Posts Tagged ‘murder’

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I’m genuinely unsure of what to make of this book.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad book; listening to it as an audiobook was a pretty pleasant way to spend my journeys to work.

But it didn’t seem to be what it was packaged as and marketed as: a crime mystery. It felt more like a soap opera in which the main character is a policeman – Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. And terribly middle class.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m middle class.

But Serrailler lives in a pristine flat overlooking the Cathedral, and takes extended breaks to Venice; Cat and Chris Deerbon – his GP sister and brother-in-law – live in their rustic farmhouse; Serrailler’s parents’ garden is landscaped. Tea seems always accompanied by biscuits or cake. They all have larders!

My granny had a larder. But I don’t know anyone else who has ever had one. I’d quite like a larder but do these things even exist anymore?

These people are not the so-called squeezed middle: they are comfortable and content and just a little… smug. A little Midsomer. And that did alienate me a little.

As did the portrayal of Andy Gunton. He’s released from prison in the opening chapters, into the care and home of his sister, Michelle. That home was such a two-dimensional, stereotypical and grotesque – blaring televisions, food dripping in fat, fry-ups and fags. An army of harridan mothers harassing a suspected paedophile. It was all just a little Jeremy Kyle.

To be fair, Gunton was actually a decent character who had made a mistake when he was kid and is trying to go straight on his release. I did feel for him. But it never got to the point where the novel felt like an analysis or exploration or critique of the lack of support given by the probation service. He did fall back into crime but it just sort of… happened. And it didn’t connect to the main plot in any more than a tangential way. It happened at the same time in the same place. Literally, a co-incidence.

But then, was there really a main plot? Was it the abduction of David Angus? Was it the destruction of the Angus family as a result of the abduction? Was it the death of Martha Serrailler, Simon and Cat’s disabled sister? Any of those could be the main plot; all get fairly equal time spent on them. Along with Gunton.

And then a variety of secondary characters drifted in: Karin who appears to have beaten the cancer which riddled her in the first book through the power of organic berries and willpower alone; Diana, Simon’s friend-with-benefits who, after a year’s absence, starts harassing him in an utterly unrealistic way for a fifty-something year-old business woman; or even Cat, whose pregnancy and new son turn her into a domestic goddess.

And then there’s Simon Serrailler himself. In the first book, Various Haunts of Men, Freya Graffham was our primary point of view character and we only really saw Serrailler through her eyes. In this novel, for obvious reasons, Hill brought Serrailler to the forefront … and the mysterious and enigmatic DCI speaks to us directly. And is, at times, quite unpleasant. Particularly towards women: the only genuine relationship he seems capable of are with his sisters.

As I say, it was a decent book. A pleasant comfortable read. Pleasant in the same way that The Archers is pleasant and comfortable. I’m guessing that this novel is introducing a series of threads which will be picked up in future novels – I’m half-a-dozen books behind where Hill’s got to in writing the series. Just take it for what it is; don’t expect social realism.

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This is my second Tana French novel, and it was her debut with the Dublin Murder Squad series. And I do enjoy her writing style.  

 We have here, ostensibly, a crime novel. A twelve year old girl, Katy Devlin, is discovered dead on the altar stone at an archeological dig. Detective Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are dispatched to investigate.  The usual trickle of evidence (interviews, autopsy, forensics) leads to the perpetrator. There is a further complication: the site where Katy Devlin is discovered is the same place that, twenty years earlier, Ryan and his two best friends disappeared. Only Ryan was recovered, with blood on his shoes and no memory of what had happened to him. 

The novel dips into both cases and they butt against each other. At times, the two cases seem utterly unconnected, save by coincidence; at other times, there’s the suspicion that there may be a direct causal connection. 

