Tuesday, June 28, 2011


There are many houses in England's glorious small towns and villages that seem designed for Miss Jane Marple. Pity about the TV aerial.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


At the start of the seventh book in the Bernie Gunther thriller series it is 1954, and Bernie trying to escape from Cuba is arrested by the US Navy. He is taken to Guantanamo, and then on to New York and Germany, where ironically he finds himself in Cell number 7 at the Landsberg Prison, once occupied by Hitler after his failed Munich Putsch in 1923.
I should warn readers that the front flap synopsis in my hardback copy bears very little resemblance to the actual plot of the book. Possibly the reason for this is that the plot is incredibly complex. I found it a little difficult to follow at times, but that said it is a brilliant novel full of moral ambiguities, difficult compromises, and thought provoking wisecracks from Bernie.
As Bernie is interrogated by his captors, the reader is taken back in various flashbacks to Berlin 1931, France 1940, Minsk 1941 [a particularly horrific part of the story concerning the Einsatzgruppen], and Russia 1945-1946 [when Bernie was a prisoner of war of the Russians].

'Be reasonable, Bernie.'
'These men-Himmler, Heydrich, Muller-they're fanatics. You can't reason with fanatics.'

Bernie is valuable because he can identify Erich Mielke, a real life character, who became Minister of State Security in the German Democratic Republic from 1957-1958, and who was wanted for the murders of two policeman in Berlin in 1931. I always find the pre-war sections of the Bernie Gunther books where Bernie is staunchly anti-Nazi an easier read than the later scenarios, and this book is no exception.

There is an almost overwhelming amount of historical facts within the pages of this book, and sometimes the information is disconcerting.

'Ordinarily, I should send him to the SS quartermaster for an off-the-peg Hugo Boss uniform, but he'll be travelling on the Fuhrer's personal train, so he'll need to look smart.'

But the title Field Grey might not only refer to the uniform Bernie wears but also the shades of grey, and levels of innocence and guilt of the participants.
Hitler, Stalin, Heydrich, Nazis, Germans, Russians, Byelorussians, SS, Gestapo, NKVD, MVD, Stasi, CIA, SDEC [French counter espionage service], French SS, and Vichy all come out of this story with varying amount of blood on their hands.
Reading about all this evil is very unpleasant, but I wonder if our present day politicians could learn something from reading about the past and perhaps avoid the mistakes that they seem to be repeating today.

From the author's notes: Of these [the twenty-four Einsatzgruppen defendants] thirteen were sentenced to death with four hanged on 7 June 1951. Of the remaining twenty all had been released or paroled by 1958. A fact I continue to find incredible.

There are crime fiction series where the author runs out of ideas, but if there is a fault in this superb account of Europe in turmoil it is that in Bernie Gunther's seventh outing there are just too many ideas, too much double dealing and too many historical facts to be fully absorbed in one reading.
Field Grey may not be an easy read, but it is another fine addition to a series that is both educational and thought provoking.

'I don't like criminals who break the law,' I said.
'What other kind are there?'
'The kind that make the law. It's the Hindenburgs and Schleichers of this world who are doing more to screw the Republic than the commies and the Nazis put together.'

The Bernie Gunther series with links to my reviews.

A German Requiem
The One from the Other

Friday, June 24, 2011


A copy of The Quarry by Johan Theorin struggled through my letterbox today, and I could not help noticing the blurbs.

'Winner of the International Crime Novel 2010 for The Darkest Room' and a new variation on a theme of Stieg Larsson which suggests that someone at the Observer might read the Friendfeed Crime and Mystery Forum.

'If you like Stieg Larsson, try a much better Swedish writer.'

Does this mark the end of the Stieg Larsson blurb phenomena? I wonder.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


A rival to the gorgeous Foxy: handsome Teddy the cat detective on stake out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Marit Kaspersen, who has left her husband Ola, to live with her girlfriend Kerstin, is found dead in her car which has gone down a steep slope and hit a tree.
She stinks of booze, but Kerstin, Ola and Marit's daughter Sophie say that she never touched alcohol. There are other signs that vaguely remind detective Patrik Hedstrom of something he heard about an unsolved case at a police seminar.

