A body is recovered from a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis. The male Caucasian corpse is initially believed by its finders to be over 2000 years old, until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the 20th century.
After listening to the first two books in the Lewis Trilogy pretty much one after the other, I've done it at all the wrong time of the year. I'm a bit partial to listening to, or reading, books from cold, wet climes in the heights of our summer, and all predictions are indicating we're in for a stinking summer. Hot, dry as a chip and dangerous. So I'll be looking for some seriously cold, wet reading material - including the third book in the trilogy to come.
Aside from the climactic conditions, this is a wonderfully atmospheric series, with some seriously beautifully descriptive writing that works perfectly as an audio book. It's immersive listening, with the narrator able to enhance the atmospherics with perfect pronunciation and accent. The stories themselves are interesting - very much in the closed room vein in many ways - not surprising given the island setting, but with enough local touches to create something particularly interesting. The idea here that a body discovered in the peat could be ancient, but turns out to be more recent, is at the core of this plot. With the local customs of peat cutting and storing, the way that island life revolves around the need to survive the long-harsh winters, and the idea that even in a small community, people can drop through the cracks particularly intriguing and engaging.
The novels have had a tendency to be finished off in a bit of a flourish but that's very forgiveable when everything else about this series has been absolutely perfect. They would be good as reading material, but this is a series I'm particularly pleased to have opted for audio on. It's been a listening pleasure.
Review - Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama
THE NIGHTMARE NO PARENT COULD ENDURE.
THE CASE NO DETECTIVE COULD SOLVE.
THE TWIST NO READER COULD PREDICT.
For five days in January 1989, the parents of a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl sat and listened to the demands of their daughter's kidnapper. They would never learn his identity. They would never see their daughter again.
The first thing to understand about Hideo Yokoyama’s epic police procedural Six Four is that it is not a crime novel in the traditional sense. There are plenty of crimes, including a fourteen year old kidnapping case, a hit and run and some corruption, and the plot centres squarely on the police force. But the crimes themselves are merely the catalyst for the action and little of this action is directly connected to solving these crimes. Most of the procedural action that readers might expect from a traditional crime novel either happens off the page or not at all. And even when the action ramps up, most of the tension comes from internal police department politics and the external pressures of the press.
Six Four is the code name for a child kidnapping case from fourteen years before. The ransom was paid, the perpetrator escaped but the child died. Many years later, this famous case is still in the public consciousness and is still being pursued by the local detectives. The shadow of Six Four hangs heavily over all of the action of this novel, still impacting on many of the lives of those who participated in the investigation.
The narrative centres around Mikami, a former detective and member of the Investigative Branch who has been moved out of the front line to run the Police press office. The press office is part of the Administrative Branch and is responsible for managing the flow of information from the police force to the press. Mikami is distrusted by his new superiors as a former member of the Investigative Branch and shunned by his former detective colleagues as a turncoat. Mikami is also carrying deep pain. His teenage daughter has run away from home and has not been in contact with her parents for eight months. When he comes into conflict with the press corps and is then asked to organise a visit by the Chief Commissioner to pay his respects to the father of the victim of Six Four, Mikami’s world starts to collapse around him.
The action in Six Four is mostly generated by the tension between the police and the press over freedom of information and the internal ructions of the police force, a conflict between the detectives and the bureaucrats. Mikami walks a fine line between these two factions while also using his skills a detective to understand what is driving them and trying to do right by the victims, who seem to be forgotten in the struggle.
Six Four is an intensely humanist crime novel. Its focus is on the relationships that these public servants forge with each other and the outside world. It considers the cost of working for the police and the impacts of a sometimes poisonous culture on the individual. Characters like Mikami’s wife Minako, herself a former police officer, are sympathetically portrayed. But it also explores the power of persistence, with many people, including Mikami, still focussed on the belief that they can solve a crime that occurred fourteen years before.
