Petrona, A New Annual Award For Scandinavian Crime Fiction

A Crime is Afoot

I just find out today from Karen at Euro Crime that the following press release has been circulated:

The Petrona Award has been established to celebrate the work of Maxine Clarke, one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers, who died in December 2012. Maxine, whose online persona and blog was called Petrona, was passionate about translated crime fiction but in particular that from the Scandinavian countries. (booktrade.info).

Although I did not had the chance to meet her in person, I will always considered a privilege to have met her, at least, online.

The shortlist for the 2013 award, based on Maxine’s reviews and ratings, is:

Like Norman at Crime Scraps Review, I ,also, think I know which of the four shortlisted books Maxine would have chosen to receive this award. I wonder if the judges will agree with me?

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Ken Bruen & Reed Farrel Coleman- Tower

Product DetailsNick’s father is a stand-up Irishman—once a cop, now a security guard in the World Trade Center’s North Tower—but Nick does not take after his old man. He’s “got the bad drop,” meaning he only cares about booze, violence, and getting into trouble with his best friend, Todd, a low-level hood connected to the Boston mob. Todd inducts Nick into the world of petty crime. What starts as a bit of good fun—robbing apartments, scoring weed—turns serious as Todd gets closer to the inner circle. He may not love violence as much as Nick does, but he’s about to get more than his fair share. How can friendship survive in an underworld built on pain?

A brutal and uncompromising collaboration from the doyen of Irish crime, Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the gritty Moe Prager series. With each relating the same story from the point of view of Nick (Bruen) and Todd (Coleman) what ensues is a perfect slice of noir detailing the friendship between two guys drawn into a world of violence at the behest of ruthless Irish crime boss Boyle and under the uncompromising glare of Boyle’s sadistic henchman Griffin. As they sink deeper into the realms of organised crime is there really going to be a way out when the breaking point beckons for them both…

Nick is a quintessentially Bruen creation, invested with a sharp intelligence, ready wit and propensity for violence. Named after his ex-cop father’s favourite Hemingway character, he is an archetypal bad boy, running wild from an early age with a stint in juvie hall leading him into a life of crime- as his father says ‘You’re nothing but a punk’. Nick is a wondefully smart-mouthed character, always walking the tightrope between knowing when to keep his mouth shut and when to suck it up. He also has a healthy disregard for his employer Boyle, mocking his exaggerated Irish brogue and quickly realising that Boyle’s right-hand man Griffin poses a far greater danger to his physical well being. Bruen’s pitch perfect characterisation of Nick, fair carries the reader along, with his narrative coming at you like a hail of bullets from a machine gun- sharp, punchy and unrelenting. As Nick experiences a kind of epiphany and seeks to assuage his conflicting loyalties, so Bruen unfolds his character a little more, and a little more, revealing a different side to him but never losing the intensity of the rapid fire prose.

Nick’s cohort, Todd strikes me as a more circumspect character, although imbued with the same sense of self-preservation as , and an equal propensity for violence. Coleman depicts Todd in a steady and measured way, reflecting Todd’s even handed and less volatile character but still with the trademark spare prose Coleman is known for. Initially, he like Nick just appears to be a bit of a bad boy happy to be at the beck and call of Boyle, but Todd’s on the cusp of a change that will threaten both himself and Nick. The relating of the same narrative from the two viewpoints works brilliantly with the reader feeling the strength of Nick and Todd’s relationship, as the story steams it’s way to a heart-rending conclusion. The other players in the story are equally well drawn with the bad and the good among them manipulating the lives and emotions of Nick and Todd, for better or worse, and there is even time within the plot for the boys to fall for some feminine charms, again revealing another side to the two bad boys, and adding another facet to what could simply be a tale of wiseguys and shoot-ups.

I loved this short and sharp rat-a-tat tale reflecting the sheer talent of both Bruen and Coleman in terms of character, dialogue and plot but there’s even more to it- oh yes-
‘Tower’ is also a great vehicle for discovering other writers, with each chapter beginning with a well chosen quote that perfectly reflect the content of the upcoming chapter. I have discovered some hitherto unknown to me authors, so on top of this being a noir read par-excellence you too can add to your burgeoning bookshelves with some new names. Cracking.

