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Vive La France!(2) Pierre Lemaitre- Three Days And A Life/ Herve Le Corre- After The War/ Antonin Varenne- Retribution Road

En l’honneur de la fête nationale, voici une sélection des thrillers Français qui ont impressionné, déplacé et ravi le Corbeau dans la même mesure.  Ou en d’autres termes, un billet de blog je pourrais simplement étiqueter, voici trois de mes livres préférés de l’année, qui ne risquent pas d’être dépassé n’importe quand bientôt. Hélas, ma collègue française serait un mauvais service à ces critiques, pardonnez-vous à l’anglais! 

Bonne lecture à tous et à toutes!*

Antoine is twelve years old. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother in Beauval, a small, backwater town surrounded by forests, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and nothing much ever happens. But in the last days of 1999, a series of events unfolds, culminating in the shocking vanishing without trace of a young child. The adults of the town are at a loss to explain the disappearance, but for Antoine, it all begins with the violent death of his neighbour’s dog. From that one brutal act, his fate and the fate of his neighbour’s six year old son are bound forever. In the years following Rémi’s disappearance, Antoine wrestles with the role his actions played. As a seemingly inescapable net begins to tighten, breaking free from the suffocating environs of Beauval becomes a gnawing obsession. But how far does he have to run, and how long will it take before his past catches up with him again?

Being a confirmed admirer of Pierre Lemaitre’s books to date, I rather enjoyed the subtle shift of style and location that Three Days And A Life reveals. Turning his attention away from the big city to the rural backwater of Beauval, Lemaitre constructs a slower and more introspective novel than we have come to expect from him, but equally produces a more heightened, and psychologically deft portrayal of human frailty and morality…

Time after time, I become disappointed, and as you know more than a little incensed, by the unnatural narrative voice given to young protagonists. Consequently I avoid reading many books that have a pre-sixteen narrator or central character. With Antoine, the dislikeable little person that he is, Lemaitre captures beautifully his perception of the world, and his reactions to the consequences of his severe misdemeanour. Antoine is realistically imbued with a child’s thought processes, as to how to conceal and avoid punishment of his crime, and I enjoyed the authenticity of his under-developed sense of morality, which he seems to carry quite happily into his adult years too. I thought the portrayal of his mother was also excellent, and how Antoine’s childish perception of her as just his mother actually spoke volumes to the reader about her true emotional state. Equally, I loved the depiction of parochial small town jealousies, and ill-feeling, that reminded me of the observational prowess, and skewed morality that is so familiar in the works of the late Pascal Garnier. Lemaitre reveals a boiling pot of tension and envy that perfectly fits with the feel of a small community under pressure, and the distrust of their neighbours.

The latter stages of the book are hewed from Antoine’s re-visitation of childhood events from an adult perspective, and Lemaitre’s control of his narrative once again comes to the fore. With Antoine being as utterly self-absorbed as he was as a child, but perhaps with a greater perception of the fall out for others from his actions, and indeed, closer to home, there is another twist in store for the reader, and there was me beginning to worry that the king of the psychological twist would disappoint! Once again, a precise and engaging translation from Frank Wynne allows us to fully appreciate this tawdry and morally ambiguous tale of childhood mistakes, and Lemaitre has again demonstrated his flexibility and natural flair as a storyteller. Three Days And A Life is entertaining, thought-provoking, and as always highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

1950’s Bordeaux. Even now, the Second World War is never far from people’s memories, particularly in a city where the scars of collaboration and resistance are more keenly felt than ever. But another war has already begun. A war without a name, far away across the sea, in Algeria, where young men are sent to fight in a brutal conflict. Daniel knows what awaits him. He’s heard stories. Patrols, ambushes, reprisals, massacres, mutilations, all beneath a burning north African sun. He has just a month left before he leaves but, haunted by the loss of his parents and sister in the atrocities of the last war, Daniel questions why he is even going to fight in the first place. Meanwhile, past crimes are returning to haunt Albert Darlac, the godfather of Bordeaux: corrupt police chief, fascist sympathiser and one-time collaborator. Before long, a series of explosive events will set off a spiral of violence that will bring the horrific legacy of wars past and present to the streets of Bordeaux…

