When the body of a young woman is found on the banks of the River Thames, the injuries turn out to have an unsettling similarity to the unsolved, 1930's Los Angeles case of Elizabeth Short - known as The Black Dahlia.
Detective Inspector Anna Travis is on the team investigating this horrible crime when Detective Chief Inspector James Langton is called in to take over from the original team leader. They have a prior working and private history and Travis is very hesitant and discomforted by the close presence of the volatile and erratic Langton. As the killer starts to taunt the murder team in a manner that follows the Black Dahlia case, right down to inciting local media to dub the victim The Red Dahlia, the team becomes increasingly aware that this a violent and vicious killer who thinks that taunting them is part of the game. It doesn't help that the victim herself is a bit of a mystery, and there are very few clues in her life to a possible perpetrator. Another copycat killing and Langton and Travis realise they have just a few days before the 3rd victim and absolutely no concrete leads. An anonymous tip off finally leads the team to a suspect, and from there on the novel becomes a race to the finish to try to prove the seemingly unprovable.
There is absolutely no doubt that La Plante can write big rip-roaring books with good characterisations and THE RED DAHLIA delivers on that promise. Whilst La Plante does write good, strong, human female characters they are not at the expense of the male characters. Langton starts off an uptight, inaccessible workaholic, becoming more human and vulnerable, even troubled. You can see why Travis would find him so attractive. The killer, who is known from the time of the anonymous tip off is pure evil, but not a caricature. There are some awful elements to the violence of the killings and to the events surrounding the suspect and his behaviour but these are handled carefully, with no attempt to shock or sicken the reader.
This is the second Travis and Langton book, the first being ABOVE SUSPICION but you do not need to have read the first to get the second. THE RED DAHLIA really was a great read - involving; fast paced; nicely balanced in terms of revelations of the violence and horror and sprinkled with just enough personal life to make you engage with all the characters.
BORKMANN'S POINT - Hakan Nesser
BORKMANN'S POINT is the second book in the Inspector Van Veeteren series, but the only one currently available in English. Nesser lives in Sweden and has set his book in a fictitious small Scandinavian town.
An ex-con is murdered by a blow from a very unusual, extremely sharp instrument. Soon a real-estate mogul is killed in the same way seemingly with the same weapon. Van Veeteren, who was holidaying on the coast nearby, is stopped from returning home and sent to help the local under-experienced police team. Van Veeteren finds an immediate friendship Bausen, the head of the local police, due to retire any day now. Bausen is very anxious to get this serial killer, dubbed unsurprisingly, The Axeman caught and stopped so that he doesn't have to retire with this case outstanding.
The local team is made up of two investigators: Beate Moerk who is trying very hard, but she's very inexperienced and Kropke who is very full of himself, but very obsessed with technology and extremely naive. There are also two Constables - Bangs and Mooser - again a bit bumbling and out of their depth. Van Veeteren brings Munster, one of his own team down to the small town to assist, and the whole group tries desperately to find some sort of link between the victims to try to explain why. When a third victim is found, this time with the weapon itself, there's still no obvious links and the weapon, no matter how unusual is old and doesn't help much either.
Slowly an idea of a connection between the victims starts to reveal itself to Van Veeteren, as the murderer's thinking is slowly revealed to the reader.
There's nothing much in the solution that the reader can't see coming in this book. BORKMANN'S POINT is actually a reference to a theory on solving crimes that a senior officer tells Van Veeteren years before and in this case, it's actually quite true. There is a point in the book, quite a bit before the finish where it's possible to see the solution quite clearly.
There's a good sense of humour at play throughout the book which certainly helps and Van Veeteren is one of those rumpled detective types that does appeal to me in particular, but there was something about the arch tone of some of the conversation which just didn't quite sit right. Add to that the fact that it wasn't the most original or involving mystery, it wasn't the WOW read that other recent books have been.
Having said that, it was definitely readable, with a good sense of place, a nice sense of humour and a cast of characters with some potential.
COLOUR SCHEME - Ngaio Marsh
Often regarded as her most interesting book and set on New Zealand's North Island, Ngaio Marsh herself considered this to be her best-written novel. It was a horrible death -- Maurice Questing was lured into a pool of boiling mud and left there to die. Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, far from home on a wartime quest for German agents, knew that any number of people could have killed him: the English exiles he'd hated, the New Zealanders he'd despised or the Maoris he'd insulted. Even the spies he'd thwarted -- if he wasn't a spy himself...
