Quentin Bates- Cold Breath #BlogTour

Gunnhildur reluctantly allows herself to be taken off police duties to act as bodyguard to a man with a price on his head. Hidden away in a secure house outside Reykjavík, Gunna and the high-profile stranger, a guest of the interiors minister, are thrown together – too close for comfort. They soon find they are neither as safe nor as carefully hidden as Gunna and her boss had thought. Conflicting glimpses of the man’s past start to emerge as the press begin to sniff him out, as does another group with their own reasons for locating him. Gunna struggles to come to terms with protecting the life of a man who may have the lives of many on his conscience – or indeed may be the philanthropist he claims to be.
Isolated together, the friction grows between Gunna and the foreign visitor, and she realises they are out of their depth as the trails lead from the house outside Reykjavík to Brussels, Russia and the Middle East…

As well as being an accomplished translator of Scandinavian crime, Quentin Bates is also more than a bit nifty at this crime writing lark too! I am a staunch admirer of his Gunnhildur series, and, pardon the pun, Cold Breath once again proves to be a (cold) breath of fresh air…

I think where Bates excels is in his central character of Gunna Gunnhildur herself, and the different facets he reveals to her character with each book. Although most of the series to date have dwelt to a larger or lesser extent on her private life, and that of her sometimes wayward offspring, this book puts her firmly centre stage. Bates places her in an isolated position, where her conduits for conversation are either with the man she is tasked with protecting, or her police colleagues, shifting the focus of the book entirely onto how she copes with this new assignment. Suffice to say she proves herself more than up to the task, and with her refresher firearms training, a limited supply of clean underwear, and a steely determination she throws herself into this tricky assignment with a sense of purpose, determination and her customary dry humour.   Fending off those who would seek to harm her slippery protectee, and avoiding the equally slippery advances of said protectee, Gunnhildur finds herself involved in a tangled and disturbing global conspiracy, forcing her into a situation that calls on all her training and level headedness.

I thought this was a sophisticated and perfectly paced conspiracy thriller, touching on some large and controversial themes, with an even handed and focussed approach. Certain aspects of the conspiracy were very concerning, particularly in relation to the European migration issues, and the way that not all those involved in the charitable aspect of rescue and assimilation may be all that they seem. I enjoyed the political hornet’s nest that Osman’s, the erstwhile philanthropist, sojourn to Iceland stirs up, and the controversial fleeting visit of a gauche right wing American, in addition to the central plot itself. There is a real sense of evasion and coercion throughout, and with four murders in close succession, Gunnhildur and her colleagues find themselves in a fraught and frustrating investigation, stretching from the lowlife of Reykjavik to the harbingers of power.

Once again, Bates has produced a really enjoyable, and compelling read packed to the brim with energy, suspense, violence and humour, powered by his own knowledge of and perspective on Iceland. This really is a superb series, and if you haven’t dipped your toe as yet, I would highly recommend them. Gunnhildur is great!

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

A Raven Round-Up: Steve Cavanagh- Thirteen/ Andrew Shaffer- Hope Never Dies/ Ragnar Jonasson- The Darkness/ Jorge Ibarguengoitia- The Dead Girls/Frederic Dard- The Gravedigger’s Bread

Haven’t done one of these cheeky little round-ups for a while, but think this is a good pick ‘n’ mix of crime summer reads. From the wastes of Iceland to sizzling Mexico, you may discover a little gem here…

They were Hollywood’s hottest power couple. They had the world at their feet. Now one of them is dead and Hollywood star Robert Solomon is charged with the brutal murder of his beautiful wife.This is the celebrity murder trial of the century and the defence want one man on their team: con artist turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. All the evidence points to Robert’s guilt, but as the trial begins a series of sinister incidents in the court room start to raise doubts in Eddie’s mind.

What if there’s more than one actor in the courtroom? What if the killer isn’t on trial? What if the killer is on the jury?