There is plenty going on in the towns of Tanumshede, and Fjallbacka.
The investigation into Marit's death becomes more complex. The lazy incompetent police chief Mellberg has a new romantic interest. Anna with the help of Dan gets over her deep depression, and throws herself into organizing the forthcoming wedding of her sister Erica to Patrik. Hanna an attractive new police officer joins the team at Tanumshede police station.
And a TV reality show is being filmed in the town with cameras following the participants every move, and hopefully creating an economic boost for the town.
When one of the reality TV show's contestants is murdered Patrik and his team realise they may have a serial killer to track down.

The Gallows Bird is the fourth book in this series, and I cannot argue with the blurb that states '7 million books sold', because Camilla Lackberg is definitely very readable. The reader gets almost two or three disassociated stories with a stark gulf between the tales of domesticity, and wedding preparations, and the evil crimes perpetrated within the main story.
I read once that Patrik Hedstrom was the nicest man in crime fiction, but that could be because in Ms Lackberg's books as a contrast to Patrik she creates some pretty revolting male characters.

'True,' said Martin. But what can we do about it? Mellberg and the odious Erling W. Larson are so intent on sucking up to the media that they didn't even consider shutting down the production.'

The translation by Steven Murray is smooth and not intrusive, and that added to the easy reading style. The plot is fairly transparent despite a few red herrings, but I don't really think people read Camilla Lackberg for the Byzantine cleverness of her plots. This series is all about the development of her characters and their lives, and no less worthy of attention for that. At the end of this novel we get a little teaser to encourage us to read number five The Hidden Child, and I will.
The Gallows Bird was sent to me by the very kind Maxine of Petrona.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Rebecca Cantrell's outstanding debut novel A Trace of Smoke, featuring her feisty crime reporter Hannah Vogel, won the Bruce Alexander Memorial Award for best historical mystery. Hannah Vogel returned in the second book A Night of Long Knives desperately searching for her adopted son Anton, as Hitler in an orgy of killing settles old scores with those around him.

The voice of the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, boomed out of the loudspeakers. My French had improved since the move to Switzerland, so I did not need to wait for the translation:
" The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well."

In the third book in this superb series A Game of Lies Hannah returns to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics posing as a Swiss reporter Adelheid Zinsli and lover of SS officer Lars Lang. Hannah has been collecting Nazi secrets from Lang and smuggling them back to Switzerland and sending them on to London.
Hannah arranges to meet her mentor, Peter Weill, at the Olympic Stadium, but he dies in front of her.

"There is a certain package that she can't deliver. But you can."

Hannah will risk her life as she contacts old friends some of whom may in fact be new enemies as she attempts to find that package. He relationship with Boris has broken down over her repeated dangerous trips to Nazi Germany, and all she has is her beloved Anton living safely in Switzerland, and the fabricated relationship with Lars Lang. Is Lang genuinely anti-Nazi? What work does he do for the SS that leaves him seeking solace in the bottle?

A Game of Lies is a meticulously researched historical thriller written in the first person present tense which brings high tension and immediacy to the narrative. Author Rebecca Cantrell blends real life characters such a Berlin socialite Bella Fromm into her fictional story. And I really liked the way she has added some glimpses of young Anton and his life at school in Switzerland.

Exactly the honor code to which Anton subscribed, as did his hero, Winnetou the Apache brave from Karl May's books.
[Among the admirers of Karl May's best sellers were Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler]

The story is a thriller but also raises some emotional questions for Hannah Vogel especially when she visits her old friends, Fritz and Bettina.

Now she spoke so casually of sending them off to be indoctrinated. Would I have become so inured to the Nazis that I would have sent Anton marching off in a brown uniform so easily had we stayed?

A Game of Lies does something some books fail to do, it successfully conveys the atmosphere of fear prevailing in Nazi Germany. It also relates, amidst the thrilling spy story with its twists and turns, the background story of an Olympics that is thankfully remembered more for Jesse Owens four gold medals than the Nazi propaganda.
I can highly recommend the Hannah Vogel series, and A Game of Lies is a worthy addition.

