Thursday, September 3, 2015

2015 Global Reading Challenge: Progress Report III

Like many, I grew up with crime fiction set in the United States (Hardy Boys, for me) and England (Sherlock Holmes, Poirot). While those two countries have provided plenty of great murder mysteries over the decades, the rest of the world is full of terrific writing and amazing tales that are sometimes overlooked. 

I've signed up for the 2015 Global Reading Challenge, a terrific annual initiative set up by crime bloggers Dorte and Kerrie a few years ago, which encourages booklovers to read more widely, try new authors, and try books written or set in a range of different countries and regions.

I've chosen the expert challenge: three books from each of seven continents, with each book to be from a different country/state. I will focus on crime fiction for this challenge, and I'll be aiming to read books from as many different author nationalities, as well as settings, as possible.

Here's my progress so far, with books read and acquired, as of 2 September 2015.


AFRICA (1 of 3)
  1. South Africa: THE SERPENTINE ROAD by Paul Mendelson (Constable, 2015). A Cape Town cop who dates back to the dark days of the Apartheid era finds himself juggling politics and policing in modern-day South Africa when a rich heiress is found murdered and displayed in a macabre homage to the explicit art she promoted. Author nationality: UK Status: Read and to be Reviewed (4 stars)
  2. Botswana: DEATH OF THE MANTIS by Michael Stanley (Headline, 2011). When a series of bizarre deaths point to a nomadic bushmen tribe, Detective "Kubu" Bengu must journey into the depths of the Kalahari to uncover the truth. What he discovers there will test all his powers of detection . . . and his ability to remain alive. Author nationality: South African/USA  Status: On shelf/To be read
  3. Kenya: STRANGE GODS by Annamaria Alfieri (Minotaur, 2014). A British doctor's body is found with a tribal spear in his back. An idealistic policeman focuses on a local medicine man, but the case proves just as complicated and dangerous as the clash of colonial and local cultures. Author nationality: USA Status: On shelf/To be read
ASIA (1 of 3 read)
  1. Yemen: THE ABRUPT PHYSICS OF DYING by Paul E. Hardisty (Orenda Books, 2015). An oil company engineer with a violent past is ensnared between opposing armies, controllers of the country’s oil wealth, Yemen’s shadowy secret service, and rival factions as he tries to rescue his friend who was kidnapped by a wanted terrorist who thinks his employer is poisoning a local village. Author nationality: Australian/Canadian. Status: Read and reviewed (for Herald on Sunday newspaper). 
  2. Sri Lanka: IN THE LION'S THROAT by Bob Marriott. Motivated by the death of his younger brother, undercover Interpol cop Brett Sadler searches for a missing friend and wages war against the tidal wave of drugs flowing out of South-East Asia. Author nationality: New Zealand. Status: To be read
  3. India: A MADRAS MIASMA by Brian Stoddart. The first Inspector Le Fanu mystery, set in 1920s India as the British are slowly losing their grip on the continent. The Inspector investigates the murder of a British girl, whose body is found in the canal, against a backdrop of complex colonial politics and race relations. Author nationality: New Zealand. Status: To be read. 

AUSTRALASIA/OCEANIA (COMPLETED)
  1. Christchurch, NZ: FIVE MINUTES ALONE by Paul Cleave (Penguin NZ, 2015). Old police colleagues Theo Tate and Carl Schroder, both trying to put their lives back together after several tough cases that almost destroyed them, are in action once more as someone is helping violent crime victims exact revenge on their attackers. Author nationality: New Zealand. Status: Read and reviewed in Herald on Sunday
  2. Australia and Fiordland, NZ: POISON BAY by Belinda Pollard (Small Blue Dog, 2014). Aussie TV journo Callie Brown joins friends from the past on a trek into New Zealand's most brutal wilderness, in the hope of healing a broken heart. What she doesn't know is that someone wants them all dead. Lost in every sense of the word, the hikers' primal instincts erupt. Author nationality: Australian. Status: Read and reviewed. 
  3. Auckland, NZ: SOMETHING IS ROTTEN by Adam Sarafis (Echo Publishing, 2015). A government terrorism adviser turned mechanic is coaxed into investigating the grisly ruled-a-suicide death of a budding writer in the university library, uncovering a conspiracy involving the top echelons of local politics, big business, and the military. Author nationalities: Swedish and New Zealand. Status: Read and reviewed. 
Other books read for this continent: BLOOD, WINE & CHOCOLATE by Julie Thomas (Waiheke Island, NZ); THE FIXER by John Daniell (NZ author, French setting); DATABYTE by Cat Connor (NZ author, US setting); TRUST NO ONE by Paul Cleave (Christchurch, NZ); 