I was prompted to re-read this after an absence of 3(cough) something years (good grief when did those years happen), by a discussion on 4 Mystery Addicts (the best online crime fiction discussion group that I've ever found).
Colour Scheme is one of Ngaio Marsh's books actually set in her homeland of New Zealand and was, I think, originally released in 1953 or 1943. Despite the age of the book it still holds up pretty well. There's a lovely underlying sense of humour about it, a bit too much stuffed shirt middle class English twit in some of the characters maybe, but there are two elements that stay with me.
Firstly landscape - the setting for the book is a hot springs / thermal area with a small residential hotel building. The smell of the sulphur and the bubbling of the mud along with the moonlike look were very evocative.
Secondly the inclusion of a number of characters from a local indigenious Maori group and their customs and beliefs was refreshing simply because they were just there. There was no particular over-statement of their existence, of their involvement or of their interactions. In other words, what I'm trying to say, is that no big deal was made of their presence.
The storyline itself interwove the involvement of all the characters well and the whole thing, whilst obviously written quite a while ago, was actually just an interesting book with a bit of a spy thriller sideline. Couple of minor silly things in the plot that were a little contrived but when you consider Marsh up against the more well-known Golden Age writers - she can hold her own pretty well.
SILENCE OF THE GRAVE - Arnaldur Indridason
Erlendur (who was first introduced to us in Tainted Blood (aka Jar City)) is called to the investigation of a skeleton, found in a shallow grave on an area that used to be open hills outside Reykjavik. When the skeleton was buried this was sparsely populated with a few summer chalets. Just to complicate matters the skeleton could also be from the time when there was a British and then American Army base in the area. It could be an Icelander who once got lost in the snow.
The investigation is complicated by the age of the burial; the slow and painstaking excavation of it by archaeologists; and by the location and the lack of information about any of the possible residents of that area. As Erlendur and his team slowly work through all the possibilities, the hills reveal they have had more than their fair share of family tragedy, brutality and heartache.
Erlendur is also confronted by the mess of his own family when his estranged daughter contacts him briefly, desperate for urgent help. As the investigation continues and Erlendur's family crisis continues there is a gradual revealing of many of the things that have happened in his own past - making him the person that he is today. Just in the same way as many of the events in the families who are eventually connected to the nearby Summer Chalet slowly reveal themselves.
SILENCE OF THE GRAVE is involving and highly compelling. The story of the investigation and the life of Erlendur are intertwined so that they provide both a contrast and also an explanation of how people become who they are or react like they do. Even in translation there's a feel in the writing of these books that is smooth, natural, hypnotic almost. In SILENCE OF THE GRAVE the story moves along until the later few chapters when the true circumstances behind the skeleton speed up the pace and the whole story is revealed. At the same time Erlendur's life is revealed.
Death in Dreamtime was published by Wakefield Crime Classics in 1993. Originally published in 1959, S H Courtier is one of the classic crime fiction authors in Australia who is little known / commented on. Which is a pity.
In Death in Dreamtime Jock Corless ends up at Ungimillia, home of The Alchera or Dream Time Land - a sort of "theme park" of Aboriginal mythology. He's travelled through to New South Wales in response to a very cryptic letter from his cousin who, as Jock arrives, is found dead on the road.
Death in Dreamtime certainly reads like a novel from 1959 with a turn of phrase that comes directly from that era. Some of the characterisations are to be expected, Inspector 'Digger' Haig reminds you a bit of your returned soldier grandfather in his mannerisms and his language. There are two main female characters who are not as cliched as is often the case from books of this era, and best of all, there is a stagey but relatively sympathetic discussion of Aboriginal mythology and history which actually doesn't make you squirm from embarrassment.
Interestingly enough for me, living in the Dandenong Ranges, there is a central character in the park who seemed to me to remind me very strongly of William Ricketts and the famous William Ricketts sanctuary - not so far from where I live. The editors who bought these writers to Wakefield made the same observation in a short essay at the back of the book describing the circumstances around the book.
All in all I enjoyed this a whole lot more than I thought I would.
