Originally published in Norway in 1995, Gunnar Staalesen's The Writing on The Wall is set in Bergen Norway in the early '90s. Private Eye Varg Veum returns from the funeral of his ex-wife's most recent husband to find the distressed mother of missing 16 year old girl Torild waiting to see him. Around the same time Bergen is buzzing with rumours about the death of Judge Brandt after he is found dead in a hotel room wearing flimsy female underwear.
Veum starts digging into the last known sightings and movements of Torild and her few friends - all of which seem to centre around a local amusement arcade. What initially seems pretty normal, rebellious behaviour seems to be covering up something more sinister and Veum is soon receiving death threats and Torild is found dead.
Varg Veum has a reflective almost pessimistic attitude, enhanced by the first person POV of the book. The reader is treated to everything that evolves in the story from Veum's point of view and with his observations and reactions in stark focus. There is something "Philip Marlowe" about Veum - not just because he's a lone PI, working the cases that the police cannot or will not touch, but also in his attitude and in some of the wisecracks and observations.
Ultimately it's a book about the unpleasant underbelly of a society with some seriously skewed morality covered by an increasingly thin veneer of normality. Varg Veum is a perfect set of eyes to observe all of this and whilst this is not a comforting read and the first person voice is sometimes a challenge to read, it was an interesting social observation.
RUBDOWN - Leigh Redhead
Simone Kirsch is a Stripper (exotic dancer) turned Private Investigator working the fringe of Melbourne constantly, it would seem, in and around the sex industry.
In RUBDOWN Simone and her new PI boss Tony are called in to look for the daughter of a well-known, respectable barrister. His daughter seems to have got caught up in drugs and the sex industry herself. When she commits suicide whilst Simone is supposedly watching her from outside the flat, things start to get a lot more complicated than Simone and Tony want. Simone's PI license is threatened and so is her life.
Leigh Redhead has created a great PI in the character of Simone. She's in the long tradition of female PI's with attitude, although there's a strong sense of humour and Australian-ness in Simone that makes her a great character to spend time with. Her rocky path to love seems to have stabilised a little in this book, although there's a twist (isn't there always). Given that both Simone (and Leigh) have spent time working in the striptease industry the surrounding characters from that world are sympathetic, if not slightly out there, for the average reader. As with Redhead's first book PEEPSHOW, the sex scenes in RUBDOWN are a lot more on the explicit side than some of the similar style books (Liz Evan's Grace Smith for example).
The mystery in this book is a rollercoaster thriller, the plot is deftly handled and nicely twisted. Some of the outcomes are easy to see coming, but that doesn't matter - this is a book about Simone and how she copes with her world and the series is a great, entertaining romp.
DEATH IN TIME - Mignon Warner
Mignon Warner was born in Adelaide, South Australia and in 1982 when Death In Time was published, she was living in London.
Death in Time is set within the confines of a Welsh resort hotel, during a Magician's Conference. Cynthia Playford dies, falling from a cable car travelling up to the local mountain peak early in the morning. It's not so much who would want to kill Cynthia, but who wouldn't as the sister of one of the magicians is not the most popular person.
Nice little book in a cosy / closed hotel style with engaging characters.
THE SHAPE OF WATER - Andrea Camilleri
THE SHAPE OF WATER is the first in Camilleri's series of books featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Set in Vigata, a fictional seacoast town in southern Sicily, The Shape of Water finds Montalbano investigating the death of a local influential in the very insalubrious surrounds of "The Pasture".
The Pasture, once a goat grazing site is now the place to pick up a drug deal or a prostitute. Montalbano is already a bit suspicious about Luparello's death but when pressure starts being applied by a politician, a judge and a bishop he digs his heels in and insists that an investigation is required despite a verdict of death from a heart attack.
Not only does Camilleri give you a great feeling for the local area, Montalbano is a wonderfully eclectic, grumpy character who works amongst a great array of slightly offbeat policemen. And this is a novel from Italy, so there's food and a passionate love affair, made all the more interesting by the distance between Montalbano and his love Livia, who lives in Genoa.
The translation of this book flowed really well and there's a handy short glossary at the end explaining the meaning of some of the phrases and slang used.
There are other books in this series that have been now been translated and they are all well worth catching up with, even if you read this series out of order they stand up well. You miss a little of the developing relationships between the characters but not enough to lessen the enjoyment.
THE CORONER'S LUNCH - Colin Cotterill
It's 1975 and Laos' new communist regime is having teething problems. Dr Siri Paiboun, a charming and crotchety retired surgeon is called back into harness as chief coroner, despite having no training for the post.
When the wife of a Party leader is wheeled into the morgue, eyebrows are raised. Then three more bodies are found - but these are Vietnamese soldiers, and Siri may have an international incident on his hands. Are the deaths linked?
In 1975, and in the middle of Laos' new communist regime's teething problems, septuagenarian surgeon Dr Siri Paiboun finds himself dragged back to work. This time as the chief coroner, a post he has absolutely no training for and little or no equipment, staff, forensic support or resources of any kind.
