Mikael Niemi- To Cook A Bear-(tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner) “An utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel @maclehosepress

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol. Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them…

Delighted to be joining the blog blast to celebrate the release of To Cook A Bear by Mikael Niemi, an utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel. Using the real life figure, the Revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Læstadius as the central character, adds an authenticity and deeper level of interest to the book, and being unfamiliar with this highly intelligent, progressive and insightful man, there is a real frisson of Niemi linking the past with the present here. To try and encapsulate in a review the many themes of the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and the razor sharp historical detail that Niemi so confidently and brilliantly entwines in this book won’t be easy, as this is a novel quite unlike any other that I have encountered of late.

On a very basic level, this book is a murder mystery with a small community filled with fear and suspicion as a murderer walks amongst them, preying on defenceless young women in a series of attacks driven by violent rage.  As such, even with such a seemingly simple premise, Niemi constructs a chilling and compelling mystery, as the suspicion amongst the local people is attributed by turn to a possible bear attack, to a wandering miscreant, and then far more dangerously into the perpetrator being from the community itself. Reading this from a contemporary viewpoint, I was struck by how little the human race has moved on in terms of accepting peoples’ differences, as the community quickly turns on Jussi, the young Sami boy that Læstadius has taken into his tutelage. This fear of the unknown and the different runs like a vein throughout the book, as even Læstadius himself, with his Revivalist preaching and fervent followers puts him at odds with the men of influence in the town, who value wealth and gaiety over religion and abstinence. Consequently, there are many trials and pitfalls for Læstadius and Jussi, who intent on identifying the perpetrator find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.

What I was increasingly struck by was the progressiveness and intuitive thinking of Læstadius, harnessing clues and applying practical chains of thought to the residual evidence of each crime. Obviously, forensic science was very much in its infancy in this period, but Læstadius neatly assesses and applies increasingly modern methods to his dissemination of the physical evidence he uncovers, based on common sense and lateral thinking. Hence, we see the rudimentary application of the crime scene analysis, we as modern readers are familiar with in its purest form, as Læstadius inches forward with his knowledge and supposition on how to gather clues, analyse them, and catch a killer. From fingerprints to daguerreotypes, from simple pencil shavings to indentations in the landscape, Læstadius draws on his knowledge of psychology, botany, literature and branches of science and pseudo science to close in on the perpetrator.

I think it serves as a testament to the quality of Niemi’s writing and his erudite turn of phrase, and by turn the sublime translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, that I revisited several passages throughout my reading of the book. His rendering of this harsh, but beautiful landscape, the sheer drudgery and hardship of these people’s lives, the physicality of his characters, and the more metaphysical musings of Læstadius himself on art, literature and education, held me in their thrall. On the subject of the community he is a part of, I was struck by their deep connection to the land and the way that their lives have this naturalistic interconnectedness, perhaps stronger than faith and education itself. “ You might easily form the impression that the farm-maid or the reindeer herder lacked the disposition for academic study. But even though they didn’t read books, they knew the changes in the movement of the animals at every moment in the year. They knew hundreds of reindeer marks by heart, and manged to find old pasture grounds, berry patches and fishing lakes from the high mountains to the coastline…In many matters, local people had a deeper understanding than all of Uppsala’s professors.” As much as Læstadius recognises that these people and particularly their children have the potential for a profession, education and improvement, he never loses sight of this more basic characteristic of his flock that connects them to the soil. Likewise, with his apprentice Jussi, he recognises and respects Jussi’s physical need to wander and be amongst nature, but aims to educate him as fully as possible, and their relationship seems to transcend a simple one of teacher and pupil or even adoptive father and son.

To Cook A Bear proved to be an incredibly enjoyable reading experience for me, and as someone who has an innate curiosity of the world and our place within it, I found it tremendously satisfying. Not only did it read as a compelling tale of jealousy and murder, with its nods to early forensic techniques, but it expanded out to envelop a host of larger themes based on religion, morality, art and at its heart an enduring interconnectedness with the landscape and the changing of the seasons. Mikael Niemi has produced a completely fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Lars Levi Laestadius was born in 1800 in the municipality of Jäkkvik in Swedish Lapland and died in 1861 in Pajala on the Swedish side of the border with Finland, which was a Russian Grand Duchy during the nineteenth century. Laestadius was educated as a theologian and worked as a vicar in different municipalities in Swedish Lapland. He also contributed to scientific fields such as botany and ethnography, as well as linguistics and philosophy, and participated in the French La Recherche scientific expedition to Finnmark and Spitsbergen in 1838. He is best remembered as a revival preacher and the revival movement “Laestadianism” has become a central influence in the cultural heritage of Northern Norway, as well as Northern Sweden and Finland.

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

Missed a review? Catch up at these excellent sites:

#BlogTour- Max Seeck- The Witch Hunter “An intensely malevolent tale that effectively merges the criminal and the supernatural.” @MaxSeeck @WelbeckPublish @ed_pr

Detective Jessica Niemi is called to investigate a murder case which is completely out of the ordinary. The wife of a famous writer, Roger Koponen, appears to have been killed in a bizarre ritual. As more ritual murders occur in the coming days, it becomes obvious that Jessica is after a serial killer. But the murders are not random – they follow a pattern taken from Roger’s bestselling trilogy. Has a devoted fan lost their mind, or is this case more personal?