Six Four is not an always an easy read. The conflicts between the Mikami, the press office and his superiors are relentlessly detailed. The investigation that Mikami is conducting is often frustrated as much by his lack of access and power as by machinations behind the scenes. Given the sheer number of characters, an organisational chart of the local police force would have been a great help. But while it builds slowly, Six Four comes together in a tense, sleep-deprived finale where the sins of the past crash headlong into the manoeuvrings of the present.
While not a traditional police novel, by focussing on the police administrators, Six Four gives a new perspective on the crime genre. There are no crazy serial killers, no high pressure interrogations, no solo heroics. And while not providing the satisfaction readers usually expect from a regular police procedural, or maybe even because of that, it can be a rewarding experience.
Review - Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama
SIX FOUR. THE NIGHTMARE NO PARENT COULD ENDURE. THE CASE NO DETECTIVE COULD SOLVE. THE TWIST NO READER COULD PREDICT.
For five days in January 1989, the parents of a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl sat and listened to the demands of their daughter's kidnapper. They would never learn his identity. They would never see their daughter again.
SIX FOUR is one of those books that demands considerable commitment from readers. At a whopping 656 pages, it's a considerable weight to be holding onto for a long period of time, which you will be, as it's a very detailed, dense and potentially frustrating read.
A form of police procedural crime novel, set within the confines of a police station and a stalled investigation, SIX FOUR, is, in the beginning, a study in police / media relationships. The central protagonist, Mikami, a career police officer now seconded to the media office, has a brief to improve co-operation between the media and the police. The media have their own press office within the police station with ongoing access to information about cases. A large part of this novel is devoted to the building, unravelling and reconstructing of this relationship with the demands from the media particularly startling. Aside from the fact that this ongoing temper tantrum from them distracts constantly from Mikami's concerns about a 14 year old open case of the kidnap and murder of a seven-year-old girl, the media's behaviour is breathtakingly over the top, and drawn out. Oh so very very drawn out.
Readers may therefore find themselves drawing considerably on reserves of patience, unless of course, this ongoing sort of quasi-political / power battle is of particular interest. For fans of more traditional crime fiction, when aspects of the cold case manage to work their way into the narrative there is much to reward. It's hard not to be struck by the coincidence of patience required by the reader and the patience that Mikami shows in doggedly wanting to solve this old case, perhaps for the sake of a still grieving father more than anything else. He has though, a very personal reason for reacting that way, and the trials of Mikami and his wife Minako, the constant wonder he feels over his beautiful wife choosing him, his downplaying of his intelligence and his compassion, these aspects of SIX FOUR are part of what also rewards that patient reader. And a word of warning - you may also find that a tendency for names to be very similar will have you backtracking to check who is who, or resorting to a handy character / job description list to keep track.
Lacking, as it does, a form of "procedural arc", instead SIX FOUR relies on Mikami's chasing down of loose ends, some of them particularly odd to his acute investigative eye. Towards the end of the novel, once the obsession with media relationships has been sated, and the real possibility of solving a fourteen year old case starts to burn more brightly, there is an unexpected sense of tension and expectation. There's also a lot of descriptive elements, and a hefty dose of distractions and seemingly inconsequential elements built in, even at this stage of the book.
SIX FOUR isn't going to be to everyone's taste, no doubt whatever about that. There will be readers that will want to run screaming from the media pack and their unfettered grab for power (and for that matter their astounding laziness), and there will be readers that want to slap each and very boss / higher-up that Mikami has to deal with. There will also be readers that are absolutely enthralled by the detailed manner in which so many aspects of this community, it's police station and their media work. For them, the 656 pages may not feel like such a hefty level of commitment.
RIVER OF SHADOWS - Valerio Varesi
In a bleak valley in Northern Italy, the River Po is swollen to its limits. The thick fog that usually clings to the town, blurring its surroundings and plunging its inhabitants into near-blindness, has been driven out by the raging storm. So when an empty barge drifts downriver, the fact the owner is missing does not go unnoticed. That same night Commissario Soneri is called in to investigate the murder of the boatman's brother. The brothers served together in the fascist militia fifty years earlier - could this be a revenge killing after so long?
