Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Blackhouse - Peter May

A policeman who has faced a personal tragedy and whose family life is in shambles. Check. A policeman who has to go to his hometown (from where he escaped years ago and has cut off all contacts after that) to investigate a murder. Check. A hometown where everyone knows everyone but certain things are best left unsaid. Check. A back story where the policeman and his friend strive for the attention of the same girl. Check. With all these in place, Peter May's 'The Blackhouse' does not start on a promising note. To add to it, the back story of the protagonist, 'Fin Macleod', is narrated in first person by Fin himself, which also seems jarring initially.

Due to murder in 'Isle of Lewis', which seems similar to the one that occurred earlier in Edinburgh, Fin, who was part of the original investigation is asked to go to his hometown to check if both are related. The head of investigation at Lewis doesn't want him around, but Fin does some investigation anyway, with several of his activities relating not to the crime, but to the events of his personal life.

The novel finds its footing in this part. We see 'Lewis'  a place, whose harshness and bleakness seems to have seeped into the lives of the people who still live there.  We learn more about the Fin's life, the events that drove away from Lewis and finally his lover. We feel the biting cold of the sharp winds, the incessant rain, the sluggish roads, see the  landscape of terrible beauty, a landscape which is both forbidding and inviting at the same time, ready to reward the person who can master it, but at the same time eager to trip him if he relaxes even a bit. The trip where, the characters set sail to 'An sgneir'  island for the annual harvest of birds
is an example. The black cliffs, rough waves crashing against the shores, the flock of birds rising, the desolation of the place everything is brought out extremely well. 

This is a story of the follies and arrogance of youth, wanting redemption but not knowing how to about it and above all the usual but still always sad tale of abuse of power and above all abuse of trust. There is an interesting narrative style in the novel. Peter explains first the end result of an action, then a few pages or chapters later explains the route which by which the end result was arrived at. For e.g. X could be alive at one point in the novel, suddenly he is mentioned as dead further in the novel, then after a few pages we learn as to how X died. This technique plays around with the reader, as as we are unsure about a lot of things, like say why Y feels guilty about something, why Z acted the way he did. 

This novels works more as a study of human emotions in harsh conditions (both in terms of the landscape and the quality of life) than as crime fiction. The writing is good in parts and the characters are defined well enough, but you never get the certainty that one is reading a crime fiction. There are parts where Fin seems to be off on his own journey trying to face the demons of his past,  but suddenly comes up with a plausible explanation to exonerate a suspect. It is at such points, that we that we are reminded, that yes this is a crime fiction and Fin is investigating it. The motive being the crime is well fleshed out, but the manner in which the perpetrator goes about it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.  But the novel has enough in it to engage the reader and make him  look forward to the other 2 novels in this series which are also set in Lewis island.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ann Cleeves - Hidden Depths

At one point in Ann Cleeves's 'Hidden Depths', inspector Vera Stanhope muses
"Real murders weren't like this. They were brutal and mucky. Unplanned usually, always ugly". She has reason to,  as she is investigating 2 murders, where both the victims, who do not seem to have been related in anyway have been decked out in a similar, almost ritualistic fashion. Vera has to find out a killer who seems to have come from the pages of a novel.

This novel is not a police procedural on the lines of say Rankin or Mankell where the day to day legwork of investigation has an important role. It is more in the vein of Ruth Rendell's 'Wexford' series of novels, where though, the main protagonist is a policeman, not much time is given to the inner workings of the department. 
There are few initial moments, where Vera and her team have discussions and the boredom of the team members is mentioned, one of the few times when we get the feeling that yes, this is a procedural. 

There are a lot of  red herrings, which you typically, do not get a lot of in Rankin or Mankell, just an accumulation of data and a point where all those data fall into place). There is a sidekick to Vera, but that's it, most of the work is done by her and in this too we see a difference as even the maverick Rebus has Siobhan who herself is a well formed character, by his side. The character of.Vera's assistant harks back to 'Burden' in the Wexford series.You never get the feeling that he could be important like Siobhan, you know that the entire show is run by Vera. This then is a quintessential traditional British crime novel with no influence of Tartan Noir or the Scandinavian wave.  (This is only book I have read in this series, so could be wrong about how it plays out in the other books). 

