Ilaria Tuti- Flowers Over The Inferno

In a quiet village surrounded by the imposing Italian Alps, a series of violent assaults take place. Police inspector and profiler Teresa Battaglia is called in when the first body is found, a naked man whose face has been disfigured and eyes gouged out. Soon more victims are discovered – all horrifically mutilated – and when a new-born baby is kidnapped, Teresa’s investigation becomes a race against the clock.

But Teresa is also fighting a battle against her own body, weighed down by age and diabetes, and her mind, once invincible and now slowly gnawing away at her memory…

Okay, I think I’m going to have rein in my exuberance, passion and generally ‘gee-that-blew-me-away-ness’ that this book aroused in me. Having already staked a claim for a spot in my Top Ten of the year, I will endeavour to do justice to this frankly incredible book. Bear with me…

The first absolute stand out feature of this book is the character of Teresa Battaglia herself, an older woman battling the twin issues of ageing and physical deterioration. Tuti paints a moving and incredibly touching portrait of this indomitable woman who caught up in an exceptionally distressing and seeming unsolvable case, is battling with her increasing concerns over her mental aptitude, recording her thoughts day by day feeling that they could slip away from her at any time, “what am I if not my thoughts, my memories, my dreams, my hopes for the future? What am I without these feelings, without my dignity?” These sections of the book where Battaglia unloads her consciousness into the written word are incredibly moving, brimming with a self-awareness, and a fluttering sense of mental fortitude that enthrals the reader, and says much about every person’s fear of losing their sense of self.

Partly because of this, she over compensates in the tough exterior she is known for, not suffering fools gladly, and proving a hard taskmaster for her investigating team. The scenes that focus on her repartee with one of the newer members of her squad, who experiences no easy ride from his new boss are particularly barbed, but cut through with wit and a slowly developing sense of acceptance in a play on the pupil and mentor roles. She is, however, bestowed with a remarkable empathy for both victims and the killer saying at one point that “before crossing the point of no return, even a serial killer is a human being in pain. Often abused. Always lonely” which is incredibly prescient as the plot plays out. Tuti cleverly manipulates both Battaglia’s and the readers’ perception of the killer throughout, blurring the lines of moral responsibility, and with a real sense of there but for the grace of God.

As regular readers of my reviews know, landscape is all important in my assessment and enjoyment of the books I read, and this small village overshadowed by forest and mountains in the Alpine region, works completely in harmony with the story. It’s an enclosed community, rife with secrets, and permeated with suspicion and folklore, producing a creepy and chilling backdrop to this murderous tale, “it was like the village had for many years been infected by a dark, tainted humour which had slipped beneath its surface, and festered there, out of sight.” The darkness, density and danger of the surrounding terrain, provides a place of both safety and threat for a group of children with difficult home lives, lending the story a touch of Stephen King who often employs children as a conduit for evil. It’s very effectively done, and really heightens the creeping sense of unease that permeates the book, and with the portrayal of the St Nicholas’ Day torch-lit procession evoking the evil figure of the Krampus, Tuti builds further on this theme of darkness and threat lurking in the shadows of this claustrophobic community.

I think it’s fair to say that this book left a real impression in its wake on this reader, being not only a perfectly formed murder mystery, but also a book that is layered with a supreme awareness of the frailties and strengths of the human condition, through the investigators, the inhabitants of the village and the killer too. I found this a really intense and emotional reading experience, and felt utterly bound up in the lives of the characters, and the travails they experience. Absolutely highly recommended.

(With thanks to W&N for the ARC)

Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

Banish Those January Blues… Alan Parks, Oliver Bottini, Mari Hannah, Donato Carrisi, Masako Togawa

Hello everyone. In the whole killing two birds with one stone thing, and realising I am already behind with my reviews (despite my resolution to do better), here is a little round-up of books to chase away that January feeling of gloom. As you would expect, I had issues with one of them, but you may be intrigued nonetheless, and the rest were pretty damn fine indeed.