My pencilled list of things to expect from Italian Crime Fiction isn't particularly long or even all that surprising. A certain, shall we say obsession, with food; an eccentric, slightly grumpy, protagonist who spends a lot of time in his own head and seems to be quite happy there; and the occasional unexpected interpersonal relationship. That's a tick in boxes for RIVER OF SHADOWS then. Set on the banks of the River Po in Parma during a long cold, wet winter where the best everyone can hope for is that the river freezes to limit the reaches of the flooding, a barge captain goes missing on a night when everyone is distracted by the rising water levels.
That night the bargeman's brother falls from a window in a local hospital, a death that looks like suicide, but is quickly shown to be murder. Set in the current day, the roots of the fate of both brothers weaves its way into the society of boatmen and river dwellers and back to their time as fascist militia members in WWII.
Whilst there's a slightly subdued feeling to the story telling in this book, there's something beautifully atmospheric, introspective, and complex building. Commissario Soneri contributes a lot to all of those aspects, a wonderfully individualistic character with a particular personal style, he's a thinker and an observer, rather than an action man. Unless you're talking about his rather unusual relationship with a girlfriend who is commitment phobic and fond of eclectic sexual encounters. A girlfriend who could be some men's idea of the perfect woman - all sex and no complications - it's Soneri that seems to long for more. I really liked this Commissario, and not just because he's my favourite sort of detective - a bit grumpy, a bit eccentric, a loner by circumstance rather than preference. I liked that he questioned everything and everybody, including himself. I liked his cynicism, his sense of irony.
There was something very believable about the way that the past directly impacted on everyone. There's something very evocative about the way that the communist / fascist differences in particular continued to affect present day lives and perceptions. That idea of the past and the future winding in and out is repeated in the way that the life of the people ebbed and flowed along with the river that dominated how and where they lived.
RIVER OF SHADOWS really is exactly my sort of book - characters, a society and a landscape each with their own positive and negative aspects. Considered, introspective and thoughtful analysis of all of those elements, and a direct line between the past and the present.
Now if you're sitting comfortably, a bit of housekeeping. RIVER OF SHADOWS is the fourth book in the overall Soneri series, and the first one available in translation. A second has been translated - THE DARK VALLEY - which I understand is the 6th book in the series. As teeth grindingly annoying as that is, if you love slower, atmospheric translated crime fiction, then this is seriously good option.
BUNKER - Andrea Maria Schenkel
It had been a normal day at work. Monika was locking up, ready to head home, when the man arrived. She didn't even see his fist until it was far too late...
Bundled into a car, tied up and taken in darkness to an old mill in the thick of a forest, she has been flung into a bunker. It is only now, as time passes and she sees her attacker in the light, that she notices the startling resemblance to someone from her very dark and buried past, someone she never wanted to see again.
You could not, ever, accuse Andrea Maria Schenkel of wordiness. Her books are masterpieces of succinct, pointed fiction, leaving a lot to the readers imagination, conclusion or simply confusion. Which is part of what I love about these books - that feeling, when finished reading, that you might just not have the whole picture. That there are things that you may have to think about, that not everything is black and white, and that the grey is often very dark, very cloudy, very textured grey.
BUNKER is a particular example of that wonderful act of leaving the reader to decide, to extrapolate, to conjecture, to muddle through. We're given the details of a kidnapping (or is it), we're given multiple viewpoints, and we're given precious little detail. In exchange the reader does have to work, there's a lot of different possible interpretations in here - unreliable narrator perhaps? In which case which one? Past catching up with the present? Mistaken identity? Pointless act? Act of revenge? You decide.
Hard work undoubtedly. Not a book for fans of the carefully laid out plot, or for a clear who / what / when / why type resolution. But I've personally been a fan of Schenkel's writing from the very first book, although to be honest, they aren't books I recommend to others easily. I find their obtuseness rewarding, the amount of work I have to put in to considering what just happened an exciting part of the overall experience... but they aren't straightforward. There are hidden depths in BUNKER that you might find you have to work for.