Award winning author Rebecca Cantrell majored in German, Creative Writing and History at the Freie Universitaet of Berlin, and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Hawaii with her husband and son.

My review of A Night of Long Knives with links to my four part interview with the author.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


OT, but if the weather on Dartmoor was always as good as it was yesterday I very much doubt if Arthur Conan Doyle would have written The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I posted this photo, taken earlier in the month, to show that it is not always wet, dark and raining in England's scenic South West.
Interestingly Markusvinsa in Northern Sweden was the hottest place in Europe last Friday.
In Mari Jungstedt's novel The Dead of Summer the weather is mentioned quite a lot.

page 120: I just felt like it today [Karin wearing a dress] since it is so hot.
page 133: The heat had held on for the past two weeks, and plenty of people had a good suntan.
page 150: It was so hot that the air shimmered.
page 171: And it looked as if, this summer temperature would reach record highs.
page 192: Underneath the broiling sun, the temperature slowly but relentlessly rose to more than 85 degrees, even though it was not yet noon.

So those of us not used to the foibles and eccentricities of the publishing industry might wonder why the blurb on the back cover states, with no reference to it not applying to this book:

'Mari Jungstedt creates the special atmosphere of Nordic crime- that land of snow and ice that fires our imagination.' Jane Jakeman, Independent.

Call me a pedantic old fool if you will, but I like my blurbs to tell me something about the book.
But this effort was obviously chosen as a generic blurb for Nordic crime fiction - Scandinavia-cold-"land of snow and ice"-stick that on the back cover.
This is symptomatic of the extremely annoying "sticker marketing" [see examples posted by Karen at Euro Crime] that has gone on since the Stieg Larsson phenomenon.

"If you liked Abba you will love Arvo Part"
[Arvo Part is an Estonian classical composer so they both come from the Baltic region. ;o)]

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Peter Bovide, his wife Vendela, and their two young children are looking forward to four weeks holiday, two weeks on the island of Faro, just off the north coast of Gotland, and two weeks in Mallorca. Peter goes out for his usual early morning run, and is later found with one bullet hole between his eyes, and seven in his stomach.
Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas is on holiday in Denmark, therefore the investigation is begun under the command of Knutas's capable deputy Karin Jacobsson.

'I've contacted the National Criminal Police. Martin Kihlgard and some of his colleagues will be here early tomorrow morning.'
'Good,' said Lars Norrby. 'Sounds like we'll need their help.'

Johan Berg , the TV reporter, and his photographer Pia will as usual in this series conduct their own investigation. Johan has settled on Gotland to be close to his daughter Elin. Johan's life had fallen apart when Emma Wingrave, Elin's mother, broke off their engagement but now he is through the crisis although still very confused and vulnerable to unwise liaisons.
Karin has the investigation under control, but Knutas comes back early from his holiday to take charge and this causes some tension in their close relationship.
The victim Bovide owned a construction company and the police investigate his use of illegal Estonian labour. The killer's use of an 80 year old Russian pistol suggest other lines of enquiry concerning the sale of vodka from Russian ships.
As well as the main narrative there are flashbacks to 1985 with another family preparing to go on holiday to Faro, and this story line will eventually give the reader a clue as to the motive for Peter Bovide's murder.

This is Mari Jungstedt's fifth book in this series set on the island of Gotland, all of which have been smoothly translated by the excellent Tiina Nunnaly.
One of the strengths of The Dead of Summer is we learn something fresh about the character's personal life. The enigmatic Karin Jacobsson becomes a larger presence, and the attraction felt for her by Knutas is a continuing sub plot that will keep the reader guessing as to how, and if, this relationship will develop.
The creation of a team of investigators, in this case both the police and journalists, gives the author a lot of scope for interesting sub plots, such as the tempestuous relationship between Emma and Johan, Anders marriage to his Danish wife Lina, and his tentative feelings for Karin.

Mari Jungstedt gives the reader a very good classic police procedural, but with the extra dimension of exploring the personal lives of the investigators. She also provides in this book some neat red herrings and a surprising twist at the end. The Anders Knutas series seems to me to be getting better and better, and it is a shame that it still has not received the wide attention in the UK that it thoroughly deserves.