Raven recommends:

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(I read ‘Tower’ as a digital galley from Open Road Media via www.netgalley.com )

Cath Staincliffe- Bleed Like Me (Scott & Bailey 2)

Product DetailsThe Journey’s Inn, Lark’s Estate, Manchester. Three bodies have been found, stabbed to death in their beds. The husband and father of two of the victims has fled. The police are in a race against time to find him – especially when they discover his two young sons are also missing.Manchester Metropolitan police station. Having survived a near-fatal attack, DC Janet Scott is quietly falling apart. And her best friend and colleague DC Rachel Bailey is reeling from a love affair gone bad. DCI Gill Murray is trying to keep the team on track, but her own family problems are threatening tip her over the edge. Finding the desperate man is their top priority. But none of them knows where he is going or what he intends to do next. Or what will they have to do to stop him…

I am a recent convert to the televised version of  ‘Scott & Bailey’, a Manchester based police series (I could easily watch the brilliant Lesley Sharp act out her shopping lists), and having read the first novelisation in the series ‘Dead To Me’ a prequel to the said series, I was keen to pick up Cath Staincliffe’s second outing for the feisty female protagonists of the Major Incident Team.

Overall, the plot is a little pedestrian, but this can be seen as merely replicating the ordered and, at times, tedious detail of a real life police investigation, and the boxes that need to be ticked in terms of procedure. However, what the book lacks in terms of plot, Staincliffe more than makes up for in her rich and brilliantly drawn characters, that bring a breath of fresh air to the quite linear aspects of the central investigation and engage the reader’s attention. Her holy trinity of DC Janet Scott, DC Rachel Bailey and their boss DCI Gill Murray aka ‘Godzilla’ light up the whole affair with not only their professional relationship, and work-based machinations, but the emotional complexities of their lives away from the job.

DC Janet Scott, who is still recovering from the physical and emotional effects of a stabbing, is a woman juggling many balls, so to speak, not only dealing with the suffocating dullness of her marriage to dependable and boring Ade, fanning the flames of her dalliance with one of her male colleagues, but also being intuitive to the demands of her children, her elderly mother and her irascible work partner Rachel. How she gets through the day is an utter mystery to me with the weight of expectation placed on her both professionally and personally, but she does and she is bloody good at her job! In a similar vein, Janet’s boss DCI Gill Murray also labours under the same expectations with the kudos of her position as the female boss of the high profile Major Incident Team, and an unsettled home life as a long standing single parent starting to feel the apron strings stretching away, with her relationship with her son changing direction. I think Murray’s character is my favourite with her acid-tongued approach and witty asides which humanise her outside of her professional boundaries, but strengthen the opinion of those who would dare to challenge her as she is a wonderfully no-nonsense woman who is not to be trifled with. Although I am largely irritated by DC Rachel Bailey, I think that is the point of her character, and reflected in the glow of Murray, we can see her likeness to the boss, but equally that she does not quite have the right fibre or essential maturity to achieve all that she could yet. I suppose that the fact that I can’t stand her proves how well Staincliffe writes her to provoke a reaction in the reader!

Overall, this was an engaging enough read, and if you are a fan of Scott & Bailey, either from the first book ‘Dead To Me’ or through the TV adaptations you will enjoy this new outing for the characters. Throughout the whole book, Staincliffe’s dialogue is fluid and captures the nuances of the relationships between the central characters through her well placed use of humour. This, and the razor sharp characterisation rescue the book for me, and I would certainly recommend it for these reasons.

‘Bleed Like Me’ due to be published 14 March 2013 (Bantam Press)

Cath Staincliffe is an established novelist, radio playwright and the creator of ITV’s hit series, Blue Murder, starring Caroline Quentin as DCI Janine Lewis.  Cath’s books have been short-listed for the Crime Writers Association best first novel award and for the Dagger in the Library and selected as Le Masque de l’Année.  In 2012 Cath won the CWA Short Story Dagger for Laptop, sharing the prize with Margaret Murphy with her story The Message.  Both stories featured in Best Eaten Cold, a Murder Squad anthology. Cath’s Sal Kilkenny private eye series features a single-parent sleuth working the mean streets of Manchester. Cath is one of the founding members of Murder Squad – a group of Northern crime writers who give readings, talks and signings around the country. Visit the author’s website here: http://www.cathstaincliffe.co.uk/