During the reading of After The War, I posted on social media that “This is astonishing. I have been moved, perplexed, disturbed, and enthralled in equal measure” and to be honest, in the wake of finishing it, I could simply leave it at that. Comprising of past and present timelines, the dual locations of the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Bordeaux, and the contentious French conflict in Algeria, and with one police protagonist that is evil incarnate,  Herve Le Corre has produced a truly uncompromising, multi-layered masterpiece…

In common with many crime thrillers this is a story driven by, and built on vengeance, as Daniel, a young man, on the cusp of war,  becomes aware of his estranged father returning to Bordeaux to seek revenge on the man who committed the ultimate betrayal during WWII. Through the powerful narrative of Daniel’s experience fighting in Algeria, juxtaposed with Jean, his father’s, meticulous plan to heap as much misery and wrath on Albert Darlac, an immoral, violent and thoroughly odious police detective, Le Corre raises the emotional intensity, and therefore the reader’s engagement with some considerable skill. His characterisation is absolutely superb, with all three male protagonist’s exposing to the reader the very best and worst of human nature, and digging deep into the notion of how we can be morally compelled to do bad things for good reasons. In the character of Darlac, we see the ultimate realisation of the bete noire, with a man whose actions come from the darkest recesses of immorality, and whose revenge on those around him is driven by evil of the highest order. I was equally repulsed and fascinated by him throughout, and will from this day forward acquire the mantle of one of the darkest characters ever to grace the pages of crime fiction.

Le Corre’s depiction of Daniel experiencing the sheer intensity and dubious morality of men’s actions in war was my personal highlight of the book. As a regular reader of contemporary literary  war fiction, I thought that the author’s realisation and visualisation of the terrain itself was perfect in every detail, and the mundanity of a soldier’s life, interrupted with these big, bold and terrifying incidences of combat was hugely affecting on the reader. Le Corre never turns his full gaze away from this harshest of moral issues as to how the men in Daniel’s platoon react so viscerally to attack, and how they vent this rage on the enemy, contravening the rules of war. The scenes he presents are uncompromising, and yes, uncomfortable at times, but so real and necessary to underscore Daniel’s gradual realisation of the futility of that for which he fights, and in which he loses comrades. It was breath-taking in its depiction.

After The War is a behemoth of a thriller, that challenges and perplexes the reader, testing our notions of morality and empathy, and through the adept translation of Sam Taylor, a thoroughly rewarding, if emotionally troubling read. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

And last, but by no means least, and quite possibly my book of the year…

Burma, 1852. Arthur Bowman, a sergeant in the East India Company, is sent on a secret mission during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. But the expedition is foiled – his men are captured and tortured. Throughout their ordeal, a single word becomes Bowman’s mantra, a word that will stiffen their powers of endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering: “Survival”. But for all that, only a handful escape with their lives. Some years later in London, battling his ghosts through a haze of alcohol and opium, Bowman discovers a mutilated corpse in a sewer. The victim appears to have been subjected to the same torments as Bowman endured in the Burmese jungle. And the word “Survival” has been daubed in blood by the body’s side. Persuaded that the culprit is one of the men who shared his captivity, Bowman resolves to hunt him down…

I have tried and failed to write a coherent review of Retribution Road, with several attempts, as it’s impossible to do justice as an amateur reviewer to the sheer magnificence of this novel. Adopting the form of an allegoric odyssey, Antonin Varenne has produced a sprawling, magisterial novel that defies comparison to anything I have read before…

Structured as three interlinking parts, and traversing more than 700 pages, I could feel the influence of a quest serving as a plot device in mythology and fiction, with a difficult journey towards a goal, in the character of Arthur Bowman who inhabits, and influences, each stage of the novel. As he journeys from his military service in Burma, then on to Victorian London, and finally to the swathes of  unconquered territory of America in the grip of the gold rush, each section of the book is wonderfully visual, with Varenne depicting each landscape with pinpoint precision. In his use of location the ordinary is made extraordinary, and the reader’s sense of us being such a small inconsequential part of the natural world is continually brought to bear. Bowman is beautifully cast as both avenging angel and pioneer, weighted down by the brutal events in his personal history, and hence a man of changeable moods and impulses that wax and wane during the course of his mission to track down a killer.

