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Archive for the tag “crime novels”

The Secret History (book review)

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crime novel, but not a whodunit, because you know who did it right from the first page. But the crime is central to the lives of the main characters.

I read this book because it was recommended in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t rate it quite as highly as that, but nevertheless found it quite an interesting read.

It takes the form, almost, of a student diary. I kept a diary as a student, but not in as much detail. This one weighs in at over 600 pages covering one academic year; mine for any one year was not more than 200. So the book goes into great detail, including what they ate, what they drank, what they smoked and how they smoked it,

In some ways the detail enhances the book. A middle-class small-town Californian student, Richard Papen, goes to study at Hampden College in Vermont. The landscape is unfamiliar to him, so he describes it in detail. I found that useful; not having been to Vermont it helped me to picture the scene, and not to mix it up with universities that I am familiar with.

Having done some ancient Greek at his previous college, Papen decides that he wants to major in it, but is advised against this. The professor, Julian Morrow, is fussy about which students he takes, and indeed rejects Papen at first, though when he accidentally helps some of the other students on the course in the library, he is eventually accepted, and becomes part of an elite group of six students who hang out together. The others all seem to have rich parents, though one of them, Bunny Corcoran, does not receive much support from his parents, and behaves like the last of the great spongers. It is Bunny who is eventually murdered by his fellow students.

The setting is the late 1970s or early 1980s, when personal computers were rare and smoking less outré, though the classics students, unlike most of the students of those days, go round in formal dress, the males in suits and ties, and even braces, even when working in the garden. The more casually dressed students they despise as “hippies”, under which label they seem to lump everyone who doesn’t fit their social model.

The leader of the group is Henry Winter, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of money. In the book Richard Papen does not, however, play Boswell to Winter’s Johnson, or treat him as the Great Gatsby, though there are echoes of those works in his writing from the periphery, observing the great man. It is only in retrospect that Papen recognises how much influence Henry Winter had over others in the group and so his descrip[tions are of his perceptions of the others, and he is quite self-effacing; we know what the others look like, because we see them through his eyes, but we never see him through their eyes.

The central theme of the book is the effects of their crime on members of the group — both in planning it and in trying to avoid discovery afterwards. Though in some ways the central group are the privileged among the privileged, and somewhat eccentric in their old-fashioned ways and manner of dress, in others they are fairly ordinary students, and their crimes are not those of monsters exiled from the human race. Crime is not confined to the “criminal classes”, nor are the criminals uniquely monstrous. What comes across is the banality of evil. Somehow amid their normal student pursuits — drinking, arguing, playing cards and, occasionally, studying — they murder one of their fellow students. In a way this book falls somewhere between Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby, but it isn’t as good as either.

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The Blind Man of Seville (Javier Falcon, #1)The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A crime novel set in Spain.

Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.

The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.

About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus‘s novel The outsider.

One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952

It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society’s shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, Tangier, those were the days,’ because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.

The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.

Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word “parameters” in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.

No, Dostoevsky it isn’t, but it’s still an above-average whodunit.

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What hidden lies: a South African whodunit

What Hidden Lies (Persy Jonas #1)What Hidden Lies by Michele Rowe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A South African whodunit.

I’ve read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I’ve read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in Denmark, Greece and Turkey. But it doesn’t seem to be a popular genre with South African writers. So I enjoyed this one, and not just because it was set in South Africa, but because it was a pretty good specimen of the genre.

The protagonist, Detective Sergeant (or is it Constable? she seems to get promoted without explanation in the first couple of chapters) Persy Jonas, seems like a fairly ordinary person — not a poet, not an aristocrat, not alcoholic or going through a traumatic divorce, not a rogue cop perpetually on the verge of being fired for drunkenness, but brought back in the nick of time because no one else is such a brilliant detective. Persy (short for Persephone) Jonas is an ordinary person and an ordinary cop. It makes it more real, somehow.

Of course she has her problems; which cop, real or fictional, doesn’t? She has problems at home — domestic violence3 in the family. She has problems coming to terms with things in her past. It’s just kind of refreshing that those problems don’t include booze and/or divorce, or perpetual disciplinary problems with superiors related to insubordination.