Scott & Bailey- Dead To Me- Book 1:

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(With thanks to Random House for the ARC)

Andrew Pyper- The Demonologist

Professor David Ullman is among the world’s leading authorities on demonic literature. Not that he’s a believer. He sees what he teaches as a branch of the imagination and nothing more. So when offered a luxury trip to Venice to consult on a ‘phenomenon’, he accepts, taking his 11-year-old daughter Tess with him. Amidst the decadent splendour of the city, David makes his way to the address he’s been asked to visit. What he witnesses in the tiny attic room shakes him to the core: a man restrained in a chair, clearly insane. But what David hears the man say is worse. The voice of his father, dead for 30 years, repeating the last words he ever spoke to his son. Words that have left scars – and a mystery – behind. Terrified, David is determined to leave with Tess as quickly as possible. But he can’t shake the feeling that something is following him. And then, before his eyes on the roof of their hotel, Tess disappears. But before she falls into the Grand Canal’s waters, she utters a plea: “Find me”.

From the outset, Andrew Pyper plunges the reader into a nightmarish tale of demonic possession in this taut, intelligent and utterly gripping thriller, rich with literary allusion, tinged with horror, and providing a fascinating exploration of the darkest corners of the human psyche. As Professor David Ullman experiences a truly terrifying descent into a hellish world at odds with his normally morally detached study of demonic literature, he embarks on an emotional and physical journey fuelled by his love for, and desperation to find, his missing daughter.

Ullman is a fascinating character and carries the weight of the story admirably, inured with a single-minded determination to overcome the dark forces at play, but beset with his own ongoing battle with the dark shadow of depression. Although his scholarly reputation has been established by his innate understanding and study of demonic literature, when we first encounter him he has a detached attitude to the dark realms that are the focus of his study and is a stalwart non-believer. What Pyper cleverly imbues in Ullman is a sense of doubt about things unseen as he begins to bear witness to, and seeks to defeat, otherworldly elements that begin to gnaw at his consciousness and lead him to question everything he thinks he believes in. Ullman draws on his knowledge of demonic texts- in particular John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’- to navigate and begin to understand the nature of the unfolding events and to decipher the clues left by his demonic nemesis. Ullman is initially a man slowly being undone by his dependence on his own rationality, but who strives to open his mind to a greater under-standing of things beyond the rational. Ullman is accompanied on his journey by Elaine O’Brien, an academic colleague specialising in psychology, and experiencing her own crisis with the diagnosis of a terminal illness. She is a feisty, straight-talking and grounded woman who embraces the peril of her involvement with Ullman with a clear-headed approach and an inate desire to throw caution to the wind despite the possible danger. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed by Pyper which pivots between the jocular nature of best buddies to moments of heartwrenching sadness and for me, was one of the real strengths of the book.

The breadth of this book in terms of location and sense of place, is awe inspiring as Pyper invests in his character of Ullman the role of wanderer, mirroring the role of Satan and his demonic followers in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’- a text that has established Ullman’s position of renown in the field of academia. As Ullman reads into the messages he receives from a supernatural source as to the whereabouts of his daughter, he is led initially from Venice (the location of his daughter’s supposed death) to a journey through the heartland of America, and encounters with acts of demonic possession which lead him to question his own beliefs in the tangible nature of life and the possibility of the existence of an ancient evil beyond human belief. Every location is perfectly realised, so that the reader is immediately esconsed in the feel and atmosphere of the surroundings, and this is particularly palpable in Pyper’s descriptions of Venice and the rural wasteland of North Dakota. The darker aspects of the locations seem to  characterise and amplify  the facets of the plot unfolding within them, adding to the sinister feel of the whole story.

I have been loathe to go into too much detail regarding plot as there are more than a few bloodcurdling suprises along the way that need to be discovered for yourselves. This is an intelligent, thought-provoking and, perhaps most importantly, utterly absorbing literary thriller that raises an abundance of questions throughout. Marvellous and more than a little scary tale that will keep you reading to the wee small hours…

Andrew Pyper was born in Stratford, Ontario, in 1968. He received a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from McGill University, as well as a law degree from the University of Toronto. Although called to the bar in 1996, he has never practiced. Visit his website here: http://www.andrewpyper.com

Why not try these as well? Recommended by Raven…

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(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)