The initial parts of the novel are quaint in the sense that the landscape, the initial introduction of the characters could all fit into an 'Agatha Christie' novel. Indeed, Vera could be a 'Jane Marple' rebooted for our times, what with her unabashed poking/probing into the lives of others, but also sensitive at the same time, the only difference being that in Vera's case she has the license to poke into other people direct. During the initial parts, one felt as if he were in some 'neverland', a place that didn't seem real, too good to be true. Oh yes, the beach, woods were all there, but one doesn't see the waves, feel the biting code or hear the chirping of the birds. The characters all seemed so distant. The whole setting seemed a bit in-congruent to a police procedural. The violence too is understated, almost respectful of the victims. (Last year, Ann had spoken about violence in Nordic Noir which can be read at (

Thankfully, these apprehensions vanish once Ann gets down to letting us know about the various characters. Any time, we get too close to someone's personal (personal in the purest sense of the word) life, not just during an investigation as in this novel, a can of worms is going to open. It would be a cliche and stating the obvious when I say that 'Hidden Depths' refer to the innermost feelings of the characters, that's what Ann does she mines the hidden depths of her characters.  There is the mother of the first victim who feels guilty as she had gone on a date (after a very long time) on the day her son was murdered, there is the couple who have an affair without the other knowing it, but are these in anyway connected to the murders.  Ann suddenly zooms in on the small moments and makes us ponder about whether it is related to the novel or just a snapshot of mind at a particular moment. When the mother of the victim has erotic thoughts and then immediately feels ashamed, we know that it probably has nothing to do with the murder, but lets us know about the loneliness that she has suffered and the guilt she has to carry on top of that.

The murders occur  in act 1, the characters, red herrings are set up in act 2 and finally Vera ties up everything in a finale that is in tune with the rest of the novel. Nothing that will take our breath away, but at the same time fitting in well within the realm of what had been exposed to Vera (and to the reader) earlier on. 

One doesn't initially warm up to Vera. She seems unnecessarily churlish, dismissive of her team members (there are mentions about how her team members desist from giving any suggestions fearing her sharp tongue) and generally seems to get under everyone's skin. But she is not a lone wolf like Rebus who desists authority and works alone. She is okay with a team, but not confident about their abilities, the worst kind of leader? But we slowly thaw towards her, with her wicked sense of humor (sometimes self-deprecatory),  her loneliness, her past with her father and though we do not completely warm up to her by the end, we surely do not desist her.

More than the core mystery or Vera, the parts of the main players of the novel is what intrigued me. I may not read the other novels in this series, but as Ann has written several series (with different protagonists), there are quite a lot of choices which I would be looking out for. The 'Shetland Island' series maybe? 

Monday, May 26, 2014

In The Woods - Tana French

A boy loses his memory of the events of a day when his two friends go missing. Sounds intriguing? Then the boy grows up to be a policeman and has to investigate a case at the very same location where the original incident occurred. Sounds a bit too hard to digest? What if the narrator of the novel is the boy who has now grown up, how much will you believe him.  Well, 'Tana French' takes this seemingly incredulous scenario in her novel 'In the Woods' and weaves in a perfectly plausible, heart-pounding mystery, a novel which is ultimately a sad story about people trying to make/find their way through life.

One day, Rob goes into the woods with his 2 friends and is found hours later with blood over him. His friends are never found and he doesn't (or says so) remember anything about what happened. After the incident, his entire life is spent trying to come to terms with it. Now a detective, he catches a case when a young girl is murdered in the same woods where his friends went missing and he is assigned the case.

Though the murder occurs fairly early, the first part of the novel is spent in establishing Rob's every day personal/professional  life, his friendship with Cassie and in setting up the groundwork for the rest of the novel. It may seem labored at times but is well worth the time. We learn about the drudgery of everyday police life, the sexism, gossips in it, we learn how Rob and Cassie came to be both ideal professional partners and close friends. 

As we learn more and more, a few queries come to the reader. Is this murder related to the incident that involved Rob. Will a killer (assuming that the 2 missing kids were indeed killed) strike after twenty years or is this something unrelated? The family of the murdered girl seems to be odd to say the least. Did the family have anything to do with it, was there any sexual/physical abuse of the kids within the family. Why was the young girl and her twin frequently ill. 

And what of Rob? Has he really forgotten what happened when his friends went missing or he is suppressing something (either consciously or sub-consciously). Because the reader has to remember one thing that Rob says at the beginning  "What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two things: I crave truth. And I lie." So, how much of what Rob is narrating is true, not just about the events of that fateful day of his life and also about the events of the murder that he investigated? A crime fiction with an unreliable narrator, what a potent combination. In fact, after completing the novel, one could look back the events, viewing them through this quote by Rob and a whole new story (or stories) could open up to you.