SLASH AND BURN - Colin Cotterill
Dr. Siri was 72 years old in 1974 when he was forced out of retirement and grudgingly became Laos's national coroner. Now he might finally be allowed to retire (again). Although he loves his two morgue assistants, he's never loved the job, and he wants to spend some time with his wife before his untimely death (which has been predicted by the local transvestite fortune teller).
The Dr Siri series has probably got to the stage where new readers will have that odd feeling - you know the one - when you walk into a theme party with no idea what the theme is. Or who most of the people at the bar are....
For fans of the series, there's absolutely nothing unexpected about SLASH AND BURN. It's perfectly understandable that Dr Siri, along with his wife, his nurse and his morgue attendant would all end up somewhere up country looking for a MIA American helicopter pilot. It's no surprise whatsoever that the Laotian team with them includes some of his oldest friends as well as a translating, transvestite fortune teller who, amongst other things, is firmly predicting Dr Siri's death. It goes without saying that the team includes a number of rather colourful American's including a dodgy senator and a military expert with a murky past. It's expected that somebody will end up dead and Dr Siri and his nearest and dearest will have to pull out the stops to solve the crime and survive themselves.
One of the great treats of this series is the wonderful celebratory sense of place and eccentricity of most of the characters, even Dr Siri, who is wise, and quietly all-seeing but definitely an individual. Everyone around Dr Siri is affected by the same glorious unpredictability, and everyone plays their part in solving the mystery of not just the more recent murder, but the crash and disappearance of one particular helicopter pilot.
Built into the madness there are often more serious aspects being explored, and SLASH AND BURN is no different. In this case there are a number of issues being touched on including the dreadful carpet bombing of Laos in the Vietnam war era, the discovery of gold around the same time, and the legacy that left behind. Most interesting, are some rather pointed observations about the American political system, and obviously the legacy that the war has left on the landscape, and in the villages of Laos as well as the minds of the citizens. As always whenever there are more pointed observations being made, Cotterill balances that out with some funny, poignant and beautiful moments.
SLASH AND BURN is the 8th in the Dr Siri series, and it seems the last. It's unbelievably sad to think we've finally come to the end of this journey, as it's been an absolute joy. I think this will be a series I'll re-read for many years to come.
TOOTH AND CLAW - Nigel McCrery
Carl Whittley is at home. He's twenty-two and charged with caring for his crippled father. It's not much of a life but he has plenty of distractions. He's just tortured a sexy, young TV presenter to death and he's planning to blow an anonymous commuter to pieces.
DCI Mark Lapslie is at home too. He suffers from a rare neurological condition that has forced him to leave his family and to avoid the police station. Already, he is building a reputation amongst his superiors as a nuisance to be avoided - either that or a lunatic.
DCI Mark Lapslie is one of those grumpy, rumpled detective characters, with a slight twist. He has synaesthesia - sounds instantly trigger taste sensations. Which makes participating in the world profoundly difficult. The condition is so out of control that he's had to move to an isolated cottage, communicating with his colleagues via technology, keeping the noise at bay so that he can at least function a little. His wife has left him, taking their children with her, he's lonely, fraught, struggling to cope with the condition and the restrictions it places on his life.
Carl Whittley is lonely and bitter, struggling to cope with the reality of being sole carer for his invalid father. While he's doing the cooking, cleaning, colostomy bag changing, and all the personal care, his mother has left and is pursuing her career as a forensic psychologist. In some ways it makes a lot of sense that Carl's planning his third murder very early on in the book.
That last observation isn't much of a spoiler as McCrery doesn't write whodunnit style books, rather they are more an exploration of why. Why Carl Whittley would torture a glamorous TV presenter to death, blow up some poor innocent bloke in a railway station, and still be planning more mayhem. Why Mark Lapslie would try to stick with his job of Police DCI in the face of a personal disability that makes his every hour a nightmare. And one of the biggest mysteries? Why Lapslie's Chief Superintendent would think that putting him in charge of two seemingly unconnected events would provide the media pressure straw that would finally break Lapslie's back and remove him from the police force once and for all.