Okay for those of you who have been living in a cave, or in deepest darkest Peru, this has to be the most talked about, and well publicised thriller release of the summer. It is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. So is it any good? Is the hype deserved? Well, quite frankly….IT IS!

Having previously reviewed, and greatly enjoyed The Defence The Plea and The Liar I love the character of  Eddie Flynn, the renegade, ex-grifter, quick-witted lawyer always up to his elbows in trouble, and this is a series of books that has restored my interest in the legal thriller genre. Flynn is a fabulous creation who uses humour as a defence, is a good guy to have on your side when the chips down, does okay in a scrap, yet is woefully inept in his personal relationships, which brings an endearing authenticity to his character too.

Apart from his characterisation, if there is one thing that Cavanagh excels in, it is his control of pace and tension, with the machinations of the courtroom ebbing and flowing punctuated by outbursts (in true comic book style) of POW! and KABOOM! I would defy anyone not to read this in a relatively few number of sittings, and get thoroughly caught up in this exciting mash up of legal and serial killer thriller. Edge of your seat stuff and a cracking twist at the end too. Highly recommended.

( I bought this copy of Thirteen)

He’s an honest man in a city of thieves. He has no patience for guff, foolishness, or malarkey. He is United States Vice President Joe Biden. And when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues Amtrak Joe unwittingly finds himself in the role of a private investigator. To crack the case (and uncover a drug-smuggling ring hiding in plain sight), he’ll team up with the only man he’s ever fully trusted the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Wilmington, Delaware, where enemies lurk around every corner. And if they’re not careful, the blood on the tracks may be their own…

I mean this in the most positive and affectionate way, but this is book is UTTERLY BIZARRE but an absolute hoot too. Move over Batman and Robin, there’s a new crime fighting duo in town.

Yes, there is a whole whiff of implausibility about the investigation that the whip smart combo of Biden and Obama become wrapped up in, but that’s not really an issue. The absolute joy of the book is the ingenious hooking up of this completely original and left of field crime fighting partnership. The steady, obviously ageing, slightly resentful Biden, is a joy, with his penchant for ice cream, a quiet and sedentary life, his daily mission to not upset his wife, and his desperate need to build his bond/rekindle the bromance again with his former boss. Obama is this wonderfully sneaky, cool as a cucumber, cat burglar type figure, seeming to lead Biden into all sorts of trouble, but how far is Biden actually controlling this investigation, seeking the truth behind a friend’s mysterious death? I found it an utter joy to see Biden  go from mild mannered ex-politician to slightly unsteady avenging angel, and loved the kickabout humour, and at times sheer silliness of the whole affair. I’m sure American readers will pick up on references to the Obama/Biden administration that may have passed me by, but I loved the subtle digs at the unnamed Tweeter-In-Chief, and other satirical sideswipes. Entertaining, laugh out loud funny, and a genuinely enjoyable read with a partnership as great in fiction as they were in the White House. Oh for those days…

( I bought this copy of Hope Never Dies)

 

A young woman is found dead on a remote Icelandic beach. She came looking for safety, but instead she found a watery grave. A hasty police investigation determines her death as suicide . . .
When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, she is told she can investigate one last cold case of her choice – and she knows which one.What she discovers is far darker than suicide . . . And no one is telling Hulda the whole story.When her own colleagues try to put the brakes on her investigation, Hulda has just days to discover the truth. A truth she will risk her own life to find.

So, now to a little deviation from the hugely successful Ari Thor series from Ragnar Jonasson, and The Darkness being the first outing for Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir. Featuring a slightly longer in the tooth police protagonist was a nice move on the author’s part, and Hulda was a nice combination of dogged and a tad neurotic, railing against the gender bias of her police department, her looming and unexpected departure from the police, and quite obviously a woman still deeply angered by her former marriage, and the emotional insecurity that a prospective new dalliance puts in her path. With all this going on, and the split narrative that Jonasson uses in conjunction with this, I did begin to wonder how much energy she would have left to investigate her cold case- the suspected suicide of a Russian migrant which is not all it appears. As instances from Hulda’s past rise to the surface, there did feel a little unbalance in the book, and I sometimes felt that the deliberately rushed investigation was a little too deliberately rushed to accommodate the deeper concentration on Hulda’s angst. However, when Hulda knuckles down to her work, sometimes in a wonderfully ham-fisted style, proved to be the more satisfying part of the book for me, and I was genuinely engaged with her investigation and the varying obstacles in her path.