But this is not just a standard mystery and hence 'Tana' concentrates on the players involved too. What toll will this investigation take on Rob, will his carefully constructed facade of stability hold on in the face of this case which hits so close to home (literally and metaphorically), will it impact his professional and personal relationships. One doubt that the reader would have at the beginning, is how can Rob investigate this case when there is so much emotionally related to him. The question actually should be as to how his superior allows him to investigate, because Rob (though initially a bit unsure) would want to be in this case as he would feel it may given some closure (of what? no one including Rob would know that), in any case, it is a given that Rob would be drawn to it. Tana anticipates this and creates a scenario where Rob is able to handle the case, But of course, it does add to the tension of what would happen if his superior finds about his past, will he do it before the case is solved and if so what happens to Rob. Will both the cases (even if they are related or unrelated) ever be solved?

Whatever we know about the incidents of the case, it is only as much as Rob wants us to know. So it is with the other characters involved in it. There is Cassie, a perfect friend, sibling, lover, really she could be anyone to you, but if is she is on your side, you can go to war with her, knowing that she will take care of your back. In fact, she competes with Rob in grabbing our attention and frequently succeeds too. You want to comfort her, hug her, assure that you will keep her safe, all the while knowing that she is the one who would do all these things to you and doesn't need much comforting herself. That's the effect of her character having this unique mixture of seeming vulnerability mixed with steel. But what impact will this case have on her, will she come out of this unscathed? 

If only Cassie had been a character in a series of novels, she would have become an unforgettable one. She is unforgettable even now (it is possible that even Rob fades from your memory, but Cassidy not much chance),  but she could have become more well known,  and unforgettable in the sense that she becomes embedded in the public consciousness, a la Salander. She would have been a heroine for our times. Maybe Tana saw this potential and that's why she gave the stage to her in her next novel 'The Likeness', but that is for another post. One quibble I had with her character was her (unofficial) profiling of people. Yes, it is mentioned that she did a part of a psychology course (but it is not known why she left it in the middle), but would that be enough to be proficient enough to act as some kind of unofficial profiler? Of course, one can be inherently attuned to be this kind of thing, but still this doesn't seem to fit it, but it does add to the mystique of her character. 

As both the case and the characters unravel, we rush towards the end, with an impending sense of doom that nothing is going to end well, even  if the case is solved. There is a too glibly and hastily planned 'entrapment'  to get at the truth and though Tana (via Rob) gives the rationale behind this anticipating the reader's disbelief, it does take a bit of swallowing to do. But anyway, just another minor quibble. Just when you think that things have been resolved, there is another devious  (or delicious depending on the reader) twist, the best part of which is that the groundwork for this has been laid early on in the novel and the fact that is fits in so perfectly with how one of the character has been played by another. Yes, there is a good chance that one could guess the culprit (particularly after an incident that occurs in the middle), and I did too, but the best part is that one can never be sure about it. One cannot say that I was 100% sure about the culprit, the best one could say that I had a suspicion. This is not a knock on the novel, this kind of resolution is much better than one where the author doesn't show any of his cards and springs a complete surprise at the very end. It takes a gutsy author to show her cards (partially) early on, have the conviction that the reader may not guess based on it and even if so, ensure that he is uncertain and hence is still surprised at the end. These are the novels that make crime fiction an interactive one with both the author and trying competing and the author trying to stay one step ahead.

A murder, thrills, chills, the steady build up of tension to a crescendo with a solid denouement , all the staples of good crime fiction are there in this novel. But it is not about these alone. This is  also about how circumstances change our relationships with whom we are closest and the world in general and also about how relationships or the lack of one lead to circumstances that result in pain for everyone concerned. In some ways, the novels speaks of things that 'literature' is supposed to do and does. Take the mystery out of Rob's childhood incident, remove the murder and you would get a tale of pain, loss and (hopefully) redemption. And yes, this novel also tells that pieces of a jigsaw puzzle does not always fall into places, not everything gets tied up neatly at the end and that ultimately, for some (a lot of) people there is no final destination, just one long unending journey through life. This is much more than just a good mystery read, it is a keeper.

I read Tana's 'The Likeness'  before reading this one. Though the incidents in the novels are unrelated and they can be read in any order, if you like me have read 'The Likeness' first, I would suggest to do a quick re-read (like me) of it , not entirely, but at-least of the first 50 odd pages. You get to know a bit more about Cassie's past and the impact that 'In the Woods' had on her. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

A return to one's hometown should generally be a happy thing, tinged maybe with a bit of melancholy about the memories of what happened earlier. But, is this the case always, because if so, why does Camille, a reporter working in Chicago, has a lot of misgivings when asked to go to her hometown to report on what could be serial murders of children? As we learn next, why hasn't she gone to her hometown for several years?