The synaesthesia aspects of the Lapslie series are the obvious hook that makes them different from other British, grumpy, rumpled, cynical and rather world-weary detective stories. The other difference is that idea of the who being known by the reader up front, and the books being less of a journey to the discovery, and more a look at the characters, their motivations, and ultimately, the way in which the detective get's the bloke the reader already knows all about. There's often traces of quite black humour in this series as well, although in this particular book you'll have to dig a little deeper to find it, and you may also need to have a fairly high tolerance for graphic descriptions. To be frank, there's very little about Carl and his activities that can be explained, or even vaguely quantified, and at the same time there's something rather bleak about the dogged way in which Lapslie pursues his perpetrator.
Not that TOOTH AND CLAW itself is bleak, this is really a very readable, absorbing and interesting entrant in a series that is definitely well worth pursing. I suspect it is, however, one of those series that would be best read in order, as the way that Lapslie's synaesthesia affects his life, his ability to do his job, and everyone around him does ebb and flow, and you need to understand how that all works to get an understanding of him overall.
The series in order:
Still Waters (aka Core of Evil)
Tooth and Claw
ICE COLD - Andrea Maria Schenkel
Munich in the 1930s. Young women are being raped and brutally murdered. They are disappearing along the quiet country lanes outside the city, cycling to destinations they will never reach. A Party member by the name of Josef Kalteis is executed for the crimes, but is he really guilty? Could the murderer still be out there?
Whilst ICE COLD is the second book from German writer Andrea Maria Schenkel, it's the first book - THE MURDER FARM - that I have to start out mentioning. I still remember my reaction to that book - mesmerised, enthralled, vaguely stunned. Needless to say, trying not to set expectations for ICE COLD was a tricky undertaking.
Set in 1930's Munich, ICE COLD is the progression of a rapist serial killer. Various viewpoints are told chapter by chapter, each voice eerily intimate, and personal, distinguished by a change in font to give the reader a visual queue, as well as a clear change in voice. The killer moves aimlessly, passively through a life punctuated suddenly by extreme violence and depravity. ICE COLD tells a story that is brutal, hopeless, stark, bleak and extremely discomforting. It's dark, intense and extremely uncomfortable reading. It's also jarringly different in that there is no discernible plot, heading for a resolution or at the least, an explanation. This is a series of short, sharp punches to the readers sensibility, finalising in no resolution, no closure, no analysis, no neat ends and no explanations.
There are a lot of similarities to THE MURDER FARM, in the style, the structure and the tone of ICE COLD. But there's something much bleaker and more confrontational about ICE COLD. Just in case it sounds like this is a book that I hated, exactly the opposite is true. It's short, sharp, tight as hell, uncomfortable, strange, brutal, and extremely memorable.
THE DINOSAUR FEATHER - Sissel-Jo Gazan
Biology graduate Anna Bella Nor is just two weeks away from defending her thesis on the origin of birds when her supervisor Lars Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue lying on his bloodied shirtfront, a copy of her thesis lying in his lap.
January is often a very good reading month for some reason. That alone doesn't make a lot of sense - it's normally hot enough to melt the tin on the roof, which isn't conducive to concentration. Making THE DINOSAUR FEATHER look like a rather risky choice. At 535 pages it was way too big for any struggle with concentration, and after starting the book and finding myself deep in discussions on paleo-ornithology and not a lot of "crime action", I was feeling somewhat sceptical to say the least. Add to that a central character who is just a little inclined to be whingy, very prickly, with more than a hefty dose of self-entitlement and I really did question my sanity for starting this book off at this time of the year.
But there can be something appealing about the idea of a character being somewhat unpleasant, as long as there is a very realistic feel to the portrayal. Leaving aside a slight personal tendency to sympathise with prickly, Anna Bella Nor is extremely realistic. Complicated, with a messy personal life, she's completely focused on the completion of her degree to the detriment of many of her personal relationships. Not that her relationship with her divorced parents ever seems to have been plain sailing. Her dislike and antagonism for her supervisor - Professor Lars Helland - isn't hidden, even when his sudden and very odd death becomes the subject of a police investigation. In contrast to Anna, her colleague Johannes is considerably more placid, accepting and caring. He's got a lot more reasons for life to disappoint than Anna, yet he's always able to see the good side in the people around them. Superintendent Søren Marhauge is also a man with a complicated personal life, full of regret and loss, yet he is also more like Johannes in outlook, if not lifestyle - he also finds himself dangerously fascinated by Anna Bella.