In common with the ‘Shadow’ series by Arnaldur Indridason I also wondered about the order of publication as for reasons I cannot reveal here, I would have liked to read this one later on but hey ho. An interesting flawed protagonist, and Jonasson shows his usual knack for a good crime yarn.

(I bought this copy of The Darkness)

Opening with a crime of passion after a years-long love affair has soured, The Dead Girls soon plunges into an investigation of something even darker: Serafina Baladro and her sister run a successful brothel business in a small town, so successful that they begin to expand. But when business starts to falter, life in the brothel turns ugly, and slowly, girls start disappearing . . .

I loved this strange hybrid of fiction and reportage from the 1970s, taking as its inspiration the real life case of Mexican serial killing brothel owners Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzalez. Written with a coolly dispassionate tone, the various players in this increasingly bizarre story take their place in the sun, and the twisted activities of fictional brothel owners Serafina and Arcangela Baladro are slowly revealed. It is noted in the introduction that Ibargoengoitia was experimenting with the fictional form to try and represent the increasing rate of violence and crime in Mexico, and how he influenced other writers such as the great Roberto Bolano. I thought the non-judgemental, and emotionally removed tone of the book was incredibly effective, and the story was utterly fascinating too, bringing into play the full scope of human transgressions- corruption, jealousy, greed, obsession and murder. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Picador for the ARC)

Blaise should never have hung around in that charmless little provincial town. The job offer that attracted him the first place had failed to materialize. He should have got on the first train back to Paris, but Fate decided otherwise.

A chance encounter with a beautiful blonde in the town post-office and Blaise is hooked – he realizes he’ll do anything to stay by her side, and soon finds himself working for her husband, a funeral director. But the tension in this strange love triangle begins to mount, and eventually results in a highly unorthodox burial…

Another slice of bijou noir perfection in the excellent Pushkin Vertigo series. As usual I am curtailed by how much I can reveal due to the compact nature of the book, but rest assured, this wicked little tale of jealousy, lust and obsession is just a further demonstration of the singularly brilliant style of Dard. Reminding me a little of The Postman Always Rings Twice, mixed with the darkly psychological edge of Simenon’s standalones, Dard has constructed a taut and claustrophobic tale, and with the backdrop of being set around a funeral parlour, there is an additional little frisson of weirdness too. As with most of Dard’s books, his characters verge on the strongly dislikeable with the inevitable gullible ‘patsy’, the temptation of Eve, and dark passions at its core, and this is a little belter. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

A Global Round-Up- Jane Harper, Arnaldur Indridason, Snorri Kristjansson, Walter Mosley

Just been grappling with a bout of flu, and realising I am a gazillion reviews behind, am bringing you a compact little round up. Luckily, some of you prefer this format anyway so it’s a win-win! 

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?