You may need a little book retail therapy…

When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead in the middle of a busy Glasgow street and then commits suicide, Detective Harry McCoy is sure of one thing. It wasn’t a random act of violence.
With his new partner in tow, McCoy uses his underworld network to lead the investigation but soon runs up against a secret society led by Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops.
McCoy’s boss doesn’t want him to investigate. The Dunlops seem untouchable. But McCoy has other ideas . . .

Gritty, unflinching, perfectly non- politically correct, and with echoes of the grandmasters of black-hearted noir, Lewis, McIlvanney, Raymond, Bruen et al, this was an absolute corker.

From the outset I was heartily entertained by the exploits of Detective Harry McCoy, with his nefarious relationships and more hands-on methods, and his wet-behind-the-ears sidekick, Wattie as we find ourselves firmly rooted in 1970’s Glasgow. The book is peppered with cultural and political references familiar to those of us born nearer that era- ahem- as well painting a grimly real backdrop for readers less familiar with the period. This is a city down on its uppers, with only occasional glimmers of the city that Glasgow was to become, and Parks’ colourful and inventive use of the Glaswegian vernacular brings a heightened level of enjoyment to the book too. The main storyline is very seedy indeed, involving as it does drugs, exploitation and abuse, which Parks determinedly lays before us warts and all. As I’ve said before I do like a book where I feel slightly soiled by the reading experience, in a similar vein to Benjamin Myers and Jake Arnott,  and Bloody January fitted the bill perfectly. It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year. Highly recommended.

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Louise Boni, maverick chief inspector with the Black Forest crime squad, is struggling with her demons. Divorced at forty-two, she is haunted by the shadows of the past.
Dreading yet another a dreary winter weekend alone, she receives a call from the departmental chief which signals the strangest assignment of her career – to trail a Japanese monk wandering through the snowy wasteland to the east of Freiburg, dressed only in sandals and a cowl. She sets off reluctantly, and by the time she catches up with him, she discovers that he is injured, and fearfully fleeing some unknown evil. When her own team comes under fire, the investigation takes on a terrifying dimension, uncovering a hideous ring of child traffickers. The repercussions of their crimes will change the course of her own life.

Now this one perplexed me, as for the first half of the book I was submerged in the existential peace of tranquillity that gradually evolves into a more straightforward thriller. I loved the concept of this calm, ethereal figure of the monk, traversing the terrain of the Black Forest, pursued by this, as it turns out, very emotionally unstable female detective. I felt a bit like like Manny in Black Books where he swallows The Little Book of Calm as reading this induced a kind of contented relaxation in me, as Bonetti brings the natural serenity of monk, woman and forest into alignment.

Then I got bored.

And increasingly annoyed.

Boni began to irritate me with her constant self obsessed, self pitying keening, and to be honest, my interest was waning from this point. I found the child trafficking plotline slightly repetitive and circular, and I fair scampered to the end of the book just to see how things would pan out. Did feel a huge sense of disappointment in not enjoying this one more, as regular readers know my universal love for translated crime fiction, but alas not this time.

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When a mysterious DVD is delivered to Northumbria Police Headquarters, DS Matthew Ryan and Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil are among the few to view its disturbing content. With little to go on the only lead comes from the anonymous and chilling woman’s voice narrating the blood-soaked lock-up depicted on screen.
But with no victim visible, nor any indication of where the unidentifiable crime scene is located, Ryan and O’Neil get the distinct feeling someone is playing with them. What is certain is that the newly formed special unit has just taken on its first challenging case.
As further shocking videos start arriving at police stations around the country, the body count rises. But what connects all the victims? And why are they being targeted? As the investigation deepens, the team is brought to breaking point as secrets from the past threaten to derail their pursuit of a merciless killer . . 

I know I baulk every time I read the strapline, that so and so author is ‘at the height of their powers’ but, I think in Mari Hannah’s case this is absolutely fair. Not only the author of the brilliant DI Kate Daniels series, but onto a winner with this, the follow up to The Silent Room which first introduced us to Ryan and O’Neill.