The prose throughout is as tender and sensitive, as it is violent and vengeful, and our emotions and feelings are challenged and manipulated throughout, as Bowman navigates through both testing terrain, and human interaction. The book also poses some interesting theories on  morality and immorality, particularly as a consequence of Bowman’s actions, and those of the man he so ardently and doggedly pursues, at intense personal cost. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that this is a true magnum opus, and held me utterly in its power along the long road to redemption and justice. It was just a completely wonderful emotional rollercoaster,  suffused with historical detail, and a totally authentic evocation of place. It is a hugely complex and challenging novel, addressing themes of war, religion, revenge, human connection and emotional strife. As ever, Sam Taylor provides a perfect translation, that subtly captures the nuances of Varenne’s intensity of emotion.  I cannot praise Retribution Road enough, and would highly recommend it for fiction and crime fiction readers alike. C‘est vraiment magnifique!  

(With thanks to MacLehose for the ARC)

 

*In honour of Bastille Day, here are a selection of French thrillers that have awed, moved and delighted the Raven in equal measure.  Or in other words, a blog post I could simply label, here are three of my favourite books of the year, that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Alas my schoolgirl French would be a disservice to these reviews so forgive the English!  Happy reading!

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Raven’s Yearly Round-Up and Top 5 Crime Reads 2016

 

largeWell, what a perfectly horrible year we’ve all had. War, poverty, death, and selfishness on a dizzying scale has defined 2016. We’ve had political meltdown, and our country is now floundering due to the 52% of the British people who really should not have been allowed anywhere near the Brexit vote, by reason of their gross stupidity. (Don’t even get me started on Theresa ‘we know you’re struggling but we don’t give a toss’ May). Then, to cap it all,  the weirdness of the U.S. voting system allowing the ascendancy of one of the most xenophobic and misogynistic individuals to the most powerful position imaginable and I refuse to even utter his name.  Also, I know I am not alone in having personal strife this year too. Yes. It’s all been a bit crap.

book-love-books-to-read-23017145-619-463But, gather round bookish friends and let’s take a moment to rejoice in the good stuff- ‘the books, the books’, I hear you cry. It’s been a superb year for crime fiction this year, and I have discovered some absolute gems along the way. So here’s how Raven’s reading year panned out…

(click on the book jackets for reviews)

 

DEBUT-TASTIC!

With 90+ books reviewed and over 150 read during the year, 2016 has been a bumper year for some damn, fine fiction. (Still 40+ non-starters but we’ll move swiftly on).  I was particularly struck by the quality of the debut authors I have encountered this year. A couple will be featuring in my Top 5, so aside from them, special mentions, and a round of applause to the following…

gaylin51pljceuoulunseeingbloodb2c884_18036d56c0324f78b3cd43bcd5d3f4b8

 

THAT DIFFICULT SECOND BOOK…

Also wanted to highlight those authors that blew me away in 2015 with their debuts, and who have now produced second books, the equal of, or even better than their first foray into the world of crime fiction…

deadlyCarson_02_THE%20SALT%20MARSHsuzimedinathe-pleaFever_of_the_Blood

 

6c217d7a427ef735dcbf85b02b5c40a4AND STILL IT GOES ON….

In last year’s round-up I wrote this… It seems that only by dwelling at the outer reaches of the Arctic Circle could you escape the hype surrounding The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. And yet the Raven was unmoved by the sheer intensity of the praise heaped upon this book on its release, and the ensuing avalanche of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers that it helped spawn. There again I didn’t like Gone Girl either. I am the domestic noir Grinch. Enough already.” Unfortunately, I still failed to heed my own advice, and have either abandoned at the 40 page mark, or trawled all the way through on pain of death, a substantial number more of these over the last 12 months.

Resolution for 2017? Quoth the Raven. Nevermore.