A follow up to the bestselling The Dry featuring Police Agent Aaron Falk, and smattered with references to the aforementioned if you are one of, what seems to be, the only people on the planet not to have read Harper’s debut. I immediately liked the premise of this one, being no big fan of these tedious teambuilding exercises where you have to achieve miracles worthy of JC himself to navigate your team across a pond with a pair of tights and a tea-tray. The fact that Harper also has her group of work colleagues simmering with resentment, unavenged slights, and general testiness endeared me even more, as the group becomes increasingly fractured, leading to the disappearance of one member, Alice. Using a split narrative, so we are pivoted back and forth from the events of the weekend, to the real-time investigation, Harper handles the pacing of the plot perfectly, and by slowly decreasing the spacing between the events of then and now, urges the reader on to read quicker, and step up the pace generally. There is also a neat little side story, referencing a notorious killer, and the continuing search for one of his victims, which adds another frisson of murderous intent to the proceedings. I thought the depiction of the characters, both within the group of women, and of Harper’s detectives, Falk and Carmen Cooper, was engaging, and there was a good mix of rivalry, tension, and stretched loyalties among them. Although I was a little disappointed by the ending, in terms of how realistically it played out in relation to how the story had been constructed, I found this a satisfying enough read, although it does pale in comparison slightly  to The Dry.


Now to two books by the undisputed king of Icelandic crime, Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow District, and The Shadow Killer, which I read back to back, and both set in wartime Reykjavik. My only slight annoyance with doing this, was that the first book is set in 1944, and the second in 1941, and as the first book ties up what happens to the two main protagonists in subsequent years, I was frustrated by going back in time in the second with this knowledge of the future in my head. On a more positive note, however, I thought both books were pretty flawless in their period detail, dramatic tension, and with a thoroughly likeable pair of investigators, Flovent, a police detective, and Thorsen, a military policeman with Icelandic and Canadian roots. There was a good sense of equanimity in the structure of their working relationship, and both characters had pleasing emotional depth and quirks to their personalities. As both are young men, Indridason not only builds into their characters a slight sense of impetuousness, but balances this with moments of mature emotional clarity, as they seek to track down murderers, with the opposing weight of the police force and the military sometimes seeking to thwart their progress.

Although both books focus on fairly linear murder plots, both are superbly enhanced by the wealth of detail that Indridason weaves into the stories, focussing on the country’s gaining of independence and, the role of Iceland in supporting the allied war mission, and the social implications, particularly on families, women and personal wealth, by this massive influx of British and American military personnel. Prior to reading these books I had no awareness whatsoever of the singularly important part that Iceland played in WWII, and certainly for me I found the military detail fascinating, and I was utterly intrigued by the whole concept of ‘the Situation‘- the sense of judgement meted out by families and society alike on young women fraternising with the allied personnel. This is pertinent to both books, and by the incorporation of a creepy subplot based on equally creepy totems of Icelandic folklore, the role of women and their subjugation plays heavily throughout. I found these different themes of home, family, folklore, war and society work in perfect tandem with each other, leading to a real multi faceted reading experience, with the characters of Flovent and Thorsen holding the whole narrative together. I would highly recommend both books but maybe read them in date order!

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He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son.
And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts.The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast . . .

I will tarry a wee bit longer in Iceland with Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mystery series, and what holds the unique position of being the first Viking murder mystery, apart from the great sagas themselves, that I have read. I thoroughly enjoy Kristjansson’s normal historical fare having read all three of his Valhalla series, but I had a curious reading experience with this one. At first, I didn’t feel that the opening of the book really reflected the time period it is set in, and this just felt like a small rural community on the cusp of some forthcoming upset. It was only as the family members began to arrive that I felt Kristjansson really settled us in to the timeline, exemplified by the sons’ tales of plundering and fighting. I also felt like it took an absolute age for the actual ‘crime’ to happen, as the story packed to the gills with all the necessary conflict, jealousies and infidelities essential to an Icelandic soap opera, which eventually results in murder. I was rather enjoying this mash up of the Icelandic sagas, Shakespearean treachery, and Viking ‘It’s A Knockout’ , when it was punctuated by a rather unexciting, but completely predictable murder, and then another, which led to young Helga ‘Nancy Drew’ Finnsdottir becoming a rather unconvincing super sleuth. So a thumbs up from me for the familial conflict, and the generally entertaining conniving women and wonderfully Neanderthal male characters, but as a murder mystery in a conventional sense I felt it was a little loose fitting and awkward, and less than convincing overall. Shame.