Obviously you will discover for yourselves the extremely well crafted storyline, and the highly original compunction the killers have for committing the crimes they do (as usual no spoilers here), but I just wanted to highlight something else. The thing above all else that I admire about Hannah’s books is her way of really fleshing out, and roundly depicting her characters, their fears, their flaws, their missteps in communication, but also their moments of empathy, comradeship and loyalty. Every character in this book works seamlessly with the others, with fluctuating levels of trust, professionalism and friendship. Although there was a significant gap between The Silent Room and this one, I was instantly back in the groove with O’Neill and Ryan, and the brilliant Grace and Newman, who make up their merry band, as if there were just friends that I hadn’t bumped into for a while, but instantly recalling when I had last seen them, and what they’d been up to! Obviously, with my affection for the North East, I was once again, transported effortlessly to my old stomping ground of Newcastle, and the sublime, rugged beauty of Northumberland and beyond.

Cracking story, equally cracking characters, and plenty of thrills, tension and heartache along the way.

Superb.

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Sixty-two days after the disappearance . . .

A man is arrested in the small town of Avechot. His shirt is covered in blood. Could this have anything to do with a missing girl called Anna Lou?

What really happened to the girl?

Detective Vogel will do anything to solve the mystery surrounding Anna Lou’s disappearance. When a media storm hits the quiet town, Vogel is sure that the suspect will be flushed out. Yet the clues are confusing, perhaps false, and following them may be a far cry from discovering the truth at the heart of a dark town.

I must confess I did read this one a little while ago, so I may be a bit shady on the detail, but my lasting impression of this one is that I enjoyed it! Referencing my previous point about translated crime fiction, I think that Italian author Donato Carrisi consistently produces extremely atmospheric and gripping psychological thrillers and The Girl In The Fog continued this tradition. Flipping backwards and forwards in time, tracing the disappearance of the eponymous girl in the fog, Carrisi presents a flawed but fascinating character in the sharply dressed and obviously psychologically haunted figure of Special Agent Vogel. I was particularly enamoured with his one to one conversations with the seemingly affable psychologist, Flores, and the little tricks and twists in the interaction between the two men as the story is teased out. As usual, Carrisi perfectly employs the more sinister aspects of the landscape to colour the tale further, and what ensues is a claustrophobic and tense tale of the darkness of the human psyche. Recommended.

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The K Apartments for Ladies in Tokyo conceals a sinister past behind each door; a woman who has buried a child; a scavenger driven mad by ill-health; a wife mysteriously guarding her late husband’s manuscripts; a talented violinist tortured by her own guilt. The master key, which opens the door to all 150 rooms, links their tangled stories. But now it has been stolen, and dirty tricks are afoot.
A deadly secret lies buried beneath the building. And when it is revealed, there will be murder.

Another bijou delight from Pushkin, in the shape of Japanese thriller The Master Key from the late, multi-talented author Makamo Togawa. Revolving around the female inhabitants of the K Apartments, Togawa weaves a spellbinding tale of jealousy, covetousness and chicanery that I can only compare to the brilliant Patricia Highsmith. As we become involved with the everyday lives of this disparate group of single women, and the secrets they conceal, Togawa has not only constructed a compelling thriller, but also has much to say on the nature of the womens’ experiences in Japanese patriarchal society, and how they are compartmentalised and suppressed by the community they inhabit. By turns shocking and moving, but consistently engaging, I will definitely be seeking out more works by this author. An eye opening read.

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(With thanks to Canongate for Bloody January, Quercus Books for Zen and the Art of Murder, Macmillan for The Death Messenger, Abacus for Girl In The Fog and Pushkin for The Master Key)

 

Travels with the TBR #2- Eva Dolan- Long Way Home, Davide Longo- Bramard’s Case, Pascal Garnier- The Eskimo Solution, Frederic Dard- Crush

Somehow,  I don’t think I’m making great in-roads into the 100+ books in the TBR pile, but here’s another selection of books that had been woefully ignored. Hope you find something you like…

 

evaA man is burnt alive in a shed.
No witnesses, no fingerprints – only a positive ID of the victim as an immigrant with a long list of enemies.