Welcome to the first stop on the blog tour for The Witch Hunter by Max Seeck, an intensely malevolent tale set in Finland, that effectively merges the criminal and the supernatural into a delightfully creepy thriller…

With Seeck’s background in screenwriting it is little wonder that he has produced one of the most visual thrillers that I have read for some time. From the opening scene with a woman pacing the housing equivalent of a goldfish bowl with the dark night surrounding her, you know from the outset that something evil is set to do some serious mischief, and this motif of darkness and the supernatural carries through the book with a creeping sense of unease on the part of the reader. As the book also carries the theme of life mirroring art, as the crimes perpetrated seem to be replicating the fictional crimes of a renowned crime author’s work, the murders are particularly gruesome, and have their base in historical methods of punishments. With Seeck’s finesse in depicting these murders in technicolour detail with the pace and visuality of cinema, I felt for most of the book that I was immersed in a cracking good horror film, and was flinching on more than one occasion. I really enjoyed the to and fro of the detectives trying to link the crimes with their fictional counterparts, identifying potential victims, and the little diversions throughout of the interactions between the suspects. There are a whole host of bizarre ritualistic killings linked to the folkloric methods of despatching witches which are both fascinating and terrifying. A clever and slick premise that works superbly throughout, with more than one murderous surprise in store along the way…

The central police protagonist detective Jessica Niemi charts an interesting course during the book, being both investigator and suspect at various points in the story. She is cleverly used as a filter for the more malevolent aspects of the murders, and under increasing pressure to disassociate herself from the otherworldly forces at work, that increasingly use her as a conduit. At times she seems to channel both open eyed belief and then a scorching cynicism as these strange events unfold. leading to some deep self-questioning on her behalf.  I really liked her professional relationship with her superior officer Chief Inspector Erne Mickson, himself a stand-out character with an interesting part to play in the book. There is an almost paternal concern that he shows for her, tempered by his respect for her as a superb, if slightly renegade, investigator, and their working relationship goes through a good amount of doubt and recrimination.

Slightly disconcertingly there is a parallel storyline in the book, which alternates in and out of the main investigation, recounting an ill-fated sojourn by Jessica in Venice some time previously. This sees her get involved with a troubled and increasingly coercive man, and although for fear of spoilers I cannot reveal how this plays out, Venice proves to be a time of intense emotional experience for Jessica. Admittedly, this particular arc of the story does go some way to defining Jessica, giving us an insight to how she has evolved into the woman and detective she is, but I did find it a bit distracting, and found myself at times, itching to get back to the main plot of murder and mayhem.

Overall I enjoyed The Witch Hunter, particularly the most supernatural and ritualistic elements of the book and the blending of fiction with reality as the killer’s motivation for some particularly grisly and heinous murders. The core investigation of the book and those that undertake unfolds at a steady and satisfying pace with all the panache and recognisable elements of the Nordic noir genre. I will be interested to see where Seeck takes Jessica Niemi next, in what is a solid start for a potential series too. Recommended.

(With thanks to Welbeck Publishing for the ARC)

Missed a review? Catch up at these excellent sites:

#BlogTour- Lin Anderson- The Innocent Dead “The strong characterisation and Anderson’s skill in bringing the forensic science to the fore of the book, whilst never losing sight of the need for a well-structured and engaging procedural is very effective indeed.”

Mary McIntyre’s disappearance tore the local community apart, inflicting wounds that still prove raw for those who knew her. So when the present-day discovery of a child’s remains are found in a peat bog south of Glasgow, it seems the decades-old mystery may finally be solved. Called in to excavate the body, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod uses the advances made in forensic science since Mary’s vanishing to determine what really happened all those years ago and who was responsible. One key person had been Karen Marshall who was devastated by her best friend’s abduction. Questioned by the police at the time had led to a dead end and the case soon went cold. Now the news of the discovered body brings the nightmares back. But added to that, memories long-buried by Karen are returning, memories that begin to reveal her role in her friend’s disappearance and perhaps even the identity of the killer…

Welcome to the latest stop on the blog tour for The Innocent Dead by Lin Anderson, the latest addition to the Rhona MacLeod series. It has seemed an age since I last read a book in this series, so it was good to catch up with MacLeod and her cohorts once more…

The absolute lynchpin of this series to date is the character of the forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod herself, who has carved an extremely successful and varied career in her chosen field. With the continuing reverberations of her last case, neatly detailed within this book by Anderson, she seems to be back on track and back in control, when this testing case of a crime committed forth five years previously, lands at her door. MacLeod sets about it with her usual professionalism and flair for weeding out those tricky inconsistencies in the evidence, working closely with her police colleagues to reveal the intricacies of these nefarious crime and to zone in on the perpetrator. What I like most about MacLeod is that, her professional career aside, is her refusal to conform to the norm. She has a sense of fun, that had been eroded somewhat by her previous case, but now seems to be back with style, and her personal life is conducted very much on her terms, with no fixed relationships. With her estranged son firmly back in life, and his arse of a father still treated by her with the strongest contempt, this provides an interesting view into what makes her tick, and how she has overcome personal adversity in her life.