Not a single dopey domestic noir thriller will grace my blog in the next year.

WORDS FAILED ME…BUT IN A GOOD WAY…

492ec49_6e4d53e237f2437cb87cd049f0b4cfaaAlthough I am not the most prolific of bloggers, and tend to give breathing/thinking space between finishing books and writing a review, there are some books that with fingers poised over keyboard that prove excessively difficult to review, because they are so damn weird/clever/thought provoking/intense (delete as applicable). Courtesy of Orenda Books, two such books have crossed my path this year, and never has it taken me so long to try and write reviews that reflect the sheer cleverness and thought provoking intensity of these two. Mr Yusuf Toropov, Mr Michael Grothaus, I salute you…

fb929b12453a2ce028c765b5197b1a04THE TBR PILE…

Yes, the behemoth of the TBR mountain looms large on my conscience, but to be honest, there are worse problems to have, and no, I am not going to count the number of books vying for my attention. Have started making a dent with my commute to work, which has afforded me the opportunity to finally get round to reading some excellent authors who had slipped the net, for example Eva Dolan, Neil Broadfoot and Helen Cadbury, and some quirky crime in translation too. I’ll keep chipping away…for at least the next ten years…or more…

And so to the winners, no prizes, but big thanks for your sparkling and enthralling books. Not all of these achieved Book of The Month status but have remained resolutely in the Raven’s mind all year…

Raven’s Top 5 (ish) Books of the Year

5.

A RISING MAN

“Not only is the writing whip smart and intuitive with a clever and engaging plot, but the depth of the historical research to so vividly portray the teeming life of this beautiful, yet socially and racially torn, outpost of the former British Empire, sings from every page.”

4.

aa

“A genuinely terrific thriller; clever, well-researched and beautifully executed, as the action ebbed and flowed, keeping me on tenterhooks throught. There’s scheming, corruption, violence, and a strong sense of the personal cost that power, political envy and money can bring in its wake.”

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“This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed.”

tall-oaks

“There are moments of genuine tension carefully interspersed with warmth and humour, as this band of misfits, for various reasons, go about their daily lives, with the overriding urge to make personal and emotional connections with friends, lovers and relatives. It’s wonderfully plotted, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

What do you mean, that’s cheating?

They are all set in America.

(My excuse and I’m sticking to it)

3. 

bird

“It’s dark, psychologically tense and packed full of emotion both overt or deliberately disguised, with the reader invited to fill the spaces between.”

2.

dod“The writing is flawless throughout with Beverly being as comfortable with the rat-a-tat rhythm of the young teenagers’ dialogue, and conveying the brutality of their world, to describing elements of the landscape they travel through with the lyricism of some of the best naturalistic American writers.”

1.

blood

“As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense.”

———————————————————–

All the best for 2017 everyone

and just remember…

keep-calm-and-happy-reading-2

 

 

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

 

Pierre Lemaitre- Blood Wedding

blood

Sophie Duguet is losing her grip. Haunted by visions from her past, of her loving husband, who committed suicide after a car accident.

One morning she wakes to find Leo, the child in her care, strangled in his bed by Sophie’s own shoelaces. She can remember nothing of the night before. Could she really have killed him? She flees in panic, but this only cements her guilt in the eyes of the law.

Not long afterwards it happens again – she wakes with blood on her hands, with no memory of the murder committed. Just what is it that comes over Sophie when she sleeps? And what else might she be capable of?

Wanted by the police, and desperate to change her identity, Sophie decides to find a man to marry. To have and to hold. For better or for worse. Till death do them part . . .

Having been blown away by Lemaitre’s Brigade Criminelle trilogy, Irene, Alex and Camille featuring diminutive detective Camille Verhoeven, we now have the compelling standalone Blood Wedding, which further serves to demonstrate the sheer brilliance of Monsieur Lemaitre.