And of course there are problems at work. There are problems of racism, sexism and corruption, rivalries and personality clashes. But they don’t take over the story.

In addition, in many whodunits one gets the impression that murder is the only crime the police ever investigate, so the stories seem somehow unreal. In this book there is a murder investigation, but it is sandwiched in between burglary, theft, and looking for a lost dog. That makes it feel more convincing as a police procedural, somehow.

There are a few editorial slip-ups — Persy’s rank being one of them — but they don’t detract from the story, so I’ll still give it five stars. I think Persy Jonas could become one of my favourite fictional detectives.

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Dead man’s grip – book review

Dead Man's Grip (Roy Grace, #7)Dead Man’s Grip by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.

Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.

This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James‘s best books I’ve read so far.

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The cruellest month (book review)

The Cruellest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #3)The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal (review here).

I’m beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I’ve read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I’m beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby’s exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.

The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.

In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.

One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny‘s novels seem to have the same mix. This doesn’t seem to be quite as well-researched as Rickman’s books, however. The character who leads the seance is a Wiccan, but in the book is called a Wicca, but perhaps that is a term preferred by Canadian Wiccans.

That’s enough for now — I’ll need to read more to see where the series is going.

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Blind fury (book review)

Blind FuryBlind Fury by Lynda La Plante

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If, in the field of crime novels, one distinguishes between sub-genres like whodunits and police procedurals, this book definitely falls into the latter category. Whodunits usually have lots of suspects, and the search is to find which one committed the crime. In this book, however, the emphasis is on how the police go about gathering evidence, first of all to charge, and then to convict a suspect.

In this story a young woman is murdered, and her body is dumped beside a motorway. It seems similar to some earlier cold cases, and the police try to find whether the same person committed all the crimes. There are no real surprises in the story, and much spaces is taken up by the police reinterviewing witnesses who did not give full information the first time they were interviewed. It all gets a bit tedious after a while, and the book (at 501 pages) is about 200 pages too long.

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Believing the lie: Book Review

Believing the Lie. by Elizabeth GeorgeBelieving the Lie. by Elizabeth George by Elizabeth George

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like most of Elizabeth George’s crime novels, this one has the usual cast of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, his partner Barbara Havers, and his friends Simon and Deborah St James. Lynley is asked to travel to Cumbria for a semi-official investigation of the death of Ian Cresswell, which had been ruled accidental by an inquest. Cresswell was accountant in the firm of his uncle, Bernard Fairclough, who had asked for the investigation.

It transpires that lots of people, including some members of the family, could have quite strong motives for wanting Cresswell dead, but misunderstandings and deliberate deception make the investigation difficult.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints of the various characters involved, so the reader is one step ahead of most of the characters in knowing what is going on, but generally only discovers things with one or other of the characters. So this is a good mystery tale, well told.

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The white lioness (book review)

The White LionessThe White Lioness by Henning Mankell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unlike most of Henning Mankell’s “Wallander” novels, this one is set at least partly in South Africa, which gives it additional interest to me. It is set in the period between the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the first democratic elections in 1994. It was a period of great uncertainty, when no one knew quite what would happen. Though the National Party had already shed its ultra right wing (to the HNP in the late 1960s), and its far right wing (to the Conservative Party in the late 1970s), the bulk of its support was still pretty much on the right, and the unbanning of the left opposition parties tended to make its supporters nervous, including many in the security forces and the army. One of the possibilities was a right-wing military coup, and attempts to create disorder in order to facilitate such a coup. And there were such attempts, by the mysterious “third force”, and others.

So Mankell’s main plot, which is based on the training of a South African political assassin in Sweden, is quite believable. After all, Chris Hani was assassinated in just such a plot about the time that the novel was published. Mankell does a fairly good job of showing some of the tensions and ambiguities of South Africn society at that time.

But I also have the problem that I tend to read novels set in places that are familiar to me more critically, and tend to find it more jarring when things are oui of place. Because relatively few novels of this type are set in South Africa, its not something that happens very often, but I wonder how people who live in places where lots of crime novels are set feel when they read them. It’s OK with Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels, which are set in a fictional town, but when actual places are mentioned, I wonder how people who live in them feel when there are inaccurate descriptions. Perhaps I’m also more sensitive to such things than most readers, having worked as a proofreader and editor, where it was my job to detect and correct such slip-ups.

