In a German village in the aftermath of the Second World War, Old Man Danner, his wife, their daughter, her two children and their new maid all lie dead. They have been brutally murdered with a pickaxe at their remote home, now known as 'The Murder Farm'.
THE MURDER FARM was one of the books that I purposely read as I was seeing the author at a Melbourne Writers Festival session. I actually picked it up to take on the train in with me - a journey of just on an hour in total. I can't remember the last time I was tempted to stay on the train and keep reading because a book was so good, but this book definitely tempted me to do so.
Based on true events, but with a different timeframe and a resolution (the true crime remains unsolved), THE MURDER FARM covers the brutal killing of an entire family. The family live on a small farm, on the outskirts of a small farming community, the place is quiet and enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic. The family themselves are also quiet, enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic - they are outsiders from the rest of the community. The father - Old Danner is a nasty piece of work, his wife devoutly religious and very standoffish, his daughter has a bit of a reputation. There are lots of rumours about the parentage of her son - as her husband ran off years ago.
The style of the book is unusual and it works unbelievably well. The story of the killings is slowly intertwined with "witness statements" - testimony of neighbours, workers and people in and around the area in the time leading up to the discovery of the bodies. The killer's own story is told - partly as his own testimony, partly in prayer. Time and time again, the style of the book has the author taking the reader almost to the edge - almost to the point where you can see who the killer is, and time and time again you're whipped back. Time and time again I thought I knew, but I wasn't quite sure. Ultimately, it is one of those books that has such a fabulously creepy, scarey, sobering, disquieting affect on the reader. It's voyeuristic. It's distressing that you're so close to these people. It's odd that you know that the killer must be from that quiet, claustrophobic little community - is probably one of the witnesses whose words you are reading.
When Andrea signed my copy of the book, she asked me where I was up to - I wasn't quite at the point where I knew for sure who the killer was. Her inscription was "I hope you like the killer, too." I did. I liked how the killer was revealed, and, for some strange reason in a book that absolutely enthralled, that was potentially disturbing and actually quite brutal, I liked the person as well.
THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES - Stef Penney
As winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a woman steels herself for the journey of a lifetime. A man has been brutally murdered and her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared. The violence has re-opened old wounds and inflamed deep-running tensions in the frontier township - some want to solve the crime; others seek only to exploit it.
THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES won the 2006 Costa Book of the Year, and I confess to often reading prize winning novels with a less than subconscious desire to work out what the judges were thinking. This novel came as somewhat of a surprise - despite the prize winning, despite the talk about it since it was first released.
Slowly the story builds, told partially from the point of view of Mrs Ross. It is her son that has disappeared, she is the one who has found the body of trapper Laurent Jammet. The book switches perspective from her personal story, to the observations and actions of others central to the unfolding mystery. Friends of Jammet; the authorities (Company men); other members of the Dove River community; other communities. But the story returns, time and time again, to Mrs Ross. To her reaction to her son's disappearance, about her own background, how she comes to be tracking her son and Jammet's murderer through the extreme weather conditions in a winter in the frontier outback of Canada.
Whilst the central point of this book is the truth behind Jammet's murder, the book is about a lot more than just that. It takes the reader back to that time in Canadian (and probably a lot of other immigrant) outback settler communities. It provides some possible insight or reasons behind why people left their homes and went so very far away, and what it must have felt to have done that and to be "stuck" in their new world. It also provides some insight into the difficulties that anybody - indigenous or new settler - experiences in living in extreme weather conditions and amongst people with such diverse backgrounds. There are little indications of the tensions between the native Indian populations, the French and the English (or Scottish) immigrants, to say nothing of the isolation of a small Norwegian community.
In the world that the author has built, there is a central female character who has a difficult background, who, possibly because of that background, finds the most amazing strength and insight and fearlessness. The reasons behind the murder of Laurent Jammet are revealed, the reasons behind her son's disappearance resolved, what happens to Mrs Ross is a lot more complicated than that.
THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES is one of those books that you have to slow down and allow the thing to carry you along, but the experience is well worth the requirement.
THE ADVERSARY - Michael Walters
For more than twenty years a hidden hand has ruled the backstreets of Ulan Baatar, but now Muunokhoi, the once untouchable head of Mongolia's largest and most powerful criminal empire, has finally been caught.
It should be the Serious Crime Team's finest hour. But nothing is ever that simple in the new Mongolia.
THE ADVERSARY is the second book in the Nergui / Doripalam police procedural series set in Ulan Baatar, Mongolia. The first was THE SHADOW WALKER.
Fans of police procedurals who haven't caught up with this series should give it a go. Whilst it is set in Mongolia, and there are unusual names and unusual settings which give it a slightly exotic feel, the basis of the book is a sound procedural with the same sorts of issues that plague police departments the world over. The connection between the Underworld of Gangsters, Drugs and influence and police department corruption has quite a resonance for a Melbourne, Australia based reader.
THE ADVERSARY finds Nergui moved on from the Serious Crimes Squad with Doripalam, his one time protege, taking over as head. When the crime lord Muunokhoi is acquitted because of problems with the validity of evidence against him, the issue of corruption within even the Serious Crimes Squad can't be ignored any longer. Nergui is bought back to try to get to the bottom of the fiasco. Tunjin, old, obese and totally responsible for the faked evidence is suspended. Judge Raadna. who presided over the aborted trial, turns out to be an old Nergui acquaintance and she is being threatened. Meanwhile an elderly woman - member of a nomadic family is beaten to death when she has stayed, refusing to move on with her family, waiting for her missing son to be found.
As Muunokhoi seeks to re-establish control over his empire, Tunjin must make something of himself. Doripalam has to find out who killed a poor defenceless old woman and why - whilst he also tries to find her nomadic family somewhere in the vast Mongolian steppes. Nergui must establish the lengths to which the corruption within his old department has spread. He is not even sure if he can trust Doripalam and the feeling is mutual.
Set within the partly exotic world of the Mongolian steppes and the sometimes drab post-Soviet environment of Ulan Baatar, THE ADVERSARY takes the elements of a really good police procedural, sets a cracking pace, adds some insight into the clash between the traditional and post-Soviet / Western influence and then tops it all up with characters that it's almost impossible not to like.
Probably the standout character and story is Tunjin - the failed, obese, alcoholic, compromised policeman who starts out saving his own skin, and ends up the most unlikely hero. But don't sell Nergui short - inscrutable, contained, besuited and elegant - he and his protege Doripalam are a new force to be reckoned with in detecting partnerships.
If you haven't read THE SHADOW WALKER then THE ADVERSARY will still work for you, but there's really no reason not to read them both.
DIE WITH ME - Elena Forbes
For fifteen year old Gemma it is already too late.
Her body is found in the nave of a church in Ealing, west London. At first all the signs were that it was a suicide. But then the autopsy suggests it is not and Detective Inspector Mark Tartaglia and the Barnes murder squad are called in.
For Tartaglia and his team it is just a matter of time before the tragedy repeats itself.
There's a bit of a clue to the context for Gemma's death on the front cover of DIE WITH ME - "You could find your new best friend on the net ... or discover your worst nightmare". Oh dear, another the Internet is all bad story? Well no.
Gemma's death is written off as a suicide when she is first discovered. She seems to have jumped from high up in the church, dying on the floor of the dark church on a dark evening. But postmortem tests show a small amount of alcohol and GHB in her system, and there's the astute observation of Dr Fiona Blake who notices a small lock of Gemma's hair has been cut off. Mind you, if this isn't suicide why is Gemma's stepfather concealing a suicide note, and who was the older man that Gemma was seen kissing on the night she died? Emails on her computer reveal that she does seem to have been drawn into a suicide pact with Tom - who is Tom; where is Tom; and how many other suicide pacts have there been?