Once again, Lemaitre has produced a book that proves troublesome to review in terms of potential plot spoilers. Reducing the story to a linear description, Blood Wedding focuses on a young woman, Sophie who finds herself implicated in two murders, and going on the run, seeks to conceal her identity further by entering into a marriage with a man she meets online, giving her the security to explore the reasons for her attributed guilt, and come to terms with her tangled past. But this is Lemaitre, known for slips and tricks which play with the reader’s perception, and as the plot twists and turns, turns and twists, we are consistently wrong-footed and deceived. In the best tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, Lemaitre slowly reveals the plight of a woman in a confused psychological state, seeking to make meaning of the situation she finds herself in, whilst having possibly having been manipulated by person or persons unknown. Consequently, as each previously unknown detail of Sophie’s plight is revealed, with pinpoint precision timing, I would challenge you all to resist the impetus to keep reading, and reading, and reading…

Another real strength of Lemaitre’s work to date, is the depth and realism that he consistently instils in his female protagonists, and I’m always mightily impressed by male writers who achieve this so convincingly. Without a shadow of a doubt, Sophie is seen to run through the whole gamut of human emotion from her initial bewilderment, self-questioning and threat of incarceration, to her own critical analysis of her situation, and a growing steadfast resolve and path of clear-thinking to extricate herself from her now under threat personal freedom. Into the mix comes Frantz, her unwitting potential husband, who possesses a degree of self-knowledge that maybe Sophie is not so enamoured with their match as he is, but resolves to make the best of it regardless, seemingly to bring a degree of solidity to his own troubled past. I will delve no deeper into their attendant character traits at this point, but suffice to say there are more revelations afoot. This combination of extremely well-developed characters, and the reliance of the two of them to drive forward the intricate and exceptionally well plotted story arc, shows a clear degree of authorial skill and deftness of touch that eludes many other writers. As a crime reader, precise plotting, the control of suspense, and believable characterisation lay at the core of my reading pleasure, and Lemaitre achieves this beautifully throughout. The plot twists are in no way reliant on the suspension of disbelief, or clumsily wrought, leading to a genuinely intriguing, and utterly enthralling, example of psychological suspense. The novel is once again beautifully translated by Lemaitre regular, Frank Wynne, which captures all the nuances, and linguistic tone of the original French, further adding to the reader’s enjoyment.

There is little left to say regarding Blood Wedding, as my admiration for Lemaitre has surely been noticed already, but drawing on a well worn adage, I would simply say, if you only read one thriller this summer, do make sure it’s this one. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the ARC)

March 2015 Round Up and Raven’s Book of The Month

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)As usual, a busy month of new releases- I love this time of year! In fact, so many new releases to read, that I have not kept up the pace with the reviews. However, this round-up gives me an opportunity to include a quick round-up on a theme. Inspired by the brilliant reports at Crime Fiction Lover from Marina Sofia at the Quais du Polar French crime fiction festival, I have also been reading a few French crime fiction novels this past month.

camilleHaving already waxed lyrical about Pierre Lemaitre in reviews for Alex and Irene, I can safely report that the third in the series, Camille, featuring diminutive detective Camille Verhoeven is a more than satisfying addition to the series. After the violent events of the previous two books, Camille is on more of an even keel with a new love interest, Anne, but following a brutal heist in which Anne is seriously injured, Camille’s world is rocked to its core. Is Anne all that she appears to be, and will Camille attain the happiness and satisfaction in his life and career he is seriously overdue? I found this a much more meditative read than the previous two books, and with the extreme focus on the emotional struggle Camille experiences, the book was packed with poignancy and uncertainty as to how his relationship with Anne and the implications for his long term career would play out. I felt this book did slightly lack the wow factor of the previous two, due to the change of tone, but even so Lemaitre still provides an emotionally rich and engaging crime thriller. Highly recommended.

bussiI suspect that I may be a lone voice in the wilderness but the hugely hyped After The Crash by Michel Bussi, left me distinctly non-plussed. I don’t know if this was due to my lack of emotional engagement with what I perceived as a cast of distinctly disagreeable characters, or my innate irritation at the composition of the book, using the trope of a diary as the central narrative strand. I felt unfulfilled by the plot generally, and to be honest it was a real struggle to finish this one.