'Lina, yes. Terribly attractive woman. And what a sense of humour. They're a lot of fun, those Danes.'
Jacobsson felt a sudden stab of annoyance. She wasn't sure why. But it was gone as abruptly as it had happened.

I never got round to reading Unknown the third book in the series, but here are reviews of the entire series, including Maxine's of Unknown at Euro Crime.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Veteran Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Morck has survived a shooting at a crime scene that has left one colleague dead, and another Hardy Henningsen in hospital paralysed.
Morck, still traumatized by this event, is pushed aside to lead a cold case squad [Department Q] in the basement of police headquarters.

'Indolent, surly, morose, always bitching, and he treats his colleagues like crap, so the team is about to fall apart. He's a thorn in our side, Marcus. Send Carl packing and let's bring in fresh blood.'

Department Q consists of Morck and his cleaner and tea maker, Assad, a Syrian immigrant, who obviously held a more responsible position in his homeland. Department Q's large budget, obtained from the weak politicians, will be spent on the main force, while Morck struggles in the basement with apparently unsolvable cases.
Morck's first case will be to investigate the disappearance five years before of young beautiful political high flyer Merete Lynggaard, who had been presumed drowned on a ferry trip. The action switches back and forth between Merete, who has been kidnapped, and Morck and Assad as they find facts that the previous shoddy investigation failed to undercover.
The tension mounts as Merete struggles to stay alive, Morck and Assad close in on the kidnappers, as the two timelines converge towards an exciting climax.

Jussi Adler-Olsen's Mercy is the first of four novels in the Department Q series, the third of which Flaskepost fra P [Message in a Bottle] won the prestigious 2010 Nordic Glass Key. The book is translated by Lisa Hartford [Tiina Nunnally] who has also translated crime fiction written by Karin Fossum, Marji Jungstedt, Peter Hoeg and Camilla Lackberg.

I really enjoyed Mercy, and rated it among the very best thrillers I have read over the past few years. The book follows a formula that has proved successful, and includes almost every feature of Scandinavian crime fiction I posted about last Saturday. But that formula works, and although every reader will work out fairly quickly who has kidnapped Merete this does not detract from one's enjoyment of the book.
Mismatched investigators have been a feature of crime fiction since the days of Homes and Watson, and Carl Morck and Assad are a worthy addition to the genre.

He nodded. 'Carl, I would be killed if I went back. That is how it is. The government in Syria was not really very happy with me, you understand.'
'Why not?'
'We did not think the same. And that is enough.'
'Enough for what?'
'Syria is a big country. People just disappear.'
[Henning Mankell please note.]

The main characters are intriguing, Carl Morck, a traumatized detective with a broken marriage, whose wife has gone off to live with a younger lover, leaving him to look after his unappreciative stepson. Merete Lynggaard, a strong attractive woman totally dedicated to her work, and to Uffe, her brother disabled after a car accident that killed their parents. Assad, the immigrant struggling with and beginning to master this strange new environment.
Allied with a narrative that creates mounting tension, it meant that this reader rushed through those last pages with real concern for fictional characters who had almost become real people.

With the two converging story lines there is nothing particularly innovative about the plot construction of Mercy, but it all works beautifully, and Jussi Adler-Olsen has left me definitely wanting to read the rest of the Department Q series. I hope the translator is hard at work.

Carl dropped heavily on to the chair across from his assistant. 'It smells wonderful, Assad, but this is the police department. Not a Lebanese takeaway in Vanlose.'

Saturday, June 04, 2011


A few days ago I finished reading Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen [review to follow next week] and noticed one of the blurbs on the back cover, this one from the Guardian.

'Gripping storytelling. Features all the hallmarks Scandi-book fans have come to adore.'

I know publishers have totally overdone the blurbs and stickers that adorn Nordic Crime Fiction, but these books must have some features in common that are enjoyed by readers.
Also I am fairly sure I prefer being called 'chattering classes' by Mike Ripley in his Getting Away with Murder columns at Shots Magazine which feature his constant digs at Scandinavian crime fiction rather than be called a 'Scandi-book fan' by the Guardian.