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Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault, a charge that lands him in the notorious Rikers Island prison. A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid by someone in the NYPD to frame him all those years ago, King realises that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of – and why. At the same time, King must investigate the case of black radical journalist Leonard Compton, aka A Free Man, accused of killing two on-duty police offices who had been abusing their badges to traffic drugs and women into the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.In pursuit of justice, our hero must beat dirty cops and even dirtier bankers. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: Compton’s, and King’s own…

Although he ranks alongside James Lee Burke and James Ellroy in Raven’s trinity of favourite contemporary American crime authors, it is highly unusual for me to post a review of his work, as he is always read in a vacuum of serenity outside of critical reading, and imminent reviewing- my hygge zone if you will. So I’ll keep this review of Down The River Unto The Sea as brief, and as objective as I can, but frankly Mr Mosley probably writes more interesting post-its than a substantial swathe of self published tosh, we as readers, are assailed with. Every word, image, theme and plot contrivance are perfectly done, and as the first book in a new series, I can only salivate with anticipation as to what is to come for Oliver in future books.

I don’t know if there is any technical term for this, beyond him being a supreme practitioner of observation, but every description of a character imprints a visual image of that person on the reader’s mind. I love the way he shapes and draws his characters, from their way of dressing, to their gait, to the timbre of their speech, underpinned by wit, pure sassiness and razor sharp dialogue. I love the way his characters always seem to walk that line between doubt and certainty, morality and immorality, strength and vulnerability, and the blurring of these credos that always underscore his protagonists, most notably in Oliver himself. In true Mosley fashion the book hums and sings with a rough-edged lyrical intensity, and encompasses all those big powerful themes of racism, political and police corruption, and subjugation that are so redolent of Mosley’s oeuvre to date.

Objectivity is overrated. I totally loved this and cannot fault it.

Mosley is a master. End of.

Highly recommended.

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( With thanks for the ARCs to Little Brown for Force of Nature, Harvill Secker for the Indridason Reykjavik mysteries, Quercus for Kin, W&N for Down To The River Unto To The Sea, which I also bought in hardback)


 

 

Getting That Blogging Groove Back (2)…Myers, Hirvonen, Tuomainen, Jonasson, and Sigurdardottir.

Right, eyes down and here we go again with the next instalment of my sorely neglected reviews. These are short, sweet, and to the point, as my propensity for rambling will return in the fullness of time, I’m sure…

 

First up one of my favourite deliciously dark authors, Benjamin Myers with These Darkening Days. Taking as his inspiration a real life crime case from the north of England, Myers once again lures us into the deepest disturbing psychological realms of his characters, delivering more than a few grim sucker punches along the way. A series of women become victims of a vicious assailant, plunging this close knit community into a miasma of suspicion and accusation.

I absolutely loved it. 

From the cynical world weariness of embittered reporter Roddy Mace, fighting off the temptation of the demon drink, to the reappearance of fastidious, OCD suffering detective James Brindle, and a cornucopia of dislikeable victims and suspects along the way, Myers (as in previous books) draws us in, shakes us up, and then spits us out the other end slightly soiled by our reading experience, but guiltily satisfied by it too. As always the book is suffused by Myers strange mix of sometimes lyrical, oftentimes unerringly brutal imagery of the natural environment against which his characters roil, fight, and will to survive.

Perfection. 

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Next we go the quirky, dry-humoured latest offering from Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen in the shape of The Man Who Died, a marked diversion in style from the intensely emotive, and lyrically profound psychological novels that we normally associate him with. Other reviewers have drawn comparison with Fargo, but I was strongly propelled back in time to the devilish Tales of The Unexpected by Roald Dahl, coupled with the brilliantly black humour of one of my favourite books ever, ever, Beyond The Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Tuomainen’s unlikely protagonist, Jaako Kaunismaa takes us on a surreal journey in rural Finland of tracking down his murderer whilst fighting the clutches of death by poisoning, to the sheer cutthroat mentality of competing mushroom harvesting businesses, instances of potential death by samurai sword, and exceptionally scheming women.