DS Michael McNab provides a good counterbalance to MacLeod, their previous personal entanglement aside, being on the surface a bit of an un-reconstructed man, with his love of bikes and a roving eye. However, Anderson really scratches beneath the surface, and we begin to see a more insecure and sensitive side to his character, that you would be forgiven for thinking didn’t exist at all. Still reeling and resentful from his demotion due to the last case  that he and MacLeod worked on, he has a lot to prove if he can get past this resentment and apply himself. His character heralds some nice touches of humour within the book, and with MacLeod’s lab assistant Chrissy McInsh being an absolute hoot, this further lightens the dark investigation they are all involved with.

Although the book could be tagged as a linear police procedural, Anderson’s attention to, and research of, the forensic detail really adds some meat to the bones of the plot. Dealing with an historic murder and a difficult kill site, it is fascinating how modern methods of forensic science so effectively uncover details and evidence from the past. I loved the passages detailing the forensic procedures, the drawing on the work of other branches of forensic and psychological detection, and how with good solid police investigation a community begins to unlock its secrets, and confronts the sins of the past, where previously silence and denial were the rule of thumb.

As I said previously, it’s been a while since I read this series, but The Innocent Dead has certainly ignited my interest  to backtrack to the previous few books. There were a few developments that have happened, that I had missed along the way, and I’m now curious about. The strong characterisation and Anderson’s skill in bringing the forensic science to the fore of the book, whilst never losing site of the need for a well-structured and engaging procedural is very effective indeed. Recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

Missed a post? Catch up at these excellent sites: 

Steve Cavanagh- Fifty Fifty- “A real page turner of the highest calibre.” @Sscav @OrionBooks

Two sisters on trial for murder. They accuse each other. Who do YOU believe?

‘911 what’s your emergency?’

‘My dad’s dead. My sister Sofia killed him. She’s still in the house. Please send help.’

‘My dad’s dead. My sister Alexandra killed him. She’s still in the house. Please send help.’

One of them is a liar and a killer. But which one?

 

Billed as the explosive follow up to Thirteen, the last book from Steve Cavanagh featuring grifter turned lawyer Eddie Flynn, I can guarantee that Fifty Fifty will keep you as gripped as any of the previous outings. Flynn is once again caught up in a tricky legal case where every decision on guilt or innocence could have dire consequences for the woman he seeks to defend, his advisory team, and for Flynn himself…

Obviously it would be extremely unwise of me to dwell too much on the plot itself, as I could cram this review with so many individual spoilers, it would make your head spin. Such is the convoluted trickery of Cavanagh’s writing, albeit with a seemingly innocuous premise of two sisters blaming each other for the murder of their father, that the essential enjoyment of any of his books relies on his expertise of the smoke and mirror effect. With our comprehension of each sisters guilt or innocence so completely manipulated throughout, and skewing our perception of them at every turn, Cavanagh once again demonstrates why he is one the sneakiest and tricksy crime writers on the scene today, keeping his reader in a state of suspense and questioning, that he so brilliantly mirrors in the main character of Flynn himself, that this is, by definition, a real page turner of the highest calibre. Admittedly, I did give myself a wee bit of a pat on the back this time by sussing out who did what to who with what and why, and I liked that little creeping sense of satisfaction that it gave me as a reader…

Eddie Flynn, and by extension his team of renegades (ex-judge Harry Ford is a particular favourite of mine), totally hold this series together, and Flynn’s sharp wit and heavily disguised legal acumen lie at the heart of the the enjoyment of these books. He is an entirely likeable protagonist who easily gets the reader on board with his delightful mix of street smarts and, at times, emotional sensitivity. The latter is particularly relevant in this case as something entirely unexpected happens that rocks both Flynn and us to the core, and gives us an insight into another aspect of his character, usually buried beneath the whip-smart attitude and his natural propensity to play with fire, and really getting under peoples’ skins. His normal slightly carefree demeanour is undermined and knocked soundly in this one, and I liked the direction this took his character in, despite the sense of loss regular readers of this series will experience as events play out. In fact, developing and moving characters on is a noticeable feature of this book, introducing another strong female character, Kate Brooks, a lawyer who seeks to challenge the chauvinistic and belittling attitude of the multi million dollar legal firm she is employed by, and which consequently takes her character on a very interesting journey…

With its cleverly executed plot, excellent characterisation, and thrills and spills, Steve Cavanagh, once again demonstrates his ability to raise the legal thriller to another level, with no diminishing of the nuts and bolts of criminal procedure, but keeping the relentless pace and energy at the forefront for the readers’ enjoyment. Fifty Fifty is a perfectly formed thriller, Eddie Flynn rocks and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC- Fifty Fifty is published 3rd September)

Read my reviews of all the Eddie Flynn series:

The Defence: Win the trial. Or lose his life. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) The Plea: His client is innocent. His wife is guilty. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) The Liar: It takes one to catch one. - Eddie Flynn (Paperback) Thirteen

#BlogTour Will Carver- Hinton Hollow Death Trip “I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.” @will_carver @OrendaBooks

It’s a small story. A small town with small lives that you would never have heard about if none of this had happened. Hinton Hollow. Population 5,120. Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow. Because something was coming.
Narrated by Evil itself, it recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infected its residents. A visit that made them act in unnatural ways. Prodding at their insecurities. Nudging at their secrets and desires. Coaxing out the malevolence suppressed within them. Showing their true selves.