I also re-read The Prone Gunman by Jean- Patrick Manchette, and discovered the delights of a previously unknown to me novella by him, Fatale. Outside of my crime reading, I am a huge fan of foreign fiction in translation, particularly  those little jewels of novellas running at less than 200 pages, so Manchette is a delight. Taut, concise, and bluntly observed, his writing is so precise and powerful that it never fails to amaze me how he so easily runs through a gamut of emotions in such a condensed form. Both books are violent, and tinged with a bleakness that is sometimes hard to stomach, but I think his writing provides a hell of a punch. Buy these and read them. You won’t regret it.

And so forwards to April, where there are a couple of blog tours coming up, and a whole host of great new releases. It’s going to be a good month! And I will be posting a review for a possible contender for my book of the year…you’re intrigued now…

Books read in March:

Mari Jungstedt- A Dangerous Game

Steve Cavanagh- The Defence

Glen Erik Hamilton- Past Crimes

SJI Holliday- Black Wood

Ben McPherson- A Line of Blood (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Luke Delaney- The Jackdaw (www.crimefictionlover.com)

Raven’s Book of the Month:

glenIt’s got to be Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut Past Crimes. As I said in my review, the split timeline, the pared down style, and the assured plot structure, was an absolute delight throughout. It’s also great to encounter a debut author, that so compliments your existing favourite authors. With shades of Lehane and Pelecanos, I think there will be more to come from Hamilton… and I can’t wait. Excellent.

Raven’s Round Up 2014 and Top 5 Books of the Year

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Another brilliant year of books and blogging, so thanks to all my visitors, the support of my fellow bloggers and the wonderful publicists who provided me with a veritable smorgasbord of reading delights throughout the year! 2014 proved a bumper year of reading with 152 books read over the last twelve months with 70 reviews posted here, and 24 at CrimeFictionLover.com. I did have 30+ books that failed to overcome the Raven’s harsh 40 page rule (if you haven’t grabbed me by then all hope is lost!), and the year comprised of both crime fiction and fiction in a ratio of 3:1.

2015 promises further great reads, and I can see the focus of my blog shifting more towards debut authors, and more crime in translation. I will also be participating in the TBR Double Dog Dare Challenge  from January to March in a vain attempt to conquer the summit of my mountainous To-Be-Read pile! There are some crackers lurking in there as yet unread…

So here for your delectation and delight are the Raven’s Top 5 reads of the year. A Happy New Year to you and hope 2015 is full of great new reads for you all!

 

spring5. Cilla & Rolf Borjlind- Spring Tide

Opening with the unsettling murder of a young pregnant woman at the time of the spring tide, twenty-four years previously and now designated as a cold case: a case which a young police trainee, Olivia Ronning, is designated as a summer project. The plot unfolds in a number of directions, bringing the reader into the world of contemporary Sweden and a series of brutal attacks on the homeless community, cold-bloodedly filmed and uploaded to social media sites, a series of attacks that the police are failing to solve. Slowly, the two cases become intertwined, as Olivia joins forces with ex-police officer Tom Stilton, who served with Olivia’s late father on the original spring tide murder investigation, but is now a member of the homeless community, with all the dangers this presents… With its wonderfully balanced mix of murder mystery, a host of fascinating and multi-faceted characters, and the essential social comment of Scandinavian crime fiction , this was an altogether satisfying read that genuinely kept me reading to the wee small hours…

 

few4. Nadia Dalbuono- The Few

A singularly impressive Italian set crime debut. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary with male prostitutes, and soon after that is embroiled in the disappearance of a young American girl on holiday with her family. As the possible links between the cases are revealed, Dalbuono conjurs up a thriller that is dark, compelling and totally unputdownable, that will appeal to all fans of the more hardboiled Italian crime fiction. Impressive indeed, and with such a mesmeric central character, I see more great things to come from this author…

 

