Oliver Bottini- The Dance of Death

One wet and misty weekend in October, the Niemann family find a stranger in their garden. He is armed and tries to force his way into the house, but disappears as soon as the police are alerted. That night he’s back with an impossible ultimatum . . .

Freiburg detective Louise Boni and her colleagues are put under enormous pressure. Traces of evidence lead her to a no-man’s-land, and to a ruthless criminal who brings with him the trauma of conflict in the Balkans…

And so to the third of Oliver Bottini’s Black Forest Investigation series, The Dance of Death, which sees stalwart investigator Louise Boni, drawn into a case of retribution precipitated by the turbulent history of the Balkan states…

Whilst confessing to the fact that I did find the first of the series, Zen and the Art of Murder a tad ponderous for my tastes, and having read and enjoyed the second A Summer of Murder, I have come to appreciate the more meandering and slow moving pace of Bottini’s writing. Veering very much more towards literary fiction than crime thriller per se, I found myself adjusting to the pace and style of it the further into the book I read. This more measured feel to Bottini’s prose does rather dilute the feeling of this being a crime thriller, but  interestingly does give a platform for the author to really get beneath the skin of his characters, and to thoroughly interrogate the actions of the main antagonist, Antun Loncar, threatening retribution on one man’s family for the perceived sins of the past. We become as intimately involved with the motivations and history of this perpetrator as the police investigation team, and as his turbulent, unsettled and ultimately tragic story is slowly revealed, Bottini poses some interesting questions as to the balance between justice, revenge and compassion. As a reader it is good to feel conflicted about a character, where the boundaries of black and white merge into a mysterious grey, and this was an incredibly interesting facet of the book as a whole.

Talking of conflicted, police investigator Louise Boni, is a mass of contradictions, being a quixotic, emotionally challenged and a sometimes  slightly unfathomable protagonist. I still can’t quite decide if I like her or not, as her compassion and clear-sightedness, is so often blurred by her own self absorption, with a messy and unsettled private life, and her recovery as an alcoholic. At times, more often in her professional life, she shows a huge clarity of thought and sense of action, underscored by compassion and determination, but all too often in her private life be it due to drink or relationships there’s an overarching feeling of indecision and naval gazing  that makes you want to grab her by the shoulders, and give her a good shake. She proves to be a consistently complicated character, sometimes overwhelmed by her own feelings of guilt in relation to events of the past, and I still don’t know quite what to make of her.

The Dance of Death is not an easy read as there is a huge weight of historical factual detail, that although entirely necessary to the plot, does slow the pace of the book considerably, but it is difficult to see how this information could be imparted to the reader in any other way, tracing the history of war and resettlement between the Balkan states and Germany post Second World War. Although at times somewhat dense, and a little overwhelming, I did find the historical aspect fascinating, looking at the history of conflict and resettlement in the Balkans, from a new and interesting angle- special mention to translator Jamie Bulloch for the singular challenge this presented. Overall,  I actually enjoyed the final part of the book more, as Boni physically retraces Loncar’s past, and takes her own journey through the Balkans, and although it did feel rather truncated in comparison to what  had proceeded it, this section of the book had a real vividness and verve as Boni encounters the strange environs of Loncar’s home state. This is also quite possibly a journey for Boni that will take her life in an entirely new direction, so will be interested to see where Bottini takes her, and us, as readers…

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(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

Pre-order a copy of The Dance of Death here

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#20BooksOfSummer #2 Theodore Brun- A Mighty Dawn #3 Conor O’Callaghan- Nothing On Earth #4 Sam Selvon- The Lonely Londoners #5 Michael Ignatieff- Charlie Johnson In The Flames

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?

Right, so I’m now embarking on another series chockfull of Vikings, smiting, pillaging, rumpy pumpy, more smiting and so on, set in eighth century Denmark. Having read Tim Severin, Giles Kristian, Robert Low and the brilliant Frans G. Bengtsson amongst others, I thought this might be worth a look. With the reference to Game of Thrones on the cover, I would agree that this book is incredibly, incredibly similar in tone, and story arc with added horns…no sniggering at the back there. It does feel a little more cinematic to some of the series I mentioned earlier, with a steadfast injection of action and shock horror moments, but this is no bad thing and I like the way that Brun has obviously been influenced by the Scandinavian sagas in the way that he controls the pace and moments of high drama within the book. This also feeds into the way that the story takes on a more mythical feel as the story progresses, and this was effectively done without feeling contrived.