DI Mark Tartaglia is convinced there's been others and he sets the team to find out. He's in charge for a short while. DCI Trevor Clarke got a new girlfriend and a mid life crisis in the form of a motorbike at around the same time. He promptly crashed the bike putting himself into a coma, with the distinct possibility of never recovering, or of being a paraplegic. Mind you, Tartaglia's not in charge for long and Carolyn Steele takes over as his boss - although Tartaglia and the team still do most of the work. Just to make Tartaglia's life even more miserable Steele brings in a profiler that he can't stand. This profiler, Kennedy, seems to have a rather close relationship with Steele just to add to Tartaglia's sense of unease. Add to this a sister that's convinced Tartaglia shouldn't be single for too much longer, and his considerably more laid back work colleague - Sam Donovan - and you've got a well drawn cast of characters.
DIE WITH ME does a few things incredibly well (especially as this is a debut book). The characterisations of the main police team are strong - Tartaglia is a complex man, a bit of a loner who is fiercely loyal to DCI Clarke, he's equally willing to work with Sam or to go it alone if circumstances dictate. Sam Donovan is a similar character in some ways - more laid back, but as much a loner as Tartaglia. Throughout the book "Tom" is also somebody the reader gets to know a little. Slowly hints are revealed that give the reader a fair chance of working out which of the possible suspects Tom could actually be.
Fans of the pure investigation style books will probably find the failure to ask the glaringly obvious question of one participant in the investigation frustrating. It's a minor point though in a book that was populated by interesting and engaging characters. DIE WITH ME uses an unusual premise and explores that in a sympathetic manner. We also get to meet a new cast of Police characters that have some real potential to grow further as the series continues.
It seems a sequel book is planned, and I'm really looking forward to it's arrival.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE - Stieg Larsson
Famous journalist sentenced to prison. Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, is found guilty of slandering billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Henrik Vanger, C.E.O. of the powerful Vanger Corporation, revives hunt for solution to niece's disappearance Harriet Vanger vanished 40 years ago from secluded Hedeby Island. Lisbeth Salander declared legally incompetent Computer hacker Lisbeth (code-named "wasp") loses control of her own affairs.
Crime fiction fans are frequently a talkative lot, and news of a phenomenally good book spreads very very quickly. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has been "the" book on quite a lot of people's lips for what is actually a startlingly short time since it was released - particularly released in English. Needless to say, the publicity has been pretty well universally positive. So reading the much vaunted book was an interesting experience. Often when a book is talked about so much, you can subconsciously approach it with just a little reservation - could it possibly live up to the hype?
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO undoubtedly lived up to the hype. But why? On the face of it, it's an interesting idea for a mystery. A 16 year old girl disappears - completely - from a "locked island". No trace of her is ever found - no body / no sign. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger, 40 years later, is haunted by her disappearance. He believes she was murdered but how, by who, and where she ended up - he can't explain.
Mikael Blomkvist is an unlikely murder investigator. A financial journalist, he has his own problems with a massive fine and a jail sentence for the libel of Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. It's a guilty verdict that he believes is wrong, but he can't prove his side of the case. It doesn't hurt that Vanger is a life-long enemy of Wennerstrom and he may hold a key to proving Wennerstrom is corrupt. But before he will hand over that key, Blomkvist is contracted to seemingly write the story of the Vanger family. He moves to the same closed little island that is the family's base and whilst investigating the family story, he is really trying to work out what happened to Harriet.
Add to that the enigmatic and, well, flat out a bit weird character of Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker, declared mental incompetent, genius investigator, who is originally contracted to investigate Blomkvist's background for Vanger, she has issues of her own that she has to deal with. Her guardianship situation is complicated when her mentor falls ill, her physical and mental wellbeing is abused and threatened by the new guardian. But anybody who thinks that Salander really is mentally incompetent hasn't bothered to look long and hard at her. When Blomkvist and Salander team up, the truth, hidden by a few for a long number of years, is finally revealed.