EUROPE (COMPLETED)
  1. France: AFTER THE CRASH by Michel Bussi (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2015). Eighteen years after a tragic airline crash, a French private eye prepares to commit suicide as he hasn't solved a longstanding mystery: just who was the baby found amongst the wreckage, the sole survivor? Then everything changes. Author nationality: France: Status: Read and reviewed for the Herald on Sunday. 
  2. Sweden: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB by David Lagercrantz (MacLehose Press, 2015). Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist return to the page thanks to a new author, fighting against injustice in a twisting story involving the NSA, a world-renowned scientist, an autistic witness, Eastern European gangsters, and professional and personal threats much closer to home.  Author nationality: Swedish. Status: Read and reviewed. 
  3. Glasgow, Scotland: BEYOND THE RAGE by Michael J Malone (Saraband, 2015). Glasgow criminal Kenny O'Neill is angry. Not only has his high-class prostitute girlfriend just been attacked, but his father is reaching out to him from the past despite abandoning Kenny as a child after his mother s suicide. Kenny is now on a dual mission to hunt down his girl's attacker and find out the truth about his father... but instead he unravels disturbing family secrets and finds that revenge is not always sweet. Author nationality: Scottish. Status: Read and reviewed. 
Other books read for this continent: PRAYER FOR THE DEAD by James Oswald (Scotland); BROKEN DOLLS by James Carol (England); THE MISTAKE by Grant Nicol (Iceland); IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward (England); THE DUNGEON HOUSE by Martin Edwards (England); FROZEN ASSETS by Quentin Bates (Iceland); INTO THE NIGHT by Jake Woodhouse (Netherlands setting, English author); THE FIELD OF BLACKBIRDS by Thomas Ryan (Kosovo setting, NZ author); A BRUSH WITH DANGER by Adam Frost (France and Russia setting, UK author). 


LATIN AMERICA
  1. Cuba: HAVANA GOLD by Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon Press, 2011). A 24-year-old teacher is beaten, raped, and then strangled. Lieutenant Conde is pressured by 'the highest authority' to conclude his investigation quickly. Set in a Havana of crumbling, grand buildings, secrets hidden behind faded doors and corruption. Yet also a eulogy to Cuba: its life of music, sex and the great friendships of those who chose to stay and fight for survival. Author nationality: Cuban. Status: On shelf/To be read. 
  2. Brazil: THE BODY SNATCHER by Patricia Melo (Bitter Lemon, 2015). Drug dealing gone wrong, police corruption, and macabre blackmail in South America, . Author nationality: Brazil: Status: On shelf/To be read. 
  3. TBC


NORTH AMERICA (COMPLETED)
  1. Washington DC/Virginia/Maryland (USA) + Iraq: THE NIGHT CREW by Brian Haig (Thomas & Mercer, 2015): Cocky US Army lawyer Lt Col Sean Drummond is forced to take a case with a fiercely anti-war civilian lawyer defending a naive or evil female prison guard accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners. As Drummond uncovers evidence that his client has been used as a pawn in a secret strategy involving torture, he realizes that he’s caught up in a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of government. Author nationality: USA. Status: Read and reviewed. 
  2. Canada & Mississippi: ONE NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI by Craig Shreve (Thomas Allen, 2015): After the Department of Justice starts going after old racist killers from the Civil Rights era, forty years later, drifter Warren Williams is inspired to search for justice for his brother Graden, leading to a surprising showdown north of the border. Author nationality: Canada. Status. Read and reviewed. 
  3. Pennsylvania, USA: DEATH FALLS by Todd Ritter (Avon, 2015, originally published by Minotaur as BAD MOON in 2011). Decades after nine-year-old Charlie Olmstead went missing, presumed drowned, on the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Perry Hollow Police Chief Kat Campbell is convinced by Charlie's brother to follow newfound evidence that Charlie might have been abducted, and that he wasn't the only victim. Author nationality: USA. Status: Read and reviewed. 
Other books read for this continent: MISSING YOU by Harlan Coben (New York); DON'T LOSE HER by Jonathon King (Florida); CRASH & BURN by Lisa Gardner (New Hampshire); PAST CRIMES by Glen Erik Hamilton (Seattle); SOMETIMES THE WOLF by Urban Waite (Pacific Northwest); THEY CALL ME ALEXANDRA GASTONE by TA MacLagan (Washington DC & surrounds, NZ author); BLACK EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin (Texas); AMERICAN BLOOD by Ben Sanders (New Mexico, NZ author); 