Detectives Zigic and Ferreira are called in from the Hate Crimes Unit to track the killer, and are met with silence in a Fenland community ruled by slum racketeers, people-trafficking gangs and fear.
Tensions rise. The clock is ticking. But nobody wants to talk.

Although written pre-Brexit, it has taken me so long to read Dolan, that this book proves an even more powerful read in the wake of recent political tumult in the UK. What I liked so much about this one, is how Dolan so assuredly balances the stoicism and welcoming nature of some to the immigration issue, and the inflammatory and deluded beliefs of others, whilst coolly reflecting the never less than easy day to day existence of those that have sought to assimilate themselves into British society, legally or illegally. From the non-native backgrounds of her main police characters, Zigic and Ferreira, to the perpetrators and victims of the crimes committed, the book paints a vivid and realistic portrayal of the cultural melting pot that is Britain today, and the plot is well-paced, and satisfyingly twisty throughout. An intriguing and less than easy investigation leads to an excellent first of a series, and being quite taken with the two main police protagonists, this is a series that I will catch up with as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

bramardOnce a year, Corso Bramard receives a message from the man who destroyed his life.

He left the police after a serial killer he was tracking murdered his wife and daughter, but fifteen years later he is still taunted by his old adversary. Mocking letters arrive at his home outside Turin, always from a different country, always typed on the same 1972 Olivetti. But this time the killer may have gone too far. A hair left in the envelope of his latest letter provides a vital clue.

Bramard is a teacher now – no gun, no badge, just a score to settle. Isa, an academy graduate whose talent just about outweighs her attitude is assigned to fight his corner. They’re a mismatched team, but if they work together they have a chance to unmask the killer before he strikes again – and to uncover a devastating secret that will cut Corso Barmard to the bone.

A wonderfully downbeat and introspective Italian set crime novel, far more reminiscent of the style of a Raven favourite, Valerio Varesi, than the more colourful and bitingly humorous Andrea Camilleri. This is a real slow burner, so don’t expect a thrilling pace, but instead be lulled by the existential musing, and real soul searching that Bramard asks of himself throughout the book. His interaction with the keen, but less experienced Isa, works beautifully during the course of this tricky investigation, that is so laden with the echoes of dark times in Bramard’s past. Literary crime fiction infused with sadness, that I positively loved. Recommended.

41qpbyzkial-_sx321_bo1204203200_A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast. There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination…

Regular readers of my blog know all too well my deep affection for the work of the late lamented Pascal Garnier, so it will come as no surprise that this is another winner. Cleverly, and in the space of only 159 pages, Garnier weaves together the story in real time, and the book that is being written by the crime writer, constantly shifting your attention between the two. I liked the fictional tale incorporated within the other fictional tale, if you get my drift, and was almost tempted to write another review of that one too. In his trademark style, both stories deal with sex, death, greed, passion, and murder, and dig down to the nastiest aspects of the human psyche, with black humour and mordant wit. Genius.

dard

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine. When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

A chilling and psychologically dark Fifties tale of suspense of jealousy and murder, that is trademark Frederic Dard from stsart to finish. His depiction of the naivety and gaucheness of Louise, is never less than perfectly realised, as she inveigles herself in the life of the glamorous but tormented couple, the Roolands. In a relatively short novel, Dard ratchets up both the suspense, and depth of character with some lighter vignettes featuring Louise’s awful relatives too. You know you are being led on a path of self destruction from early on, and as you view the self combustion of the characters, you almost feel guilty for watching. Wasn’t entirely convinced by the abruptness, and rather unfinished feel of the ending, but time spent with Dard is never entirely wasted, as the rest of this dark tale testifies. Recommended.