I listed some of hallmarks of the Martin Beck novels that could relate to the modern Scandis [Scandinavian and Nordic crime fiction novels] in this April post More Detective Fever. The stories contain:

a] Social commentary
b] Large doses of cynicism
c] Team work, and the difficulties of working in a team.
d] Dollops of humour, light and dark.
e] Characters express distrust of superiors.
f] A feeling of loneliness and despair is expressed by various characters.
g] There are superbly drawn characters in the books.
h] There is a brooding atmosphere of disaster about to happen.

With apparently 80% of the readership of crime fiction novels female, there are some new factors, since the days of Martin Beck, that have added to the popularity of 'Scandis'.

1] The Female author

Even then [1965-1975] Maj Sjowall was at least half the the creative process behind the male investigative team featured in the Martin Beck series.

'Scandis' are written by large numbers of very successful female authors, such Asa Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Helene Tursten, Mari Jungstedt, Anne Holt, Liza Marklund, Karin Fossum, Karin Alvtegen, Inger Frimansson, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and debut novelist Camilla Ceder.

2] The Female protagonist

'Scandis' frequently feature strong capable women fighting corruption and crime usually perpetrated by men. These could be lawyers, reporters and policewomen such as Rebecka Martinsson and Anna-Maria Mella [Asa Larsson], Irene Huss [Helene Tursten], Annika Bengtzon [Liza Marklund] or Thora Gudmundsdottir [Yrsa Sigurdardottir].
And many of the most successful male crime fiction authors feature female protagonists policewoman Ann Lindell [Kjell Eriksson] and victims Lisbeth Salander [Stieg Larsson] and Merete Lynggaard [Jussi Adler-Olsen].

I am not sure you can 'adore' a hallmark as the Guardian suggests, but I am pretty sure you can believe in, and adore a feisty character like Annika Bengtzon.

'Watch it,' Annika exclaimed sharply. 'You can't just detain journalists for questioning. If the police have detained or arrested a reporter working for one of Sweden's major newspapers, you are required to report that fact to his employer.'
That wasn't true, but the officer didn't know that for sure.
Prime Time: Liza Marklund

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


Update: This blog is now dormant but you can read all the posts here and my new posts at Crime Scraps Review. [http://crimescraps2.wordpress.com]

I have now read all of the 2011 CWA International Dagger Shortlist. My previous posts on this year's books are:

The 2011 CWA International Dagger Shortlist

I think we can simply dismiss:
The Parot overwhelms the reader with historical detail, and complex intrigue and is just too long.
The Varesi had atmosphere, but I was not inspired by the character of the protagonist and the action was limited and repetitive.

Of the remaining five books The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri is the eleventh of the twelve books translated so far into English by Stephen Sartarelli. I have read and enjoyed them all, and this Montalbano mystery is one of the best for some time, but I don't think it has that extra special factor that would make it stand out from the shortlist.

Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar is another very good police procedural, and with a combination of humour, social comment, and the interesting location it would be a worthy winner, but for the slightly one paced plot which lacks any twists and real surprises.

Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom has already won Best Swedish crime novel of 2009. It is a fast paced thriller, an exciting read that would make a great movie, but the characters lack depth and the plot predictable.

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds, is another outstanding Commissaire Adamsberg investigation full of all the quirkiness, bizarre plots, and eccentric characters that have brought this French author three International Dagger wins. I loved it but surely we need a new face on the winner's rostrum, especially when there is another outstanding novel among the shortlist.

Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar, is a brilliant book set in Argentina during the 1970s. When I reviewed this novel exactly a year ago I wrote:

This book is a lesson for those authors who think you need to write 600 pages to produce a complex book.
One hundred and ninety pages of great narrative, and cleverly manufactured dialogue, have produced a novel that is a mini-social history of a rotten to the core Argentina, as well as being a very tense thriller.

There is no question in my mind that Ernesto Mallo, and Jethro Soutar, should win the 2011 International Dagger, but nothing would surprise me.