Making them cheat.
Making them steal.
Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace had returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple. But he was not alone. Evil had a plan…

If I thought that reviewing Will Carver’s previous book Nothing Important Happened Today was damn tricky, it was a walk in the park compared to Hinton Hollow Death Trip which poses infinitely more stumbling blocks to coherent reviewing. As tempted as I am to just say this one freak-ass weird book, which you definitely need to read, that doesn’t really give you much to go on, does it? So dear reader, I feel duty bound to do this properly… cue sharp inhalation of breath and cracking of knuckles…

Centred on a  rural community of 5000+ souls, “a quaint little nowhere,” this is so much more than an everyday tale of small town folk, as Evil walks among them coercing and cajoling these most ordinary of people to behave in ways completely alien to them, and to lay themselves bare to the depraved machinations of this malevolent force. As Evil says, “Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything…It is a slow and deadly poison,” and as he bestrides this small town, gradually infecting and influencing its residents, you are pretty sure from the outset that this will not end well. As Evil recounts a host of horrifying events and disasters, that it has been party to, it blames the small minded, selfish beings that we have become, and through Carver’s examination of our fatuous obsession with social media, our pettiness, narcissism, our destruction of the planet, and cruelties to each other and animals too, you kind of get to thinking that Evil has a point as it observes, “You keep pushing and pushing. Wanting more and more. Listening less and less…Humankind has created evil at a rate that even I cannot keep up with.” 

As with his previous book, I delight in Carver’s diatribes on the sheer bloody uselessness of the majority of human beings, and found myself nodding sagely at some of the more barbed and amusing observations of the human race. very little in modern culture escapes Carver’s microscopic analysis, and this book is full of them. The calorific breakdown of biscuits is, of course, an essential need to know. However, balanced with the more throwaway and blackly funny observations, this book is cut through with the seriousness of our stupidity, and using the trope of Evil to filter this, brings a mixture of thought provoking and poignant meditations on our failings, hopes and how far we would sacrifice ourselves for others. As much as there are individuals in this book pushed into acts of cruelty, Carver never loses sight of their ordinariness, not all of these people are inherently bad, indeed some of them sacrifice themselves quite nobly, but I found it interesting that in some cases, the smallest nudge from Evil really does lead to some quite depraved deeds from where you would least expect it.

Consequently reading this book Carver is playing with and manipulating our emotions from start to finish, and I found this quite fun- I do like a bit of reader participation. An initial perception of a character can be changed in an instant, people you wouldn’t feel sorry for are suddenly made sympathetic, people in similar situations act in different ways, leading you to think what you would do and so on. Obviously some characters are just odious eejits, and your hackles are raised, your indignation aroused, and then someone dies. And then more people die. And then a couple more just for luck. It’s great.  Held together by the first person narration of Evil, as it moves everybody around in a sadistic game of chess, we once again encounter the hangdog and hapless DS Pace still reeling from the events of the previous book. I have a great affection for Pace, so woebegone, so incapable of relating to anyone, but an almost worthy adversary for Evil itself, but can this really end well for him?

As you’ve probably realised, I’ve told you next to nothing about the plot of Hinton Hollow Death Trip, so my own evil plan has worked well. Instead, I would encourage you to read this yourselves, much as I did with not the faintest clue of what would lie ahead. All manner of human life is contained within it, with people behaving badly, bravely, stupidly or nobly. You will gasp, you will laugh, you will quizzically wrinkle your brow, you will ponder the dark inner workings of Carver’s brain, but I defy you not to be swept along by this twisty, intelligent, compelling and completely weird book.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Missed a post? Catch up at these excellent sites: 

FINAL Hinton Hollow BT Poster

#BlogTour Quentin Bates- Cold Malice “Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books.” @graskeggur

Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir tries not to believe in ghosts. But when Helgi, one of her team is certain he’s seen a man who had been declared dead more than fifteen years ago, she reluctantly gives him some unofficial leeway to look into it. Has the not-so-dead man returned from the grave to settle old scores, or has he just decided to take a last look around his old haunts? Either way, there are people who have nursed grudges for years, hoping for a reckoning one day. Even the rumour of his being alive and kicking is enough to spark a storm of fury and revenge, with Gunnhildur and Helgi caught up in the middle of it…

I am already a confirmed fan of this series, having previously reviewed Thin Ice and Cold Breath and it is a still a source of much puzzlement to me that Quentin Bates still remains relatively little known. Aside from his accomplished translations of Icelandic fiction, I generally find that when I recommend his books in my day job as a bookseller, he becomes a firm favourite, so hopefully I can continue the trend here!

Detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is, without a doubt, the lynchpin to this series, where she carefully balances her traits of fairness and determinedness, with a sharp wit and her reluctance to suffer fools gladly. There’s a great observation by one of her police colleagues, “Gunna had no problem in being downright offensive if she felt it was called for, and it was a brave man who picked an argument with her,” which on the surface shows the more antagonistic aspect of her character, but is roundly applauded and respected for her instincts and intuition too. When I read these books, I always picture Marge Gunderson from Fargo, as Gunna shares many a trait with her, and I also like the fact that her family life, at times complicated, is always incorporated into the books, giving us an even more rounded sense of her balancing the roles of detective of some repute and as a mother, with the challenges that this brings. You always feel that she clasps a bit between her teeth, and one of the cases is no exception with a suspicious suicide and a tangled web of past secrets, but also a case that leads her to navigate the unfamiliar and unscrupulous art world.  I also enjoyed the way that a closer focus was put on Helgi, one of Gunna’s police colleagues, as he is on the trail of a face from a past presumed dead, whilst coming to terms with another surprise addition to his brood, and trying to control his wandering eye…