When the wife of a Party leader dies suddenly and the bodies of three Vietnamese soldiers are discovered, seemingly tortured and thrown into a local reservoir, Siri uses a very strange combination of autopsy results and assistance from his friends (living and dead) to investigate.
Siri is the most engaging character. A communist for love (his now deceased wife convinced him that they should support the Revolution), a charming old reprobate by nature, he uses a combination of medical knowledge, instinct, charm and good old fashioned finagling to find the truth. Even the scenes where Siri is ably assisted by the spirit world seem to just fit in with the world that he inhabits.
The author has a wonderful sense of farce and he has created the character of Siri with a touch of the mystic and a healthy dollop of the human. The supporting cast are well drawn and there is a real sense of community with these characters. The dialogue is funny, the interaction between Siri and his workmates and friends open, irreverant in some places and lovingly real.
Despite the woo woo element, which can turn off some readers, this is a wonderful, original, unusual book filled with people that you just want to spend more time with. Thanks must go to Text for publishing this book in Australia, and hopefully they will continue with the next: Thirty-Three Teeth.
In the middle of a long hot summer in Oslo, a young woman's body is found murdered in her flat, with one finger cut off and a tiny five pointed star diamond beneath her eyelid.
Detective Harry Hole is a chronic alcoholic, on the verge of being sacked from the police force; but it's summer, everyone's on holidays and his boss has no choice but to assign the case to Harry and his colleague Tom Waaler. Harry doesn't trust Tom and suspects him of, amongst other things, arms smuggling. Harry's drinking problem is greatly exacerbated by his guilt and distress over the death of his work partner, who he suspects was killed by Tom and despite his objections and his chronic drinking, he has to stay on the case.
A woman is then reported missing and the only clue is her severed finger wearing a ring with the same sort of star-shaped red diamond and everyone realises that they have a serial killer in Oslo.
As bodies continue to be discovered it seems that 5 is the common denominator: five points to the star, 5 fingers, and 5 days between each victim. Whilst Harry is determined to find this killer, and to expose Tom he finds himself on the run from the police and forced to act to protect the son of his estranged lover into the bargain.
Reading this synopsis, you can almost feel the reaction. Alcoholic policeman in trouble with his boss. A serial killer. Bizarre "clues" from the killer. Dangerous cliche ridden territory you would think, but from the opening of the book which describes the passage of water through a building from the point of view of the history of the building, through to the struggle that Harry has in handling his alcoholism, relationships, and the personal campaign he carries to expose corruption in the police force the cliches are not evident and this is a very promising debut novel.
Starting out with a disappearance, switching to the investigation of a serial killer, following the exposure of a corrupt policeman and then a final twist that is quite deftly handled taking the book from a crime fiction story to a tense thriller was clever and highly engaging. Oslo was an interesting setting with sufficient of the location provided to give some context to the story, but deftly avoiding becoming a travelogue.
Definitely an entry in the increasing list of Scandinavian crime fiction author must reads.
THE GRAVE TATTOO - Val McDermid
THE GRAVE TATTOO is a standalone book from the prolific and well-known author of, amongst many others, The Wire In The Blood series.
When a tattooed, 200-year-old body is uncovered in the peat bogs of the Lake District, local girl turned Wordsworth Scholar Jane Gresham is instantly reminded of a local legend about Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty, said to have returned surreptitiously to England from Pitcairn Island. Returning to her childhood home she is on the trail of a connection between the Wordsworth and Christian families and is intrigued by the meaning behind a letter which she discovers in the archives from Wordsworth's family home. Back in London, on the council estate where Jane lives, a local teenager that Jane has befriended is dealing with a heap of problems of her own, and despite Jane's attempts to help her before she leaves, Tenille finds herself in big trouble. Despite being only 13, and having never travelled far from the council estate in her life, Tenille sets off to meet up with Jane.
The police are looking for Tenille and to add to Jane's problems, her ex-boyfriend, now Historical Document Dealer, is stalking Jane through the Lake District trying to get a lead on the important and valuable documents from Wordsworth that everyone believes exist.
The chapters of the book are interspersed with extracts from Christian's secret diary that all appear to be confirming firstly the theories about who the body is, and the existence of documents or memoirs written by Wordsworth about the mutiny. There are friendships and family relationships that drive Jane and her reactions to the people around her. No sooner have Jane and her coterie of supporters devised a theory about where these memoirs could possibly have gone, then elderly people, interviewed by Jane, start dying.
THE GRAVE TATTOO is quite a change in direction for McDermid, especially for those used to her more confrontational and frequently gory well-known novels. This is more of a plot combined with character study that doesn't pay particular attention to one component over the other. The characterisations were, in the main, reasonably detailed and solid, although some of the motivations for actions were tenuous. The setting was excellent with a great feeling for the Lake Districts and the landscape. The suspects were fairly introduced to the reader, although they were a few over obvious attempts at portraying sinister actions which just didn't quite seem to work, plus it seemed that some of the supporting character roles were too detailed in some places and too sketchy in others.