When I was toying with buying this I saw one reviewer draw attention to the Shakespearean feel of the book, and this is a very valid observation, as there are marked themes of betrayal, conspiracy, family conflict and thwarted relationships. I enjoyed this first book very much indeed, with its earthy humour, a myriad cast of characters, and yes, a more than satisfying amount of violence, treachery and ambition with which we associate the marauding Viking hordes. Recommended.

(I bought this copy of A Mighty Dawn)

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It is the hottest August in living memory.

A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again.

She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust.

Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he?

In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?

Okay, so on a scale of one to nigh on impossible to review without spoilers, this book is one such challenge. So moving swiftly on from any discussion of the plot, I will merely say that that there was a very strong  feeling of Jon McGregor’s mesmerising If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about this one, and that pleased me greatly. I think O’Callaghan does a masterful job of constantly keeping the reader slightly on the back foot playing with our perception of the characters and causing us to question their motivations, and the face they present to the world. Everything in this book feels slightly gauzy, and unreal, in what slowly reveals itself as a tense, psychological drama, suffused with a Gothic-esque use of misdirection, luring us further into the darkness. O’Callaghan has perfectly married the suffocating atmosphere of a heatwave, with the building tension of a society that has veered from boom to bust, and the havoc this wreaks on ordinary people’s lives. There is a lyrical intensity to the writing throughout, and I would absolutely suggest that this book is read in as close to one sitting as possible, to appreciate the rhythm and imagery that O’Callaghan employs. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Nothing On Earth)

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At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh in 1950s London. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? But the irrepressible newcomer cannot be cast down. He and all the other lonely new Londoners – from shiftless Cap to Tolroy, whose family has descended on him from Jamaica – must try to create a new life for themselves. As pessimistic ‘old veteran’ Moses watches their attempts, they gradually learn to survive and come to love the heady excitements of London.

Okay, so my first question is why it has taken me so long to discover this little diamond of book, which has been languishing  on the  bookshelves for years? As an account of the particular problems faced by West Indian migrants in 1950s London, this is a glorious mix of pathos and humour, with the narrative reflecting the rhythmical beauty of  Jamaican patois. I loved the almost poetical flow of the dialogue, and the characters are so roundly drawn that you cannot help be drawn in completely to the fate of them as they navigate the often hostile environment that they now inhabit. The dual monsters of poverty and prejudice loom large throughout, but there’s also an overarching resonance of community, resourcefulness, stoicism and hope too . A wonderful read.

(I bought this copy of The Lonely Londoners)

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Charlie Johnson is an American journalist working for a British news agency somewhere in the Balkans. He believes that over the course of a long career he has seen everything, but suddenly he finds himself more than simply a witness. A woman who has been sheltering Charlie and his crew is doused in gasoline and set on fire by a retreating Serbian colonel. As she stumbles, burning, down the road, Charlie dashes from hiding, throws her down rolling her over and over to extinguish the flames, burning his hands in the process. Believing the woman’s life to have been saved, Charlie is traumatized by her death. Something snaps. He now realizes he has just one ambition left in life: to find the colonel and kill him…

With shades of both Greene and Hemingway, I found this is a finely nuanced and, at times, a deeply moving novella addressing the Balkan crisis. Based on the author’s own experience of war reporting, Ignatieff imbues Johnson with all the moral questioning, unbridled seeking of truth and so on, that more reputable and brave journalists have  been renowned for. Interestingly though, he takes the question of morality further still, testing Johnson’s resolve to resist meeting violence with violence after his witnessing of a war crime. I have read many accounts of war reportage, due to my interest in the  factual and fictional representation of war, and although this stood as a strong testament to the nature of conflict and personal responsibility within the Balkan crisis, I think I prefer the author’s journalistic works like Blood and Belonging and Empire Lite. Worth checking out though…

(I bought this copy of Charlie Johnson In The Flames)