What I love about this series, apart from Gunnhildur and her colleagues , is how Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books. Within this story, the author has ample opportunity to draw us into the workaday world of men at sea, and the dangerous and stressful conditions that this work involves. His descriptions of the stormy seas, the sheer hard physical toil of life, and the stress that life away from home wreaks on family are all beautifully described. You get a real sense of the waves crashing around your ears, and the biting cold permeating you to the core. Aside from this, Bates also casts a perceptive eye on the changes that Iceland has experienced, both politically and socially, in terms of the increase in tourism, the development of the capital city, and the fractures that are appearing more on a social level. Again, this serves to draw the reader in closer to the actual landscape and feel of Iceland, as closely as possible, adding another layer of interest to this police procedural.

There is a real comfort to be had in reading a series where the characters and terrain have become increasingly familiar to you, giving you a feeling very much akin to pulling on a comfy jumper, and being instantly enveloped back into this world and with these people. This series does that perfectly, and as I said in the intro, this is probably one that you might like to discover for yourselves, whether you start with Cold Malice or start from the very beginning. Which as we know, is a very good place to start. Recommended.

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)

Missed a post? Catch up at these excellent sites: 

#BlogTour- Rod Reynolds- Blood Red City- @Rod_WR @OrendaBooks “Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.”

When crusading journalist Lydia Wright is sent a video of an apparent murder on a London train, she thinks she’s found the story to revive her career. But she can’t find a victim, much less the killers, and the only witness has disappeared. Wary she’s fallen for fake news, she begins to doubt her instincts – until a sinister call suggests that she’s not the only one interested in the crime. Michael Stringer deals in information – and doesn’t care which side of the law he finds himself on. But the murder on the train has left him exposed, and now he’ll stop at nothing to discover what Lydia knows. When their paths collide, Lydia finds the story leads through a nightmare world, where money, power and politics intersect, and information is the only thing more dangerous than a bullet…

Having enjoyed Rod Reynold’s previous series set in the United States, Blood Red City marks a change of direction for this author. Now firmly ensconced in the greedy and grimy streets of London, this book has shades of both State Of Play and McMafia, enlivened by Reynold’s unique and compelling writing style…

In writing a thriller with a storyline such as this, there is always a danger that a writer will drift too far down the Hollywood road, relying on coincidence and unbelievable twists to push the action on and provide that high octane pace that comes with the territory. What Reynolds gives us is a skilfully crafted and perfectly balanced thriller that feels incredibly rooted in reality without the bells and whistles that others rely on. From the opening scenes of an apparent murder on the London Underground, the drawing in of a tenacious and determined journalist, and the shadowy figure of a man for hire, what unfolds before us is a tale of duplicity, greed and corruption that sucks you in and spits you out at the end, drained, yet satisfied.

For my money, and having a read a few thrillers this year which circle the same kind of plot as this, I think this is the best of the recent bunch. The plotting is so finely controlled with just the right amount of change of gear in terms of pace, and reveal, that although it doesn’t stint on the page count, I found myself reading big, meaty sections of it in one sitting. Giving nothing away I’m sure most of us are extremely aware of the correlation behind the scenes of crime and politics, so what perturbed me the most was how believable this all felt, with the incredible influence of money and power at the root of the story, and at the very heart of the corruption that plays out before us. Reynolds immerses us in a world where money talks, the media whitewashes, and a seemingly impenetrable cabal of powerful figures pull the strings.

I loved the front and centre role that London occupies in this book where, whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with it, Reynolds neatly captures the most resonant features of the metropolis. The rush of stale air before a tube train arrives, the streets, the noise, the pace, the grinding poverty, the glittering, grasping riches, and the very essence of the city. By paying such attention to the location itself, and like his previous books, the author transfers us into his very visual and almost tactile rendition of the city, and as his characters live, work and are pursued through its streets in extreme danger, the city is the constant and completely perfect backdrop for the web of corruption and danger he places his characters within.

So into the pulsating heart of the living, breathing city and its shadowy, scheming powerbrokers, Reynolds gives us two main characters, diametrically opposed to each other, in almost every way possible, but with a growing sense that together they are stronger. Lydia Wright, dedicated journalist with a strong moral code, fiercely loyal to those she holds dear, but unafraid to go off in pursuit of a story with wrongs to be righted. Her character is underpinned by a  tendency to trust the wrong people, particularly one scurrilous individual whose card I had marked from early on, and a slightly too gung-ho attitude in the face of some considerable danger. I liked her very much, flaws and all, and I also admired the way that Reynolds didn’t manipulate her character to make her act unfeasibly out of character, keeping a sense of ordinariness about her, but not shying away from her sense of determination and loyalty, when the pressure is on. Which brings us to Michael Stringer, a man for hire, whose true intentions and character are more of a closed book for a fair amount of the book, perhaps because of his bad start in life, and by his current shady employment. Who is he and who is he working for, and as the more secretive aspects of Stringer’s character are gradually revealed, can Lydia really trust him?…

So, Blood Red City more than proves itself as a thriller with edgy tension, a powerful and well constructed plot, and a stark insight into a world of violence, greed and corruption within the echelons of power.

Intrigued? You will be.

Gripped? Definitely.