On the face of it, the plot alone is enough to make THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO interesting, but there's a lot more to the book than just a well executed and nicely complicated plot (as well as some seriously clever ways of getting to the bottom of the story). The book also builds a set of characters - both the main characters and the bit-part players - and the details about their lives that encourages the reader to be involved with them. You care about them. You have a glimpse into their lives that engages you totally. Interestingly enough, they are all well-drawn. Even bit players aren't easily forgotten, even in the complication of the plot - they stand out. There are some elements to those lives that seem quintessentially "Scandinavian" - a rather laid back approach to sex and marriage being the most obvious of those, but there is also a vulnerability to those characters that really makes you care about them. And all the way through the book, you worry, just ever so slightly - or at least this reader did - worried almost constantly about Salander. Would you / could she survive and thrive? As the end of the book draws closer and all of the threads conclude, there is frequently a feeling that somebody - one of them - a character that you've grown to like - may not make it. And at the very end of the book, when you know everything, you're left waiting impatiently for the next book in the series (due in 2009) because you still just have this sneaking feeling.....
It's undoubtedly an amazing book. How lucky we are that there are 3 of these books. How sad that there will be no more than 3.
Stieg Larsson died suddenly after delivering them to his publisher - he did not know about the phenomena he created.
STILL WATERS - Nigel McCrery
McCrery is the writer of Silent Witness and New Tricks - TV series that are undoubtedly instantly recognisable to a number of readers of this review, and there's something about the characterisations from those shows that rings bells of recognition in STILL WATERS. DCI Mark Lapslie is called back from "gardening leave" - extended sick leave - because his name has been flagged as somebody who could understand a particular mutilation of the body that was found at the scene of a fatal traffic accident. The investigation into this body proceeds slowly as, whilst the identification of the corpse isn't that hard, to all intents and purposes it looks like she never died.
STILL WATERS was an immediately engaging book, whilst simultaneously being slightly frustrating - for a whole lot of reasons. DCI Lapslie has synaesthesia - this means that he "tastes" sounds. Different sounds trigger different tastes. You can probably imagine this makes life a bit complicated - he says it's like being ambushed.
<td><em>"Ever bitten into an apple and found it had gone rotten inside? Ever taken a bite of a chocolate and found it was coffee flavour rather than strawberry? Sometimes flavours can surprise you. Sometimes, they can shock. That's why I had to take time off work - go on gardening leave. Things are home weren't going well, and my synaesthesia took a turn for the worse. I couldn't stand to be in the office, tasting everyone else's chatter, banter, lies and deceits. I was overwhelmed."</em>
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All the way through the book the taste sensations that he is experiencing are commented on - the way that individual people will trigger certain tastes, the tastes that other sounds generate. Strangely this isn't one of the frustrating elements of the book, it's built into the narrative in such a way as to give it some colour (for want of a dreadful attempt at a pun). Lapslie shares the major limelight of the book with a number of supporting characters such as his DS, Emma Bradbury, a no-nonsense sort of a copper - who makes a particularly memorable entrance as she bemoans the loss of the top of the range Porsche at the initial car crash scene, cursing drivers with more money than sense. The killer is also front and centre from the start of the book. What is slightly frustrating are the reasons Lapslie was called back from the long-term leave, given special considerations such as a Quiet Room in which to work, and a DS and then nothing else much; the reason why his name was flagged when the first body was found; the reason why his investigation is stymied and slowed and ultimately closed down, it's all a bit odd. There's some stuff in there that you're probably going to be disconcerted to find - either because it's so implausible it's unfathomable; or because it might just be plausible in which case it's still unfathomable.
All of that aside though, what's really fascinating about STILL WATERS is that this is basically a story of invisibility. It's not giving away too much of the plot to say that the person whose body is found, hasn't been noticed as missing. STILL WATERS is really exploring age, invisibility, social exclusion and how menacing is the villain that picks victims that are as invisible as they are.