What sets French apart from other police procedurals for me, having read a sum total of two of her books – which may not make it a reliable observation – is the intensity of the relationships she creates. Ryan and Maddox’ relationship has a similar intensity to those of the girls at the boarding school in The Secret Place. Somewhere between an incredibly intense brother-sister relationship and lovers. Which, when put like that, sounds rather uncomfortable if not unhealthy! They work together day-in day-out, share food on most nights, a bedroom on occasion, secrets, intimacies and confidences. Each shares an utter confidence in the other and would probably work to exclude everyone else. At times, they came across as beautifully tender together; sometimes we shared the good humour of their bickering. Often, they came across as very immature – acting closer to 13 than 30 but that may reflect more on my stuffiness than anything else – and, to be honest, annoying and not always wholly convincing. The relationship which was growing between Detectives Conway and Moran in The Secret Place was more credible. 

I also struggled to find Ryan a credible police officer: he was clearly incompetent. He should never have tried to – nor in the age of both physical and digital fingerprints, been able to – disguise his background from the police. A victim, witness, or possibly a suspect, in one case, should not be investigating a second case where his main suspect was also suspected in his own abduction. As a narrator though, I quite enjoyed his lack of reliability. 

Another key marker of French’s work seems to be the supernatural, the wildness lurking behind our tame, rational and safe world. Again, for me I love that. Again, it was very apparent in The Secret Place and much less so here (possibly a result of stronger editorial control over a debut novel) but there are occasional hints of something ancient and other stalking the woods. 

Personally, I’d have liked a little more of that side of the story. 

With regard to the resolution, I found the identity and motive of the killer (or killers to avoid spoilers) just a little convenient. And the final outcome … well I’ll leave it up to you to read and decide whether justice was served and whether that appealed. For me, the clear-cut re-assertion of order and justice at the conclusion of typical crime novels is a little too neat at times. So I quite enjoyed the conclusion. 

There is so much to admire about this book that I feel almost guilty that I didn’t love it. And I feel I might struggle to explain why without losing sight of the fact that it is a great book and beautifully written in places.

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As you’d expect from Waters, The Paying Guests inhabits a very specific historical moment. In this case, she takes is to the social upheaval of the 1920s and the interbellum years. The aftermath of The Great War looms over the novel: a generation of men have been lost; soldiers returning have found themselves unemployed and unsupported; the division between the gentry and clerk classes are dissolving. Again, as you’d expect of Waters, the historical details are utterly convincing; her language never jars you from that period; her dialogue feels completely authentic. The voices of her characters and the way that their language is almost insufficient to reflect the depth of the emotions, passions and pain her characters feel is wonderfully evocative. It somehow recalls my grandmother.

Waters locates the writing in a traditional grand house in Champion Hill, London – a house used to a team of servants and a family of five before the war, but which now houses only our main character, Frances Wray, and her mother. Saddled with debts, the Wrays take in a married couple – Ken and Lillian Barber – as lodgers in order to maintain the cost of the house upkeep. The novel opens with the Barbers arrival and the tension created by that arrival: the hesitation over whether to offer or even drink tea with the Barbers on their arrival; the awkward maneuverings and negotiations between two families finding a space between cool civility, pragmatic commerce, resentment and an uncomfortable enforced intimacy.

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It comes as no surprise to those who have read Waters before that the awkward intimacy between Francis Wray and Lillian Barber becomes something more romantic and passionate.

And Waters is just as fabulous writing about emotions as she is in capturing a voice. Just read the following extract:

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It is one of the most beautiful and natural analogies of the quickening of love that I have read. Domestic. Sensuous. Gorgeous. And the contrast between the narrator’s lyricism and the characters’ almost inarticulate and gauche attempts to communicate those feelings was exquisitely painful.

Locating the story firmly within the Champion Hill house also worked wonderfully. It became claustrophobic and enclosing… reflecting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the characters by society and morality and family. The house almost became a character in its own right and a reflection of Frances’ own psychological state.

It is the second half of the novel, however, that lost me a little. The novel shifts from the drama of Frances and Lillian’ love to a more plot driven crime thriller. The turning point is quite horrific to read but something gets lost.