Persuaded by her boss, Camille agrees to go to 'Wind Gap' and report on 2 murders of children that have happened in the past year. She meets her mother 'Adora' after a very long time, get acquainted with her step-sister 'Amma' who is 13, while trying to get information about the murders that have happened. We get to know more about the dynamics of Camille's relationship with her mother as well as about the murders. We also see the claustrophobic small town atmosphere, where everyone seems to know everything (where everything seemingly equals information which is part rumor and part truth and yet most are unaware of the really important things), where people are very eagr to get an object of their anger and suspicion for the murders,  people waiting for a release from their mundane lives to such an extent that even murders become a cause for release in a way (Camille feels that the people of Wind Gap would actually want a resident to the murderer instead of an outsider, because it would then given them stories to tell about how they actually lived near and even interacted with a murderer). 

Nothing really terrible happens (in the present and from the reader's POV) for the most part of the novel, but a sense of unease keeps on increasing as new things (from the past) come to light.  Why do some characters (in both the present/past) keep falling ill suddenly and recover at the same pace? Is the violent nature that is attributed to both the murdered girls cause their death? A boy tells Camille about something he witnessed in the woods, which taps into all our fears about the woods and the myths surrounding them. Towards the end, the slow burn nature of the novel reaches its peak and the tension becomes unbearable. There is a twist towards the end which may seem far-fetched, but in fact matches whatever happened earlier in the novel and actually makes more sense than the previous revelation.

With the protagonist 'Camille' being body abuser with cuts all over and a border line alcoholic to boot, with Amma's bullying and cruel treatment of her peers and younger kids (Megan Abbot also brought out the cruel vindictive streak in girls in her 'Dare Me'), it is easy to be go along with the general perception of Flynn being a misogynist. But is it actually so? Flynn says in an interview that

"To me, that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is," she responds. "Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it's also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish ... I don't write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she's a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness."

What Flynn says above perfectly matches this novel as the women characters are someone whom we can identify with easily, as devious and twisted as their actions are. This makes the novel scarier because the people who do the terrible things here could actually be the people we know and when supposedly normal people do such things the impact and shock of it is even more. So what stands out more than the actions of the antagonist (which it must be admitted is terrible indeed) is the motivation behind what is being done and the fact that it could be done by anyone at all, not by only a 'psycho-bitch'. One indicator (for me) of crime fiction that goes beyond being merely good or  thrilling is whether it makes the reader pause for thought and think about what-if scenario's that could have avoided the events of the novel and this novel does that to us.

When one reads an author's breakthrough work and then goes back to the earlier works of the author, comparisons are inevitable. Reading 'Sharp Objects', one sees that 'Gone Girl' was no flash in the pan. Indeed, I would rate 'Sharp Objects' higher than that. 'Gone Girl' may be a page turner in the purest sense, but 'Sharp Objects' has more emotional and narrative heft and is more tighter. In fact, 'Amy Dunner' of 'Gone Girl' could be the 'The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive...', that Flynn says she doesn't write because we never even get any hint for her motives other than a feeling that she is a compulsive power seeker and hence is always distant from the reader (This may have been a conscious attempt by Flynn. Also, the psycho bitch character is not actually  a bad thing when it is not used as a cliche. Because why should every perpetrator of crime have something that happened in his/her childhood that caused him/her to snap, maybe he/she is wired that way only, but that's a discussion for another day). So, with all her twisted machinations, Amy (Gone Girl) is not as scary as the characters in 'Sharp Objects', who, while being as twisted as Amy are too close to  comfort for the reader. 

Whatever route Flynn takes in her future works, whether it be of the thrilling but a bit distant 'Gone Girl' kind or the more intimate and scary 'Sharp Objects' kind, she is a writer to look forward too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Nightmare - Lars Kepler

Penelope and her boyfriend Bjorn are joined at the last minute on their boating trip by Penelope's sister 'Viola'. Viola is murdered and Penelope and her boyfriend are on the run. Meanwhile, an important government official has apparently committed suicide. These two seemingly unrelated incidents start off the husband-wife team 'Lars Kepler's' 'The Nightmare', their follow up to their hugely successful debut novel 'The Hypnotist'. 