THE GRAVE TATTOO has a very unexpected setting and environment for a crime fiction book than much of the standard offering these days. In attempting to provide a grand and sweeping theory with a grand and sweeping story it did seem to fall a little flat on occasion.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE - Rennie Airth
The mutilated body of a young girl is found hidden in a wood by ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Madden. Her face has been brutally battered and she has been raped. Whilst the local police are concentrated on searching for a tramp known to be in the area at the time, Madden is not convinced this is a one-off opportunistic killing.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE is the second book in a series based in the 1930's, incorporating now retired DI Madden and his wife, Helen. John Madden now works as a farmer and his wife has a local GP practice in the small village just down the road from where the girl's body is recovered. Scotland Yard, and Madden's old colleagues are bought into the investigation and more bodies are discovered far away from this location. The investigation moves from the local police and villages to a much wider area across England and into Europe with Scotland Yard taking responsibility and focus ultimately shifting to the Diplomatic Service.
In this book John Madden discovers the body, has his doubts about the direction that the local police take and is ultimately in at the conclusion. Other than that, the investigation centres around the Scotland Yard team. The steps taken by the Yard detectives to identify a likely suspect were just a nice old-fashioned piece of strong detective work, without the availability of wiz bang forensics and resources that would be available in this day and age. The timeframe of the book sets it between the wars and there is a general feeling of menace with the build up towards the Second World War being felt in relations between England and Germany. The tramps and people's reaction to them adds a level of complexity.
The plot showed attention to detail and, in particular, the Scotland Yard personnel were an interesting cast of characters. The old fashioned detecting method of solving a crime was a refreshing change and very well handled. The involvement of Madden and his wife seemed a little opportunistic, designed to keep them in the story to maintain the feeling of the series. Whilst everyone is aware that Helen Madden is very protective of her husband, a few times she was in danger of just being a carping spoilsport, but ultimately the only minor quibble is that the Scotland Yard team did most of the work and Madden got the final glory.
PRIEST - Ken Bruen
Jack is in all sorts of self-inflicted trouble again. He's in hospital, severely affected by a nervous breakdown, after his negligence caused the death of someone very very important to him and his last close friends, when he's bought back from the brink by the kindness of another patient.
On his release Jack returns to his previous life with a new-found determination to avoid drinking and drugs. When his least favourite priest, Father Malachy asks Jack for help in discovering why a local priest was decapitated in his church confessional, Jack falls into that and other investigations but clings to his promise to stay sober.
PRIEST is the fifth novel in the Jack Taylor series and it is the first novel in which Jack is actively reassessing his life and what he really is. He's still an angry and depressed man, but as he has been all the way through this series, he's acutely self-aware and for the first time some of this anger is actually directed squarely at himself. He's angry with the way that Irish society is changing, he's still angry with the Catholic Church and in particular it's attitude to paedophilia and sexual abuse. Whilst PRIEST is part of a series and the reader definitely benefits from reading the early books, firstly because they are universally excellent, but also to see how Jack and the author have moved through a series of phases, PRIEST can be read as a standalone.
If nothing else, you have to admire Ken Bruen for his brutal honesty and his willingness to tackle the confrontational. In PRIEST he is scratching at a lot of scabs, societal and possibly personal.
TAINTED BLOOD (aka JAR CITY) - Arnaldur Indridason
Recently awarded a Golden Dagger for his second book in the series, Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indriadason's first book Tainted Blood, or Jar City as it was originally titled in English, is a taut, sparsely written police procedural set in a grey, cold and wet Reykjavik, Iceland.
An elderly man is murdered in his flat and initially it seems he has been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Detective Erlendur is not so sure, based on a rather cryptic and inexplicable note found on the body and despite his colleagues amusement and scepticism, he continues to reject the easy solution.
Erlendur is a divorced, lonely fifytish, shambolic, disorganised man with family problems. His children are both drug-addicts, his daughter is a particular worry and his ex-wife will not have anything to do with him. He is increasingly suffering from chest pains and just does not look after himself, but he is saved from becoming a cliche by his self-awareness and his reactions to his family. He is frustrated by his daughter and as she attempts to draw closer he reacts against her and her life. When his ex-wife asks for help to look for the missing daughter of friends of his, he helps, but he is not really sure why he gets involved and he does not like what he finds when he does.
Iceland is also an unexpected setting. There are interesting points of difference in their culture not the least of which being everybody uses first names there, even in the telephone directory. Murder is not so common in Erlendur's Reykjavik but crime definitely doesn't seem to surprise anyone. Criminals are known to the police, and names and events are dragged up from many years ago that seem very vivid in everyone's memory.
As they investigate further, it is clear that the victim has a nasty past and whilst it seems that somehow that past has caught up with him, his cohorts from those days cannot be involved and the trail eventually leads Erlendur to a child's grave.
In many ways Tainted Blood is a very traditional police procedural with some interesting touches and twists. The writing is sparse, elegant and very visual. The plot is well constructed, a little predictable towards the end as the layers start to unfold, but the story by that stage is so sad and so compelling that you are drawn along regardless. The personal story of Erlendur does not detract from the investigation and adds a level to his personality that makes him feel like a real person that you can empathise with.
This is a good, solid police procedural with a compelling and real central Detective that avoids becoming a direct copy of his counterparts, Kurt Wallender and John Rebus, but could easily become somebody else to worry about.