(With thanks to Maclehose, Pushkin and Gallic Press for the ARCs. I bought a copy of Long Way Home)

July 2016 Round-Up and Raven’s Book of the Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Aside from losing my internet access for 12 long, long days, July has really been quite productive and mostly enjoyable. A week off work, a birthday, and lots of terrific books read too! Had another heart-breaking book cull, which I imagine to be akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child, waving goodbye to 500+ books to my local charity shop, but still have a few hundred in reserve- hurrah!  And still on the positive,  I have at last made a slight in-road into my 20 Books of Summer Challenge- post coming soon. So, onward to the books…

Books read and reviewed:

Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh

Simon Booker- Without Trace

Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing

Frederic Dard- The Wicked Go To Hell

Frederic Dard-Bird In A Cage

Jonathan Ames- You Were Never Really Here

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending

Elizabeth Haynes- Never Alone

wilberI also dipped my toe back into non-fiction crime and read Del Quentin Wilber- A Good Month For Murder– which I would put very much on a par with David Simon’s Homicide or Mile Corwin’s The Killing Season. Wilber, an award winning reporter at The Washington Post, gives us a truly compelling behind the scenes look at the police officers and investigative cases of  a homicide squad. By following the progress of several cases and the dedicated officers who approach their task with a mixture of dedication, doggedness, and world weary cynicism, Wilber shines a light on the day-to-day frustrations and danger that this noble band of men and women grapple with, to go about their remit to protect and serve. Incredibly readable, well-researched and thought provoking throughout. Recommended.

Raven’s Book of the Month

No. I can’t do it. This has been an absolutely stellar month for reading with some real stand-out reads along the way. They are all so completely different and wonderful in their own way, so this is the fairest decision I can come to…

Extremely honourable mentions to Clare Carson- The Salt Marsh , Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World and Anna Mazzola- The Unseeing Seek these out immediately.

Carson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSH            cover_9781609453367_661_600        unseeing

And down to the wire, the twisted genius of Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding and the seedy,  gritty Glasgow gangland world of Malcolm Mackay- For Those Who Know The Ending proved impossible to choose between. Joint winners chaps and thoroughly deserved.

blood                   malcolm

 

Massimo Carlotto- For All The Gold In The World

cover_9781609453367_661_600A robbery goes wrong and ends with a brutal murder. The police investigation turns up nothing. Two years later, Marco Buratti, alias ‘the Alligator,’ is asked to look into the crime and find out who was responsible. Buratti’s employer is young, the youngest client he has ever had; he is only 12 years old, the son of one of the victims. The Alligator senses right from the start that the truth is cloaked, twisted and shocking. Together with his trusted associates he will find himself mixed up in a story of contraband gold and blood vendettas between criminal gangs.

Massimo Carlotto is undoubtedly one of the most astute observers of the criminal and social dynamics of his native Italy. For All The Gold In The World featuring series regular Marco Buratti aka The Alligator, Carlotto once again takes the opportunity to fix his unique gaze on the complexity of his homeland.

In another taut investigation, unlicensed private investigator Buratti and his shady cohorts Beniamino Rossini and Max The Memory, are drawn into a tale of greed and murder following a particularly violent home invasion leaving the mother of a now vulnerable twelve year old boy dead. What Carlotto so brilliantly achieves in this book is an interesting exploration of his main characters’ barometer of morality. For three men who have indulged in criminal activity themselves and are no strangers to violence, there is something really quite touching about their willingness to take on this particular case, but balanced with the inherent buzz of danger that begins to embroil them as the investigation progresses. The main plot is underscored by the periodic authorial intervention of Carlotto himself, passing comment on the socio-political make-up of Italy, and providing an insider’s view of the layers of corruption that exist between the higher echelons of Italian power through to the world of law enforcement. This adds a richness of detail to the overall book, and works in perfect symmetry with the utterly compelling thriller that Carlotto has constructed.

I am a confirmed fan of both Marco Buratti and Carlotto’s other regular series character Giorgio Pellegrini, so for reasons unexplained this book gives a delicious pointer to things to come. Buratti is a man of contradictions, with his inherent violent masculinity that we see in his ‘day-job’, working in tandem with a sometimes apparent sensitivity in the personal sphere of his life. He has a huge obsession with the Blues, and Carlotto enlivens the book further with musical references and Buratti’s night visits to a local jazz club, whilst investigating the activities of a possibly philandering wife for an anxious husband. With Buratti being Buratti, this spawns an inevitable love interest for him, but once again affords Carlotto the opportunity to explore a deeper emotional side of Buratti’s character. There is also the wonderful dynamic of Buratti with his criminal cohorts Rossini and Max that not only demonstrates the solidity of their masculine fraternity, but also at perfect intervals allows us to witness their easy humour, and the emotional scars that they all bear. This exploration of ‘maleness’ is a recurrent strength of Italian crime fiction I find, and Carlotto is one of the masters.

