THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY - James Anderson
The theft of the diamond necklace and the antique pistols might all be explained, but the body in the lake - that was a puzzle. "Don't expect me to solve anything," Inspector Wilkens announced modestly when he arrived to sort out the unpleasantness. And at a house party that included English aristocracy, foreign agents in disguise, a ravishing baroness, a daring jewel thief, a Texas millionaire, and of course, the imperturbable butler, it was going to take some intricate sleuthing to uncover who killed whom and why.
Yes, yes, I know. What am I doing reading a book like THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY. In my defence I used to be quite a SPLASHER (4MA speak for somebody who reads a wide range of crime book "styles") although in recent years I will admit I've moved more and more to the dark side. But every now and then I like a bit of a splash around in the lighter side of the genre, and I do rather like the eccentric side of the classic English country house sub-genre. Chuck in a slightly batty Lord; an unflappable Lady; a house with secret passages; a poor cousin / secretary / jolly young thing girl; a bit of spying and/or intrigue; an imperious butler; an exotic unknown female and some dashing around in the dark, and well I can be quite happy. Provided it's all done rather well, and doesn't veer too much into cartoon territory. Which THE AFFAIR OF THE BLOODSTAINED EGG COSY (henceforth to be known as THE AFFAIR ETC) avoids nicely.
Originally written in 1975, THE AFFAIR ETC has a very authentic 1930's feeling to it. And just the slightest dash of lunacy about it. The biggest part of the action takes place on one night, when there's a woman screaming; somebody gets locked in a linen closest; one man goes missing (his dead body shows up the next morning in the lake outside the house); one valuable necklace is stolen; the exotic female goes missing; alarms go off; people rush around; and a lot of stuff goes bump in the night whilst nobody thinks to turn on the lights. All of which culminates in the arrival of a very self-effacing detective, who seems to think he's been promoted above his abilities, and mostly seems to do his detecting by standing around and waiting for others to stick their feet in it... so to speak.
There's also a bit of business to do with a famous pair of guns; a famous gun collection; and a dirty, bloodstained egg cosy in the lavender bushes. Now it goes without saying that we're talking a very busy plot here, delivered with just a hint of really good farce. This is the second book from the Burford Family mysteries (actually the first in the series I believe) that I've read and I've got to say I really like these books. Light-hearted, enormously batty, good humoured and very entertaining, THE AFFAIR ETC is incredibly complicated. You'll be doing better than me if you can work out what's going on for most of the time, but I hope, like me, you really not going to care and just enjoy being very entertained.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE - Katherine Howell
When Suzanne Crawford is found stabbed to death and her husband Connor is discovered to be missing, it looks like just another tragic case of domestic violence to Detective Ella Marconi. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Why is there no record of Connor Crawford beyond a few years ago? Why has a teenager who worked for the pair gone missing too? And above all, what was the secret Suzanne knew Connor was keeping at all costs – even from her?
Katherine Howell is rapidly becoming one of my stars of crime fiction writing in Australia. Part of what really works in Howell's books (and VIOLENT EXPOSURE is no exception) is the way that the viewpoint is slightly skewed from the common police, detective, investigator concentration. In all the books there is a paramedic viewpoint (no surprise as she was a paramedic herself for 14 years), but I particularly like the way that even that predictable element is slightly twisted in all the books - but even more so in VIOLENT EXPOSURE.
The central thread of this book is the stabbing murder of Suzanne Crawford and the police search for her missing husband, believed to be her killer. The secondary thread is built around a crew of three ambulance officers. Carly and trainee Aidan are called to the Crawford home not long before Suzanne is killed. Aidan, the young trainee, is cocky, opinionated, his work record is poor. Sleeping with Suzanne after attending to her in the aftermath of a domestic assault is just another example of his incredibly poor judgement and behaviour. Carly and Aidan's other supervising senior, Mick, are already writing up very negative reports on Aidan's work performance before that event, but then Mick makes a mistake.
The interesting thing about VIOLENT EXPOSURE is that while that Detective Ella Marconi is investigating the murder of Suzanne Crawford, the thread involving the ambulance officers interweaves and balances out the book. At the same time, Ella's own life isn't left one-dimensional - the job and just the job. She has a teetering relationship with another police officer and aging parents to deal with as well as the day to day difficulties of finding Connor Crawford and working out if he did really kill his wife. These multi-threads create a very realistic feeling for a procedural style of novel, and, despite Howell's own personal background obviously informing one particular aspect, each of the viewpoints feels authentic, well-informed and well-formed.