 

 mm3. Malcolm Mackay- The Night The Rich Men Burned

With my ardent admiration of Mackay’s previous Glasgow Trilogy, (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter; How A Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence)  this standalone proved the equal of its predecessors in every way.  This crime novel put me in mind of a kind of twisted Bildungsroman, as it is heavily centred on the adverse fortunes of two young men, Oliver Peterkinney and Alex Glass. Both are paving their way in the seedy and violent world of Glasgow’s criminal community- a hotbed of violence and criminal rivalries. Completely unflinching in its depiction of violence the book never shies away from the stark realities of life within the criminal fraternity. Oddly dispassionate, with a spare and staccato prose style, Mackay once again illustrates his original and refreshingly different take on the crime genre. Not a comfortable read, and one that will cleverly play with your perceptions of, and attitudes to, the characters within its pages which, I for one, find a much more rewarding reading experience. An excellent read…

 

the-lying-down-room2. Anna Jaquiery- The Lying Down Room

Having talked interminably about how truly brilliant this book is since June, its inclusion in my Top 5 was never in doubt. This is a thought provoking and atmospheric debut, set in France, which opens with the brutal murder of an elderly woman to the soundtrack of Faure’s Requiem. The reasons for this murder, and the choice of victim, baffle Chief Inspector Serge Morel and his team. As more killings occur, Morel makes a connection between the victims and two individuals who distribute religious pamphlets in the suburbs. His enquiries are taken into the past, away from Paris into the French countryside, and eventually to the heart of Soviet Russia. It’s a superbly multi-faceted thriller that plays with your emotions, and preys on the mind long after reading…

 

getImage21. Pierre Lemaitre- Irene

After the pure pleasure derived from Lemaitre’s UK debut Alex (the second in the Verhoeven series) , I was relishing the release of this, the first book. Quite simply this book is terrific, in the first instance with the superb characterisation of the central detective protagonist, Commandant Camille Verhoeven, the diminutive but dogged police officer on the trail of an insidious serial killer, dubbed The Novelist.  I loved the balance that Lemaitre achieves between the stalwart doggedness of this character, the natural sarcasm and humour that arises from his character, and the utter fear that overtakes him as all that he holds most dear is threatened by this barbaric killer. Likewise, I was overawed by Lemaitre’s humility and reverential treatment towards other seminal works of fiction within the crime genre. It is quickly revealed that the killer- The Novelist- is recreating scenes from cult crime novels (be warned- some are exceptionally violent), and throughout the course of the book, Lemaitre also pays homage to some of the finest crime novels produced, with a reverential tone and an altruistic attitude to writers that is rarely encountered. And there’s a twist- brilliant in its execution- that knocked me sideways. Lemaitre’s  control of the narrative, plotting and characterisation is beautiful throughout , and with his more literary writing style, produces a reading experience that truly engages the reader and immerses you fully in the trials and tribulations of his protagonists. Quite simply- perfect…

 

Raven’s Crime Debut of 2014

_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Well, what an incredibly close-fought competition this was and having read so many debuts this year, a mammoth task to select one clear winner! So, in the spirit of fairness, I will give some very honourable mentions to the following before revealing my winner…

 

neelyNeely Tucker- Ways of The Dead: I had a sneaky eye on this one from the minute it arrived into the bookstore where I work, due to the dual temptations of a cover recommendation from Michael Connelly, and a Washington setting promising echoes of George Pelecanos. To be honest, I could not have been any more delighted with this book, as it not only delivered in spades from this starting point, but also imbued all the social critique and wry humour of The Wire too. I know. You’re intrigued now too aren’t you?

Read my review  here

fewNadia Dalbuono- The Few: A singularly impressive Italian set crime debut that I cannot recommend highly enough. The story focuses on Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a once powerful mafia figure. Scamarcio has turned his back on the family business and is on the Rome police force. He is handed a file containing compromising photographs of the Italian foreign secretary with male prostitutes, and soon after that embroiled in the disappearance of a young American girl on holiday with her family. With the possible links between both cases revealing themselves to our suave detective, Dalbuono conjurs up a thriller that is dark, compelling and totally unputdownable.