THE SEVENTH CONTINENT - REMEMBERING THE WARS (COMPLETED)
For the seventh continent, which used to be Antarctica (for expert readers), participants can chose their own category - historical murder mysteries, a particular theme, etc. I have decided that since we are currently commemorating the centenary of the Great War, I will focus on books that harken back to the two world wars - whether being written during that time, set there, or being modern books whose plotlines tie into things that happened during the war and have come home to roost for the contemporary characters.
  1. Ireland and World War II: THE LOST AND THE BLIND by Declan Burke (Severn House, 2015). Journalist Tom Noone is hired to ghostwrite the biography of a forgotten thriller author but instead stumbles upon a tale of a never-discussed Nazi atrocity on Donegal. What it covered up (and if so, why) or has he been hooked by the ravings of senile old men? As he digs further and bad things start happening he realises that powerful people don't want anyone to know what's true or not. Author nationality: Ireland Status: Read and reviewed
  2. New Zealand, Italy, and WWII: THE CASSINO LEGACY by Michael Wall (Penguin, 1999). Former SAS soldier turned ski patroller Adam Kennedy's life changes when he meets glamorous Italian art expert and keen skier Toni Travato in rural New Zealand. But when someone tries to kill them both and she disappears, he's left with hundreds of unanswered questions. Who was she really? What is really going on? And how does it relate to a military scandal from fifty years ago? Author nationality: New Zealand Status: Read. To be reviewed (4.5 stars)
  3. USA and WWII: A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015). Charlie Parker is recovering from a near-fatal incident when he gets sucked into a swirling mix of past and present in a New England coastal town with historic links to Germany. Author nationality: Irish Status: Read and reviewed for Herald on Sunday. 

GENERAL COMMENTS AND LOG
31 March 2015: I'm on to my 24th book, and 16th crime novel of the year, and so far I've covered fifteen different authors of seven different nationalities, who have set their thrillers in six different countries. So that's not too bad a start! I'm looking forward to a lot of great authors and books to come, and am excited about some of the new-to-me authors on my bookshelf.

15 June 2015: I'm on to my 45th book, and 26th crime novel of the year. I've completed four of the seven continents (Australasia, Europe, North America, and the Seventh Continent), though still need to publicise some reviews of those books. I need to find some more books for Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So far the books I've read have been set in 11 different countries, and have been written by authors of ten different nationalities. So not too bad a spread. I'm excited about completing the challenge and discovering even more great authors.

2 September 2015: I'm on to my 65th book, and 38th crime novel of the year. I haven't completed any further continents since the last update (four out of seven), but I have added several reviews, found books for the Asian and Latin American continents, and added some other countries within Europe. So far the books I've read have been set in 19 different countries, and have been written by authors of 12 different nationalities, so that's pretty good going, with more diversity still to come.

Feedback welcome.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

9mm interview: Matt Bendoris

Blackberry devices were handy life organisers in their day (some still swear by them), but can you imagine writing a novel on one? That's what Matt Bendoris did.

The Chief Features Writer for the Scottish Sun newspaper tapped out his entire debut crime novel, Killing with Confidence, on a Blackberry during train trips. That tale involved a self-help book devouring serial killer, an aging technophobe investigative journalist and her young sidekick, and a detective 'with issues'.

This year Bendoris released his second crime novel, DM for Murder, where a shock jock TV talk show host with 10 million Twitter followers is killed. Then the killer begins tweeting clues. "I don't know anyone else who has a social media murder in their books," said Bendoris earlier this year. "It was a real thrill to write." DM for Murder has received some huge plaudits and rave reviews, and is shortlisted for the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award - the winner will be announced at next week's Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling.