Quite simply, this is gritty and edgy Italian noir at its best, with its vibrant and unflinching mix of violence and criminality, underscored by superb exploration of character and a wider focus on society as a whole. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

Something ‘Ould’, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue…

SOMETHING ‘OULD’…

bloodHaving left the Faroes as a child, Jan Reyna is now a British police detective, and the Islands are foreign to him. But he is drawn back when his estranged father is found unconscious, a shotgun by his side and someone else’s blood in his car. Then a man’s body is found, a shotgun wound in his side, but signs that he was suffocated. Is his father responsible for the man’s death? Jan must decide whether to stay or forsake the Faroe Islands for good…

Okay, so I haven’t really shut up about this book for a month in my daytime job as a bookseller, as it is set apart from much of crime fiction by the largely unfurrowed terrain of its Faroe islands setting. With a similarity in its premise to Peter May’s excellent Hebridean trilogy of a mainland detective returning to the stamping grounds of their youth, and replete with the sense of place exhibited in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland books, I was soon immersed in this far from everyday tale of island folk. What Ould achieves in spades with this book is a seamless intertwining of the mysterious and beautiful but harsh setting of the Faroes themselves, fully bolstered by an intriguing and sinister plot. There is a real sense that the author has absorbed completely the language, traditions and unique character of this location, and as much as I was gripped by the excellent plot, my enjoyment of reading was further enhanced by the revealing of a way of life that I had not encountered before. Ould homes in on the discreet character of the Faroese with their natural respect for the privacy of the individual, and the difficulties this presents in our detectives’ investigation, the differences between the inhabitants of each separate island,  and the story is peppered with examples of the vernacular adding an authenticity to the book overall. I was also completely taken with the two main police protagonists, the returning prodigal son Jan Reyna and local detective Hjalti Hentze, with both men exhibiting shades of light and dark as more of their character was slowly revealed as the tricky investigation progresses. Also, satisfyingly Ould has managed to maintain a further air of mystery about Reyna in particular, no doubt to be revealed in future books. There is an easy sense of professionalism and growing friendship between the two men, and I liked the camaraderie and their individual tenacity in their slightly different investigative styles that becomes apparent. Probably due to Ould’s extensive screenwriting experience, the plot unfolds at an assured pace, and contains both suspense and surprise along the way and delighted to say that I was very impressed indeed…

(With thanks to Titan Books for the ARC)

SOMETHING NEW…

JOEWhen the first young boy goes missing in a quiet Cape Cod town, Lieutenant Bill Warren is pulled into a morass that promises no happy ending. As his pursuit uncovers the unimaginable, he is led into a world of gambling, drug peddling, corruption and secret psychiatric experiments. As facts become murkier and the threat rises, Warren struggles to survive in a world where the police can be just as tainted as the criminals they chase, and where a murder inquiry will ultimately lead to his front door…

With my innate love of American fiction, it is always pleasing to read a debut that traverses both the crime and contemporary fiction genres, and Flanagan achieves this wonderfully here. With all the tension and darkness of a crime thriller Lesser Evils also contains a real depth of characterisation and psychological exploration that raises it above your average crime read, and I was held completely in its thrall from start to finish- leading to late night reading and late returns from lunch-breaks too. Set in 1950’s Cape Cod, the story centres on a series of child murders, which Flanagan unflinchingly, but compassionately portrays, and which in turn reveals a level of corruption among opposite branches- county and state- of the police fraternity, which leads the central police protagonist Bill Warren into dangerous territory, and personal threat. Warren is one of the most perfectly constructed characters I have ever encountered in crime fiction, blessed with a nobility and morality of character that sets him apart in the morass of immorality that surrounds him. He is dogged, dedicated but also hampered by his own insecurities particularly in relation to his driving sense of doing the right thing both professionally, and personally in his role as a single father. He has a natural compassion for those maligned due to their gender, race or sexual orientation and the sense of fairness that exists in him  makes him a natural target for the bigoted and corrupt behaviour of some of his fellow law enforcement officers. As the tale unfolds, Flanagan is given tremendous scope to ruminate on greater themes such as religion, addiction, mental illness and physical abuse, and he addresses all of these with a measured and thoughtful air, which leads to a real lyrical beauty to some passages, that fair takes your breath away. The visceral darkness of the main plot, set against this more metaphysical tone in the writing is beautifully balanced throughout, and skilfully manipulates our emotions throughout. So much more than a crime thriller, and a book that I would urge devotees of exemplary fiction writing to seek out.