Howell really writes her characters well, she makes them nuanced. What's particularly interesting in VIOLENT EXPOSURE is the idea that a likeable and sympathetic man like Mike can do something stupid and the reader is left trying to decide whether to condone or condemn. All of the while there's the matching idea that it's all too easy to assume that Suzanne's husband is guilty and to convict him before he's even found.
VIOLENT EXPOSURE has good pace, and a great set of characters. There's an interesting and nicely complicated story behind Suzanne's death, there are ramifications for lots of people's actions, and a nice piece of moral ambiguity to give readers something to chew on. Just some of the reasons Howell is becoming one of my personal stars of crime fiction writing in Australia.
ZULU - Caryl Ferey
As a child, Ali Neuman narrowly escaped being murdered by Inkatha, a militant political party at war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. His father and brother were not so lucky. Only he and his mother survived the carnage of those years. But as with many survivors, the psychological scars remain. Ali has been marked, indelibly, by the brutality of those years, and healing only comes at a price.
Unbelievably violent, amazingly confrontational, searingly honest and profoundly emotional, ZULU is one of those books that you may have to read through spread fingers, but it is almost impossible to put this book down until it screeches to an ending that will make you shudder.
This is noir, critical, brutal writing at it's absolute best. The "Zulu" of the title refers not so much to the tribe as a whole, but to Cape Town homicide captain Ali Neuman. Heading up the investigation into the death of a young woman whose body is found with a crushed skull, Neuman accepts that his job must sometimes mean that he's put in difficult situations. His profound belief in the job he does comes from his childhood - when he was a young boy he was forced to watch the ritualised murders of his father and brother. He grew up with an overwhelming desire to put an end to the lawlessness that plagues his country. Regardless of other people's reactions to him or the colour of his skin.
There's nothing particularly uncommon about the idea that a central protagonist is fighting his own demons, or even battling against unsympathetic or antagonist authorities. What is different in the portrayal of these elements in ZULU is the context. Neuman's demons are the violent murders of his brother and father; the political complications of South African society; the appalling violence and disadvantage of the townships; attacks on his elderly mother. Murder rates that are simply breathtaking; AIDS; desperation; the disregard for life - it's all laid bare, raw and yet, there's also some sense of poignancy. There's love, affection, regard and concern for others. There's even humour and acceptance. Put all of that into a book that is written with a cynical, forthright style that is absolutely no holds barred. Then add more ways of killing and maiming and hurting people than even in your worst moments you couldn't have dreamed up and build the action and the reader's interest into a really interesting and likeable central protagonist. Then tear the rule book up and add a twist at the end that will just blow some readers out of the water, and what you've got is an intelligent, thought-provoking, frightening, fascinating and unputdownable book about a society that is still dealing with the impacts of Apartheid and profound societal upheaval.
ZULU isn't a book that is going to do much for the South African tourism industry, but it is a book that simply took my breath away.
MURDER ON THE EIFFEL TOWER - Claude Izner
The brand-new, shiny Eiffel Tower is the pride and glory of the 1889 World Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, as visitors are crowding the viewing platforms, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Enter young bookseller Victor Legris. Present on the tower at the time of the incident, and appalled by the media coverage of the occurence, he is determined to ?nd out what actually happened.
I suspect we all pick up a book looking forward to what is going to happen. So normally around page 50 a reader will be getting twitchy if nothing much has happened. Get to the end of the book and it still seems like you're waiting for something to happen and it's a very frustrating experience.
Set during the 1889 World Expo in Paris, the Eiffel Tower has just been officially opened and is a massive attraction. When a woman dies on one of the Tower's platforms, officially she died from a bee sting. As other people also die supposedly from bee stings, the police are not particularly interested, but Victor Legris, local bookseller and man about town type, is convinced that there is something sinister to these deaths.
Part of the reason that the book seems to go nowhere is that very early on the reader will find themselves being dragged down all sorts of cul-de-sacs, and dead-end alleyways into some, albeit fascinating historical aspects. What the book does particularly well is give you a great sense of the place and time - with some of those cul-de-sacs quite interesting in their own right. If only they hadn't dragged the focus away from the main plot point just once too often.
None of that meandering around was much helped by the investigation style of Legris. Which seemed to amount to a lot of leaping and posturing, and very little in the way of fact gathering - or disclosure to the reader for that matter.
The other problem with the book was some seriously poor character development, particularly that of Legris and his love interest, Tasha the Russian artist. He was very flat, and strangely one-dimensional and I did wonder how much the background of the author (actually two Parisian bookselling sisters) informed their view of their central protagonist. Perhaps they were aiming for dramatic and interesting, but alas ended up with melodramatic and a bit silly. Tasha didn't fare much better, as if being an artist in 1880's Paris wasn't enough of a cliché, she was Russian, she started out with a bit of potential, but quickly faded to bland.