But for now Matt Bendoris becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM INTERVIEW WITH MATT BENDORIS

1, Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I love Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks) in Breaking Bad. Ok, technically he wasn’t a detective in Breaking Bad, but he was a cop in the prequel show Better Call Saul.

The spin-off wasn’t as good as BB, but it lit up whenever Mike was in it. I like the fact he’s so economical with words, how worldly-wise he is, but with an air of menace and an explosive violent streak lurking just under the surface. Sorry he isn’t a literary detective, but most of my influences are from TV and film.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Oh, that’s a tricky one. I’d maybe go for Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs Of War. It is pretty sexist and racist by today’s standards, but those attitudes were considered more acceptable in the era it was first published in 1974. But what I really liked was that the twist at the end was clear from the very start, if only you knew what to look for. I also loved the African setting, as I have always felt a connection with the continent after immigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, of course) as a baby, returning in my primary school years when my folks split up.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Two published showbiz autobiographies, and one commissioned and written, but unpublished, diary of being a first time father. What they all taught me was the incredible amount of work that goes into every single book, no matter the genre.

4, Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I’m a boring runner. I tend not to post anything on social media about running, as I find posts like that incredibly tedious, but since you asked…

I have run four marathons (my personal best is 3hrs 36min), and I astounded myself by coming 28th out of 5,000-plus runners in the Edinburgh 10k in 2013 – completing it in 41mins 47secs – not bad for an old git.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Well, my home town is now Kilsyth, so I was highly recommend visitors walk up the Tak Ma Doon Road, to the view point, then back down again for a meal and pint in the splendid Coachman Hotel. If anyone is ever visiting, let me know and I’ll join you for a beer.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Chris Pratt. Not that we look alike, but purely because I thought he was great as loveable Andy in Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation series.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Without a doubt, my latest, DM For Murder. I feel it’s far more professional than my debut crime novel, Killing With Confidence, which is all down to the slick little operation that is Contraband publishing with their dedicated, expert staff.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Chuffed, of course. Sadly I later realised getting on the bookshelf is only half the battle!

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Selling books at another author’s launch. It is apparently the ultimate faux pas, but I swear it wasn’t my fault. A couple of crime fans recognised me (I don’t know how) and asked me to sign my books for them. Once again, sorry about that Douglas Skelton, but a sale’s a sale!


Thank you Matt, we appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch

Review: LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL











LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL by Mike Ripley (Constable, 2001/Telos, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

While crime fiction often takes readers to some pretty dark places, some of the finest writing in the genre is as funny as it is intriguing, and Britain's Mike Ripley is one of the best around. 

Recently, Ripley has brought Golden Age Queen of Crime Margery Allingham's beloved Albert Campion back to the page, as well as resurrecting forgotten British thriller classics through his work with Ostara. But back in 1988 as a rookie novelist he launched an outstanding comic crime series, helmed by a fascinating and completely unique 'hero': jazz-loving illegal cabbie Fitroy MacLean Angel.

In LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL, the tenth in that award-winning series, 'streetwise chancer' Angel gets coaxed into a role driving for a movie star while his fashion designer wife Amy is working on a big budget vampire movie being filmed at the famous Pinewood Studios in England. The film production has been suffering plenty of mishaps, and once again Angel finds himself surrounded by trouble. The big star might be under threat, from fanatical fans or stalkers unknown. Not to mention the Chinese gang member...

Put simply, this is a terrific, rollicking story. There's a real verve to Ripley's writing, a kind of helter-skelter vibe where things seem to always be going slightly off the rails, but the author himself seems in full control, steering the reader through an intriguing, near-farcical tale that can't help but make you laugh along the way.

Angel is a beguiling frontman, someone who creates plenty of mayhem even as he's trying to avoid it, piloting his off-the-books black cab Armstrong through London and Essex's highways, byways, and backstreets.

But Angel's band and back-up singers are pretty great too, from long-suffering spouse Amy (well, I'm sure it feels like a long time to her, regardless of chronology), to his eclectic group of longtime friends and fellow partygoers, and the movie-land newcomers of this particular Pinewood-set instalment.