HIDDEN - Katy Gardner
Mel Stenning has been a victim most of her life. Adopted by very conventional parents, she rebelled (but hated herself for doing it), getting into all sorts of situations and ultimately ending up in Australia, pregnant with no chance of having anything to do with her daughter Poppy's father. Returning to England she's a single mother, working for a living, finding it hard to cope, when she meets Simon. Never really convinced that Simon loves her, and constantly obsessed that he's remained involved with his last girlfriend Rosa, Mel is pregnant again. When Simon proposes, they marry and move to an old, derelict warehouse in Kent that Simon is sure they can renovate. Poppy finds it hard to adjust to the new area; the renovations lurch along out of control and mostly going nowhere; Mel obsesses over Simon's commitment to her; and Jo, when he arrives, is a difficult baby, colicky and fractious. Simon is increasingly absent from home working in London on jobs for desperately needed money.
In the meantime London police are investigating the violent stabbing death of prostitute found in her own flat, and then Rosa goes missing. The police are very interested in talking to Simon about Rosa, even more so when his credit cards are found in her house. Mel's even more convinced that Simon has been lying to her about Rosa, but when the police interest in him increases and Poppy suddenly goes missing, seemingly taken by Simon, Mel's life and faith in Simon spirals totally out of control.
Mel is the focus of HIDDEN. The story is told from her perspective, starting immediately with the circumstances around Poppy going missing and then back through events that got them to that place. Interspersed with Mel's life are chapters from the viewpoint of policeman Dave Gosforth, in charge of the murder investigation and then Rosa and Poppy's disappearances. The use of the first person perspective means that Mel's obsessions are stark and concentrated. This perspective gives the book a very claustrophobic, self-involved feeling, almost voyeuristic and definitely slightly creepy. Mel is quite exasperating - her victim mentality and her inability to make a positive change become really frustrating, but the pace of the book does pull you through the story. The final resolution is not hard to see coming, but the increasing tension by that stage means that you stay with Mel just to see if she'll actually develop some backbone and get herself out of this.
Despite, or possibly because, Mel is such a complicated character this was a unexpectedly involving book.
THE ART OF DROWNING - Frances Fyfield
Rachel Doe needs to sort out her life. She's had such a sheltered, cautious existence; an accountant, only daughter of very timid parents, the only really daring thing she has done in her life was to dob in her lover - a liar and thief. All she got for her efforts was suspicion and a greater sense of loneliness and isolation than she had ever had before.
When Rachel meets Ivy she's totally captivated and they soon become involved in a very intense, platonic friendship which surprises everyone. Ivy is so different from Rachel, she was a real wild child - charismatic; a life-drawing model; ex-junkie; cleaner and ex-wife of Carl - now a Judge. The relationship is even more intense for Rachel as she finds, in Ivy's mother Grace, the sort of mother figure that her own never was, encompassing, loving, fun and ever so slightly happy crazy, Rachel is ultimately as attracted to Ivy's family as she is to Ivy.
Ivy's divorce from Carl came after the drowning of their daughter in a lake not far from Ivy's family farm. Since the divorce she has had no contact with her son. Rachel finds herself trying to bring about a reconciliation, at least between Ivy's parents and their grandson. Whilst she is repulsed by Carl and the stories of his violence and cruelty towards Ivy, she also finds herself strangely attracted to him. Can this charming, considerate man really be the monster that tore Ivy's son from her arms and caused the death of his own daughter?
As the friendship between Rachel and Ivy escalates and Rachel's attempts to firstly contact the Judge and then get him to agree to meet with Ivy's parents, there is a slow building of tension. Events occur around them that appear to have no relationship to what is happening between the main players in the story, but at the same time, the reader is made more and more aware that there's something very odd going on. The story unfolds rapidly and whilst you can guess that there's something really sinister going on, the question is what exactly is that "something".
There's a great sense of escalating tension and conflict in this book. Rachel is an interesting character as she moves from infatuation with Ivy, through doubt, to justification and denial, and finally strength and inner steel. Ivy is very edgy, intense and obviously complex. The surrounding characters are flawed, human and retain your interest. There is a bit of subtext around the story - the difficulties of farming life, Carl and his life with a teenage son, a sympathetic and overworked policeman and his own family.
Having read quite a few Frances Fyfield books in the past, THE ART OF DROWNING is definitely a major standout, it was compelling, retained interest and was nicely paced with a very realistic and satisfactory ending.
PUNISHMENT - Anne Holt
PUNISHMENT is the first in a newly translated, extremely successful series in Europe, featuring academic and former FBI profiler Johanne Vik and Detective Inspector Adam Stubo of the Oslo police.