I will dip into the next book in the series, as it's here, and first books are often not a good indicator of the potential of a series, but to be honest, I had to bribe myself with a chocolate for every 20 pages read to finish this one. I hope my doctor's not going to get all over-excited about my blood sugar levels after the next one.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK - R.J. Ellory
The death of a young heroin dealer causes no great concern for NYPD Detective Frank Parrish - Danny Lange is just another casualty of the drug war. But when Danny's teenage sister winds up dead, questions are raised that have no clear answers. Parrish, already under investigation by Internal Affairs for repeatedly challenging his superiors, is committed to daily interviews with a Police Department counsellor. As the homicides continue - and a disturbing pattern emerges - Frank tries desperately to make some sense of the deaths, while battling with his own demons.
I started reading R.J. Ellory's books with A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS which I absolutely loved. Then moved onto THE ANNIVERSARY MAN which made my Top Ten of 2010 and eventually, after I worked out a way to finagle the definition, into the two books that I nominated as my favourites for that year in my contribution to an article in Deadly Pleasures magazine. SAINTS OF NEW YORK is the latest I've been lucky enough to read, and with each book, I just get more and more impressed.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK is veering more towards a traditional procedural crime novel than earlier books, but with Ellory's trademarks of flawed characters, in a dark and murky world, struggling against personal and external demons and pressures.
In Frank Parrish's case, a lot of his demons come directly from the larger than life legacy of his father, one of the original "Saints of New York", the policemen who famously stood up to the Mafia in the early 1980's. Whilst everybody else regards John Parrish as a hero and legend, Frank stands alone, remembering a man who seemed to care more about the job, and the money, and status than he did about his own family. How Frank deals with his own day to day life, as a divorced, alcoholic, desperate and disaffected man, is woven brilliantly into this book as he has been forced to attend daily sessions with a Police Department counsellor. As these sessions proceed, Frank's state of mind, his background and his life are drawn out, just as he inches closer and closer to the killer of what turns out to be more than just one teenage girl.
SAINTS OF NEW YORK has a wonderfully dark, murky, tense and slightly desperate feel about it. It sets itself deep in the underbelly of New York, simultaneously taking you deep into the personal world of Frank Parrish. Violent and dark, there is also an intricate and compelling plot in which a man handles the professional with aplomb and the personal with a staggering lack thereof. I really have no idea how this author does it, but there's something amazingly compelling about Frank Parrish. Which doesn't take anything away from a fast-paced, well plotted novel that takes a few chapters to pull you in and then grabs you and holds onto you until the very end. And then for a while after that.
THE RINGMASTER - Vanda Symon
Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?
Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin.
THE RINGMASTER is the second in the Sam Shephard series from NZ author Vanda Symon. Sam has moved to Dunedin, is in detective training when the body of a young university student is found in the Botanic Gardens. In Sam's world it goes without saying that nothing is ever going to be straightforward, and once the possibility that this murder isn't a solitary event, the connection between murders all over the Southern South Island of New Zealand and a local travelling circus becomes a distinct possibility.
Which, as it does, leads to a sympathetic relationship with an elephant. Which ends badly. So maybe I should get this out of the way up front, things for the elephant don't end well at all, and Sam is just as upset about this outcome as the reader is going to be. But that isn't going to help readers who are completely opposed to anything bad happening to animals. For me, the events, whilst distressing, really demonstrated how sometimes the life of the police isn't a pleasant one. But getting back to the murder investigation, there are aspects of Sam's personality (and personal life) that have come forward from the first book - OVERKILL. There are also aspects of the investigation that remain the same. Sam plays a solo hand again, partly because she's sidelined in a major way by the same bosses that tried to sideline her in the first book, and partly because Sam's much more comfortable out on the edge, playing a solo hand. It's probably that sense that somewhere off in the rough is exactly where Sam is at her best that stops any sense of cliché or convenient repetition. That and the humour, but more on that later.
As with OVERKILL, the great strength in THE RINGMASTER is the characterisations. Using the same tricks as the earlier book, Sam really is easy to identify with. Her own self doubt, her willingness to feel real emotion, make mistakes, beat herself up, be jealous, angry, daft as a brush, brave, sad and rather clever all at the same time.