On the edge of your seat? Oh yes…

___________________________________________________________________

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Missed a post? Catch up these excellent sites: 

#Blog Tour- Eva Björg Ægisdóttir- The Creak On The Stairs @OrendaBooks

When a body of a woman is discovered at a lighthouse in the Icelandic town of Akranes, it soon becomes clear that she’s no stranger to the area. Chief Investigating Officer Elma, who has returned to Akranes following a failed relationship, and her colleagues Sævar and Hörður, commence an uneasy investigation, which uncovers a shocking secret in the dead woman’s past that continues to reverberate in the present day. But as Elma and her team make a series of discoveries, they bring to light a host of long-hidden crimes that shake the entire community. Sifting through the rubble of the townspeople’s shattered memories, they have to dodge increasingly serious threats, and find justice, before it’s too late…

It’s always good to discover another member of the Icelandic crime writing stable, and if you have previously enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson or Yrsa Siggurdottir, there is much to enthral you here. The Creak On The Stairs from Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is the first of a series introducing a new female detective, and displays all of the recognisable hallmarks of Icelandic crime fiction…

Usually when I review I tend to focus on one aspect of the book which totally hooked me, and in this case the overriding impression I was left with was that of location and atmosphere. After a short sojourn in Rekjavik, Elma returns to her hometown of Akranes, and we are instantly immersed in this dark, elemental setting, separated by a stretch of water from the capital city, and Ægisdóttir builds the character of the town and its surrounds with as much care and precision as the plot and characterisation too. The whole book is enveloped by an intense feeling of claustrophobia and foreboding, which is mirrored by the wild and tempestuous weather, and the changing moods of the sea. The descriptive elements of the book are extremely powerful, and really allow the reader to picture each individual setting, and to feel the mercurial changes wrought upon it. From the sinister old lighthouse to the roiling shoreline it rests upon, our feeling of darkness and foreboding is constantly manipulated and shaped by this aspect of the book.

Chief Investigating Officer Elma is at the heart of the book, and the gradual reveal of her reasons for returning to Akranes, reconnecting with her family and her developing relationship with her police colleagues are perhaps the most interesting aspects of her character. As the investigation she is bound up with is fairly linear, Ægisdóttir has more opportunity to establish this character, and her cohorts as a base to build further investigations on. Although I question the speedy intensity of one of her new relationships, which was a little cliched, there was a solid building of camaraderie and cooperation established with the team Elma is now part of. Aside from Elma, I felt that the author used her female characters effectively to address some powerful themes of control, subjugation and abuse, and one older character in particular seemed to embody the meek acceptance that builds into a simmering and then violent resentment was very well realised indeed.

Using a split timeline to recall the experiences of a young abused child Elisabet, with her experiences as an adult is an effective trope of the book. As we see how her character develops, and her increasingly physical outbursts, little wonder that these events as a child so fully shape her as a woman. The passages that recount her childhood are an emotive mix of malevolence and pathos, and in the closing chapters as the murderer is eventually unmasked, it becomes increasingly clear that a whole web of lies and deceit have also blighted her entire life. Although the plot had a sedate pace, Ægisdóttir does strive to hold the reader’s interest, and there were a couple of satisfying plot twists to change our perspective on some of the characters we encounter.

With its claustrophobic intensity and a measured but powerful depiction of female oppression, I think The Creak On The Stairs was a solid start to a series, with plenty of opportunity to grow and develop the central female police character. Another assured translation by Victoria Cribb, and a real sense of affiliation with, and appreciation of the location used, by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir herself, there is much to enjoy here. Recommended.

____________________________________________________________________

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Missed a post? Catch up at these excellent sites: 

***Author Spotlight*** Anna Jaquiery

I thought the time was right to highlight one of the best French crime authors you may not have read, so very pleased to introduce you to Anna Jaquiery. I had the pleasure of reviewing her previous two books featuring Commandant Serge Morel, The Lying Down Room and Death In A Rainy Season (reviews below) and with the release of the third in the series Wasteland, wanted you all to experience this writer for yourselves.

Wasteland once again features Commandant Serge Morel of the brigade criminelle, a philosophical, sensitive and hugely empathetic detective, investigating two murders of young boys within Villeneuve a sprawling, deprived multi-cultural estate in Paris. “If you grew up in a place like Villeneuve, where you knew there was a pretty high chance you wouldn’t get a job when you left school, where it was hard to stay on a straight path and achieve anything, the only way to be heard was to get really pissed off, and loud, and break things. Otherwise, no one heard. No one was listening”  The racism and poverty that Morel uncovers in the course of his investigation underpins the whole story, and as Morel gets closer to the unmasking of a killer, we are totally absorbed into this melting pot environment.

Once again, Jaquiery writes with a stark clarity, that by its at times dispassionate air serves only to immerse the reader more. She focusses particularly on the younger sister, Aisha of one of the victims, Samir, and through her eyes and perception, far in advance of her teenage years, we see the hopelessness and disparity of life for those within Villeneuve. Aisha is both intelligent and street smart, suffering at the hands of schoolyard bullies, but who has a fierce affection for her late brother and a steely determination that his killer will not go unpunished. As Morel becomes more embroiled in the case, we see his natural empathy to and protectiveness of Aisha develop, that puts both himself and her in the crossfire. With police confrontation and gangs a normal facet of life on this estate the stage is set for a violent conclusion, and Morel and his team are right in the centre of the crossfire.