It’s all a bit mad, but in a good way, and with Tuomainen’s natural propensity to draw his reader into his exploration of the essence of humanity, just from a slightly different angle, his lightness of touch, and manipulation of absurdity work a treat. Who could possibly know that the world of mushroom growing was such a hotbed of evil intentions? Highly recommended. 

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Staying with Finland, I can confidently say that When Time Runs Out by Elina Hirvonen is champing for a place in my top five of the year. I was absolutely mesmerised by the pure intensity and sensitivity of one family’s turmoil in the wake of a mass shooting. With shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Hirvonen meticulously and stealthily portrays the increasing emotional dislocation of a family, over a period of time, to the devastating effects of this inability for them to communicate and connect on an emotional level.

Hirvonen broadens the sweep of the book even further with incisive comment on global human crises, and the ravaging of the environment which really engaged me and enraged me, but was wonderfully unflinching and truthful in its depiction. I am already recommending this left, right and centre, thrilled by its power as both a clear sighted narrative of familial breakdown, but also of the larger issues it encompasses in a comparatively condensed read.

Superb.   

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We’ll go for an Icelandic head-to-head now with Ragnar Jonasson- Whiteout and Lilja Sigurdardottir- Snare, the former being a continuation of the very successful series featuring policeman Ari Thor, and the latter the starting point of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy.

Ragnar Jonasson’s quality as a crime writer need no further commendation from me, but truthfully, I would say that this has been my favourite of the series to date. I found the writing wonderfully understated, and the whole book exuded an air of English Gothic fiction, with women hurling themselves from cliffs, and the sinister backdrop of the all-seeing lighthouse, compounded by the revelations of very dark pernicious behaviour indeed. I found it tense, involving, and as usual there was a great harmony between the intensity of the criminal investigation itself, and the playing out of Ari’s domestic situation, and his eagerness to progress in his police career.   

Snare proved a curious mix for me, as my overriding feeling that this was almost two books running parallel to each other, with a gripping story of drug running, running alongside a slower Borgen-esque feeling of financial impropriety, and double dealing. I’ll be honest, and say that I didn’t take to the latter thread as much as the former, finding it a little turgid against the relative excitement of the drug smuggling narrative, and although I was slightly questioning of the veracity of single parent Sonja’s involvement in drug running, this was certainly the more compelling of the two storylines, and led to some real heart in the mouth moments. I also enjoyed playing witness to the touchingly sentimental ‘other’ life of customs officer Bragi, whose game of cat and mouse with Sonja was another enjoyable strand of the book. However, the emotional handwringing of Sonja’s romantic involvement with Agla, the bank executive under investigation, became increasingly tiresome, but cleverly the seemingly anodyne ending of the book must signpost further developments for the second part of the trilogy. A little unsure, but curious, and intrigued to see how the story progresses in the next instalment.  

 

(With thanks to Moth Publishing for These Darkening Days, Bonnier Zaffre for When Time Runs Out, and Orenda Books for The Man Who Died, Whiteout and Snare

 

A Deadly Trio- Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil, Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel, Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

The chilling story of a young American woman in Rome, an aspiring actress, who- together with her brother- is implicated in a series of murders dating back to her childhood. She plays a deadly game, alternately intimate and distant, a cipher of unwholesome impulse, and erotic intrigue…

My, my, my, what a dark and sordid tale of jealousy, desire, and cold-blooded murder this proved to be… and I absolutely loved it. With a down-to-the-bone, spare prose style, so resonant of the American hardboiled noir tradition, and scenes that would not be out of place in a Fellini classic, The White Devil is quite simply perfect in its execution. As we become more deeply entwined with this ice-cold female narrator, Victoria, who slowly reveals her tangled and murderous early history, and the strange dynamics at play in her relationship with her brother Johnny, I began to fear more and more for the unsuspecting individuals whom they set in their sights. The book has the pace and sudden shock value of pure classic Hitchcock, and indeed there is a superb visual quality to Stansberry’s writing, as he leads us amongst the upper echelons of Italian society, the starry world of the movies, and the dimly lit and dangerous streets, that lay behind the glamourous façade of Rome.