(With thanks to Europa Editions for the ARC)

SOMETHING BORROWED…

51t+BxvtL2L__SL160_Percy is sixteen and used to her mama disappointing her. But this time her mama’s been gone for nine days and she’s been seen up at Shelton Potter’s farmhouse. Which can only mean she’s strung out on meth again, and who knows when she’ll be back. A blizzard rolls in and Percy jumps in her pickup and sets off for the farmhouse. She finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, sleeping off the latest binge. But no sign of her mama. Percy heads upstairs and finds a neglected baby girl, in urgent need of care and attention. Percy knows she has no choice. She has to take the baby and get her to a hospital as soon as she can. But the blizzard shows no sign of stopping and soon her pickup is snowed in. Now she’s on foot and before long two-bit criminal Shelton wakes up and heads out with four of his associates, on the hunt for whoever has taken the baby . . .

Making the most of the brilliant loan facility that exists in the bookstore where I work, I quickly homed in on this new arrival. Resplendent with a jacket quote from the marvellous Ron Rash (Serena) and with comparisons to Daniel Woodrell and Denis Johnson, my attention was instantly grabbed. With a small cast of traditionally redneck characters residing in backwoods Michigan, with their attendant drug addictions and propensity for violence, this book does bear a distinct resemblance to Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone with a similarly driven young female protagonist. Mulhauser constructs a slim but well played-out story, with a small cast of characters, that slowly builds to a tense conclusion, punctuated by moments of extreme violence along the way. He exhibits a touching sympathy to what initially seem to be a cast of dislikeable characters, exposing their hidden humanity, humour, and how the conditions of your upbringing can mould your character to retain a sense of morality, or to take a different path of self destruction. The dialogue was sharp and authentic, and the atmosphere in terms of weather and landscape was well depicted. I enjoyed the book to a certain degree, but seeking to break out from the shadow of Woodrell in particular is no easy task, and the feeling of imitating Woodrell’s style too much worked slightly to the detriment to the overall feel of the book.

(Sweetgirl is published by Fourth Estate/HarperCollins)

SOMETHING BLUE…

51TiHDraCIL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A body is discovered in a Milan apartment, and Inspector De Vincenzi investigates. The apartment happens to belong to and old university friend of his, Aurigi. When the body turns out to be that of Aurigi’s banker, and a phial of prussic acid is discovered in the bathroom, suspicion falls on the apartment’s owner, and De Vincenzi is agonisingly torn between his sense of duty and his loyalty to an old comrade…

As a staunch devotee of Simenon’s Maigret books, I was delighted to discover this previously unknown to me Italian author, who exhibits a wonderfully similar style and pace to his French counterpart. This is the first of de Augusto’s books to feature Milanese detective de Vincenzi, originally published in 1935, and now re-issued under the mantle of the Pushkin Vertigo series. The detective we encounter here is thoughtful, pragmatic. and like the venerable  Maigret possesses a wonderful appreciation of the grey areas of crime detection, and the inevitable pulls on professional honour, and personal loyalty that this presents. In this relatively slim tale, de Vincenzi insinuates a greater level of psychological exploration than in books three times its length, and there is a strong sense of the socio-political feel of Italy in this period too. It’s bijou, but perfectly constructed and I can’t wait to discover the rest of the series…

(With thanks to Pushkin for the ARC)