When 9 year old Emilie goes missing her father is worried but not frantic. She'd done this once before just after her mother died. This time, they don't find her. When a little boy disappears and ultimately is returned to his parents; dead, no obvious cause of death, and a handwritten note: You Got What You Deserved; Oslo starts to worry.
Police Superintendent Adam Stubo, working the case, turns to former FBI profiler Johanne Vik for help. Johanne is already looking into the conviction of Aksel Seier for the rape and murder of a young child many years ago. An old lady really wants to know if Seier was guilty or not. Johanne is not confident that she can help Adam, but he is increasingly desperate for any sort of lead that the Police can get. He and his team make very little progress and they soon have 3 abducted children, two dead and a chance that Emilie is still alive.
The story shifts focus between the search for the current child killer in Oslo to Johanne's search for information about Seier's case. At the same time Adam is increasingly leaning on Johanne for assistance in the case and for human contact. Adam's own wife and daughter have died. Johanne has a disabled daughter she struggles to manage on occasion, and an ex-husband who would be happy to take full custody of their daughter.
Whilst both of the cases slowly gather some pace, the central part of the story concentrates on the increasing involvement of Johanne and Adam. It's not a romantic involvement as such, but there is a feeling of interest and reliance from both of them.
There are a couple of hints in this book that indicate a first time novel. There is a tendency towards over-development and over-explanation of characters, and at points this concentration takes away from the pace and focus you would expect from a current day serial killer investigation. The resolution was also over reliant on some coincidences which certainly added to the thriller side of the story, but perhaps over-egged the pudding slightly.
Neither of these minor quibbles ultimately take much away from the book, and the central character of Adam Stubo is a really interesting, sympathetic and intuitive Police Detective.
MURDER AT THE FORTNIGHT - Steve J Spears
Murder at The Fortnight is a darkly hilarious tale of murder, greed, fame and lust set squarely under the bright lights of the world of showbusiness. When celebs start dropping like flies at The Playwright's Fortnight, Stella and Ng must battle media hysteria and political backstabbing in their desperate search for a killer who keeps on killing. Who will be next?
MURDER AT THE FORTNIGHT is set in the testing arena of the "theatre" and the arts. Showbiz commentator, Stella Pentangelli is returning from a bit of a "rest" as it's known in the trade, after a stella career as a showbusiness commentator and heavyweight. Inspector Ng is an investigator in the police, renowned for his different methods and for not paying the slightest bit of attention to all the whispering about his slightly bizarre methods.
Steve J Spears is a renowned Australian playright, and in MURDER AT THE FORTNIGHT he's created a wonderfully eccentric, slightly stagey set of characters resolving the murder of a major TV executive and then an internationally renowned and universally loved, indigenous actor at "The Fortnight". The Fortnight is a yearly "event" for the theatre community, reading and workshopping plays, in a university theatre town, a long way from civilisation.
There's nothing even slightly realistic in the police system described in MURDER AT THE FORTNIGHT, even allowing for Ng's slightly eccentric methodology and this lack of accuracy creates a very stagey, very elaborately set murder mystery in which the lives of the investigator's are as much part of the story as the investigation itself.
Lovely, unusual and enjoyable as long as you're not looking for gritty reality.
SUN AND SHADOW - Ake Edwardson
Erik Winter is the youngest chief inspector in Sweden. He's quite the snappy dresser, an intuitive if slightly moody cop, consumed with his job and with his very pregnant girlfriend. When his father has a massive heart attack in Spain, he is pulled away from his job to spend a little time with him before he dies. His time in Spain is very conflicted, a completely different culture and experience which his parents have embraced totally, away from his girlfriend and his job, he's lost and uncomfortable. When he returns, a particularly gruesome double murder, almost on his doorstep drags Winter and his team into the cult world of Gothic music and ultimately, adult games.
At the same time, his girlfriend has moved in and they are preparing for the birth of their baby when anonymous phone calls and strange noises outside their apartment late at night start to worry both of them.
This is an intricate, complicated, layered book which builds slowly to an intense and rapid conclusion. There are many contrasts between the characters in the book, with a rich cast of supporting characters - both from the police and Winter's own family, as well as witnesses that are drawn into the story as the investigation proceeds.
Classic Scandinavian crime fiction, well-paced, textured, thoughtful and compelling.