Looking at that summary it would be very easy to assume that this is yet another book in which the women are volatile and complicated and the men all tolerant and straightforward. Goodness knows I've been dragged down that path a bit recently. Whilst there is a lot of that classification going on, this author has managed to create a level of reality to these people that doesn't exaggerate the roles or overplay that comparison. Anna Bella is a tricky woman to deal with (as is her mother), but there are also kind, controlled women around them, and not everything in Anna Bella is bad, or wrong, or off kilter. The men may seem controlled, kind and wise, but they are all hiding secrets and behaviour which is less than perfect. It's those aspects of the characters that keeps them from feeling like roles have been assigned for the purposes of creating a reaction, and more like people who could very well be the reader, or people the reader knows.
Be warned though, it takes quite a while for the "crime" to happen in this book, possibly because there are all these complicated and rather fraught personal backgrounds and relationships. There's a lot of stuff that's not directly related to the crime itself going on, and whilst some of that did get a little repetitive at points, and there was just a slight inclination to tell, rather than show; mostly the plot, the story and all it's elements filled the 535 pages pretty successfully. Having said that, you're going to have to find the world of the evolution of birds and their relationship to dinosaurs interesting because at some points in the book you'll be pulled well into the discussion. Not, I'd hasten to say, in an overly scientific or learned manner, all of the information was quite readable, and personally I found it quite fascinating. Perhaps because it was compelling it didn't always feel like too much of a distraction or deviation from the crime itself.
The cause and resolution of the crime, getting back to the point of crime fiction after all, was nicely constructed, and despite one of the most bizarre methods of killing I've come across in a long while, perfectly feasible in the world in which it was placed. As a pure puzzle solver there were clues along the way for the reader to work with, and whilst it does take a while to get to the point where the resolution of the crime starts to be drawn out, I doubt it will come as a massive surprise to most. What probably appealed to this reader most of all about THE DINOSAUR FEATHER was the journey, and the unusual setting and environment in which the story is conducted. Regardless of what made the book work, it was a real surprise to find that this book was the one that's kept my perfect strike rate of at least one favourite book of the year coming in the first month of the year.
CLOSE-UP - Esther Verhoef
Leon's partner died in his bath, and although the police report said she took her own life... she didn't.
When he meets Margot, overweight, lacking in confidence and recently separated, he sees an opportunity. Her life's a mess. Who better to help her put it back together than a man who's recovering from his own girlfriend's tragic demise?
There's something about the blurb to this book that seems to suggest that it's tending towards a romance. If that's what you're looking for, you might want to consider your options. Whilst we're talking relationship here, we're also talking manipulation, need, dependencies and some really really nasty behaviour.
It's not just the possibility of overt romance that could put a reader off - there's Margot herself. At the beginning of the book she's starting out after a relationship that obviously controlled her, set her life's path. She comes across as one of those slightly wet women - shy, self-conscious, little bit overweight, somebody who is finally starting to take some control of her own life until she meets yet another man. Leon is obviously a shady character, and there's a strange sensation that there can only be one reason why a man like him would be intested in a woman like her. There's a dreadful feeling of the inevitable about the whole thing.
But something happens as you press on into this book, at some stage you start to get a sneaking suspicion that something's not quite as it originally seems. Your perceptions of everybody and everything are slowly twisted, gently rolled sideways.
CLOSE-UP sort of snuck up on me a bit, in the early stages I was fully expecting to dislike it, the premise, Leon, Margot and just about everybody else in the thing. Somewhere along the line something changed and, to be brutally honest, I've still got absolutely no idea how this author did that. It's not the fastest paced thriller in the world, it is almost laconic in a way - perhaps that's part of the way that things sort of sneak up on you, but add to that an ending that I simply did not see coming and CLOSE-UP was quite a surprise package.