Another novel I read, set in the same period, and with a similar plot line, was Vortex by Larry Bond, which was spoilt for me because some of the action took place in locations that were geographically impossible.

At first Henning Mankell’s slip-ups were relatively minor — a car parked under a baobab tree in the Transkei (I’ve never seen a baobab tree in the Transkei), someone working on a mine in Verwoerdburg (I lived there in the 1980s, and there were no mines there then). These are minor errors, and concerned only minor characters, but they are jarring none the less.

But there were some things that did affect more important characters, and the plot.

One is that Mankell refers to the “Transkei Province”, where it affects police looking for suspects in the Transkei. Yet at that time Transkei was an “independent” homeland, and though its independence wasn’t recognised by anyone but South Africa, police procedures at that period would surely have to take some account of the “independent” status of the Transkei, and so in a novel whose genre is a “police procedural” rather than a whodunit, this is a more serious error.

Some of Mankell’s descriptions of African culture also strike me as somewhat odd. South Africa is a very multicultural country, and I’m not familiar with every single cultural nuance out there, but still, I wonder what Mankell’s conception of a sangoma is. He has characters talking about “my sanhoma” the way some Americans talk about “my shrink”, and though there are some ways in whch a sangoma’s role in South African society is similar to that of a shrink in America, I’ve never heard anyone speak of “my sangoma. Mankell also writes about people’s relations to spirits that also don’t fit, especially since the character in question is a Zulu, and one of the better books on the topic, Zulu thought-patterns and symbolism was written by a fellow Swede, Axel-Ivar Berglund.

Mankell also has urban African characters using using rural imagery of wild animals. I think he underestimates the extent of urbanisation in South African society. I once took a group of students to a work camp in rural Zululand, and one of them, from Soweto, wondered how the local people could survive when they lived so far from the shops.

Never having been to Sweden, I have no idea whether there are similar discrepancies in the Swedish settings, but there do seem to be some rather large plot holes relating to the villain-in-chief, but to say more about that would reveal too much of the plot.

In spite of these flaws, however, it is an enjoyable read.

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Book Review: Havana Bay

Havana Bay (Arkady Renko, #4)Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was looking for some light bedtime reading, and looked through our bookshelves and picked up some books that I wasn’t sure if I had read or not, and then checked on my computer and found that I had read them, but they had proved to be rather forgettable. Then I picked up this book, which has been lying around for ages, but I hadn’t read it.

It was quite an interesting read.

Russian investigator Arkady Renko goes to Cuba to find out what had happened to a dead Russian, a sugar attache at the Russian Embassy in Cuba, who was found dead after he had been missing for several days. Renko wants the Cuban authorities to investigate his death, but finds that they are reluctant to do so. Since the fall of the Bosheviks from power the Russians have downsized their embassy in Cuba and the remaining Russians are not very popular, and Russians investigating possible crimes on Cuban soil are even less so.

Renko soon finds that something big is going on, something bigger than he first suspected, and the more he discovers, the bigger it gets.

To say motre would reveal too much of the plot, but there is also lots of local colour, and some interesting sidelights on Afro-Caribbean religion, and the role that semi-religious secret societies like Abakua play in Cuban society.

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Whodunit or chicklit? I can’t decide

Cold to the TouchCold to the Touch by Frances Fyfield

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book. I find it difficult to say much more about it. It’s crime fiction of a sort. The protagonist is a middle-aged courtesan who plays amateur detective, but Miss Marples or Hercule Poirot she is not. There’s a murder, but it’s not a murder mystery in the sense that the author leaves clues lying around for the reader to pick up. The protagonist solves the crimes by her brilliant intuition by a process that is opaque to the reader, and left me feeling “So that’s whodunit. So what?”

I wonder if this is really an example of the genre known as “chicklit”. When I look at Good Reads’s “compare books” function I can see that I score pretty low on appreciation of chicklit. So I think I’ll steer clear of Fyfield in future, unless I’m really desperate.

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