There is another great supporting set of characters in THE RINGMASTER. Maggie remains, housemate, and best friend, Sam's touchstone. They are now both living in Dunedin, boarding with relatives of Maggie's, their domestic situation seemingly sorted, Sam's emotional life is still a massive rollercoaster. There is a love interest bought forward from the first book, although it takes quite a while for Sam to twig that this is a love interest, and not just some bloke hanging around being annoying. There is also a great sense of place and sensibility. The book doesn't read as a travelogue, but you really do come away from it with an unscratchable itch to see that place, meet those people.
As with the first book, the humour is pitched perfectly. At no stage is the reader allowed to forget that there are victims involved in any series of murders, there are unwitting involvements that impact everyone as a result, and there are the guilty that have their own, often inexplicable reasons, for doing what they do. CONTAINMENT is the next book in the series, followed by recent release BOUND. Do you think it's too much to hope that now that I'm revisiting the first three books, and have the fourth to look forward to, that a fifth isn't that far away?
CASE REOPENED - Stuart Coupe & Julie Ogden (ed)
A series of real cases investigated by Australian crime writers who were asked to take a famous Australian murder or mystery - and solve it! Have they really stumbled onto new information, or are their speculations merely fiction?
This book was on my Quest List for such a long time until I finally managed to track down a copy (and was subsequently somewhat startled to find it listed on Fishpond NZ!). The reason it hit the Quest List was the premise sounded so fascinating - take a bunch of real life cases, give them to a set of fictional crime writers and see what the "solution" is that they come up with.
Whilst it may seem like a bit of a weird idea on some level (and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable for some readers), the result are really very interesting. Not the least in those stories where the "true crime" only becomes obvious as you read through the short story - there were quite a few "OH" moments as it dawned on me what the authors were discussing, and where they were going.
A great short story collection that would work for most Australian readers, regardless of the timing of the crimes being discussed by these authors. (Includes stories from Nigel Krauth, Robert Wallace, Peter Corris, Garry Disher, REL Cassidy, Marele Day, Kerry Greenwood, Jean Bedford, Steve Wright, J.R. Carroll and Robert Hood).
BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME - Edited by Maxim Jakubowski
Includes 40 short stories from an all-star line-up of international writers that cover the spectrum of crime fiction, from noir and thrillers, to whodunnits and procedurals, with settings that include Italy, Cuba, Scandinavia, Russia, USA, Japan, Germany, Mexico, France, Italy, Spain and the UK.
This is a fantastic collection of really good quality crime fiction from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
The compilation is made up of 36 stories (too many to list here anyway) from a diverse range of writers and countries. That's part of what's great about this collection - not just an opportunity to hear different voices and perspectives from a wide range of cultures, but to see how crime fiction is universal. Add to that the fact that there really isn't a dud in the bunch, and I found this collection absolutely terrific and can't recommend it highly enough.
PULP FICTION - THE DAMES edited by Otto Penzler
Wearing a low-cut dress or sweater - usually in tatters - and menaced by a group of muscular thugs or a single, scarred villain, the cliched cover girls of pulp fiction magazines stole the limelight from their rather more spirited sisters concealed within.
Okay - I confess this book is the point at which I gave up on this series.
Not that there weren't a few reasonable stories within the collection, but mostly because I'm really very very over the idea that all women are either tramps, or manipulators (or both), or victims, or pathetic, or stupid (well smart if they are manipulating)... and so on.
Even allowing for sensibility differences between when these stories were written and now, I just kept wondering if these authors had wives, or daughters, or mothers that they liked much. And I do know the difference between "fiction" and "reality" but this collection was so relentlessly, tediously predictably clichéd that it was a real struggle for me to finish.
PULP FICTION - THE VILLAINS edited by Otto Penzler
Harlan Ellison introduces a collection of 16 taut and muscular tales starring some of fiction's hardest-boiled criminals, crooks, desperado's and rogues. Anti-heroes to a man, these are the guys who can be guaranteed to outwit the cops, make off with the dough and get the girl. Just don't get in their way.
I suspect that when, half-way through a book, you're still thinking that the introduction has been a highlight, it probably would be a good time to throw in the towel.
Not that there's nothing particularly unpredictable about any of the stories in this anthology, having said that, I think that was part of the problem. It was all a bit predictable, and most of the stories got overly tedious as a result. Obviously, when reading these sorts of collections, some allowance has to be made for a differing sensibility, but I will confess that I was very quickly over the tough guy with the soft interior; the scheming women; the constant cliches and the rather transparent plots.
Having said that, it really was a fantastic introduction by Harlan Ellison, and it possibly could have been called worthwhile reading as an exercise in reminding me of how far we've come. But to be honest, introduction aside, it was all pretty forgettable.