As the book progresses, we also see more of Morel’s difficult home life, and the growing stress that his father’s mental degeneration places on him, which Jaquiery handles in a clear-eyed and sensitive way. Morel remains philosophical in the face of this additional pressure in his life, and it is these passages relating to him and his father that are both poignant and emotional. I love the way that this author balances these slices of his home life so effectively with the particular stresses ands strains of Morel’s murder investigations, and these only serve to flesh out more what is already a very compelling character. From his interactions with his colleagues, to his natural empathy for the murder victims and their kin, Morel is genuinely one of my favourite police characters, and this series one of the best I have read. I love the sensitivity of Jaquiery’s writing and the way she injects a more philosophical edge to her books through the character of Morel himself.  I would definitely recommend that you seek out this series as soon as you are able. Think you may enjoy them…

Discover the Commandant Morel series: HERE

__________________________________________  

The Lying Down Room introduces us to the charismatic and dedicated Chief Inspector Serge Morel. The story opens in Paris in the stifling August heat, and Morel is called to examine a disturbing crime scene. An elderly woman has been brutally murdered to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem, and her body grotesquely displayed. The reasons for this murder and the choice of victim baffle Morel and his team.

But our detective has problems of his own. His father, such an influence in his life, is descending into the grip of senility. If that weren’t enough for him, Morel is having an affair with a friend’s wife, but has become unsettled by the reappearance of his lost love, Mathilde. Like so many other fictional detectives, Morel has a quirky interest to relieve his angst and focus his mind. In his case it’s origami.

As the investigation continues, and further murders happen, his fingers fold faster and faster. He makes a connection between the victims and two individuals – a middle aged man and a young boy – who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. Soon his inquiries take him back into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. A tragic story begins to unfold.

In terms of characterisation, The Lying Down Room contains all the key ingredients needed to herald the arrival of a new detective in the crime fiction genre. Morel is a very carefully constructed and wonderfully realised character. He combines natural charm and humour that immediately resonate. His interactions in both his professional and personal lives allow the many different facets of his character to shine – like the focused and dedicated police officer, and the man thwarted in love. There are some intensely moving scenes between him and his father. This relationship is filled with pathos, adding poignancy to Morel’s situation. Morel is a man of contradictions with his character being all the more emotionally interesting for it, and consequently the scene is set for further exploration of this detective.

The narrative is particularly impressive, with nice, clean delineation between the various strands that come into play within the plot. Not only is the central murder storyline well paced and realistic, but as Jaquiery expands the story to encompass the personal narratives of the perpetrators themselves, she weaves together various locations and timelines. What emerges is an incredibly human tale of lost opportunities and wicked twists of fate that can put an individual on the path towards murder. Cleverly, this aspect of the novel invokes natural sympathy in the reader as we bear witness to the incredibly sad events in our antagonists’ pasts, evinced in the stark portrayal of life in Soviet Russia, and the mental and physical wounds this produces. At times, Jaquiery handles the sheer emotional heartache of some of these scenes more in the vein of literary fiction rather than a genre crime novel.

There is little to fault in this debut, combining as it does a superbly plotted and emotive criminal investigation with the introduction of a police protagonist more than imbued with enough charm and interest to carry the weight of a series. Anna Jaquiery demonstrates all the natural flair and quirks of French crime fiction that fans of Vargas, Lemaitre, et al, will relish reading. More than proud to proclaim this as my debut of the year.

______________________________________________________

Always a tense time to be reviewing a second book from an author whose debut you absolutely loved. Anna Jaquiery’s haunting debut The Lying Down Room was a joy to read and review, so much so that it was second in my Top Read of 2014, and is one of the books that I most consistently recommend in my day job as a bookseller, when people are looking for a new slice of Euro crime.

Death In The Rainy Season is the next book to feature Jaquiery’s charismatic and thoughtful French detective Commandant Serge Morel, and marks a change of location from France to the hot climes and unique atmosphere of Cambodia, where the modern socio-economic problems of this country are counterbalanced by its spiritual core. Morel is taking a well-earned sojourn after the vents of the previous book, a welcome break from caring for his father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and a chance to further come to terms with a failed relationship. He finds himself unwillingly drawn into a local murder investigation, when the son of a prominent French minister is found murdered in a down-at-heel hotel room. The victim, Hugo Quercy, oversees a local NGO providing charitable support to street children, and is generally a well-regarded figure in the local community, and  respected by his colleagues. However, as Morel under pressure from his boss back home, joins forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit, also enlisting the help of grumpy local medical examiner Sok Pran, it quickly becomes clear that Quercy is not quite the man everyone had perceived him to be, and that the conspiracy behind his murder reaches further than Morel and his cohorts could possibly imagine…

Perhaps my first point of reference for my enjoyment of this book should be an appreciation of Jaquiery’s style of writing. Throughout the novel the sense of serene simplicity that her narrative style evokes in the reader is beautifully evinced not only in her evocation of location, but also through the character of her police protagonist Morel. The multi-dimensional facets of the Cambodian setting are sublimely juxtaposed, as Jaquiery carefully balances not only the deep spiritual core of this intriguing country, with the social ramifications of political corruption and misguided economic policies on the Cambodian populace. Where some authors blatantly crowbar in the depth of their research at the expense of the needs of the plot to keep the reader’s interest, Jaquiery intertwines her social detail simply, adding to the richness of the strong central plot, and I learnt much from the quality of this research.