As a film lover, student, and one-time extra in a big Hollywood movie, I particularly enjoyed the way Ripley took us behind the scenes in LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL, bringing to life all the stresses, clashes, hard work, unsung heroes, and day-to-day grind of film-making that leads to the 'movie magic' we get to watch up on the big screen. It's fertile ground for crime fiction, and Ripley harvests it with amusement and aplomb.

Ripley, like Angel, is a bit of rebel in the crime fiction world - a hugely talented storyteller, but somewhat non-conformist in terms of standard tropes and formats. As shown in LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL, he's one heck of a writer, but it's harder-than-usual to compare his work to other crime novels in a 'if you like this, you might like that way'.

If anything, his series was a precursor (maybe even an influence, who knows?) on Guy Ritchie's films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch. The Angel series has that same sense of British anarchy, humour and mayhem, only with more fun and likable characters. Oceans 11 across the Atlantic.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL is a refreshing read for crime fiction fans, but more than just a palate cleanser from the all-you-can-eat buffet of dark serial killers, Scandinavian coppers, hardboiled private eyes, and cosy mysteries, Ripley gives you an zesty taste that makes you want to go back for more.

Fortunately, there are fifteen books in the Angel series. I'm adding more to my reading list.

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LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANGEL was first published by Constable in 2001. After eventually falling out of print, it was republished by Telos Books last year (who are republishing the entire series), and is once again available for purchase.

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Review: THE DUNGEON HOUSE

THE DUNGEON HOUSE by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The seventh book in the Lake District Mysteries demonstrates Martin Edwards is a very fine writer of contemporary crime. 

I first came across Edwards a few years ago in relation to his CWA short story anthologies, mystery criticism, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the crime genre. Most recently, he's been involved with resurrecting forgotten classics and an outstanding, authoritative tome, THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER. But solicitor by day, writer by night Edwards has also penned many modern mysteries set in the north of England (the Harry Devlin series and the Lake District Mysteries).

Not that there isn't some history to this modern-day mystery. DCI Hannah Scarlett returns to the fore, as she and her cold case team re-investigate the three-year-old disappearance of a young woman when another local teenager vanishes. A coincidental, perhaps disturbing, wrinkle for the police is the fact the fathers of both girls are connected by an historic and horrific murder spree.

Twenty years earlier, the owner of 'the Dungeon House' manor went on a drink and jealousy-fuelled rampage, slaughtering his wife and daughter, then killing himself. Both men with missing daughters were at the party the tragic family had held on their property earlier that day (one, a relative, lives there now), as was Hannah's old boss and mentor, Ben Kind. When the ex-girlfriend of one of the fathers returns to the tiny village on Cumbria's wild west coast, all sorts of secrets being boiling dangerously to the surface.

The Dungeon House is an impeccably plotted tale where Edwards vividly brings the picturesque national park region in the north of England to vivid life. He adroitly conjures rural, small-town life, with its dichotomy of surface inter-connectedness and hidden secrets. Everyone feels they know everyone, but knowing this, the locals also keep things hidden from their close neighbours. Let alone outsiders. I've not yet visited the Lake District, but Edward's descriptions brought it's rugged beauty to life for me. The combination of harsh nature, pleasant countryside, and small-town commerce all threads throughout an absorbing mystery tale.

The main characters - from Hannah and her team, to historian Daniel Kind (Ben's son and Hannah's lover) and returning Joanna Footit, who sparks more chaos as she reminds people of things they'd rather forget - are all well-drawn and brought to life. Likewise, Edwards does a good job creating a memorable broader cast to his mystery, from eccentric locals to victims and perpetrators alike. The real-life lawyer has a canny ear for vernacular and perspective, subtly showing how people see the same events differently, without resorting to unreliable narrator tropes.

A very fine mystery that delves into the darkness and doubts that tickle all of our souls.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: OVERTURE TO DEATH

OVERTURE TO DEATH by Ngaio Marsh (1939)

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson

If you’ve ever known any mean, unattractive older ladies, who seem angry and upset whenever other people are happy and fulfilled, and yet who prefer to express their anger by using indirect insults often disguised as compliments or helpful hints, you will have a riot reading “Overture to Murder”.

Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula are both this type of woman, and their so-called friendship disguises a fierce, underground rivalry. Marsh’s careful writing style, with a strong focus on the inner thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the characters, is perfect here, in describing these two difficult characters, as well as everyone else in the story. In addition to being very revealing and evocative, Marsh’s writing is humorous, and so even though many of the people in the book are quite unpleasant, I didn’t find any of the scenes boring.

This entry in the Roderick Alleyn series is set in a small village, which of course, because this is a Golden Age mystery, seems conventional on the surface but secretly contains all sorts of undercurrents and scandalous goings-on. The plot revolves around an amateur play, which is being put on in order to raise funds to buy a new piano for the Young People’s Society.

The focus in the first part of the book is on the village itself, and the various people who are taking part in the play: the rector and his daughter, the squire and his son, the village doctor, a vaguely outrageous woman named Mrs. Ross, and of course, the two vicious spinsters. It is quite a while before Chief Inspector Alleyn shows up, from London – he’s called in when a serious crime occurs, and the local police force is too busy with another investigation to be able to handle both.

Alleyn is accompanied by his familiar friends Inspector Fox and journalist Nigel Bathgate, who always add a lot to any scene.

Although I guessed pieces of the solution to the mystery, and began to feel a bit impatient at the beginning, as the book went on and Alleyn hadn’t shown up yet, I found this to be a satisfying and entertaining read. Marsh didn’t hold back when she wrote, and I am grateful.

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Andrea is an avid mystery reader from Ontario who loves crime fiction, both old and new, with a passion. She says she is drawn to mysteries because they focus on the search for truth. You can visit her Facebook book review page here

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: THE ART OF KILLING WELL by Marco Malvaldi

THE ART OF KILLING WELL by Marco Malvaldi (MacLehose Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Through the keyhole of a door-bolted wine cellar in a country estate, a man is seen sprawled. Dead, not drunken. After the hinges are removed and death confirmed, many in the gathered crowd assume heart attack, only for the doctor to later proffer poisoning, kick-starting an unwanted police investigation.

A locked room mystery in a country manor? It sounds like the start of a classic Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh mystery from the Golden Age, but in reality this is the set-up for a delightful tale from a modern-day Italian crime writer - although it is set in 1890s Tuscany.

Elderly merchant Pellegrino Artusi, a famed writer of cookery books, is one of two guests invited to visit a Baron's castle in Tuscany for a boar hunt and a few days relaxation (the other is a photographer). Artusi, who has travelled far and wide throughout nineteenth century Italy sampling cuisine for his tome The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well, is keen to learn the secrets of the Baron's kitchen.

Instead finds himself caught up in a troubling murder mystery when the Baron's young butler is found dead in the cellar beside a port wine glass. The arrival of a policeman puts everyone on edge, and fingers are pointed in various directions by the Baron's spoiled and lazy sons - one a lothario, the other dreams or being a famous poet - including towards Artusi himself. Then someone tries to shoot the Baron on a boar hunt, and Artusi must use his own highly attuned senses to uncover who's the true cause of all the violence.

THE ART OF KILLING WELL is a deliciously enjoyable tale - moreish without leaving you feeling overstuffed. It's relatively short, at less than 200 pages, and is a smooth, smile-inducing read. Malvaldi peppers the story with plenty of mischievousness; it's almost like the author and narrator both have a wee smirk on their face throughout. The setting in nineteenth century Tuscany adds some extra flavour: Italy has just been unified, and all the regional and class prejudices are on show as the characters are coming to grip with the changing face of a modernising nation. It was a time where the old pastoral fiefdoms were mixing with the increasing industrialisation of the world, changing work and leisure for everybody.

Malvaldi manages to craft a story that follows the classic cosy murder mystery recipe while also sprinkling something fresh and tasty for modern readers. There's an eclectic cast of memorable characters ensconsced at the castle, from the boorish libertine Gaddo to a dog-loving elderly Signorina who sees potential husbands at every turn, and Malvaldi provides plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists to the murderous dish.

A very enjoyable read from a talented writer.