Read my review here

springCilla & Rolf Bjorlind- Spring Tide: Opening with the unsettling murder of a young pregnant woman at the time of the spring tide, twenty-four years previously and now designated as a cold case: a case which a young police trainee, Olivia Ronning, is designated as a summer project. The plot unfolds in a number of directions, bringing the reader into the world of contemporary Sweden and a series of brutal attacks on the homeless community, cold-bloodedly filmed and uploaded to social media sites, a series of attacks that the police are failing to solve. An assured Scandinavian debut that kept me completely gripped…

Read my review  here

 

And the winner is…

 

the-lying-down-roomThe Lying- Down Room is an astounding, emotive and utterly gripping French debut thriller by Anna Jaquiery that it was my great pleasure to review in June. I didn’t think that there was anyone to challenge Pierre Lemaitre (author of Alex and Irene)  in my affections as a French crime author par excellence but delighted to discover that there is. I implore you to discover this one too!

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.

 

Pierre Lemaitre- Irene

For Commandant Verhœven life is beautiful: he is happily married, expecting his first child with the lovely Irène. But his blissful existence is punctured by a murder of unprecedented savagery. Worse still, the press seem to have it in for him – his every move is headline news. When he discovers that the killer has killed before – that each murder is a homage to a classic crime novel – the fourth estate are quick to coin a nickname . . . The Novelist . . . With both men in the public eye, the case develops into a personal duel, each hell-bent on outsmarting the other. There can only be one winner – whoever has the least to lose . . .

After the phenomenal success of Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex on its release last year, it was with some relish that I embarked on Irene. I think it’s probably a fairly moot point that I am adding my still, small voice to the general acclaim that Irene has garnered since its release but here are my thoughts.

Quite simply this book is terrific, in the first instance with the superb characterisation of the central detective protagonist, Commandant Camille Verhoeven, the diminutive but dogged police officer on the trail of an insidious serial killer, dubbed The Novelist. Verhoeven is a man composed of a plethora of insecurities, not only by his small stature, but also with the imminent arrival of his first child, and the no small matter of guiding his police through a knotty and increasingly difficult investigation. As we are immersed deeper into his private and public persona, there are few police protagonists that become so indelibly fixed in your imagination, and more importantly raise your empathy so effectively. As the investigation escalates and equally Verhoeven’s fears surrounding the support he is offering to his beloved wife Irene, near the end of her pregnancy, your engagement with him is as palpable as the attendant tension of the central murder plot. I loved the balance that Lemaitre achieves between the stalwart doggedness of this character, the natural sarcasm and humour that arises from his character, and the utter fear that overtakes him as all that he holds most dear is threatened by this barbaric killer.

Lemaitre is an incredibly clever writer and what I was most overawed by is his humility and reverential treatment towards other seminal works of fiction within the crime genre. It is quickly revealed that the killer- The Novelist- is recreating scenes from cult crime novels (be warned- some are exceptionally violent), and throughout the course of the book, Lemaitre also pays homage to some of the finest crime novels produced, with a reverential tone and an altruistic attitude to writers that is rarely encountered. Likewise, there is an enhanced reading experience, as this book has led me to re-reading a couple of the titles mentioned whilst also introducing new authors to me. Crime connoisseurs  will be delighted…

The twist in the book, which I will desist from revealing what it is or where it occurs, was brilliant in its execution. With the benefit of hindsight there are small hints and teasers for the more eagle-eyed amongst us, only one of which I latched on to, but just wait for the grand reveal-  in no way a twist that I have ever encountered before…

 I think that I can safely echo my fellow reviewers in thanking Pierre Lemaitre for producing two such exemplary crime novels, both with Alex and Irene. His control of the narrative, plotting and characterisation is beautiful in its execution, and with his more literary writing style, produces a reading experience that truly engages the reader and immerses you fully in the trials and tribulations of his protagonists. Quite simply- perfect.

 Follow this link for Extract-Irene-Pierre Lemaitre

See more reviews of Irene:

Crimepieces

Crime Thriller Fella

Crime Fiction Lover

Pierre Lemaitre was born in Paris in 1956. He worked for many years as a teacher of literature and now devotes his time to writing novels and screenplays. Frank Wynne is a translator from French and Spanish. His translations include works by Michel Houellebecq, Marcelo Figueras’s IFFP-shortlisted Kamchatka and Alex by Pierre Lemaitre.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

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