I stopped liking either of the two characters.

Their inability to communicate, which in the first part of the novel, was endearing and overcome through their contact – her depictions of skin are beautiful – became frankly irritating. Their lack of agency</em, of control, became tedious. I'm sure that it was a realistic portrait of the lack of agency women had in the 1920s and the way the patriarchal machinery of society robbed women of exactly that self determinism.

However, as a novel, it alienated me.

I didn’t find their actions and reactions credible in the second half of the novel… even though I know that Waters is a writer for whom credibility and authenticity are paramount.

It is odd though that this is the second lesbian novel I’ve read in a row, following on from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal . The comparison is interesting: where Catton’s novel is arch and self-aware and overtly literary, Waters is real and – I keep coming back to this word – authentic. Thinking about the two books together, and being fully aware of the subjectivity of this, it crystallises what it is in books that really grips me: it is the artfulness, the language games, the twisting of not just the plot but the very relationship I have – as reader – with the writer and his or her creations.

What was this book about?

Murder and a new detective in the Murder Squad of Scotland Yard.

What was the detective like as a character?

(Shrugs)

I didn’t think he was a very confident person in what he did but he was actually very good at it.

How would you compare him to other detectives?

Caring.

What attracted you to this book?

You told me it was like Ripper Street.

And was it?

Yes

When is the book set?

Just after The Ripper had stopped. 1886… 1889 isn’t it? 1886. And it focused on the new Murder Squad.

How explicit is the violence in the book?

The first murder isn’t; the second murder was from the victim’s point of view. What it felt like.

How does the book deal with the divisions between classes in Eighteenth Century society?

You what? It doesn’t. There isn’t a division. There only one upper class character – a doctor – and he gets his throat cut. Serves him right. He was going to murder one of the constables.

So how successfully does it recreate the seedy underbelly of society?

Fab! You could practically smell the pubs and see the foggywog.

So it was atmospheric, was it hunni?

Yes!

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What sort of reader would the book for?

As I’m not a big reader … as I find books hard to get into, I would recommend this book for anyone who likes a good story.

Interview terminated due to pressing medical appointment.

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I’m not sure why but I had high hopes for Kurt Wallander. Perhaps it was the fact that it had been adapted for TV, wherein he was played by Kenneth Branagh; perhaps it was because I’d read some good reviews. And certainly the opening chapter of Faceless Killers looked set to fulfil those hopes.

An atmospheric farmyard, the dead of night, an increasing sense of unease that things were not right at the neighbours; a prose style that, whilst somewhat terse, had an understated quality to it; a murder with just enough hints of incredible violence without the lurid details and embellishments that a writer like Jo Nesbo may have felt tempted to dwell on.

All seemed well and looked promising.

But never quite delivered for me.

Perhaps it was the fact that this was in translation but I found that the prose was too clipped and too laconic. As the novel progressed, swathes of action were summarised in a matter of paragraphs; months passed within fractions of a sentence; an infatuation became an affair and seemed to fizzle out within two lines.

Perhaps Mankell was trying to accurately capture the sometimes tortuously slow pace of police work; whilst simultaneously maintaining the pace of a novel but, speaking personally, it grated.

Nor did the Big Ideas work. The characters would at times become mouthpieces for political questions. The murders are blamed on foreigners, that being the last words of one of the victims corroborated by a strangely knotted noose. An immigrant camp is firebombed, racist threats are made, an Somali is shot in revenge. And we are treated to a few pages of stilted dialogue about immigration. A known criminal is arrested on a completely unrelated burglary and another couple of pages of dialogue decry the modern police system where we cannot lock people up just because the police think they probably did something or might do something else.

By the process of time, coincidence and luck, Wallander solves the crime.

I will probably persevere with the series in due course. It is on TV after all so must be good! And I am informed that later books are better … But my high hopes are now considerably reduced.