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I bought this delightful book from the Milan airport bookshop, after unsuccessfully scouring for some translated Italian crime fiction during my two-week road trip through northern Italy (the two English-language bookstores in Florence were both closed for summer vacation). Every time I travel abroad, I search for local crime fiction in English. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: IN BITTER CHILL

IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward (Faber, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In 1978, two girls were coaxed into a car while strolling to school in the sleepy village of Bampton in the Peak District. One is later found; the other never is. More than thirty five years later, an elderly woman is discovered dead in a hotel room - the mother of the still-missing girl. Her apparent suicide stirs up a past that many in the village would rather forget, and kick-starts Sarah Ward's absorbing and elegantly written debut mystery. 

There is a lot to like about this novel, which creeps up on you in its storytelling. Ward does a terrific job evoking the environment and daily life of the ruggedly beautiful Peak District, as well as creating a beguiling cast of characters who manage to seem fresh even if on the surface they conform to classic crime fiction tropes.

DC Connie Childs is an ambitious young cop on the rise, itching for action and advancement in a quieter corner of Britain. DI Frank Sadler is her more reserved superior. Superintendent Llewellyn was a fresh-faced constable on the 1978 kidnapping case, and is troubled by Yvonne Jenkins' suicide. He asks Sadler and his team to take another look at the original crime, to see if modern police methods can help shed new light on the oh-so-cold case. The spirited Childs is pleased for the chance to shine while her colleague-rival junior detective is distracted by the stresses of his upcoming nuptials.

Meanwhile, Rachel Jones finds her own past brought painfully back to light: she was the girl that was found. It's an incident that's affected her in a myriad of ways ever since, even though she claims to have no memory of the events. She recovered from the kidnapping thanks to her strong-willed mother and grandmother, and is now a genealogist who specialises in the matriarchal lines of family histories. While Rachel fears the media frenzy once the press links the suicide to the old tragedy, when one of her former teachers is strangled a few days later, she realises that Pandora's Box has been opened, dark secrets are seeping out, and she'll have to take steps to protect herself while trying to work out what really happened.

Jones and Childs/Sadler investigate the past and present in separate and inter-linked ways, building to a thrilling conclusion as the disturbing truth is uncovered, and the guilty parties are backed into a corner.

This is a very female centric mystery novel. Two girls are kidnapped, by a woman. The case is resurrected due to the suicide of one woman, then the murder of another. The two main leads are female: a policewoman battling for her place in a still male-dominated world, and a middle-aged history-buff who was raised by a woman with a deep suspicion of men, and now researches and shares the forgotten stories of women in her genealogy clients' family histories. But as a male crime fiction reader, I really liked it.

Ward does a great job of evoking many issues faced by woman, historic and contemporary, without painting the male characters as caricatures (which I've seen in other such novels) or paper-thin pieces just there to play antagonist or make a political or social point. The rivalry and collegiality between Childs and her fellow DC feels authentic and multi-layered. The relationships between Childs and Sadler and Llewellyn, or Jones and other characters, likewise feel very real. Ward inserts little touches and complexities that mirror real-life into all the working, personal, and other relationships, giving them a fuller feel.

A strong theme of family history, and questions about how best to deal with troubling situations from the past, runs throughout IN BITTER CHILL. Thematically, Ward nicely balances provoking questions in the readers' mind while not getting up on a soapbox or delivering clear-cut answers. Accordingly many of those issues and questions enjoyably linger after the storyline itself is wrapped up in the final pages.

Overall, I was very impressed with this first effort from Sarah Ward. IN BITTER CHILL is like a modern take on the classic British village mystery, evoking those Golden Age trends of puzzling plots in picturesque countryside settings, delving into dark issues and secrets without being gritty or graphically violent.

I look forward to more from DC Childs, DI Sadler, and this talented author.

Bookman Beattie discusses Ngaio Marsh shortlist on Radio Live


Click here to listen to Graham "Bookman" Beattie, an icon of the New Zealand book industry, talk about the Ngaio Marsh Award and this year's shortlist on Mark Sainsbury's popular Sunday morning radio show.

It's just a short segment, but the Bookman manages to cover quite a lot. Worth a listen, and great to see New Zealand crime writing being highlighted by major media outlets. Skip ahead to 2mins in for the start of the crime writing discussion between the Bookman and host Mark Sainsbury.