As Morel becomes immersed in the pulsating and bustling atmosphere of Phnom Penh after his initial calm retreat in Siem Reap with its ancient temples and traditional way of life, the sights and sounds of the city form a vital backdrop to his investigation. Likewise, the change of location impacts on Morel himself, as he wanders deeper into the underbelly of the city, and the pressure of the investigation and the demands of home, begin to unsettle his formerly peaceful equilibrium. He is a mesmerising character throughout and one cannot fail to find him empathetic, morally strong and entirely likeable. As he deals with the wife, friends, and colleagues of the victim, whilst slowly establishing a close working relationship with his Cambodian counterpart Sarit, the strength of his character always stands front and centre. Sarit too was instrumental in my enjoyment of the book, as his initial reticence and secrecy at the beginning of the investigation is slowly broken down by his interaction with Morel, and brings instead a sense of understanding and respect between the two men. We share in their frustrations as the investigation progresses, and I loved the slow reveal of the various dynamics of Quercy’s relationships with the possible suspects, and the gradual unfolding of Quercy’s true character as the man behind the myth.

I really cannot fault Death In The Rainy Season in any way, as it contains so many aspects of human interest, emotion, and intrigue along the way. Not only is it a intelligent and compelling tale of murder and corruption, but the quality of the writing and the evocation of its setting and characters make it a rich, multi-layered and totally rewarding piece of crime fiction. I am singularly impressed once again, as I was with The Lying Down Room, and have no hesitation in wholly recommending this one too.

_________________________________________________________________

Vaseem Khan- Bad Day At The Vulture Club

The Parsees are among the oldest, most secretive and most influential communities in the city: respected, envied and sometimes feared. When prominent industrialist Cyrus Zorabian is murdered on holy ground, his body dumped inside a Tower of Silence – where the Parsee dead are consumed by vultures – the police dismiss it as a random killing. But his daughter is unconvinced. Chopra, uneasy at entering this world of power and privilege, is soon plagued by doubts about the case. But murder is murder. And in Mumbai, wealth and corruption go in hand in hand, inextricably linking the lives of both high and low…

In uncertain times, such as these, I think that the benefits of reading are immeasurable to aid an escape and distraction from global events. Looking for more of a comfort read, I turned to Vaseem Khan’s excellent Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation series of which I have read a few now, and this is the latest in the series.

As much as I love the colourful and whimsical covers on these books, I always worry that readers may avoid them, lumping them in with the more cosy elements of crime fiction. What Khan actually achieves is a skilful balance of the cosy, encapsulated by the home life of Inspector Chopra and his intuitive charge, Ganesha the baby elephant and sharply observed social commentary that really taps into the grinding poverty and political corruption of India as a whole, and Mumbai more specifically. As we are equally amused by some of Chopra’s associates and Ganesha’s uncanny ability to keep Chopra safe from harm, and some truly laugh out loud moments, the true character of Mumbai and its inhabitants is referenced throughout the book. In keeping with the best crime writers who specialise in urban crime, there is a feeling of affection on the author’s part for the city, in all its grime and glory, and a reticence to look away from the darker aspects of it too, giving him a great canvas to create these taxing cases for the indomitable and always focussed Chopra.

I like the way that Khan shines a light on the city both through Chopra’s cases and the social missions that his wife Poppy embarks upon, much to the chagrin of the wrongdoers and their neighbours respectively. In this way, Khan can cover many different issues in the course of one book, keeping the stories realistic and, most importantly, engaging, as we as readers discover so much about this uniquely vibrant, yet sharply contrasting city. I found the background to this particular case incredibly interesting, as I was not familiar at all with the finer details of the Parsee religion, its ceremonies, traditions and how modern practices are beginning to encroach on these traditional rites. I thought that this gave an incredibly solid grounding to the case Chopra becomes inveigled in, and again reflects the prowess of Khan’s writing, both here and in other books in the series, to utterly engage us in a particular aspect of Mumbai society, underscored by a no doubt fascinating research process, and to carefully balance this with a compelling crime plot.

Chopra is a beautifully drawn character, as a former police officer turned private investigator of some repute. He is an incredibly moral man, with a defined code of justice, that instils a trust and respect in him by those who know him best, and those that come to seek his help. He is always completely focussed on the victims he encounters, and no matter how trying or dangerous an investigation gets, he retains a dogged determination to expose the perpetrators and gain justice or clarity for the victims. As Chopra says himself, “For me, each and every case is a personal matter. It is the only way we can be sure to see things through.” This sense of dogged determination seems to carry over to his personal life too, as the logistics of caring for his unusual young charge, Ganesha, and the particular challenges that his tenacious and headstrong wife presents, keep Chopra well and truly on his toes. It can never be said that Chopra is not a practical and pragmatic man though, which stands him in good stead for all the challenges that his life presents. Khan’s characterisation in general is always spot on, with a wonderful supporting cast for Chopra himself, and an innate ability by the author to focus so perfectly on people’s visual characteristics, and quirks of appearance. He does this is in such a way that every character is vividly drawn in the reader’s mind, and compounded by the sharp and perfectly pitched dialogue adds another layer of enjoyment to these excellent books.

Love them! Highly recommended.

______________________________________________________________________

(I bought this copy of Bad Day At The Vulture Club: Hodder Books)