Like in their first novel, the duo are quite successful in the initial stages of the novel, in creating an atmosphere that reeks of evil and portending of more terrible things to come. Detective Joona gets involved in both the cases and as he investigates links come up between the two, hinting of involvement of people at very high levels. There is also a bit of 'open suspense' in that, the reader knows what happened/is happening to Penelope whereas the police doesn't know it adding a bit more tension to the reader, as he internally wills on Joona to take the correct path. The first part of the novel is the best part as we initially get hit by the full force of evil,  regain our bearings and wait for what will happen next as Joona proceeds with his investigation.

The best of Scandinavian crime fiction/police procedural has always been characterized by a strong sense of geographic atmosphere and of time and place where the events take place. There could be multiple murders occurring, but one would not get the feeling that these are being staged hurriedly by the author just to get a rise out of the reader.  One can sense shift in the genre from police procedural to a more (mainstream) 'American' thriller kind of works in Jo Nesbo's novels. Lars Kepler, too seem to  be following on this route judging from the first 2 books, but with far less control over. Incidents take at seemingly break neck speed, but the reader is left thinking as to how much more suspension of disbelief is required from him. Though it slagged off a bit, 'The Hypnotist' managed the tightrope walk between being a procedural as well as a thriller at the same time, quite well. Though one was left with the feeling, that more depth could have been possible, whatever emotional core was in the novel did create quite a bit of impact, which salvaged the novel overall. But here, the best features of crime fiction (sense of time, place, characters, emotional investment into them) seem to be sacrificed at the altar of thrill. For instance, the main antagonist of the novel is a kind of modern day 'Mephistopheles' who could have been an unforgettable character, but ends being a caricature. There are throwaway lines that hint at his past, his relationship with his son is briefly shown but none of them are dwelt into deeply enough for us to see the protagonist even as a human being, let one as 'Mephistopheles'. Towards the end of the novel, it devolves from a thriller to some kind of action packed novel with raids etc testing our patience.

We get to learn a bit more of Joona in this novel, his commitment phobia (really, is there any other kind of cop, other than Ake Edwardson's Erik Winters who seems to a rare exception), hints of a troubled past and there is even a hint of the supernatural at the end. This emotional involvement with Joona, the prospect to learning more about him, and the fact that Lars Kepler (have so far at-least) invariably do a great job in staging the set up of the novel,  makes one look forward to the other books in the series, though this one is not a worthy sophomore effort. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Soul to Take - Yrsa Sigurdardottir

A newly developed hotel/spa with rumors of being haunted, desolate farmhouses, a series of murders, all that could have formed part of a 'cozy crime' mystery, take a slightly darker tone in Yrsa Sigurdardottir's second novel 'My Soul to Take' in the attorney 'Thóra Gudmundsdóttir' series.

'Thora' is a much needed change from the world weary, alcoholic protagonists that have become the staple of Scandinavian crime fiction (and indeed in crime fiction from other countries too). Yes, Thora too is divorced, but thankfully she does not suffer from any existential crisis. Her problems are more practical, raising two kids as a single mother, with one of them a 16 year boy himself set to become a father, juggling work and handling 'Bella', her secretary who brings new meaning to the words 'slob' and 'insolence'. Thora is asked by her client 'Jónas' to investigate the hotel, as she had assisted him in the purchase of the lands. Thora goes there and is confronted by a murder almost immediately which is just the beginning.

'My Soul to Take' is more tightly plotted than 'Last Rituals' which relied more on it's atmosphere to salvage it. Multiple murders happen and there are lots of red herrings and twists thrown in to keep the reader guessing. Yes, there are 'ghosts' here, but not the malevolent ones that are said to harass human beings after their death. These are ghosts of actions done in the past, actions that leave a permanent scar and create ghosts of memories that haunts people. A small town atmosphere with practically everyone knowing everyone and most of them harboring a hatred for someone for a (in some cases perceived) slight/wrong done, creating a claustrophobic environment is brought out well.

Though the subject matter is dark, the tone of Yrsa's prose is light in most places (other than those about the past), Thora's exasperation at her son taking his heavily pregnant lover on a road trip, the various psychics in the  hotel/spa and their theories on the 'spirit'  that supposedly haunts the hotel, Thora's relation with  her lover 'Maththew' all provide a bit of relief from the heavy duty murders. Indeed, as in other successful series of novels, the reader is as invested in the main/recurring characters as he is in the actual core of the novel. I am very interested in seeing the growth of these characters in the next novels (Bella needs to be given a much bigger role in the next novels of the series, there is potential here for a recurring character which is borne out by descriptions of other novels where she apparently plays a much bigger role). When such characters are bound with a solid mystery as in this novel, it does make for an engrossing read.  This series is a worthy addition to the Scandinavian crime wave.