In addition, Stansberry draws on themes of politics, religion, and money, drawing on the marked differences, and frames of reference, that Victoria and Johnny as Americans abroad harbour, sharply putting into focus their new world gaucheness, and drive to succeed at any cost,  both to themselves or others. I loved the style of Stansberry’s writing, both in its tautness, and, at times, supreme subtlety, and the eminently unlikeable cast of characters with their selfish intentions, or inherent stupidity, exposed as the dastardly Victoria and Johnny inveigle themselves into their world. Woe betide them…

Hardboiled noir to die for. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Molotov Editions for the ARC)

 

Private investigator Danny Katz is trying to track down his former drug dealer. Ramón and his girlfriend Jenny have both vanished leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. How come Ramón suddenly found himself in possession of the mother-load of drugs? And is Jenny really who she claims to be?

Katz’s investigation leads him to the darkest corners of Stockholm’s porn industry and once again his old addiction threatens to control him. Ultimately only one thing seems certain – someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Katz from discovering the brutal truth…

What begins as a seemingly ordinary crime heist novel, The Tunnel quickly evolves into a multi-layered and very enjoyable Sweden set thriller, driven by the archetypal social analysis, and strong characterisation that defines Scandinavian crime fiction. As the individual stories of its three main protagonists and friends, Jorma, a  career criminal, Katz, a reformed drug addict, and Eva, an emotionally troubled woman who works for the police, play out, Vallgren draws us into a sordid world of sex trafficking and violence.

For me, Vallgren’s portrayal of these three contrary, but nonetheless totally appealing characters, is the lynchpin for the enjoyment of the book, and I found myself utterly engaged with them throughout. There is a nice sense of balance in their characterisation as they are not all paragons of virtues, finding themselves susceptible to their own singular vices and desires, and with Katz in particular Vallgren is given the opportunity to explore Swedish society, and to draw on the Jewish roots of his character to spin the story off in another direction. The central plot is unsettling, bleak and exposes the seedy underbelly of drug addiction and the sex industry, and the manipulation of those who find themselves caught up in, or profiting from this nefarious trades. I also liked the ending that is not neatly tied up with a bow, but instead is quite bleak and uncertain. Vallgren is the closest writer I have found to Cilla and Rolf Bjorland (Spring Tide, Third Voice) who also specialise in social realism, and troubled-but-empathetic characters, and will now be hastily backtracking to read the first book by him, The Boy In The Shadows. A top Scandi-noir recommendation from me.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.

Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?

With a nod to Halloween, felt it right to include The Ice Lands in this wee round-up. I would probably describe this as an existential version of The Blair Witch Project, mixed up with Lost with shades of On The Road. I must confess, that for large portions of the book, including the not the most easily comprehensible ending, I was rather confused at quite what the jiggins was going on. Suffused with the dark, bleak and completely terrifying landscape of rural Iceland, and the creepy inhabitants of a house that I’m fairly sure was not constructed of gingerbread, four unwitting, and not entirely likeable egotistic individuals find themselves privy to a nightmare experience. With enough schlock horror moments to keep you on the edge of the seat, and some not always welcome diversions into the world of scientific academia which were initially quite interesting and then waned, Bragi has constructed a unique blend of traditional shocker, and highbrow horror, that chills and perplexes in equal measure. I was dying throughout for these frankly annoying characters to reach grisly ends, but did they? That would be telling. As much as I was confused by some aspects of this tale, I did make it to the end, having had a sense of enjoyment, and frustration, in equal measure. I think overall I liked it, but at times it was just a little…how can I put this… too much up itself for a totally enjoyable reading experience. Sort of recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)